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Ready or not, builders, here comes technology

By JUDY STARK

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 2, 2001


Arthur Rutenberg took a brisk stroll down memory lane the other night when the Sales & Marketing Council of the Contractors & Builders of Pinellas held its annual awards dinner.

The year, he recalled, was 1953, and his company was building its first houses in the Skycrest section of Clearwater.

"U.S. 19 didn't exist," the dean of franchised home building, 74, told his audience. "What we now call Alt. 19 -- that was 19."

He was selling lots for $800 and completed 1,000-square-foot homes for $10,000 including homesite. There was no air-conditioning in those homes of yesteryear. The only standard appliance was a hot-water heater. "But there were built-in ovens," Rutenberg recalled, and a new countertop material called Formica had just come on the market.

"Our idea of high tech then was keying two locks alike," he said.

How times change. This year Arthur Rutenberg Homes is spending more on technology ($1.1-million on such things as online floor plans that can be altered at the click of a mouse, buyers' private Web sites where they can chart the progress on their homes and keep track of expenses) than on design ($1-million). Ten percent of the 70 homes his company sold in April went to buyers who first registered on a Web site.

"We're going to be in technology whether we want to or not," Rutenberg said.

An old idea to the fore

Residential communities surrounding golf courses are a staple of residential development in Florida, but they're not a new idea, James Morgan reports in "Golf Sprawl," an article in the May-June issue of Preservation magazine.

In its earliest days (as long ago as the 15th century), golf was played on what the Scots called "linkslands," rolling turf-covered ground along a seashore where cattle grazed at low tide and where residents gathered to socialize. As interest in golf increased, the early golf courses became focal points around which towns grew. Just imagine: the first golf course communities!

Now, 46 percent of golf course construction is "estate-related," that is, involves housing. There are 16,743 golf courses in the United States, or 80 holes per 100,000 people.

Morgan's story ponders whether thirsty golf courses contribute to urban sprawl and deplete a limited resource. He is concerned about the cumulative effect of tons of pesticide on nearby residents and on golf course workers. He praises golf courses that work with the existing topography and those that renew damaged sites (an eroded sand mine in Monterey, Calif.; a former cement factory in San Antonio, Texas.).

He ridicules the golf course communities that are rising on the site near the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia, where Disney's plans to create a history theme park were defeated. Morgan wonders: Did we win the battle but lose the war? Are these new bedroom communities, which clog the roads with traffic and attract strip malls and big-box stores, an improvement?

Hide the cars; win the approval

It's more expensive to develop multifamily projects that hide cars, but there may be other benefits for developers, says the latest issue of Ideas, the newsletter from Bloodgood Sharp Buster, a national architectural firm based in Des Moines, Iowa.

"The zoning and approval process often becomes easier because there's no one voicing concerns about the project's appearance or parking-related issues and their impact on the existing community," the newsletter says.

Managing partner Doug Buster is quoted as saying that neighbors are less likely to object and city officials may be quicker to grant approval.

Developers may win approvals for higher densities if they deal with cars in a creative way, Buster says. Tucking the cars around the back or inside a courtyard "may actually soften the overall appearance of the community, even at a higher density."

Water shortages widespread

Floridians aren't the only ones worried about water. In suburban Denver, wells started to run dry at Chatfield South, a 200-home project on the edge of an aquifer. Nearby municipalities declined to annex the project and provide water. Finally the city of Denver agreed to provide water service at a cost of $20,000 per home to pay for the infrastructure.

Builder magazine, reporting on the water situation, cautions: "Builders located in areas that depend on non-renewable aquifers had best cherish and defend every precious drop of water. If the wells go dry, you can bet residents will vent their fury on the company that built them an unsustainable future."

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