As no-growth initiatives and smart-growth referenda pop up in local jurisdictions from one end of America to the other, more and more developers (not to mention elected officials and planners) are turning to Traditional Neighborhood Design.
|"TND is becoming an important factor in the market and we’re in a strong position to benefit." - Stewart Cline, Morrison Homes
As no-growth initiatives and smart-growth referenda pop up in local jurisdictions from one end of America to the other, more and more developers (not to mention elected officials and planners) are turning to Traditional Neighborhood Design in the hope that a nostalgic New Urbanist village will have some political viability when nothing else does. This state of affairs catches many builders flatfooted and flabbergasted, with nary a plan in their product portfolios to fit a 60-foot, alley-loaded lot. Many - but not Morrison.
Alone among the large, publicly-held builders, Alpharetta, Ga.-based Morrison Homes has staked a claim to TND. Ready, willing, and able to appear on a moment’s notice, with a portfolio of market-tested, top-selling house plans, Morrison gets a foot in the door where others fail. The firm decided to pursue TND when Disney invited Morrison into Central Florida’s landmark Celebration, that most famous of all neotraditional developments, nearly four years ago. The logic is easy to read: if you’re getting into that game, why not learn something you can use elsewhere.
Not even David Weekley Homes, one of the original Celebration builders, has grabbed the TND ball and run with it like Morrison. Weekley is not far behind, but when a developer needs a proven TND production builder, Morrison gets the first call.
At No.30, Morrison is not pounding out product with the big boys in the billion-dollar club. The firm sold 2639 houses in 1999, for $518.5 million in revenue. That’s 107 more houses, and $80.3 million more in revenue, than the previous year. Yet Morrison actually lost ground, dropping from No.28 last year. Never mind. We think they’ve staked out a valuable franchise in the TND high ground. It will serve them well on the bottom line as well as the top.
"Since we position ourselves as something of a design leader, our product is not quite as value-driven. So our absorption rates are a little lower and our build times a little longer," says Morrison president Stewart Cline. "But we get a little more margin.
"We spend more money on architecture than most other public builders, and we’ve been willing to do that to maintain good relationships with our strategic alliance partners in the development community. So, yes, I think we do get the first call when someone decides they need TND product. We’re in nine TND communities now, all across the country, and the pure, alley-loaded product is about 12% of our sales. Then we do another 15% of sales in what I would call modified TND, where you have all the neotraditional architectural influences, but not rear-loaded garages. And even in purely conventional subdivisions, we see some movement in product toward reducing the prominence of the garage door on the front elevation. So I think TND is becoming an important factor in the market, and I’m glad we’re in a strong position to benefit.’’
Look for Morrison to hit 3000 sales this year, with all this TND work driving a slight increase in average sale price.
Perhaps the most influential product line in Morrison’s TND positioning was the Gaslight Series in Houston, which hit the market in late 1998 (see PB, May, 1999: Smarter House for the Money, "Remembering The Roaring ‘20s").
"It was the Gaslight Series that got us into The Woodlands (Houston’s top master-planned community)," recalls Cline. "David Weekley was already in there, but had not taken the neotraditional design to the extreme we did in Gaslight, especially with all the vintage 1920s interior architectural details we included. That four-square design featured in Professional Builder was the big winner for us as a model.
"More recently, we’ve also landed a position in The Woodlands’ ‘age-targeted’ empty-nester community. They selected us to do the TND-elevation product, which will have perimeter homes that are front loaded, but with garages set back 15 feet from the edge of the front porch, around a center section that will be alley-loaded," says Cline. "We even did the site plan, to help them get it approved."
Morrison now has a portfolio of plans and photography ready to show any master-planned community developer who wants to do a TND village. Cline also admits that sometimes Morrison seeks opportunities to present that portfolio even without being asked.
When there’s a line of builders trying to get into a community, you always want to be able to show them something you can do that nobody else can match," says Cline. "TND is one of those things for us."
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