Let's face it. Despite all the buzz about New Urbanism and back-to-the-city movements, most Americans still prefer to live in a clean, safe suburb. What's more, they're even happier if their house is located inside a guarded gate and on the biggest wedge of a cul-de-sac. With clear, defensible boundaries, limited access, and a good view of approaching enemies, these gated "communities" are not unlike our ancestors' favorite real estate—the cave.

That doesn't sound very progressive, does it? Perhaps that's why architects, trained to think visionary thoughts and to design on the cutting edge, have largely ignored merchant housing. Sprinkled across the country are a few courageous souls who've dared the disdain of their peers by designing houses for the masses. But most production builders churn and recycle their plans in-house, without benefit of the talent and expertise of licensed architects. One place is different: Orange County, California.

Hugging the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles and San Diego counties, California's third largest county is predominantly wealthy, white, and Republican. Before 1950, it consisted primarily of agricultural land, remnants of huge Spanish land-grant ranches. After the widening and building of several major highways between Los Angeles and San Diego and the founding of the University of California, Irvine, Orange County's building boom began. However, unlike building booms elsewhere in the country, this one was conceived and implemented by architects. Think Reston, Va.; Columbia, Md.; or Greenbelt, Md., but on a much larger scale.

The convergence of greenfields and greenbacks drew newly minted architects from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, eager to put their pencils to this vast sheet of blank paper. Many of those original pioneering architects, like Walt Richardson, Art Danielian, and Aram Bassenian, and members of the latest generation, like Mark Scheurer, Bob Hidey, and Bill Hezmalhalch, still live and work in Orange County, while also practicing their trade beyond county lines. They and their peers give the area the single highest concentration of expert production architects in the country and make it ground zero for innovations in merchant housing. Orange County architects are the masters of the suburbs, constantly honing and improving what Americans call home. And, with the current economic boom, they're having the time of their lives.

simply irvine

So why didn't Orange County end up paved in Levittowns like other post-War boom regions? The most important reason is the county's largest landholder, The Irvine Company. A family-held company until the late '70s, its principals decided to develop their land themselves, instead of selling it off piecemeal to builders. And even more crucial, they did so according to an architect-designed master plan. Acquired during the last half of the 19th century by San Francisco merchant James Irvine, the Irvine Ranch topped out at around 120,000 acres and stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Santa Ana river. Today, the company controls about a fifth of Orange County, including nine miles of oceanfront and 22 miles of inland property.

During the post-War expansion years, this land was like gold. But its canny owners understood the far greater value of keeping control and making that gold work for them. In a bold strategic move, they lured the University of California, which was shopping for a new location in the late '50s, with the offer of 1,000 acres for $1 and a new, master-planned city. In 1960, they hired architect William Pereira (who went on to design the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco) to plan the build-out of the entire ranch, including the university campus, the city of Irvine, several business centers, and more than 25,000 acres of residential property.

village people

Pereira's plan called for a series of 16 residential villages, each with its own clear boundaries and entrance, a school, a park, a church or synagogue, and a shopping center. To implement this vision, the company brought in a 34-year-old architect named Ray Watson.

The University of California, Berkeley-trained architect, steeped in Eichler houses and Case Study innovations, was excited at the prospect of building communities--of making places. "This family-owned company was the best-known agricultural company in the state and they owned land three times the size of San Francisco," Watson recalls. "I saw that, with all the development from L.A., things were going to change."

With open land and no architectural heritage to consider, the Irvine Ranch was the kind of blank slate every architect dreams of. "In L.A., we had fabric to deal with," says Barry Berkus, AIA, who designed houses at Turtle Rock, one of the earliest Irvine villages. "But Orange County was not inhibited by tradition. It was a new place. We invented things there that became common across the country: volume houses, zero-lot line, kitchen/family rooms at the back of the house. Orange County was an incubator for those ideas."

law of the land

Were it not for Ray Watson, The Irvine Company might have simply developed its "villages" with the usual builder boxes. But as the company's manager of planning and later its president, he laid down the law: "Since we owned prime land wanted by the builder, the first thing I said was, nothing can be built on our land without a design by a licensed architect."

