balancing act

When it comes to a signature look, single-family clients have only themselves to please. But when the client is a builder or developer, aesthetic issues become more laden, driven less by the client's tastes than by what he or she perceives will sell. Architect David Senden, a principal in the Irvine, Calif., office of the KTGY Group, tries to steer builders away from the popular “lick-and-stick” approach, as he calls the practice of pasting pseudohistorical details onto a building's exterior, regardless of floor plan. “Builders ask for a four-story Spanish Colonial building with parking beneath,” he says. “You try to mediate that.”

Rather than ask clients what they want their buildings to look like, Senden takes charge early on by showing image boards that convey the appropriate feel and detailing of a condo or townhouse complex—something that relates to the neighborhood and is relevant to the 21st century. “That process sorts out the clients who will work with me,” he says. Usually the images provide a balance of old and new—something comforting and familiar but also new and exciting.

“People think contemporary is a purple canted wall,” Senden continues. “We show them that contemporary means of its time. Whether it's a big porch or large eaves, you can put them on a building in a way that speaks to today rather than some faux idea of yesterday.”

But it's hard to argue aesthetics with spec builders, who hesitate to stray from the tried and true. So Senden does his research, offering reassurance via examples of other developers who have successfully broken the mold. Even more convincing is the use of a contemporary design element to solve a basic problem. For example, he says, flat roofs come in handy for hiding the air conditioners on row houses.