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Homes of All Stripes

When this builder discovered the design preferences of many refugee and immigrant homebuyers, it changed the way he built homes.

In 1992, a talented and ambitious builder named Fernando Pagés Ruiz moved from Los Angeles to Lincoln, Neb. Knowing it was the site of one of the country’s Refugee Resettlement Programs, he embarked on a mission to build affordable starter homes for settlers from other parts of the world.

homestripes    Although the neighborhood he developed there, called Liberty Village, was later recognized with an Innovation in Workforce Housing Award from the National Association of Home Builders, it wasn’t an easy project for Pagés—at least not in the beginning.

“The homes just weren’t selling at first,” Pagés recalls. “I even hired a Vietnamese real estate agent to help with selling to refugees from Vietnam. I couldn’t understand it; they were good houses at a good price.”

Eventually, though, the houses did start selling, and Pagés was so surprised that he was compelled to ask the agent, Andy Vu, about the possible reasons for the sudden turnaround. In response, Vu invited Pagés with him to visit some homeowners in their new house.

“I was so surprised when I walked in,” says Pagés, “because the open floor plan I was so proud of was gone. They had completely closed up the kitchen and put in a door, separating it from the rest of the house. My first thought was, ‘These people ruined my house!’”

That’s when Vu had to come clean. Turns out, he had begun offering potential buyers a remodeling option that could be completed before they moved in. Why?

“Because the Vietnamese are used to closed kitchens,” Pagés explains. “They use a lot of fish sauce in their cooking, and they’re used to having ventilation to the outside, and often, their kitchens are even in the garage or outdoors. To them, having a kitchen basically in the living room or family room is weird, kind of like if houses here had a toilet in the living room. So those houses, as I’d built them, were actually impossible for them to live in.”

After that meeting, it dawned on Pagés that he should have known better—he’d actually had a similar experience with some homes he’d built in the 1980s in Los Angeles for Mexican immigrants.

“They’d buy these houses and then immediately remodel,” he recalls. “They wanted a courtyard-type front yard where they could interact, with a tall wall and a substantial gate, similar to plazas in Mexico. They also ripped out the carpet and put down tile.”

With two similar experiences under his belt, Pagés came to a very smart conclusion: “Something is wrong if they’re remodeling the day they move into a brand-new home. So why not just build what they want to start with?”

Food & Friends

About six years ago, busy with the project in Lincoln and another in Sheridan, Wyo., Pagés relocated with his wife to Boulder, then later to Longmont, “because it’s about the same distance from here to both of those cities.”

Originally from Argentina, Pagés had already learned what some Mexicans and Vietnamese buyers wanted, but he was anxious to delve into other cultures as well, so he set out on a research mission. “I found the perfect places to get information,” he says: “ethnic restaurants. They’re like little embassies, really, because nothing else says ‘We are (this ethnic group)’ like food does.”

He ate at a lot of those restaurants over the course of a few years, building a rapport with the owners and staff, and eventually asking questions about what they might want in a home.

“At first, they said, ‘Nothing different; I like my house,’ so I rephrased the question. I began asking, ‘What do you think others from your culture would want in a house?’ Then they really started talking.”

Through this ingenious research method, Pagés discovered a whole host of other interesting facts that would help with his work. For instance, because of feng shui principles, many Asians avoid houses with stairs that point toward the front door, or “all the good energy would flow right out.” A peaked roof also has a negative connotation to them, “because all the energy can drip off; that’s why the roof ends curl back up on Asian buildings,” Pagés explains.

Conservative Muslims don’t want all of their bath fixtures in the same room; they find it repulsive that the hand-washing sink would be so close to the toilet, and they also require a bidet. Traditional German-Russian immigrants are opposed to front doors because they view them as aristocratic, so they want the entry on the side of the house. Some Sudanese refugees require two living room-type spaces, so their sons and daughters can entertain friends separately. And many Middle Eastern fathers are uncomfortable with their daughters out in the front yard where they can be seen, so they like to have a more private outdoor space for entertaining, such as on a flat roof.

Armed with all of this newfound information, Pagés created a spreadsheet, listing all the desired features he had collected and eventually mixing and matching them to come up with two basic floor plans. Each floor plan then had several options, to appease many immigrant homebuyers at once, such as a choice of a peaked or flat roof over the garage, an outdoor kitchen or roughed-in garage kitchen, and carpet versus tile or wood for the floors.

“It’s the small details that matter,” Pagés says. “Not all immigrants come here to embrace the American dream; many are refugees escaping a nightmare in their country.

“And their homes are just like their style of food and clothing. They want a home that embraces their culture, where they can be naked, cultur-
ally speaking.”

Fernando Pagés Ruiz is the author of two books (soon to be three) on the subject of affordable home building, and he regularly contributes to Fine Homebuilding Magazine and other industry publications. He also maintains a website, www.buildingaffordable.com, that offers articles, resources, floor plans and his “trade secrets for high-value, low-cost construction.”

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