Of course, he encountered resistance. With so much buyer demand, builders knew they could sell their houses without expensive design services eating into their profits. And they also worried that architects, untrained in penny-wise "value engineering," would design houses too costly for them to build. Watson was sensitive to their concerns. "I don't want to be remembered for the beautiful development that went bankrupt," he says, "or the ugly successful community." So he recruited architects he thought would understand the exigencies of merchant housing: commercial architects. "I wanted to bring in architects who were concerned with a house costing 10 cents more to build.

"I founded this company with some young Turks, among them Walt Richardson—I went to school with Walt--and Kermit Dorius," he says. "Walt helped design our first village, East Bluff." Dorius sold his firm, now called JBZ Architecture + Planning, to the next generation, but Richardson is still active with his 30-person, Newport Beach-based firm, RNM Architects/Planners. Known as the "dean of Orange County architects," Richardson, FAIA, refined his community planning skills by designing military housing after graduating from Berkeley in 1950. "I was in Long Beach working for Hugh Gibbs, whose firm was one of the first to really integrate design and land planning," he says. "But builders and architects started making pilgrimages to Orange County. We were in orange groves, but it all began to develop."

Many successful Orange County architects claim to have attended "grad school at RNM," where the special strength was and is in land planning. "We invented Z-lots in this country," says Richardson. "It was something I picked up in France 25 years ago." And his firm mastered high-density cluster housing, which it used to great success on many Irvine projects, including Pelican Point.

tyranny of the middle

Watson recruited architects from Northern California and elsewhere to design both housing and commercial buildings on The Irvine Company's holdings. Some came for just a project or two, others came for a lifetime. The bountiful work triggered a gold rush of would-be housing architects, who were thrilled to set up shop in an area with beautiful geography and perfect weather.

Art Danielian, FAIA, arrived in the mid-60s. "This is a place where everyone would like to live," he says. "Walt Richardson, Kermit Dorius, and I had the first three major offices. We were on the ground floor, looking at the vast property of an owner who really cared. They set a high tone for quality of life. And project by project, the villages got better."

Danielian's 45-person firm, Danielian Associates, based in Irvine, concentrates on the tricky middle range of production housing, much of it high density. "The least expensive house is a no-brainer," he explains, "and the most expensive house is easier, too, because there are no rules. But the middle range puts the greatest pressure on architects, because you have to engineer every dollar to make sure the builder can make money."

The middle range was Orange County's bread and butter in the first decades of its development. The aerospace industry and the university brought in predominantly white-collar, move-up buyers. "Builders in the '60s were not just building first-time houses," Watson explains. "People were upgrading and design became more important. As our work became more successful—meaning builders began to make a profit—merchant-built housing became better here than in other places. The success of it here became the role model to follow."

High-density land planning was key to making those middle-range houses affordable to the home buyer and profitable for the builder. Solving the density issue led to many innovative lot configurations and, consequently, fresh ideas about floor planning. Don Jacobs, AIA, who bought out Dorius' firm, thinks these are among Orange County's most important contributions to production design. "In other areas of the country, land planning and architecture are separate," he says. "But here, you have problems of land costs and a need for higher densities causing opportunity for great solutions. Architects are stepping in with some pretty creative land-planning concepts and floor plans."

In addition to zero-lot line and Z-lot houses, Orange County architects were among the first to pack houses in clusters. Mitigating the smaller lots were borrowed views from landscaped parks, man-made lakes, golf courses, and the Pacific Ocean. With all the architecture firms focusing on the equation, densities of single-family-detached dwelling units climbed higher and higher. Like the 4-minute mile, everyone raced to break the record: 4 to 5 d.u. an acre, 8 to 9, 14 to 16, and, yes, even 18. "Some of the too-dense projects are depressing. They're a sea of concrete. They're no more dense than where I live on Balboa Island, but there we have the amenity of the ocean as our yard," says Richardson. "You can do nice things up to 9 or 10 units an acre. The trick is privacy." "We've done 18, but we don't like the way they live," says Danielian. "I think we're making a mistake by pushing the single-family detached limit. But with land costs so high now, even those densities don't work for affordable housing."

condo attitudes

For-sale multifamily and single-family-attached projects are often a better way to do high density and they were a staple of The Irvine Company's early attempts at market segmentation. But lawsuits for faulty construction brought by homeowners' associations in the '80s scared nearly every housing professional out of this specialty and into super-density detached. The financial picture finally looks attractive enough to encourage builders and architects to try these projects again. But, aimed at the high-end-single or childless-couple market, these pricey units could hardly be called affordable housing.

