Cover Story – Selling Chicagoland’s Diverse Style

by Chicago Agent

Pat FitzgeraldLucky for Realtors, Chicago possesses some of the most distinct and diverse architecture in the nation. From historic bungalows to contemporary high-rises, there is something available to fit every buyer’s design aesthetic.

By Meghan Boyer

Chicago is privileged to have a unique and diverse architecture style that began taking shape roughly 100 years ago when architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham put forth his design for the city. Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago established the grid system of streets and the lakefront network of public parks. Other renowned Chicago architects, including Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, contributed to the creation of the city’s eclectic aesthetic that modern buyers appreciate and seek.

Today, contemporary architects continue to create unique buildings that compliment the skyline and add to Chicago’s diverse housing stock. When shopping for single-family homes and condos, buyers have an opportunity to purchase a piece of Chicago style that fits their tastes. Understanding what Chicagoland has to offer architecturally and what drives local architects’ designs can help real estate agents match buyers with buildings that fit their every need.

Style Influences Buyers
The interior of a unit or freestanding home and its amenities have a lot to do with buyers’ purchasing decisions. However, architecture and a building’s overall style can influence buyers’ choices as well. A good layout and abundant features mean less when packaged in a way that isn’t pleasing to potential buyers, agree industry experts.

A building’s architecture always should influence a buyer’s purchasing decision “or we haven’t done our job correctly,” says Jonathon Hague, architect with Hague Architecture. “A homebuyer is looking for a home or building style that is appealing to them. Whether they know it or not, there is a relationship between oneself and architecture, an attraction to the building that they are comfortable with or desire,” he says.

Architecture influences buyers “quite a bit,” agrees Nick Garneata, president of M3 Architectural Consulting Inc. However, a building’s beauty is in the eye of the buyer, he notes. “You would not buy a car or a piece of clothing that does not appeal to your taste. Same with a home. If there is no architectural detail that is appealing to that person, they will not purchase the home.”

Often, real estate sales depend on buyers’ tastes. Homes with specific styles can be popular with buyers in certain areas, says Sharon Friedman, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Winnetka South. In the North Shore suburbs, buyers “prefer traditional colonials, French country, English or Nantucket Cape Cod styles,” she says. In that area, however, contemporary designs are more difficult to sell. But well-known architects can attract sales. “Well-known architects can be impressive” to buyers, notes Friedman.

Public opinion also can influence architecture, says Garneata. The development process for an architect changes to match public tastes, which always are changing, he says. “The design follows what the consumer likes; rarely is it the other way around,” says Garneata.

Diversity of Style
There’s a type of architecture for every desire in Chicago, thanks to a healthy diversity of housing stock, says Scott Sarver, chief executive officer with architecture firm DeStefano + Partners. Burnham’s grid system has allowed for “variety and change” in the city’s architecture as Chicago has grown, says Sarver. “Chicago projects are generally greatly influenced by their relative position and response to the city’s grid; the view, particularly if they have lake exposure; and the interaction with neighboring buildings,” he says.

The long history of the city and the variety of choices means that buyers can find everything from century-old frame houses and brick bungalows to contemporary glass and steel homes, says Hague. Even buildings that originally were not intended as housing options now are available to live in, notes Jeanne Gang, principal and founder of architecture firm Studio Gang. “Warehouses and small factories serve as housing today,” she says.

The range of housing choice not only makes Chicago interesting architecturally, but also makes it attractive to a range of buyers. “Variations in the housing choices are important because you have a variation of consumers with different tastes,” says Garneata.

“Diversity in the housing stock is important to maintain because it is one of the qualities that makes Chicago an interesting place to live,” says Gang, who also feels it makes Chicago affordable. “Ideally, new projects should place higher density housing (taller buildings) close to public transit,” she says, noting that this can reduce dependency on cars and help lower traffic and pollution. Additionally, “density is advantageous since it creates walkable, lively cities,” according to Gang.

