Mastering the planning arts


Sean Dudley

The rise and rise of the modern golf resort where golf course, residential property and other leisure facilities sit cheek by jowl creates huge profit potential for developers – but it also multiplies the risks and complexities of the project by a factor of ten.

While Europe – and Britain in particular – may lag some way behind the USA in our love of holiday-home lined fairways, there is no doubt that more mixed schemes are being developed than there were 20 years ago. The success of Machynys Peninsula in South Wales, both as a golf course and as an award-winning residential community, is only likely to accelerate the movement, and 2006 will see the opening of another landmark scheme – The Carrick at Loch Lomond, where a community of holiday homes will overlook the new course designed by Doug Carrick. Even long ago, golf was the centrepiece of some top-end housing developments: think of Wentworth, for example.

But golf and housing do not necessarily fit easily together. Golfers, in general, prefer the sight of countryside over a view of housing, and there is little that dulls the golfing senses more than the perception of playing through a corridor of homes. It is the masterplan that governs the development of a site, locating golf, housing and amenities in suitable spots across the property. So what are the key ingredients of a successful master plan that will pull a scheme together – and what are the pitfalls to avoid when developing a multi-purpose scheme? Seven experts from across the golf industry provide their views.

Canadian architect Doug Carrick has designed many masterplanned communities. “Probably the number one issue when designing an integrated golf course/resort/residential community is safety. It is imperative for the safety of surrounding homes and for the enjoyment of golfers that ample setbacks are provided between the golf holes and surrounding residential areas. It is better to err on the side of more space for golf rather than trying to maximise residential lot frontage, especially now that litigation has become more common.

“It is also important to balance the developer’s quest for maximising real estate values against providing a safe integration of golf and housing, along with an enjoyable golf experience. Florida style golf communities – that is, golf holes that are lined by housing on both sides, are becoming less and less prevalent as problems with litigation increase.

“The trend today is a little less frontage of lots on the fairways and more of a double fairway arrangement where homes only line one side of the golf holes, or a core type golf course configuration where homes front only the periphery of the golf course. These types of layouts don't maximise the frontage of homes on the golf course but perhaps provide better real estate values overall by providing a higher quality golf course, which in turn adds to the value of the surrounding real estate.

“Some golf course/residential developments delegate the land that might be unsuitable for residential development to golf course use. This might include land that is within a flood plain and does not allow development outside of a golf course or natural type of use. Other examples might include golf courses that are built in difficult terrain or difficult soil conditions such as rock. This might make the residential development more efficient in terms of overall housing yield or the cost of servicing the development with roads and sewers.

“Many times the golf course will act as a basin for handling storm water flow from the surrounding residential development. In this type of development the golf course would generally be sited at elevations below the surrounding residential development in order to capture, store and filter runoff from the development. This dual use of land is an efficient and cost effective way deal with runoff and also adds values to the surrounding real estate.”

Mike Wood, chairman of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects’ Environment Committee, says that golf communities can have positive environmental effects, but that careful masterplanning is critical. “Sustainable design at the masterplanning stage is about getting the best environmental fit for the golf course. If you get it right at that stage, there are benefits in terms of time and cost savings, planning and design fees, construction cost savings, lifespan energy savings and so on – and it also helps create distinctive and challenging golf courses.

“Some clients are more enlightened than others, and can see the benefits of working with the landscape but for many developers, a golf resort is a oneoff and there is a steep learning curve to take them through. The challenge as an architect is to make them understand that the money they invest in assembling a team of experts to handle the masterplan is actually going to save them cash in the long term by, for example, reducing the amount of earth moving on the golf course or reducing the length of access roads to the various parts of the resort. In the long run, there are cost savings to be made too by good master planning, as you will reduce the size of areas that need to be irrigated, you will need fewer green staff, less chemicals and so on.

“At Loch Lomond GC we are currently working with Jim Light of Nicklaus Design to refine the routing of the new course he has created to get the best fit for all the various elements of the plan. We want to maximise loch views, but we have a very sensitive site because it is in a National Park, there is ancient woodland and several SSSIs to work around. On top of that the club is planning to build more lodges for members to stay in so we have to consider safety margins around these as well.

“This is the right stage to get involved in a project from a masterplanning perspective. The wrong way to do it is to get the routing plan fixed and to start building on site and then for the client to find out that, say, they have to change the position of a green because it turns out to be on an SSSI. Then you end up with the contractor having to make an ad hoc change and the strategy of the hole will be different. You might get lucky with the end result but it would be a fluke if you did.”