Older and wiser, architects taking on this work again are doing so with great caution. Aram Bassenian, AIA, who started his firm, now Bassenian Lagoni Architects, Newport Beach, in the early '70s, established a separate business division to handle multifamily. Like several other architects with larger firms, he has an MBA on his 90-person staff to vet contracts. One firm that's specialized in high-density attached and detached work since its start in the early '70s is McLarand Vasquez Emsiek & Partners, Irvine. The 104-person firm balances its portfolio with 40 percent commercial work—everything but "penitentiaries and hospitals," says Rick Emsiek, AIA. The commercial projects and multifamily-rental work kept the firm going during the litigation years.

diversify, diversify

Although many firms have specialties, there's so much design work in California right now that everyone is doing a bit of everything. For instance, MVEP broke free of their multifamily typecasting with the much-lauded project One Ford Road. The 110-acre community ("subdivision" is a dirty word in Orange County) in Newport Beach has a wide variety of "product type," says Emsiek. But what got people's attention when it opened in 1994 was a series of smallish alley-loaded houses, wrapped in recognizable, mostly New England architectural styles. With no attached garage and starter-home square footages of 2,500 to 3,000, the houses still managed to sell like hotcakes for close to $1 million apiece. "In retrospect, we wished we had done more alley-loaded product at One Ford Road," says Emsiek. "All the stars were aligned for this project: the opportunity, the vision of the client, the land. It was a think tank for us." T

hose stars are aligning more often these days, and Orange County architects keep pinching themselves, hoping the real estate boom isn't merely a short-lived burst. Some have just staffed up after the recession caused cutbacks in the early '90s; some vow never to get as big as they were in the '80s again. After all, the county declared bankruptcy only six years ago. "I keep looking over my shoulder, but I don't see an end in sight," says Bill Hezmalhalch, AIA, of Irvine-based William Hezmalhalch Architects.

After working for Art Danielian, Hezmalhalch started his own firm with a couple of partners in 1980. Now busting out of his current office space with a staff of 90, he's got more on the boards than he can handle. Like Danielian, his niche is high-density move-up housing and lower-end econo-box work. But the high times have brought in more land-planning jobs, an opportunity he's very excited about. "We're going back and looking at neighborhoods from the '20s, '30s, '40s—even '50s—to see what madethem work. They had a variety of housing styles; they were pedestrian friendly," he explains. "We're trying to design something authentic that hangs together."

He tried out a few of his ideas in his master plan and design guidelines for Ladera Ranch, a 4,000-acre development on the former Mission Viejo Ranch in south Orange County. Squiring all that wide-open land into a framework was a daunting task. But Hezmalhalch and his principal in charge of community design and land planning, Will Haynes, had a successful template right in front of them: the Irvine Ranch's village concept.

Armed with lessons learned there, they and the project's team of consultants launched the plan to build out Ladera Ranch's 8,100 homes in five villages. "Suburbia is not all bad," says Haynes. "In the past, it's just compounded its shortcomings through numbers. But that's what we do well—figure out what to use and what to dismiss." On the strength of Ladera, the firm has a number of other full-scale communities in the pipeline.

Others, like JBZ, Newport Beach, are expanding their repertoire to adult care and senior housing. "A lot of builders are looking into new divisions that cater to the active senior market," says Jacobs. And almost all of the established firms, including JBZ, have projects under way overseas, particularly among Pacific Rim countries with emerging middle classes. "We've been hired to do projects in South Korea, the Philippines, and now Turkey," he says. "It's much more difficult to deal internationally with housing than it is to deal locally. But they come over here and they see what we've done; they recognize its quality and they want it."

