Architect Drew Lang knows that not everybody can afford what he designs. Architecture—custom-designed homes, particularly—is expensive, and only a certain slice of the population has the money to commission their own personal design. But Lang wanted to create modern, architect-designed homes that could be purchased by people who aren’t mega-millionaires. So he bought some land, standardized a design, and built 26 of them.
Lang, principal of Lang Architecture, is now also a developer. His project, Hudson Woods, which is a few hours outside New York City, has been a runaway success: All the homes have been sold. The development features nearly identical cabin-like homes, each with a jewel box wall of windows looking in on the home’s all-wood interior and out on the woods themselves. With the design already set, buyers were given a selection of materials and furnishings to choose from to give a personal touch to what’s essentially a catalog home—albeit one that’s made the project’s thousands of Instagram followers swoon. With prices around $1 million, they’re not accessible to the average homebuyer, but it’s a start.
Now, his idea is spreading. In a stylish echo of the cookie-cutter factory spread of the American suburb, Hudson Woods has begun to replicate. Not all at once, and certainly not at the scale of the Levittowns and KB Homes that fractalized off interstate highways across the country. But Lang’s project is being licensed and franchised out like a successful burger stand—and one that has only become more appealing during the pandemic.
“When we set out to do the Hudson Woods project, it wasn’t our intention to replicate this or license the design. Not only did we not have the intention—it didn’t even occur to us,” says Lang. “And what happened naturally was people began asking us about licensing the design out of nowhere. It got to the point where there were so many inquiries we stopped tracking them.”
Ellen Leake was one of the people who reached out early on, about six years ago. She and her husband were planning on dipping their toes into real estate development, subdividing land they owned in northern Mississippi, near the college town of Oxford. Like Hudson Woods, they were thinking about creating 26 sites for homes on their rural lakefront property. And, as lovers of art and design, they wanted the architecture of these prospective homes to meet a certain standard.
“I can’t even remember the publication, but I read a blurb about Hudson Woods. It was just getting off the ground, and it caught my eye because I could see all the similarities,” Leake says. She reached out and set up a call with Lang. “I wondered how Drew could take a single design on a house and make it work for 26 sites. And so I told my partner and husband we’ve got to go see this. We’ve got to kick the tires,” she says.
A few months later, they were touring the model home at Hudson Woods with Lang. The modern feel of the house and the way it integrated itself into the landscape instantly appealed to Leake and her husband, and they hired Lang to design a version of the house for their project, now known as Splinter Creek. The house he designed features a similar wall of windows to the Hudson Woods house, a palette of hand-selected material finishes, and a slate of add-on architectural features such as porches, guest wings, and outdoor kitchens. Splinter Creek doesn’t prohibit buyers from bringing their own architects and designs, as long as they comply with a set of architectural guidelines. Still, Leake says Lang’s design fits so well on the site she hopes it will be used by more buyers. And because the plans are ready and the contractors lined up, they’d likely be cheaper than designing from the ground up.
So far seven of the lots have either sold or are under contract, and of the three with architectural plans set, one is using Lang’s design.
Leake says buyers have been a mix of people looking for weekend homes, summer homes, and retirement homes. As a first-time developer, she acknowledges that sales have been slower than she’d hoped, but that those who’ve bought in are drawn by the unexpected design sensibility. “Mississippi is not a place you would think that we’d have modern design. It seems like an unlikely place, and Hudson Woods to me sounded like a very unlikely place that city dwellers would go,” she says. “Today, looking back on it, it seems like a no-brainer.”
Interest seems to be growing, as COVID-19 has led more city-dwellers to think about getting out of the city, Lang says. “There’s been this acceleration where more people at a more rapid pace are coming to us and asking for homes outside of cities. But it was happening before COVID at a really good clip. One a day, one a week,” he says. “Now we get several a day, sometimes it’s like 10 a day, sometimes it’s crazy. But this is nothing new. People always wanted an outlet from cities. Especially really, really dense, active cities.”
Other developers are now trying to take the Hudson Woods model—design and all—and build similar projects. The Woods at Roxbury, a New York-adjacent rural hamlet in Connecticut, has licensed Lang’s designs as well.
“We knew that what he had done with Hudson Woods was such a success with the New York City clientele, the house just spoke to us like it spoke to so many other New Yorkers,” says Jill Sloane Bhatia, one of the project’s developers. “Because I think so many people just want simplicity right now.”
The homes, sized at 2,200 square feet but upgradeable to more than 4,000 square feet, are a copy-paste of the homes at Hudson Woods, complete with the same material and furniture options. Even though the setting is different, and the town a little more high-end, the design fits, says developer Raj Bhatia. “Drew showed us that even two-and-a-half hours from Manhattan in the middle of nowhere, you can bring clientele up there, because it’s about the house,” he says.
And while the developers originally expected the project to appeal to those Manhattanites looking for a rural weekend getaway, they’ve had more interest recently from people looking to make a permanent move and live there full time. Of eight total lots, one is on the verge of closing and another is expected to break ground in the next two or three months. The Bhatias are planning to build a model home on another lot next year, and then start looking for new places to take the design.
“This project in Roxbury can be a template for other projects,” Raj Bhatia says. “Once this is on its way and done, we’re going to be actively looking for land to put this home on.”
For Lang, these new projects that license his concept and design are welcome, if unexpected. It’s a way, he says, to start to bring down the cost of a modern, architect-designed home. “When I set out to do Hudson Woods, part of the objective was to allow more people to access what it is we do,” he says. “And accessing design doesn’t just mean accessing the fantasy and something that looks cool. It really means accessing a better life.”