The Amazing Flexhouse
by Thomas Dolan, Lauri Volk, and Todd Zimmerman
The flexhouse is a live-work type that does not match the narrow range of housing types that American builders are comfortable producing. While a range of variations on the shop house, including versions of the flexhouse, have been produced by small specialized builders — typically in greenfield traditional neighborhood developments — it is by far the least common live-work type.
As the flexhouse becomes better understood, and as American neighborhoods evolve to be more accommodating of pedestrian-oriented building types, flexhouse production should increase.
Despite significant housing industry consolidation over the past two decades, large housing producers still account for a minority of new unit production in the United States. In 2009, the top 100 house builders in a Builder Magazine survey accounted for less than 37 percent of all closings, down from a peak of approximately 44 percent in 2006.
Likewise in commercial real estate, the aggregate annual production of commercial and industrial space by small producers outweighs the annual production of large developers. Most of the United States is built by conservative, semiprofessional entities, shunning innovation, building with as low a risk as possible, often with as-of-right zoning.
In addition to the specialized builders comfortable working in urban infill and new traditional neighborhoods, it is possible that America's legions of semiprofessional builder/investors will discover the potential of flexhouse development.
In the appropriate locations, these small developer/investors, precisely because they are risk-averse, make an excellent market for flexhouse locations.
With a group of flexhouses developed and owned by a variety of entities, the risk of reestablishing or creating a walkable mixed-use street, block, or neighborhood can be spread among many investors.
Just as the risk is shared by all, so is the success. Unlike the single-use concentration that tends to be optimized in auto-oriented locations, in places where housing, workplaces, and retail are mixed within walking distance of each other, the diversity itself can enhance the attractiveness and value of all uses and building types.
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The new urbanist greenfield development of Habersham (2002 to 2006), located just outside of Beaufort, South Carolina, includes a number of flexhouse buildings, known as The Lofts at Habersham. The community master plan was designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk.
Photo: Jonathan Herron
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This perspective drawing depicts a two-stage growth model for flexhouse development, in which each unit is initially developed as a three-story residential townhouse with home offices on the ground floor. As the local real estate market matures to the second stage, the ground-floor bay(s) can be rented or sold for retail use, while the upper two levels remain residential.
Image: Thomas Dolan Architecture
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