Empire Builder

A tale of two Hamptons: On one side, Hamptonites living the lifestyle of their dreams, who love the Farrell construction company; on the other, observers who love to loathe it. At the center, a man who is defining the look of our built landscape

 

Drivers moving along the wooded lanes and back roads that weave between the farm fields of the South Fork have come to know that a small blue sign that has sprouted in the right of way heralds a flurry of construction activity that will yield a rather large house, or several, in a few scant months. 

In certain worlds defined by a concern for the environment and by a certain arty and urban sophistication — that is, among those who make a point of referring in conversation to the South Fork as opposed to “the Hamptons” — there is a term for this process: Farrellization. It joined the lexicon here in approximately 2012 and refers to the effect on the regional landscape over the past two decades of one company’s 400-plus wood-shingled, multi-gambreled and gabled, four-plus-bedroom houses. 

Their source is Joe Farrell, whose Farrell Building Company has played a pivotal role in shaping the contemporary Summer Colony aesthetic by morphing the style of Stanford White and, from more recent years, Francis Fleetwood, into slightly more affordable mansions — or, for those who habitually adopt a tone of derision when speaking of grand-scale new construction, McMansions. Farrell and his wife, Kristen Farrell, who is a partner in the company as well as its vice president and spokeswoman, say that the traditional houses they build are a nod to the Victorian cottages of the first generation of summer residents. But with so much change in our neighborhoods and such tension over the supersizing of the family home, no one was particularly surprised when the critic Paul Goldberger told The New York Times four years ago that Farrell houses and their ilk had become a blight.

Yet the buyers of those houses say they love their traditional exteriors and their contemporary, bright, open floor plans; they love the ensuite bathrooms for every bedroom and the requisite tennis court and swimming pool. According to a few real estate brokers, who did not want to be identified by name, these clients are typically recently minted millionaires from the financial world that Joe Farrell himself abandoned years ago to become a developer; they also include celebrities, real estate professionals, and a reality TV star or two. They have come to the Hamptons to “Live the Life” that Farrell has promised in magazine ads and huge signs that fly over the beaches, and they are looking for someone to guide them in matters of taste.

Farrell house prices on the East End range from just under $3 million to more than $17 million. The five lots the company developed from the sold-out Two Trees subdivision in Bridgehampton were priced in the $8-million range.

The Farrells are wary, and perhaps a bit weary, of the perception that their houses have taken over the landscape. In an interview last year, Ms. Farrell first spoke of having built only 300 houses, total, rather than the oft-cited figure of more than 400. She admitted, “sometimes I don’t want to say that big of a number.” 

But the hype and hectic pace of the past few years have slowed down a bit recently. “It was a quiet year for us and for everyone,” she said recently. “We spent the year looking inward and sharpening our focus on what we are doing long term.”

Although known for speculative houses, typically shingled and typically large, the Farrell company has branched out into commercial properties, with multifamily buildings in Kings Park and Newburgh, N.Y., and even a self-storage facility in Port Jefferson. Farrell houses have also come to Manalapan, south of Palm Beach, Fla. The firm’s first New York City penthouse-apartment flip was recently listed with an asking price just shy of $9 million.

The company still keeps a number of completed houses in their inventory but, Ms. Farrell said, have amassed a number of parcels that are not being built. Instead these are kept in reserve, with permits and designs in place, ready to kick into gear the moment a buyer signs the papers. Last year, Joe Farrell said that about 60 percent of his work starts out as spec, but becomes custom before ground is broken. Because those clients are closing on the properties ahead of their development, it frees up more of his capital to acquire more land, so the process can continue. Hence, more blue signs popping up somewhere else.

“We’ve expanded from Montauk to Westhampton,” Ms. Farrell said. “We are out weekly, looking at new parcels.”

In previous profiles, Joe Farrell has been likened to Donald Trump, but he wears his graying hair without remorse or creative embellishment. In voice and manner he is soft-spoken, and comes across as modest for someone who has created a mini-empire in the midst of a playground for billionaires. Kristen Farrell is chic in jeans, a white blouse, and a blue-and-white scarf. In personality, she is friendly and sharp. As the company’s vice president, she focuses on marketing and design, including a recent move into interior design for the finished houses. She is supervising the production of their own lines of hardware, tile, lighting, and cabinetry, and even furniture they will use for staging and eventually retail sale.

In a chat with the couple in Farrell Building’s headquarters in Bridgehampton, Farrell said he is well aware of the criticism that has come with his success. “We had a stigma of building a lot of the same house, and we did,” he said. “We were really busy at the time.” 

