Every house in the School Street development has a different Craftsman-style elevation. The building on the right is an old schoolhouse that the same developer is converting into condominiums. (Photo by Katherine Salant)

At one Chicago area new home community, buyers looking at plots of land on which to build are often taken aback by this question from the architect: “How do you want to live?”

Rather than focus solely on a checklist of must-haves such as a kitchen island with a natural stone countertop, the buyers are encouraged to talk through their daily lifestyle and how best to massage the main living areas to arrive at a plan that’s tailored to their needs.

Two years after Chicago home builder and developer John McLinden started his School Street project in Libertyville, Ill., during the worst economy since the Great Depression, all 26 lots have been sold and 19 houses have been built. The houses are spec-built and priced for the “upper middle segment” of their market, but the builder customizes them to a remarkable degree and builds them with the highest-quality materials and energy efficiency I have ever seen in any for-sale house anywhere in the country.

Last weekend, I went at McLinden’s invitation and stayed with a School Street family as their houseguest and learned how it differs from most other new home developments.

Typically in almost all spec-built communities, including those in the Washington area, the developer offers a very limited menu in terms of floor plans, exterior treatments and lot choices. Four or five plans will be offered and buyers cannot make any changes. “Semi-custom” means that some changes can be made, but buyers must stick to the basic plan.

Floor plans for most new home communities typically will be paired with an exterior elevation; occasionally several elevations in differing styles will be offered for the same plan, but buyers have to choose from those options. To create variety along the street and avoid the much-derided “cookie cutter look,” each lot will be assigned a different plan and elevation treatment. If buyers want a particular lot, they almost always have to take the plan that goes with it.

In marked contrast, McLinden is extremely flexible. He offers eight plans that range in size from 1,650 to 3,200 square feet and in base price from $489,000 to $735,000 (the upper mid-range for this market). Any plan can go on any lot and buyers can alter the plan in any way they want, in consultation with McLinden’s architect, David MacKenzie, who meets several times with each household and spends three to four hours customizing the floor plan.

Some buyers make only minor changes, MacKenzie said, but others want quite radical ones, eliminating entire rooms to create bigger spaces and relocating major spaces such as the kitchen from the middle of the major living area to the front or the rear of the house. Individual rooms are often sized to fit special pieces of furniture like “a breakfront that was a wedding present” and important family events.

For example, one homeowner wanted a kitchen/dining/family room area that would be comfortable on a daily basis for her small household but large enough to accommodate 25 people for Christmas dinner, including her divorced parents who wanted a spot where each could have some private alone time with their assembled offspring.

McLinden’s houses include some unusual features in the base price. Most homebuyers would notice the standard Bosch appliances and custom cabinets in the kitchen, the Kohler bathroom fixtures, the standard hardwood finish for the entire first floor and second-floor hallway (choices include oak, maple, Brazilian cherry and bamboo), the elaborate interior Craftsman details around the doors and windows and a stained, solid wood front door.

What’s more impressive to me is the quality of materials included in the base price that most buyers probably won’t notice: Marvin Integrity windows, Owens Corning 30-year architectural shingles, icynene open-cell foam insulation, a high-efficiency furnace and a high level of energy efficiency. The houses are all certified to the Energy Star 2.5 level; each one is at least 40 percent more efficient than the current building code requires.

The visuals at School Street are interesting. A prospective home buyer who spends an afternoon touring the School Street project will quickly note the attractive appearance of the 19 completed Craftsman-styled houses that line a single block in this 175-year-old town.

For a spec-built new home community today, the houses display an unusual variety in style and detailing, and the land-use plan draws on the well-established though relatively uncommon New Urbanist principles for developing a strong social fabric. To promote casual interactions between neighbors that can lead to stronger social ties, the houses are close together (in this case only four feet apart) with front porches that are close to the sidewalk (in this case, eight feet away).

There are a number of New Urbanist communities in the Washington area; the best known one is Kentlands in Gaithersburg.

Sustainability principles are also much in evidence at School Street. The homeowners are much less car-dependent than most suburbanites because the main shopping street of Libertyville is only one block away and the commuter rail station for residents who work in downtown Chicago is only five minutes farther away on foot.

Another plus with the proximity to Libertyville’s downtown is that School Street’s children can be independent long before they learn how to drive — once their parents give the okay, they can walk to the movies, shops, the town library and a large public park.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com.