A Formula for Exterior Functionality

Cost, weather, and local tastes all exert powerful influences

By Patrick S. Duffy

I’ll never forget the day a few years ago when I was in the car with a division president for a homebuilder and we were driving through one of the company’s subdivisions. He pointed out the unique color scheme that he had labeled “Baby Bottom Green.” It seems that the design team was going for muted colors in this high desert environment, but in terms of curb appeal, this one was just awful. Who would want to live there? But because the builder was focused mostly on cutting costs, these homes were mostly large boxes with few changes in the exterior walls, roofline, or color schemes to break up the monotony. It was all about the monthly payment.

Fast-forward to today—this type of home would be an unlikely contender for even the cheapest of entry-level homes. Due to the proliferation of websites such as Houzz and Pinterest, potential customers are now shopping for new homes with a much more educated eye; curb appeal now matters just as much at the model complex as it does for a resale home.

There’s a simple reason to avoid naming a new home plan the 1A or the 1512 (square feet): emotion. Back when I worked for a homebuilder who chose playful names such as Cool, Way Cool, and Coolest, it stood out in a market otherwise known for the Oak, the Birch, or the Ash. However, when it comes to resale time, having the right name can matter. Perhaps the best names combine a traditional title along with the particular architectural style for each elevation, thus matching an Italian name with Tuscan-style architecture or the name of a Midwestern city with a traditional American look.

To be sure, higher-priced homes have a lot more leeway with adding architectural identities that extend around the entire house, something that luxury builders such as Toll Brothers have done for decades. However, adding in two-toned paint along with minor architectural details, as builders like Shea Homes or William Lyon have done, can dramatically dress up an otherwise staid condo or townhome project, and make it stand out more from both its new and existing home competition.

Of course, the realities of the marketplace itself can also have profound implications, whether it’s a type of consumer taste specific to a particular market (such as desert areas where a New England style home would look out of place), or increasingly more robust weather patterns which require exteriors to provide both protection and pleasing aesthetics.

For example, in California, years of drought are projected to end—at least temporarily—with one of the strongest El Niño storm series on record, bringing a constant conveyer belt of Pacific storms over the state for up to three months. However, the Californian soil is ill prepared for this onslaught, so not only will lots have to be properly graded for water run-off, but also the typical stucco used throughout the state for exteriors needs to stand up to a lot more water.

In the Northeast, record snowstorms are burying entire communities for days or sometimes weeks at a time, putting common exterior options such as wood-based siding, cedar, vinyl siding, and fiber cement to the test. For low-lying areas around seashores, stronger storm surges can sometimes inundate local communities in corrosive salt water, making wood-based options and even vinyl a poor choice.

To guard against even the nastiest weather Mother Nature can throw out, siding giant James Hardie has created its own fiber cement siding based on eight different climate factors including UV light, humidity, rain, hurricanes, hail, and topography. From those data sets, the company created separate siding products for different regions in the United States. One product addresses snow, ice, and wide temperature swings in the Midwest and Northeast while another product addresses sun, heat, wind, low humidity, and rain in the South and Southwest. Best of all, cement siding, which is also considered a green material, can be manufactured in panels resembling stucco, wood clapboards, and cedar shingles.

Away from the house, curb appeal also means the right landscaping for the local climate, and in the Southwest that increasingly means xeriscaping with drought-tolerant plants paired with water-permeable paving products that still percolate rainwater down to the soil below. However, this doesn’t have to mean a rock garden—there are many varieties of green succulent plants which only sip water, and when paired with the right drip irrigation system, even the most discretionary of new homes can offer a robust, attractive, and environmentally friendly street view. Necessity, the mother of invention, usually manages to get it right.

Patrick S. Duffy is a Principal with MetroIntelligence Real Estate Advisors, authors The Housing Chronicles Blog, and contributes to BuilderBytes. He can be reached at pduffy@metrointel.com
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