Mel Thomas of 360 Golf has constructed a number of such courses. “We have a changing marketplace in the UK. Golfers are not so membership-oriented as they were, and there is generally less ambition to wear the right club tie. At the same time there is a growing appreciation among the public of the benefits of living in a ‘golf community’. Living by a golf course would come second only to living close to water for many people and developers are realising that property built close to golf courses can command anything up to a 25 per cent price premium. Kings Hill in Kent was seen as a very American concept when it was first talked about and was regarded as a speculative venture, but the cost per square foot of new houses is higher there now than anywhere else in Kent.

“The basis of successfully masterplanning this type of development is understanding the ambitions of the client, both financial and non-financial, and ensuring that they are able to maximise returns on the different component parts of the scheme.

“I have seen opportunities lost in the past by poor masterplanning. Mistakes tend to get made where the developers working on different elements of the project fail to understand each other’s needs, and where there is no overall control of the project. You get someone saying ‘these are the needs of the golf course’, someone else saying ‘this is what the hotel needs’ and someone else saying ‘our housing project needs this’ but there is no appreciation of how they can bring the best out of each other.

“A key to success is working out the optimum investment levels for each element of the development – making sure that you are not over-spending, but ensuring too that you are not under spending. If the client is planning to build five-star housing on the site but then turns round and says ‘I only want to spend a certain amount on the golf course’, they may be in danger of completely corrupting the overall concept by under-spending on the golf side. You have to be able to argue against that if you feel it is a mistake.”

Howard Swan of Swan Golf Designs recognises that such communities have their critics. “A cynic might say that if the golf course architect gets to the site first, he’ll take the best land for the course and leave the rest for the house builder, whereas if the building architect gets there first he gets the best land and the golf course designer is left with the rubbish. The best masterplans are achieved when you can genuinely work together as a partnership.

“You hope that your client has a feel for what he wants to achieve but you also have to recognise that the financial equation has to stack up. The golf course has to be paid for by the uplift in property prices it brings to the site.

“Safety has to be a key consideration when designing the course – there are far too many examples of courses where you are playing shots out of people’s swimming pools because the developer has ignored safety issues.

“When things go wrong it is generally down to a lack of coordination of people in the team – that and not having enough land in the first place to do a good job.”

Ross Perrett of Thomson, Perrett & Lobb says that good planning makes the difference between success and failure of a golf project. “Achieving a balance between real estate and golf is critical to the financial success of the project and the long term popularity and sustainability of the golf course. The real estate values are increased when overlooking the golf whereas the value of the golf experience is reduced when overlooking the real estate. Adequate land must be allocated for the golf course so that it can reach its full potential and ensure safety for the surrounding houses and the interface between the golf course and the real estate must be managed carefully with appropriate setbacks and landscaping treatments.”

Ken Moodie of Creative Golf Design argues that golf and housing need not necessarily conflict. “The masterplan sets the framework for the golf course. At Wychwood Park, for example, which we worked on with Countryside Properties, the development is cluster housing, a series of hamlets with a maximum of 150 properties each rather than ribbon development along fairways. The housing is built around a series of low-level hills with the golf course in the valleys between them. This works well from a safety point of view and also means the views from the houses are better.

“Golf and houses can go together very well. At Wychwood, one of the hills needed to be reshaped to allow the houses on it to be angled more towards the golf course and away from a railway line. At the same time we had a problem with the 12th, 13th and 14th holes, which were on peaty ground. The solution was to take the sandy soil from the hill and use it to build up the fairway levels by about one metre. It would have been hard to justify the cost of doing this work to the course if the soil had not been on hand.”

Robert Day of consultants Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo believes that a successful masterplan must provide enough separation between golf and housing. “Masterplanning is the process whereby the overall layout and configuration of the various built components, open space and road elements of a development are decided. It is the financial and marketing consultants who decide what is to go into a resort and it is the masterplanner who decides where they should go.

“The main area of conflict comes when the owner tries to limit the golf corridors by pushing the residential developments as close to the fairways as possible. This creates a substandard golf experience and potentially puts the residents in danger. The designers must push for decent setbacks to be set within the overall plan.

“Another area is when a golf architect or a masterplanner starts the plan alone and then the other is brought into the process later. It is much easier (and amicable) when both are commissioned from the outset. Generally if you work in a team from the outset most differences in opinion, goals, aims and requirements can be resolved quickly, so challenges created with establishing the locations and balance between built areas, golf and open space do not really arise to any serious level.”


This article first appeared in issue 4 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2006.