Force-fit? Modern home in a Tuscan world

The big question is whether Andy Smith is crazy.

Driving past the cottage, ranch and traditional houses that prevail throughout Terrell Hills and Alamo Heights, Smith excitedly points out a handful of contemporary homes.

He loves their modern symmetry and sleek simplicity so much that he's building one himself and plans to sell it.

A fan of contemporary art and architecture and a former developer of Hill Country neighborhoods, Smith is one of a very few people building a contemporary home in San Antonio in hopes that a buyer will materialize.

But in a city where Tuscan-style homes reign supreme in new construction, will Smith's modern spec home sell?

"It is more risky," he admits.

The home, with expansive windows, a courtyard and distinctive barrel vault ceilings, is designed by well-regarded San Antonio architect Ken Bentley and priced at $1.2 million.

"People love it or they don't," Smith said. "It's just maybe 10 or 15 percent who appreciate it."

Smith thinks he can find that 10 percent.

Tucked among vast pockets of traditional homes that populate San Antonio neighborhoods are a few elusive homes of modern or contemporary design.

Trying to find them is like a treasure hunt.

"There are people out there who are looking for it," architect Candid Rogers said. "Nobody is designing it and that's the problem."

Bill Riesenecker recently hired Rogers to design three modern single-family homes on a large vacant lot in the Lavaca neighborhood.

They all sold before they were completed, and Rogers is now designing projects for Riesenecker near the former Pearl Brewery and La Tuna Icehouse.

"You have to have the commitment and desire to create it," Riesenecker said. "It's not an off-the-shelf thing."

The barrier to finding modern design: Many San Antonio home buyers remain rabid for the Tuscan/Mediterranean style.

"Most of the homes we are doing new are Mediterranean," luxury builder Roberto Kenigstein said. "We still get people who want the clean lines. When those homes come on the market, they sell."

But they sell more slowly.

Kenigstein built a contemporary spec home in Elm Creek a few years ago and it sat on the market so long that he lost money on it.

However, he did pick up a few new clients who saw the home and wanted something similar.

Kenigstein continues to build contemporary homes for clients and loves the work, but doubts he will another spec home anytime soon.

"I'd break even or lose money," he said.

Todd Glowka, another luxury builder, puts it more bluntly.

"The demand is so minimal for it," he said. "If you had to make a living at it you'd starve to death."

Perhaps one person in every 20 who comes to Glowka for a home asks for something modern.

Becky Oliver, executive vice president with the Greater San Antonio Builders Association, said few builders can afford the risk of building a contemporary home without a client on hand, so there's little supply of new, modern homes.

"The market niche is so small for that kind of design in this part of the country," Oliver said. "People here still want that Hill Country warm feeling. Contemporary is not always warm."

There's another obstacle for home buyers hunting for a modern home.

Much of the supply of contemporary homes is in the upper price range of the market, around $350,000 and higher.

"Younger people love contemporary," Kenigstein said. "They can't afford it."

Other options

Real estate agents say it is difficult, but not impossible, to find a modern home that's not made for millionaires.

For home buyers in a more typical price range -- the $100,000s or $200,000s -- local real estate agents recommend looking at some of the 1950s neighborhoods around San Antonio. Balcones Heights, Terrell Heights, Castle Hills, Oak Hills and Shavano Park are a few of many areas where 1950s-era homes can be found at varying prices.

Mid-century modern designs have become wildly popular in other parts of the country and have had a big influence on furniture design the last few years.

But San Antonio hasn't quite embraced the mid-century modern, so there are still deals to be had.

"You could redo some of those mid-century homes," said Rick Kuper of Kuper Sotheby's International Realty. "You'd have a basis to work with."

Ann FitzGibbons, a real estate agent with the Phyllis Browning Co., recently had a buyer who wanted a modern home, and so they limited their search to mid-century moderns. Now FitzGibbons is listing a 1950s ranch home with a modern addition for $489,000 in Alamo Heights.

"There's an audience," FitzGibbons said. "We just have to develop it."

Growing market

No one has rolled out the red carpet for contemporary architecture in San Antonio, said Bentley, the architect who designed Smith's spec home in Terrell Hills.

"But I think that's changing in the sense that there's so many people moving to San Antonio from other parts of the country where contemporary architecture is so much more established and appreciated," he said. "We've been a large small town for years. There have been a lot of provincial attitudes."

Bentley specializes in a regional contemporary style that uses materials such as limestone and Mexican brick, and said contemporary design doesn't have to be expensive.

"It wouldn't be any costlier than any other type of architecture," Bentley said. "Tuscan would be far more expensive per square foot than some of our homes."

Karrie Jacobs, the former editor of Dwell magazine and author of the recent book "The Perfect $100,000 House," went on a cross-country search for low-cost, quality modern design.

Her goal was to find an architect who could provide a modern home for $100,000, land not included.

"Several architects said, 'Are you kidding? We can't do it,"' Jacobs said. "But it's a problem that a lot of them really like to tackle. It gives them a sense of mission."

The resale

Once a contemporary home goes back on the market, finding a buyer can be tough.

Kuper is listing a $3.5 million modern home in Elm Creek with a floating stainless steel staircase.

He doesn't want to eliminate anyone, but he thinks the buyer won't be a native San Antonian.

"Likely our buyer at $3.5 million is not going to come from the local market," he said. "That's why we use national and international exposure."

Rose Jamison, an agent with the Elaine Ludwig Real Estate Co., is listing a contemporary home in DeZavala Place, a North Side neighborhood in Shavano Park. San Antonio architect Roy Braswell designed the home with enormous windows, honey-colored wood floors and so much built-in storage that clutter would be nearly eliminated for the owners.

But with a list price of $987,000, Jamison also thinks her buyer might come from California or Florida.

"It's a very, very small market in San Antonio," she said.

She's concentrating on contacting other agents who work in high-end homes and on Web marketing.

"Those who can afford it and those who like it are going to be younger people who will use the computer," she said.

Braswell, who designed the home about 12 years ago, said many home buyers have misconceptions about contemporary homes.

"Most of the homes we do are on the contemporary side, but use more traditional materials like rock and wood windows and clay tile roofs," Braswell said. "They're not a copy of a Tuscan villa. I think people have some kind of image in their mind of flat roofs and minimal detailing. It can be on the contemporary side and still be warm. You don't have to have all Barcelona chairs."

Creating a lifestyle

Riesenecker compared his projects to an Apple computer.

"Does it do much different than a PC? No. But it probably provides a more pleasant experience and platform," he said. "My driving goal is to create a better lifestyle."

Sarah Harding and Jesus de la Torre just bought one of Riesenecker's homes in Lavaca and moved in with their two children, Maya and Elijah.

"We really enjoy the feel of a modern house," Harding said.

The couple's first priority was living close to downtown, and they were happy to find new construction.

"Our first priority was to be in an area where we could walk more," she said. "We wanted to be where my husband could walk or bike to work. We love to go to the theater and the libraries and be involved in the arts."

Riesenecker believes there are other families out there like Harding's.

Smith, too, believes there's a market for modern.

And if there isn't, he has a Plan B. He'll move into the Bentley-designed home in Terrell Hills himself.



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