The pendulum swings back to quality for subdivisions

In the midst of a housing market whose thirst seemed unquenchable a few year’s ago, many projects were driven by maximizing the quantity of lots without the need to focus on quality design. Speed in entering the marketplace was the focus in the past several years and with an influx of inexperienced residential developers in the mix, subdivision design often took a back seat to pushing a project through jurisdictional review.

Now that the residential market has cooled, it is more important than ever to present quality design. It must be cost efficient to construct and attractive to the potential buyer. Similar to the now familiar advice to “stage” a home for quick sale, a prudent developer can use the basics of quality design to increase value and velocity of sales.

Topography and vegetation

Does the design conform to the land’s general form and existing vegetation? Some lot layouts appear to have been developed in two dimensions instead of considering the essential third dimension that can considerably cut down on the amount of grading necessary for site construction.

Incorporating existing vegetation, especially maintaining trees around the perimeter of a subdivision, can greatly enhance the aesthetic of a site.

Street layout

How does the street layout contribute to the marketability of the project? Designers in a hurry can default to a straight grid style of lot layout to maximize yield and serve as a nod to the neo-traditionalist design movement.

Starting with a grid and incorporating gentle curves breaks up the lines of street trees and garage doors. Too many curves and a project ends up with oddly shaped lots or flag lots harder to move. Think about creating a community feel with a less hostile street environment, which also encourages lower vehicle speeds on neighborhood streets.

Be careful not to build more road than necessary. Building only as much road as necessary lowers the land basis of a project, decreases impervious surfaces and construction costs.

Stormwater facilities

Does your stormwater design look like a walled hole in the ground? The stormwater facilities should be incorporated into the project so that adjacent lots see it as an amenity instead of an eyesore.

With the emphasis on sustainable design, there are more options than ever to use features such as rain gardens to blend the facilities necessary for the storage and treatment of runoff.

Sense of arrival

Landscaped islands or roundabouts can create a better sense of arrival at the entry of the project. Providing a pocket park or open space will help buyers live with a smaller yard.

In today’s economy, developers need to explore whether their project is a place that would enhance residents’ quality of life or cultivate a sense of community regardless of price point.

Today’s buyer is more often looking for a home rather than an investment to “flip” in a year or two. Consideration of that change in attitude can increase the project’s odds of success.


Tim Schauer is president of Vancouver-based MacKay & Sposito Inc., a multi-disciplinary consulting firm. He can be reached at or 360-695-3411.