Difficulty notwithstanding, overseas jobs helped keep many Orange County firms afloat during the recession. They prevented Aram Bassenian from having to lay off much staff, and he still finds the work gratifying. "There's no question that housing here leads the world. We are the Detroit of the housing industry," he says. "Our plans are better, space relates to furniture better, function is better, and the introduction of light is more sophisticated."

out of the box

Orange County architects are certainly masters of the move-up house—or, to continue the automobile metaphor, they make a great Ford Taurus. They'd proven themselves indispensable to builders in land and floor planning, but until recently they had yet to demonstrate their designs could "add value" to a project.

Of course, curb appeal has always been important, but the conventional wisdom was that design came along for the ride while square footage really sold the house. Hence, the proliferation in the '80s of big, boxy houses atop three-car garages. "In the big box, space is the amenity," says Hezmalhalch. "We designed them at $29 a foot." But the price everyone paid was monotony. "As a design industry, we were in a trap," Bassenian explains. "We had cracked the plan: a two-story house, three-car garage in front, living room in front, family room in back, downstairs bedroom, upstairs master with secondary bedrooms. Without realizing it, we were all doing alternatives to that plan. There was nothing wrong with that plan—it worked. But then the massing on the outside became the same as well and the three-car garage became the dominant element. Every community suffered from sameness. And you really can't expect the buyer to move up to the same house."

Nearly everyone agrees it was Bob Hidey and his 38-person firm, Robert Hidey Architects, Newport Beach, who busted the box. With a project called Mahogany, he shifted the paradigm. Backed by entrepreneurial builder Taylor Woodrow, he spent a little extra money to move the garage off the front elevation and behind a motor court. He also bucked the prevailing "big bang theory" by de-emphasizing the front stair and entry hall, and tinkering with sight lines to build drama and interest. Those moves, combined with an extensive list of high-end options and flexible floor plans, caught everyone's attention—especially the buyers'.

The houses, which opened in 1995 at $450,000, sold out at $1 million. "Mahogany got a lot of attention from builders, because it was done very well and sold very well," says Eric Zuziak, AIA, of JBZ. "Flipping the garage around was something a lot of architects were trying to get builders to do. We were all drawing houses like that." Perhaps, but Hidey got it done. His diverse professional background, which included both the practicalities of commercial work and the indulgences of high-end custom, seems to have prepared him perfectly for the niche he helped create: the high-end production house.

Admittedly, it's a boutique niche, but one that's thriving in Orange County right now. His latest project, Watermark, in Crystal Cove, The Irvine Company's stunning hillside site overlooking the Pacific Ocean, has prompted bidding wars among buyers. Prices are at $3.5 million and still climbing. 'When I started, I never thought we'd see $1 million. Now, it's $3 to $4 million," he says. "It's just staggering." "I give Bob Hidey a lot of credit," says Richardson. "He broke the mold. There was a ready market for a different kind of house."

higher and higher

Yes, California's economy is booming and home buyers with real estate equity and stock market liquidity are moving up and into the stratosphere. And they don't seem to have the patience to build a custom home. They want to see and touch before they buy. They prefer to write a check and turn the key. "California is white-hot. The market has returned in a big way," says Bassenian. "We're at a unique position historically: We're at ground zero of the high-tech economy; add to that the connection with the Pacific Rim, the entertainment industry based here, and the general stability of the American political system. It's fueling a demand for unique, expensive homes."

Another emerging star of the high-end niche is Mark Scheurer, AIA, of Newport Beach-based Scheurer Architects. Like Hidey, his projects are also skyrocketing in price between opening and build-out. A veteran of Dorius' firm, he's run his own shop since 1991. His fame came quickly with two multifamily developments, Trovare and Altezza, and the high-end single-family projects Castaways and, most recently, Strada. Patterned after Italian hill towns, sister projects Trovare and Altezza in Newport Beach sold out at close to three times their starting price. "My client, Taylor Woodrow, told me Trovare was the most profitable project they'd ever done," says Scheurer. "Then Altezza was even more profitable." Rob Elliott, head of The Irvine Company's urban planning and design department, cites Mahogany, Altezza, and Trovare as among the best of what Orange County has to offer these days. "Scheurer and Hidey are really great designers," he says. "They've raised the bar for everyone."

