When he was growing up in New Orleans, Rick Rowland’s father was a real estate developer. Rowland helped with his father’s business, spending his summers as a carpenter’s assistant on single-family homes and garden apartments.
“That helped me from an early age develop a keen interest in housing,” Rowland says.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in architecture and an MBA from Wharton, Rowland went into the business world and spent fifteen years in Goldman Sachs’ real estate investment banking department. But he never lost his enthusiasm for building that was passed down from his father, and in 1994 Rowland left Goldman Sachs to form his own homebuilding company, BSF Properties. In the 21 years since, Rowland, a registered architect, and his team of contractors have built BSF into a company with an impeccable record for building speculative luxury single-family homes in the Greenwich, Conn., market.
BSF is not a volume homebuilder; instead it focuses on a few high-value properties for this affluent market. In most cases, the company buys lots with an existing house, tears down the structure and replaces it with a larger and more upscale home. BSF’s first project was a 4,200-square-foot home in Purchase, N.Y., that sold for $900,000. Since then, the company has completed 18 more homes, most of them between 4,300 and 11,600 square feet and selling for between $5 million and $10 million.
The company got its start building in Westchester County north of New York City, but high taxes eventually drove BSF toward the Greenwich, Conn. area near the state border. “One of the reasons we stopped building in Westchester was the sticker shock of the property taxes,” Rowland says. In Greenwich, BSF found a similarly affluent customer base with significantly lower taxes, making for a more appealing market for buyers.
BSF has concentrated on the area known as Mid-Country Greenwich, the stretch of land south of the Merrit Parkway. Much of the area is built up, so Rowland seeks out challenging properties, such as those with wetlands and ledge rock, where he can create a market advantage.
Local regulations, wetlands, and ledge rock complications might turn away many builders, but Rowland tries to turn these difficulties into opportunity. “We look for sites where we can be creative,” he adds.
Building a Team
BSF itself is a one-man operation – it has no official employees. The average BSF home requires work from about 60 subcontractors and design professionals, Rowland estimates. “We really do have a great team of subs,” he says. “We’ve been working with many of them for 20 years. We have loyalty from our subs, and, in turn, we give loyalty back to them.”
The key characteristics BSF looks for when choosing its subcontractors are their quality of work and safety record, Rowland says. The company rewards its partners by paying quickly and granting continuous future work. For a one-man company such as BSF, it is critical to develop strong partnerships because those relationships are reflected in the quality of the home and the developer’s image in the market. “Our reputation is really based on the quality of our team,” Rowland explains.
Which is why Rowland has taken care to put together a team of outside contractors and supporting businesses he can trust. The team includes his wife, Susan, who gets very involved in the planning and design of the new homes. Other important team members include an on-site construction manager, Manny Sopasis, a craftsman builder, the architectural firm Contadino Architects, kitchen designer Lindy Weaver Design Associates, and Carolyn Sarsen, his exclusive real estate agent with David Ogilvy & Associates. “We are very much a collaborative team effort with everyone we work with,” Rowland says.
Home, Sweet Home
BSF’s most recent project in Greenwich earned the company a 2014 HOBI award from the Connecticut Home Builders & Remodelers Association for the best speculative home over $6 million in the state. The project was completed and sold in 2014, but truly began six years earlier. BSF paid $3.1 million for the four-acre site in August 2008, shortly before the housing market imploded. “Because of the recession, we put it on hold for five years,” Rowland explains. BSF rented out the existing 7,500-square-foot home on the site to cover its carry costs until the market rebounded.
Construction finally began in the summer of 2013, resulting in an 11,600-square-foot Georgian-style house with a pool, 2,000-bottle wine cellar, six fireplaces and large home gym. Rowland’s patience paid off as the home became one of BSF’s highest-valued projects to date.
The company now has under construction a three-story, 10,800-square-foot home in the Sabine Farm Association, a former estate that has since been divided and developed into 17 lots. With financing provided by Fairfield County Bank, the new home will feature a Georgian exterior with a contemporary Hampton-style interior. Features include a two-story family room centered on the pool, a lower-level walk out at the pool level, an extensive wine cellar and a library with a light-gray driftwood finish.
Like many of BSF’s projects, the site was challenging and involved significant blasting of ledge rock and site re-grading. Much of the blasted rock was used for boulder walls or was crushed and used as fill material for the new building. Rowland expects the home will be completed in April 2016 and plans to list the property for $10.5 million.
Building Up From Recovery
The rebound of the market for $5 million to $10 million homes is being driven by renewed demand in the Greenwich area and the steadily improving economy. Prior to the recession, the high-end home segment of the market peaked in 2007 with 82 homes sold in that price range. But then the housing market collapsed and by 2010 only 26 homes were sold in the $5 million to $10 million range. “I view 2010 as the bottom of the recession,” Rowland says. “We’ve had slow, steady growth since then.”
The Greenwich market showed stronger signs of recovery by 2014 with 46 homes sold in this high-end range, and 2015 is set to exceed those numbers with 35 $5 million to $10 million homes sold through Sept. 1, a 25 percent increase over the same period last year.
Although it has excelled as a speculative homebuilder for two decades, BSF could expand into custom homes in the future, Rowland says. BSF’s strong team could smoothly transition from designing homes for the speculative market to working for specific families, he adds.
The rising number of empty nesters also presents an intriguing opportunity. Rowland says Greenwich has a pent-up demand from people who no longer need a large home, but want to stay in the community and live closer to the center of town. However, the city has a limited stock of appropriately zoned land. Rowland believes Greenwich or nearby Stamford, Conn., would be prime locations for such projects.
“We hope to keep building for a long time into the future,” he says. “We would love to expand into empty-nester housing.”