Steve Ellis MGB Home Builder Business Weekly

Welcome to the Digital Spec Home

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Steve Ellis MyGreenBuildings

Using 3-D modeling and Google Earth, luxury home builder MyGreenBuildings tweaks designs and gives clients virtual site tours.

By Michael Pollick, Sarasota Herald-Tribune


From his desk at Michael Carlson Studio Architecture in Sarasota, associate Jedd Heap can design a building, then plop the design down anywhere in the world, even spinning it around to fit better on a tight lot.

Then, as if being whisked around via a virtual helicopter, he can “fly” a client around the site and get a decent three dimensional view of how the property would look next to its neighbors, and even get an idea of what views it might enjoy.

Back in January, Heap accomplished this feat on the fly, using his laptop computer and a Wi-Fi connection, to help land a client for the green-mansion co-venture between his firm and a Sarasota builder with an Aurora Award under its belt, MyGreenBuildings.

Welcome to the world of virtual home design, which is gradually replacing the idea of building a speculative home, at least at the high end of the market.

12“Creating a model instead of having to build the house is less risk for us,” said Steve Ellis, co-founder of MyGreenBuildings.

“What we are outlaying in terms of costs are the architect’s time to create the home, the marketing cost and time, and the advertisements and the signage, that kind of stuff.

“And then we happen to have an owner who owns the lot, so he is carrying the lot anyway.”

The winter-visitor clients had found their way to MyGreenBuildings because Ellis’ company was marketing the fact that it could build a modern-looking, environmentally conscious home on any of four contiguous Lido Shores lots, all on prestigious Westway Drive, for a price of $2.1 million.

The Lido Shores address did not hurt the marketing effort — Westway is famous for its Sarasota Modern buildings.

The clients were attracted to the home’s design, but decided they would prefer to buy another Lido Shores lot, tear down an existing home, and then have the Carlson firm and Ellis customize the Carlson design to fit the site and their tastes.

Heap had been using a 3-D modeling program called SketchUp for about five years, when Google took over the parent company in March 2006.

Google, best known for its intelligent Web-searching tools and its stratospheric stock price, also is the proud owner of the highly ambitious earth-mapping system known as Google Earth. Someone can use it to find a precise property and then zoom in on it.

The combination of SketchUp and Google Earth makes it possible to copy and paste a three-dimensional building design into a lot, oriented in any direction.

The Google map system includes longitude and latitude data. That makes it possible for today’s architects and builders to see not only how a home would fit onto a site, but also where the sun and shadows would fall in any season, at any time of day.


“Creating a model instead of having to build the house is less risk for us.”

co-founder, MyGreenBuildings

The Lido site the couple had in mind was pie-shaped, and as a result, when Heap first plopped the MyGreenBuildings home onto the new Lido site, the home would not fit within the setbacks. Again, the wonders of being digital came to the rescue.

He kept the home’s north-south orientation, maintaining a large shed-shaped roof section pointed at the sun. Meanwhile, he flipped the east-west aspects of the home, mirror-like.

“It just fit perfectly within the setbacks,” Ellis said. “It actually works better on that lot. Isn’t that strange?”

Virtual vs. solid — Goldenrod Avenue

As a builder-developer fostering green practices, Stephen Ellis knows one thing for sure: He does not want a repeat of what happened at his West-of-the-Trail speculative home, where he did an extreme makeover with environmentally sensitive features, and is now just hoping to break even.

“This is a house that has won three Aurora awards,” said Ellis, after showing a visitor some of the home’s features, including hyperinsulated walls and roofs, and even bathroom vanity cabinets crafted from used industrial pallet wood.

The property has been on the market since last spring, and Ellis has cut the price from $850,000 to $750,000 during that time, and now thinks he has a deal.

“It is the most energy-efficient house in the state of Florida right now,” he said. “It has been in every magazine. It has been nationally recognized. And I am going to lose $150,000 if I sold it at $700,000.”

The new formula is much friendlier to Ellis’ business budget.

Instead of building another house with green features, like he did on Goldenrod, everything is taking place in the cyber world of possibilities, until a client signs on the dotted line.




At left: Carlson Studio Architects and MyGreenBuildings is able to show potential buyers how a home would be situated on this Lido Key cul-de-sac using Google Earth and SketchUP. The same software combination can be used to move the house to another lot and tweak the design to fit.

Above: Software also allows builders to give clients a virtual tour of the inside of the home.


Over on Lido

On a windy January afternoon, Ellis rented a hydraulic cherry picker and met up with the operator on the Lido site, where his company and Carlson’s are cooperating with the owner of four contiguous building lots priced at about $800,000 each.

They are not on the water, but if you build high enough, you get not only water views but also city-of-Sarasota views from the top floor.

Ellis went up and took some digital photos from a third-floor level, which he plans to incorporate into the 3-D mock-up of the model home on his Web site,

In marketing materials, he refers to the design as “an architecturally stimulating Green-Modern virtual spec home … in the most famous of modern neighborhoods in Sarasota.”

Ellis explained the math, virtual vs. spec on a 3,500-square-foot custom home with modern features like a rooftop garden, and provision for solar-electric power. He prices it at $2.1 million.

Based on his starting price of $2.1 million for the home on the lot, the construction cost of the house works out to about $360 per square foot. This could go as high as $400, depending on the buyer’s customization choices.

“If I were doing a spec home, just for the build itself, you’d be paying $650 a square foot,” he said.

Why? The cost of carrying the lot and the construction of the house through the laborious process of permitting, construction, marketing and sales. From start to finish, the developer has to allow for a two-year period in which he is carrying the costs, Ellis said.

“Say we had to buy this lot for $800,000, and then we built a house. You’ve got a two-year carry cost. Now you are probably talking a $4 million house. All of a sudden, it doesn’t even work,” he said.

“This is the only way to make it work.”