Most important, they proved to builders that good design can make money. Encouraging builders to take creative risks is tough, Scheurer says, but it's incumbent upon architects to do so. "I have no sympathy for architects who say bad work is not their fault," he says. "Every project begins with a builder deciding how far he wants to go. If architects only put on the wall what they think the builder wants to see, they haven't done their job." Maybe it's just the difference between old math and new math. "There are architects who think every day about how to save a dollar," Scheurer explains. "Our firm thinks about how to spend a dollar to make two dollars."

art and science

Fortunately, there are buyers right now willing to spend those two dollars. For architects interested in exploring new territory in production design, these are exciting and challenging times. Indeed, there's increasing pressure to do better and more creative work. And everyone's approaching the challenge a little differently. Hidey, for instance, is looking to older California towns, like Santa Barbara and Capistrano, for design inspiration. Another firm, Irvine-based KTGY Group, which does a variety of multifamily and single-family work in Orange County and the Sunbelt states, prefers a more systematic methodology.

Says partner John Tully, "When we design a project, we think about marketing that house to a particular buyer. We put you in one of 26 categories. If we know where you are in your life cycle—whether you're married or not, how old your kids are—we can tell what kind of car you drive, where you shop, and what kind of floor plan you like. Designing housing is not different from what retailing is doing or automobile manufacturers are doing. In Southern California, people move every three to five years. It's fashion driven. You move every time your life cycle changes." Hezmalhalch disagrees: "We're shifting from a market-driven to an architecture-driven business."

And Scheurer claims he "throws all the marketing research in the trash." Whatever the approach, it's relatively easy to do good work now. The real test, says Zuziak, is to keep the standards high when the economy starts to sink. "Right now it's very competitive in terms of creative design, which is great for buyers. And builders are much more apt to embrace creativity. In periods of contraction and recession, though, it's the opposite. Builders back down and build the typical box so they can get the price way back down," he says. "If you took those award-winning projects and laid them over a time line, you'd see that they happened during times of economic expansion."

the spanish inhibition

Much credit for Orange County's achievements goes to The Irvine Company. Guided by its master plan and continuing stewardship, Orange County architects have done a great deal to improve the suburbs. With innovative floor plans, their houses "live" better than ever, and extensive options bring buyers even closer to a custom-designed home.

For all that progress, though, there remains a pervasive monotony in the architecture of Orange County. And the credit for that may also belong to The Irvine Company. Don Bren, who bought the company from the Irvine family in 1977, loves Spanish architecture. And every house built on Irvine's extensive holdings must pass through his planning and design department. Hence, most of what's filled the villages since Bren came to town is a variation on Spanish, Italian, Mediterranean. The sameness makes even the much-dated architecture from the late '60s and early '70s in Orange County feel like a relief.

At least architects were freer to experiment a little back then. Most architects still working and looking for work in Orange County insist there's plenty of variety in Mediterranean. And Bren is lightening up a little on some restrictions, allowing some forays into other architectural styles. But, says Elliott, "Bren won't let us do a design unless it has a precedent." So, while you may see cutting-edge design inside Orange County houses, you won't see it on the elevations anytime soon.

The inhibition is daunting, especially to the newer firms eager to make their mark, like Dawson Hannouche Pate of Newport Beach. Says Theron Pate, AIA, "We're still waiting for the opportunity to do a contemporary subdivision. We'd like to do Modern, but people don't understand Modern." Sad, but largely true. Bren, who's inhabited Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest people in America since 1982, obviously hasn't gone broke underestimating the public's capacity to embrace new architectural styles. But thanks to some masterful Orange County architects, traditional architectural styles have never looked better. In their hands, the suburbs are alive and thriving.