New York's Houses at Sagaponac—the 32-house East Hamptons development conceived by Harry J. "Coco" Brown Jr. as a remedy to the artless and outsized Hamptons McMansions proliferating on the island—is rising above recent troubles and seizing new opportunities as it moves forward apace.

In 2001, Brown enlisted architect Richard Meier, FAIA, to curate the development's collection of residences, which would exemplify modern simplicity and environmentally sensitive design on a modest scale and (for the Hamptons, at least) budget. But Brown's 2005 death necessitated the development's sale, and in 2006 it was purchased by Richard Reinhardt and James O'Brien, of Bridgehampton, N.Y.-based Reinhardt & O'Brien Contracting, which had previously built a few of the project's houses; Christopher M. Jeffries, of development firm Millennium Partners; and real estate investor David T. Hamamoto, president, CEO, and chairman of NorthStar Realty Finance Corp.

Houses at Sagaponac has made steady progress toward completion since then, earning a reputation among those who love modern design as a truly inspired project. So far seven houses have been built and sold—priced in the $2 million to $4 million range—through Sotheby's International Realty, with two more currently listed for sale (one is a resale).

"What's selling our houses is star power and star value, and the fact that it's good architecture," says Nilay Oza, one of the development's project architects. "That's the most significant thing about this project. It shows that development does not have to be devoid of design."

The project hasn't been completely immune to the effects of the recession, however. "Building on spec has become more challenging, given the current economy," Oza says. "As of summer this year, it wasn't bad, but it's wait and watch."

The economic challenges that lately have plagued every segment of the home building industry have forced the development partners to adapt to the market's new demands and expectations by adopting a fresh approach. As a result, Houses at Sagaponac is being realigned to adhere more closely to its creator's original intentions.

the value of engineering and fresh talent

Meier selected a host of both known "starchitects" and up-and-comers to create the 32 residences that would comprise the development, with each serving as a striking example of high design and innovation. Some of the chosen participants are now deceased, however. What's more, some of the designs have turned out to be too expensive as specified, says Reinhardt, and can't be value-engineered enough to make building them economically feasible.

Getting the development back on track for continued success in a difficult housing market will require a multipronged strategy: revamping or re-specing some of the original designs, scrapping others that are too impractical or simply don't fit the vision, and recruiting new talent to contribute additional designs.

With a general contractor now in charge of the development, the gap between architect and builder has been eliminated, Reinhardt notes, creating a more collaborative atmosphere and helping keep the project grounded in practical details, such as materials costs. Instead of steel framing and moment connections, houses are being re-engineered where possible to utilize wood framing. In the recently completed Split House designed by New York City-based Keenen/Riley Architects, for example, the $31-per-square-foot tile speced by the architects was replaced with a beautiful overstocked tile priced at $4 per square foot.

Oza currently is designing a house that will exemplify the project's intent, "to show," Reinhardt says, "that we can build something that's modern and beautiful, but still affordable." Rather than being given complete free rein, Oza has been assigned a palette of materials and allowances with which to design.

Frederic Schwartz, FAIA, of New York City-based Frederic Schwartz Architects, and Frederick Stelle, AIA, of Bridgehampton-based Stelle Architects, are new additions to the approved talent list. Victoria Meyers, AIA, co-founding partner of hanrahanMeyers architects, and Deborah Berke, FAIA, LEED AP, of Deborah Berke & Partners Architects, both in New York City, are redesigning the residences they originally created for Houses at Sagaponac.

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