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(Published: 2008-04-22)

My dad was ahead of the times. As a custom homebuilder in the late 60’s, early 70’s, his business ran counter to the trend of suburban sprawl. The great majority of contractors at the time were carving up large parcels of land on the outskirts of cities into grids, and then building cookie cutter homes on tiny plots. My dad, on the other hand, was designing and building custom colonial homes on one-plus acre lots, out where the emerging suburbs met the country.

My dad’s homes were handcrafted; no two were alike. Each house was unique, but when viewed as a neighborhood, the homes looked like they belonged together. Driving into one of my dad’s developments you might see a classic two story white Cape Cod with black shutters next to a grey-shingled gambrel roof colonial, while down the street you’d find a red saltbox with the traditional steep-sloped roof. These settlements were built right up against farmland and woods, yet were located within a few miles of convenient shopping and good schools.

The homes he built all had classic old-fashioned exteriors, but the interiors reflected the era’s emerging life style shifts. Large eat-in kitchens replaced formal dining rooms, and the seldom-used living room became a great room—the heart of the household. Even the landscaping called to mind New England, with white fences, copper mailboxes, and old-fashioned coach lights lighting the driveways.

In order to replicate the authentic details of these period homes, our family vacations became research field trips. We visited Mystic Seaport, CT; Sturbridge Village, MA; and Williamsburg, VA. My mom, an interior decorator, would purchase fabric samples and collect decorating ideas, while my dad noted construction details and designed modern floor plans. I was probably the only girl in the sixth grade who knew what dental molding was, or could tell the difference between hand split shakes and mass-produced shingles, even from a distance.

Because of my unique upbringing, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn about an emerging real estate development trend called “New Ruralism” in a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Selling History by the Square Foot.” At its heart, this nascent movement marks the bridging of two trends that many know by the buzzwords “smart growth” and “sustainable agriculture.”

New Ruralism seeks to remarry town and country in a unique way, and it is thriving in areas as diverse as Amherst, MA, Atlanta, GA, and Dutchess County, NY. Christina Lewis, the author of the WSJ article, commented on the “growing backlash against vinyl-clad McMansions” and described how these new communities, sometimes marketed as settlements, “hearken back to an agrarian past.” Farmland preservation is embraced, even as the developers adhere to the new urbanism philosophy that promotes dense, walk-able neighborhoods.

Serenbe, an enclave outside of Atlanta, features 420 period style homes clustered into three hamlets. All of the homes built in Serenbe are required to meet EarthCraft guidelines, focusing on energy efficiency, enhanced air quality and water conversation. The 900 acres include an organic farm, an inn, a grocery story and an antique store, an art school, and three restaurants, along with several other businesses. Surrounded by over 40,000 protected acres in the middle of Chattahoochee Hill Country, Serenbe is said to be one of the greenest cities in America.

Another example is The Brook in Waterland, a settlement being built in upstate New York, modeled on 17th century Dutch architecture. The homes in these New Ruralism communities often feature unique craftsman details such as post-and-beam construction and garages that resemble carriage houses. Because of the craftsmanship and attention to details, these “new old homes” achieve a historical resonance and emotional impact with homebuyers, far beyond that of today’s so-called McMansions—those vast boxes that tend to be devoid of the details that give a house its soul. Many of these communities have been landscaped without using bulldozers, in an attempt to authentically replicate the look and feel of a much earlier era.

Which brings me back to my dad. I remember a dinner table conversation from years ago. My dad was discussing the progress of the new home he was building. He commented on how the bulldozer operators weren’t very fond of working for him because he made them dodge and weave around existing trees on the property in order to dig the foundation and situate the home on the land ‘just so.’ At that time, the trend was to flatten the land by razing all of the trees and vegetation, then stake the grid and dig the foundations in perfect alignment. AFTER the homes were constructed, the new housing development would be landscaped with sapling trees and tiny two-foot high hedges. A new homeowner could look forward to enjoying a shaded back yard in oh, say, twenty years. How crazy was that?

My dad, a man many called old-fashioned, was really a Trendmaster and a visionary. He understood back then that by marrying the past to the future with good design, careful craftsmanship, and authentic detail, you could buck the trend and still make a buck.

New Ruralism

My dad

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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