Paul Harris gets worked up. He’s a man of enthusiasms: wine, films, the state of the Union. Meeting in the kitchen of his Weston home, he insists on standing, pacing back and forth behind the island, choosing his words carefully, like a younger, caffeinated version of John Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase (minus the patrician accent). “Obviously, you don't go buy a $4 million piece of land and put a $2 million house on it,” he says. “You need to leverage the property.”
The West Hartford native has set out to do just that with the two adjacent spec houses he’s built on Darien’s Brush Island, one listed at $7.25 million and its neighbor asking $7.75 million. The properties represent a new venture for Harris, but he’s no newcomer to the spec home business. Harris launched Westport-based Cole Harris Associates (Cole is his middle name) in 1991 and made his reputation designing substantial custom homes for private clients. In 2004 he built his first spec property, a five-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot home on Near Water Lane in Darien, which sold for the asking price of $1.35 million in just four days. Christening his new venture Archetype, he bought another parcel, razed the existing house, and hasn’t looked back. He recently acquired three lots, part of a six-acre estate on Old Farm Road in Darien’s Tokeneke enclave.
“We weren’t being commissioned to design the kind of home I was drawn to — smaller-scale, high-end, architecturally relevant buildings,” Harris explains. “Much of what I saw on the spec market were all the same, shingled Colonial homes with similar roof lines and window configurations. When you walk into our houses, they are recognizably different. And we never design the same house twice.”
Harris’ business partner, Lynette Snow, says their amenities, layout and price point position the homes well for the future. “Because we are so focused on Darien, we are very confident that our new construction is well priced to sell even in slower markets. I won’t say that Darien is recession-proof, but it is recession-resilient and Archetype homes fill a niche where there is still strong demand.”
At 3,300 to 4,600 square feet, Archetype homes are larger than the average new home nationally (2,586 square feet), but not gargantuan when compared to many houses in Fairfield County. Priced at $1.5 million to $2.8 million, they all draw from a traditional domestic design vocabulary (they are, after all, a brand), but project a subtle contemporary vibe, especially in their interiors, which often embrace an open plan. “These are not big homes, but they are big-boned,” Harris says. “Big-boned means we’ll never do a hallway that’s less than 5 feet. Building code is 3 [feet]. Ceiling heights, staircase widths, over-scaled windows — these are all things we push out that make them feel like big homes.”
A project of a new business entity, Cole Harris Homes, the Brush Island properties are big. Not counting fully appointed finished basements, 17 Brush Island Road comes in at 6,400 square feet with 430 feet of shoreline, and No. 21 measures 6,700 square feet and features more than 600 feet of water frontage. “Again, you don’t go buy a spectacular piece of property and undervalue it with a small home,” Harris says. “Not if you want to stay in business. We needed a minimum of five bedrooms with en suite baths. Kitchens had to be phenomenal. Master bedroom suites had to be phenomenal.” In addition to packing the houses with amenities and top-of-the line finishes, Harris devoted special attention to the landscape, planting more than 50 trees, 500 shrubs and 5,000 perennials. That effort earned a 2018 “Best Amenity” HOBI award from the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Connecticut. In addition, No. 17 won Best Spec Home over $7 million and Best Spec Home Kitchen; No. 21 snagged Outstanding Spec Home over $7 million. The two also shared the Project of the Year award.
Still, it’s a long way from success with $1.5 million to $2.8 million product to spec properties pushing the $8 million mark. But when someone can list a spec home at $88 million — as L.A. developer Ardie Tavangarian did this past December — perhaps Harris and his Manhattan-based investor group aren’t being overly optimistic in believing that there are two buyers out there ready to validate their investment.
According to Robyn Kammerer, Halstead executive director of sales for Darien and Rowayton, waterfront and luxury make all the difference. “We had one property come up recently, a modern home on open water that hadn’t been on the market in 50 years,” she says. “It listed at $7.25 million and closed at that price. In 2017, 106 Pear Tree Point Road listed for $6.875 million and sold for that price within a few days. Brand-new construction. The waterfront, that’s what people want. And no one wants to deal with doing any work.” (Halstead is the listing agency for 21 Brush Island; William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty is listing No. 17).
Martin Schmiedeck, owner of Weston-based Schmiedeck Construction (for whom Harris designed two houses several years ago) can attest to that. In 2015, a waterfront residence he erected in Westport sold for $11.9 million. Schmiedeck has enjoyed so much success with high-end spec homes that he has shifted his business entirely to that market. “I haven’t had anything sit for a long period of time,” he says. “And I’ve never lost money on a house.”
Although single-family home sales were undeniably soft by the final quarter of 2018, Maggie Marchesi, a Houlihan Lawrence broker who reps Harris’ Archetype projects, saw an uptick in interest this past December. “Heavy hitters in Manhattan — hedge fund guys, investment bankers — must be getting very nice bonuses again, because I’m getting calls,” Marchesi says. “I’m showing No. 21. But those buyers are certainly not going to be overpaying for anything.” Kammerer concurs. “Sometimes there’s a little bit of hesitancy in the luxury market. They want to see value. They’re very specific about what they want and they’re going to wait until they find that perfect property. I think Paul’s Brush Island houses are well-priced for the market. There are other listings that have been on far too long and are way overpriced.”
Nick Frate, owner of Darien-based Fox Hill Builders, added spec homes to his portfolio a few years ago and is bullish on houses priced at $3 million and under. While he admits that building a $7 million spec house might seem, at first glance, a real gamble, he suggests multiple factors mitigate the risk, including Darien’s relatively low taxes and the town’s proximity to New York. “It’s a big move for Paul to make, but I do think if you want something brand new on the water, that’s hard to find. It’s crazy to say, but I think they’re a deal. I mean, you can spend $20 million for an older house on the water. But people like new.”
Harris’ wife, Sitta Mortensen-Harris, handles the financial end of the practice. “Brush Island is a big leap in terms of budget. But I’m not worried because we have a reputation for quality homes. I’ve been told by many that there are only a few builders in Fairfield County that are sought after. After doing this for 20 years, we have finally gotten to that tier. But we’re spoiled. We’re used to having our houses sell within a week.”
With these Brush Island homes, Harris has, in some respect, returned to where he began; designing significant custom homes for well-heeled clients. It’s just that now, he’s offering homes of that scale and caliber on a spec basis. Still deeply committed to Archetype, this latest process has left him eager to build big again on the open market. “A home’s value is really based on the specific property you’re going to build on,” Harris says. “And for us, that property has to have some great feature — a river running through it, or a view. Our next Cole Harris Home may be $6 million. It may be a $10 million home. But it will be unique.”