Ask almost anyone in America to draw a picture of a house, and they will show you the familiar square with a triangle on the top — the universal symbol for a single-family house with a sloped roof. But if you ask the same person what it feels like to be inside a house, which is really the more important question if he or she is looking to buy one, you’ll get a variety of answers that have nothing to do with exterior appearance.

The responses will run something like this: a yard just outside my living space; a place outdoors where I can grill; lots of windows and natural light; sleeping and living areas on separate floors; a garage I can access directly from my kitchen; a feeling of spaciousness; and privacy from my neighbors.

These ruminations passed through my mind as I toured Pulte Homes’ Cambridge Place, a condo project in Mountain House, Calif., near the scene of the famous Rolling Stones concert in 1969.

The Cambridge Place condos, which were designed by the KTGY Group in Irvine, Calif., are organized into three-unit buildings. From a distance each one appears to be one very large house, but on closer inspection each building could best be characterized as the “Rubik’s Cube Solution.” To visualize this novel concept, imagine a huge rectangular container, roughly 70 feet long by 54 feet wide by 20 feet high. This enormous volume is first divided in half along the 70-foot side. At the ground level on one half, three oversized 2-car garages line up. A carriage unit sits above garages. The other half of the building is halved again, creating two 2-story units that are roughly square in shape. 

This arrangement does not meet anyone’s notion of how a house should look. But, when you’re inside the units, you feel like you’re in a single-family house that incorporates, with stunning efficiency, the features that buyers say they want.

With large windows on three sides and plenty of natural light, the 1,270-square-foot carriage unit atop the garages has the feel of a beach cottage without the thrown-together look, tiny bathroom and challenging kitchen that seem quaint when you’re on vacation but unthinkable on a full-time basis. In this unit, the chef will have an easy time preparing a meal while participating in a conversation with whoever might be in the adjacent living and dining area. The owners will also enjoy two bedrooms, two good-sized bathrooms and, if solitude is needed, a choice of two outdoor terraces.

With square-shaped rooms and windows on two sides, the 2-storied units on the front feel so “house like” my first reaction was to wonder what the designers had left out. The 1,800-square-foot Plan III even has the features that you associate with a larger house — a good-sized yard by California standards, which was appealingly landscaped in the model, four bedrooms and three full baths. The smaller, 1,460-square-foot Plan II is similar in ambience and features, but it has only three bedrooms.

The density at Cambridge Place is a staggering 14 to 16 units to the acre, but, owing to KTGY’s clever site plan, residents will not feel that their neighbors in the building next door are so close they can ask them to pass the salt. The prices are also staggering to non-California homeowners — and the target market is first-time home buyers! The smallest Plan I is base-priced at $404,000, the biggest Plan III based-priced at $475,000.

The second Pulte project that I visited — Terra Bella — also at Mountain House, raised different questions. Buyers everywhere say that they want a sense of community, but what, exactly, do they mean? And how do you create it?

My unscientific answer is that new-home buyers, like all homeowners, want to (1) live in a community that “feels friendly” and (2) have good relations with their neighbors. For the last 20 years or so, many planners and developers have sought to provide this with a traditional neighborhood development site plan, generally known as a TND. With this approach, big, bulky 2-car garages with their huge, ugly doors are regarded as inhibitors to social interaction, and they are banished to the rear, where they can be accessed from a rear alley. The front of the house is given over to a covered porch where the owners can sit in their rocking chairs and enjoy their morning paper, with the occasional friendly interruption from neighbors passing by on their daily constitutional.

Terra Bella takes the opposite tack. Rather than move all things car-related out of sight, the garage is on the front of the house and each group of five houses is clustered around a shared, hammer-shaped driveway. This functions like a scaled-down version of the much-maligned suburban cul-de-sac, which Phil Hove of the Hove Design Alliance in Newport Beach, Calif., the firm that designed Terra Bella, said most buyers still prefer. Its enduring popularity is not surprising to anyone, including this writer, who has never lived on one. There’s no through traffic, so your kids can play in the street, which functions as a communal living room. Even better, the cul-de-sac plan, which physically sets the houses apart from the rest of the neighborhood, creates a feeling of kinship among its residents, and they know each other well.

At Terra Bella, the owners frequently bring out their grills and lawn chairs to socialize in the driveway, and two or three clusters occasionally have a joint cookout, Hove said. The gang mailboxes out on the street offer another opportunity for neighbors to interact, he added.

Another aspect of community that many buyers want is diversity among their neighbors, and this is readily apparent in the range in price and size of the houses in each cluster at Terra Bella. The smallest house is a one-story, 3-bedroom, 1,370-square-foot ranch, base-priced at $509,000. The largest one has two stories, four bedrooms, 2,130 square feet, and a base price of $630,000.

While such a range is common in California, it would be unusual in the Midwest or East Coast. In these regions, houses within a given subdivision are similar in size and price because developers and builders think their buyers believe a new-home purchase is more likely to retain or appreciate in value if the house across the street and next-door is similar. In California, buyers have not voiced this sentiment, Pulte Vice President Merry Sedlak said, adding that at Terra Bella the only difference between houses is size. All the appointments are the same.

The range of houses offered at Terra Bella has a second advantage as well. It allows the residents to maintain strong ties to the neighborhood as their living situations change. For example, when a household has more children, it can move to a bigger house within its own cluster or move to another one around the block. An empty-nester household that wants to downsize can make a similar move into a smaller house.

The social benefits of the clustered site plan and the diverse product line at Terra Bella cannot be attributed to careful research, however. They are purely serendipitous outcomes, said both Hove and Sedlak. The driving force was high land cost and the developing firm’s desire to mask the 8.5 units per acre density that this dictated. Trimark Communities of Sacramento, Calif., wanted single-story houses in the streetscape mix (one is placed at the entry to each cluster) and a clustered site plan with half the houses placed within each block. With this arrangement, the density is not readily apparent to prospective buyers who walk or drive around the neighborhood. It will also be nicer for the people who eventually live there. 

Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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