Despite the diversity, there are some common elements popular among buyers no matter the style of properties they are looking at. A few “standard” housing features for Chicago exist, says Sarver. They include balconies, great rooms and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Hague agrees that the typical amenities popular today are must-haves for buyers no matter if they are buying an older building or a new design.

For Realtors hoping to locate the right buildings among the multitudes of choices to match a potential buyer’s aesthetic, the best approach may be to search by neighborhood. Popular housing choices and styles can vary by neighborhood, says Hague. “If you want to live in a contemporary glass and steel home, you move to Bucktown. For a traditional home, you may choose Hyde Park,” he notes.

Anything Goes
Perhaps what is most notable about contemporary architectural tastes among Chicago buyers is a lack of overarching style preference. “I believe we are in a unique architectural time when no ‘style’ or fashion predominates,” says Sarver. “Today’s buildings are this unique product of each individual marketing position over a vast array of responses,” he says. There is not a “typical” style of Chicago home among current buyers, agrees Garneata. “I think that more and more homeowners, architects and builders are designing ‘custom’ homes to accommodate their clients,” he says.

The bottom line, however, is that buyers want “something that fits their needs and wants,” says Garneata. “They want architecture to not only look good but also to be functional to their lifestyle,” he says.

There are several popular architecture trends in Chicago today, note industry experts. Perhaps most prevalent is the move toward eco-friendly design. “I believe the most popular housing styles right now are the homes that are eco-friendly and are a mix between modern and traditional,” says Garneata. Buyers are fueling this trend because they feel good about construction that considers the environment and can save on utility costs, he says. Hague agrees: “The trend today is definitely green,” he says. Buyers want sustainable, earth-friendly and high-performance designs. “In my mind,” says Gang, “two of the most important features in housing is access to natural daylight and fresh air.”

While the environment is a concern for buyers, they also want to maintain luxury. “The new standard is luxury, and it is expected from buyers,” says Garneata. Buyers expect name-brand appliances, plumbing and electrical fixtures. They also want custom cabinetry, floors and tiles and fully wired homes, he says. The layout must make sense, and buyers insist on healthy room sizes and storage spaces, says Garneata.

It Takes a Village
While an architect may be responsible for the overall design of a building, many aspects contribute to the overall aesthetic of a building. A design project is a compilation of many factors, because architects assimilate ideas from developers, the city, the culture and the time, says Sarver. In addition, inspiration for new projects comes from a plethora of sources, says Garneata. He pegs research, local television programs and ideas from clients, developers, Realtors and other architects as sources of his inspiration.

Developers are more than sources of ideas for architects; they usually will assist in molding the project along the way, says Garneata. “The developer likes for us to come up with ideas; however, the developer always will tweak it,” he says. Developers have experiences from other projects they have completed and also work closely with Realtors, which is why their advice can be valuable, Garneata says.

Some of the experience that developers bring to a project is a close understanding of a project’s costs, says Hague. “When you deal with developers, you have to be conscious of costs,” he says. After working so closely with developers on projects, the developers frequently become repeat clients for the architects, industry experts agree.

Architects also interact with Realtors during projects, and they can provide valuable buyer insight. “Realtors are good sources of feedback on what consumers are looking for,” says Garneata. The Realtors Sarver encounters comment directly on the specifics of his unit plans, especially in regard to buyers’ sensitivities such as walk-in closets, double sinks and stainless appliances.

They also have an eye for detail, notes Hague. “It’s a tough market. Very tough. So the Realtors want everything and every detail to be perfect. If there is a deficiency in the house, they let you know,” he says. The feedback Realtors provide to architects helps make a stronger product that is more likely to entice buyers to purchase. C.A.

Sharon Friedman
Coldwell Banker
Winnetka South

Jeanne Gang
Principal and Founder
Studio Gang

Nick Garneata
Consult M3

Jonathon Hague
Hague Architecture

Scott Sarver
DeStefano + Partners

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