The Texas Gulf Coast is home to some of the most affordable beach communities in the country. In Port Aransas, set along 18 miles of beachfront on Mustang Island, the average 50-ft gulf-front lot costs less than $1 million, while similar coastal properties in California and Florida can cost more than $5 million. The new development centers around such high-end luxury communities as: Cinnamon Shore, a 60-acre master-planned beachfront that will soon add a 240-acre expansion known as Cinnamon Shore South; Palmilla Beach Resort & Golf Community; and Sunflower Beach Resort, which has nearly completed the first phase: 25 luxury one- and two-bedroom beach cabins at The Camp.
Developer Jeff Lamkin, CEO of Sea Oats Group, began laying streets for Cinnamon Shore in 2006. “The Texas coast doesn’t have a fair reputation,” says Lamkin. “It’s a beautiful place. Port Aransas and Mustang Island, where we are, are amazing. Great restaurants. Good entertainment. A lot of fun. Fabulous fishing. Great beach. Everything you would want in a beach town. But it kind of stopped developing around the oil crisis 20-some years ago. I wanted to bring world-class beach design, architecture, and land planning to the Texas coast. We designed what is arguably one of the most successful developments in the country from the time we got started. We made our first home sale in 2008, which, if you recall, was a tricky time to be taking on an aspirational new beach town, and it’s been really well received.”
Lamkin and his competitors are modeling their developments after New Urbanist communities that have sprung up in the last 25 years in Florida — WaterColor, Seaside, Rosemary Beach, and Alys Beach — but with an added twist of Texas vernacular. While they are planned communities, Lamkin hopes to maintain a more authentic feel by working with a variety of architectural talent. He says, “If we had one architect do the whole place, it would be beautiful, but it would look like apartments — it would be too orchestrated. It wouldn’t feel like a real place.”
Principal architect Jim Kissling, AIA, of Kissling Architecture has spent much of his career working along the Texas Gulf Coast and has designed projects in Cinnamon Shore, Palmilla Beach Resort, and several other communities in the area. He began work with Lamkin in 2009, when “everything was going belly up,” and 11 years later has completed nearly 40 projects. “Because these are people’s second or third homes, the market for these is different,” Kissling says. “80 percent of the homes are designed for rental purposes. It’s a whole different mindset than what you would design for a normal house. Typically, two or three families will rent one of these 3,000-sf homes, and there’s enough room to sleep 20 people. That’s been a fun program because it’s all about how you interact and facilitate camaraderie.”
But designing for the Texas coast isn’t always a walk on the beach. Texas hosts one of the harshest environments in the United States, and buildings must withstand not only the occasional hurricane-force winds that inevitably hit, but also the day-to-day onslaught of the elements — brutal sun, gulf winds, and tidal rhythms, coupled with acidic waters and air. As a result, structures are designed for longevity: Siding is typically a cement fiber composition. Treated lumber, composites, and rainforest hardwood are used for most exterior trims. Fasteners and hardware are predominantly stainless steel.
“If you’re on the beachfront, it is truly amazing,” Kissling says. “With that constant mist that comes off the beach, all the houses that front it really do take a beating. Part of the challenge there is designing something that is going to withstand the elements 365 days a year, and then withstand the occurrence of the hurricane. It’s not a matter of if they’re going to come, but when, so everything is designed for that purpose. All the structures that we designed and built from the ground up withstood the hurricane [Harvey] without any major damage.”
Many of the properties did, however, sustain minor damage due to the impact of airborne debris shed by less robust structures, and recovery and repair efforts remained the focus for the first 18 to 24 months following Harvey. New construction has begun again only in the last six months. But Kissling is more confident than ever of his ability to build safely along the coast. “The houses that were built to the new windstorm standards all seemed to make it through the storm pretty well. The ones that were not, they were either completely destroyed or were damaged to the point that we needed to take them to the ground. These new codes work. They’re a pain, and they do add cost to the project, but they really save the structure.”
Other notable design points include the need for doors that swing outward. When strong winds blow, doors that swing inward loosen seals around the frame and allow for water infiltration. Additionally, hurricane-proof windows, while highly effective, are good for only one event before their warranty is void. “This is something the insurance companies are not disclosing,” Kissling says. “I found this out in the last six months, which I thought was kind of interesting. That is something that is not out there, and I’m finding it out the hard way.”
Another complication is the lack of affordable housing in the area — a problem facing numerous communities throughout the U.S. — and many of the older, more financially accessible homes along the coast bore the brunt of the storm damage. With luxury development comes the need for affordable housing for employees and support staff — “affordable,” in this case, referring to residences priced at $200,000–$300,000, still above the U.S. median home price. Additionally, because structures require additional fortification, construction costs are typically 20–30 percent higher than they are in other parts of Texas. Lamkin and Kissling note that demand is growing for smaller luxury cottage homes around 1,000-sf, but as Kissling points out: “That’s still not affordable housing; that’s an affordable second home. It’s not affordable for people who are working in the restaurants and the hotels, the fishing guides, people like that.”
“If you go down there right now, you would be amazed at how many RV parks are in the Rockport-Port Aransas area. That has become the affordable housing,” Kissling says. “I had spoken with Jeff [Lamkin] a long time ago, because part of the challenge was bringing in trades and finding a place for them to stay. This was a problem that was there before the hurricane, and it was compounded when the hurricane hit. You had all these people coming to work, and there was no place to stay. I think that’s where the RV park kind of became that answer.” He points to communities like Jackson Hole, Wyoming — which require an equivalent number of affordable housing units in all new developments — as potential models for addressing the situation.
Yet despite the havoc wreaked by Harvey, the market has been better than ever. Lamkin reports that they’ve had their best years, both in volume and in price points, post-Harvey. While a few homeowners sold off following the event, many saw how well the structures fared in the storm, and this has instilled confidence in buyers, resulting in growing demand for Texas beachfront property. “The one thing that has been constant with Jeff is his vision,” Kissling concludes. “He’s really kept it focused on providing a family-oriented experience — and at a high level. He’s engaging the community, along with making the community beautiful. It’s all these things that help build the experience and memory for these families. It’s been a constant on his end with his team. And for them to keep that going — my hat’s off to him.”
Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, works at Overland Partners in San Antonio.