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Straying From the Herd

Development: O.C.'s Taylor Woodrow Homes has set itself apart with attention-getting designs.

February 26, 1996|DEBORA VRANA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA HILLS — Home builders as a rule tend to be more like flocks of sheep than maverick cattle when it comes to housing design.

But Taylor Woodrow Homes California Ltd. has blazed its own trail in recent years, taking architectural risks to produce some of the most talked-about tract homes in Southern California.

Instead of the typical beige box homes put up by the herd of Southland builders, Taylor has built award-winning eggplant, mustard and brick-colored condominiums and restyled Craftsman homes that hark back to the 1920s.

"When the recession hit, it was an opportunity to say we've got to do something different," said Richard Pope, president of Taylor Woodrow. "It really got to the stage where we didn't have anything to lose."

The company constructed luxury condominiums in Newport Beach, creating an Italian-hillside look with landscaping and bold colors. New homes in an Irvine development called Mahogany have as many as seven bedrooms, hidden garages, and a style more reminiscent of an old Hancock Park estate than an Orange County home.

"Taylor Woodrow has clearly become the most innovative builder in Southern California," said Larry Webb, president of the Orange County Building Industry Assn.

"They did it by taking the route other builders haven't, by pushing the envelope with their architecture," said Webb, who operates Laing Homes in Irvine. "We are all learning from them."

Taylor Woodrow's 1995 net income was reportedly much better than the industry average, but the Laguna Hills home builder, a subsidiary of a British company, won't release its numbers.

Still, some industry leaders question whether the company can keep up its pace in the wake of the recent departures of three top managers--Jeff Prostor, vice president and division manager; Carina Hathaway, marketing manager; and Adrian Foley, senior development manager.

The three left a month ago to start a Southern California division of Canadian-owned Brookfield Davidson, formerly called Coscan Davidson Homes.

"It's difficult to replace very senior people in any business, and in home building, it's only a core of three to five people who really do it," said one real estate specialist. "Taylor may have a tough time."

But Pope isn't worried.

He said that the company's innovative product design was a team effort and that talented people remain who can replace the three. Pope also is recruiting executives outside the company.

"They were important people, and we wish them well," Pope said. "But we are using this to restructure so we can expand into other Western states and Northern California and San Diego."

The company is part of publicly traded Taylor Woodrow PLC, a British company created in 1921. The parent company has built major projects throughout the world, including the Channel Tunnel and a terminal at John Wayne Airport.

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Ranked among the top 30 California builders, Taylor Woodrow profited by quality construction, not quantity of sales, Pope said. Last year, it won major design awards for Trovare and Altezza, condominium projects in Newport Beach. This year, it was nominated for more than 35 major housing industry awards, the most ever received by any builder.

"We're not competing with other builders," Pope said. "We're trying to design our way out of the competition. I want to take Taylor Woodrow to a certain level. And when other builders get there, we'll be gone."

The company works closely with its architects, including Robert Hidey in Newport Beach, who designed the Craftsman-style homes in the Mahogany development.

"Taylor Woodrow asks us to produce housing types that are very different," Hidey said. "We push them too because it's been our drive to produce unique housing types. They are receptive to it because they are seeing sales."

Since the Mahogany models went up in Irvine, Hidey has had more calls from other builders in the past three months than he had in the past three years. He said the homes are about $2 to $3 more per square foot to build than the typical tract home. Mahogany homes start at $400,000.

"One of the problems with current architecture is that you glance down a street, and it looks like one big garage," Pope said. "We decided three years ago that architecture needed to change. Homes have been languishing . . . for the past 30 years."

The company decided, for instance, to set garages in back and focus on grander front entrances and balconies.

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Still, some of Taylor's early risk-taking wasn't so successful. In 1993, angry neighbors of a Taylor Woodrow project in Laguna Niguel threatened to sue the company, saying the development looked like "Toon Town" with its wild color scheme of beige homes, dark red tiled roofs and purple shutters. Taylor executives met with the neighbors to calm their fears.

Pope said innovation isn't easy. When the company was building Trovare, there was a lot of concern.

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