Planning subdivisions with a twist

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 11, 2010 - 10:54 PM

Rick Harrison has come up with the next step in his philosophy to build livable neighborhoods.

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Rick Harrison, in front of his St. Louis Park home.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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For many developers the goal is the same: Plat as many houses as possible on the land and maximize the profit.

Rick Harrison, a Twin Cities-based software developer and planner, sees an alternative. In software that he's developed to solve the complicated process of figuring out how to configure hundreds of houses on a tract of land, he's moved beyond the grids and cul de sacs of many developments. His focus is on efficiency and livable communities.

Harrison's goal is to decrease roads in new developments, reduce infrastructure costs by as much as 40 percent and give homeowners the kind of individuality often missing in big subdivisions, from the floor plan of their home to how far it's set back from the street.

He believes every development needs to have a sidewalk and a place to walk to, and that once entering their neighborhood, homeowners shouldn't have to take more than one turn to get to their house.

On the outside those ideas, including his latest, which he dubs "shaping," look a lot like some of the ideas espoused by the New Urbanism movement, which is rooted in the notion that communities should be more about people than cars. Harrison agrees, but his ideas accommodate both walkers and drivers.

His wife calls such communities "prefurbia," a take on the term suburb. Think of a PREFerred community rather than a SUBstandard one.

Professional Builder Magazine even gave him an achievement award for his concepts, which have been used to varying degrees in 700 communities around the country.

Several years ago he started with a concept he called "coving." It is an alternative to traditional grid-style planning that focuses on siting homes on non-uniform lot shapes along curved streets. The goal is a minimum of pavement and a maximum of green space.

For example, about six years ago his firm, Rick Harrison Site Design Studio, was hired to develop a plan for a development in Billings, Mont. Rather than doing what is typical -- a series of rectangular lots with a stock house plan -- he came up with a design that includes curved streets with pie-shaped lots. Those lots created more interesting yards and an opportunity to stagger the setback of each house.

Developers across the country used the technique, but it quickly became clear to Harrison that one element of the plans still had to be addressed: the relationship between the shape of the house and its site. And "shaping" was born.

In a typical grid-style subdivision the houses are lined up next to each other, following the minimum 20-foot setback requirements, with front-loaded three-car garages. Harrison used the software that he'd been developing, tweaked it some more, and set about calculating ways of "reshaping" the houses without giving up the maximum square footage that developers like to maintain.

Harrison figured out that he wouldn't have to sacrifice any space but still would be able to place the houses in such a way that residents wouldn't have to look directly at the house next-door and could have unique floor plans that fit the shapes of their lots.

The idea was a natural evolution of his work with coving and the prefurbia concept. But by the time Harrison really started searching hard for answers to the problems he'd identified, the housing market had started to turn and inventories of unsold new houses were piling up. He likens it to car sales, where new designs with more bells and whistles are what lure buyers.

"Isn't it about time the housing industry can produce new solutions that can get home buyers that excited?  Even in a down economy, there are plenty of families that can qualify for a mortgage, but where is that exciting product?"

He launched the housing shaping idea about a year ago and is working with several developers across the country. For developers, the selling point is: If used with other planning methods, shaping can help increase density up to 20 percent.

Still, Harrison said that shaping -- like all other ideas he's championed -- is a work in progress. He's constantly asking questions about cost, quality of living, sense of pride and environmenal effects.

"To be satisfied with a design or product only produces stagnation," he said. "Unfortunately in land development from the time you draw a design to the time it's built enough to go see how it looks takes years -- in some cases could take a decade. So the refinement process takes a while. Patience is required."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

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