Five years ago, the company hired its own architectural team, and its latest houses are more varied. “If we repeat a floor plan that has proven successful, we’ll change everything else, the exterior, the interior finishes, because we have zero desire to build the same house twice,” Ms. Farrell said.

“And frankly, I got tired of gambrels,” her husband added. Although he has not used a gambrel roofline in his recent spec houses, his clients continue to request them for their custom homes.

“Reporters have asked me why my houses look the same. I always say the same thing: I just give the market what it wants,” he said. “People just keep buying them.” His competitors often build in a similar style, too, which tends to exaggerate the Farrellization effect.

Addressing the reasons why their particular look was so popular, Kristen Farrell said, “The gambrel is that traditional English country look that is the Hamptons. It’s very similar to when you go to Nantucket. Every house is the same style. That is part of the appeal.”

A classic Farrell house, with gambels and gables, at Polo Court in Bridgehampton. Photograph Farrell Building Co.

 

She has a point. Perhaps the most telling example of what the South Fork homebuyer wants comes not from the Farrell model’s popularity, but from a rejected experiment. The Houses at Sagaponac was the utopian idea of Harry J. Brown Jr., who wanted to provide Modernist design excellence at affordable prices on 32 lots in northern Sagaponack. Although Richard Meier brought some of the best-known contemporary architects to the task, only nine of their original house designs were built. After Brown’s death in 2005, his financial partners began to look for other developers to buy the land.

“They planned all of those modern houses, built some of them, and then marketed the other lots for years, and for years they were empty,” Farrell said. “Anyone could have built anything.” 

John Leonard, a Sag Harbor broker, talked him into buying two lots in February 2011 for $725,000 each. Leonard had approached him a few times, but, Farrell said, he was “terrified of the noise,” given the proximity of the lots to the East Hampton Airport. He finally made the deal over drinks at a bar in Palm Beach. One house sold immediately after he received the  building permits. The other sold 30 days later.

“It was the right price point [$3.5 million] and the right time,” he said. “These people were very smart, Goldman Sachs people. They were looking at the value of what they were getting: a house, pool, tennis. You can’t find that anywhere for that price.” He bought another four lots from Leonard and 11 more from a hedge fund for $550,000 each. They sold the 17 houses they built in 18 months. “I was blown away by the velocity with which the houses sold. It was the biggest phenomenon of my career.”

“It was the first time we realized we had a brand,” Ms. Farrell added.

Farrell has attributed much of his success to this market-based approach, something that sets him apart from contractors who have come up from the building trades. He had been an oil trader on Wall Street for seven years when the itch to build became overwhelming. “It was a dream from when I was a little kid” growing up in Huntington, he told The East Hampton Star in 2008. He built his first house in Brookville, a village in Oyster Bay, in 1995 and sold it before he was finished. He never went back to trading. 

After a vacation in Montauk, he began looking at properties here, where “builders were making a much higher rate of return on their total investment than I was making in Huntington.”

In 1996 he completed three spec houses in Water Mill and East Hampton. Soon he had built 12 more. He found himself being hired for custom work and, except for a three-year blip during the recession, demand has not stopped. Clients have included Rudolph Giuliani, Kelsey Grammer, and Kelly Ripa. 

Rudy Giuliani, owner of a Farrell house, posed at a 2010 benefit for Stony Brook Hospital at the Sandcastle, the Farrells’ Bridgehampton home, with his wife Judith (in black) and the hosts. Photograph by Rossa Cole. 

 

It’s certainly not bad for business when a star buys — or borrows — from Farrell. Among those he is said to have loaned one of his houses to are Madonna and Justin Bieber; Beyoncé and Jay-Z reportedly paid around half a million dollars to rent the Farrells’ own enormous spread, the Sandcastle, in Bridgehampton, in 2012.

Asked what they mean by their slogan “Live the life,” Joe said, “It is about people “wanting to enjoy their summer, wanting to enjoy their family, wanting to be outside. Maybe they ride, they boat, they bike, they play golf, or they love sitting at Wölffer outdoors on Thursday nights.” 

The Farrells said they have repeat customers, those who enjoy the process of building a house with them so much they do it over and over again. Elliot Markowitz has owned four of the company’s houses, they said, the first one a spec from 1997, the rest custom.

The Farrells are not the sort to sit at home waiting for buyers to come to them. In January, they opened Hamptons on Hubert, a commercial space in downtown Manhattan outfitted like a Farrell house. Brokers were invited to bring their clients for a chance to see the kitchens, bathrooms, and finishes firsthand while snacking on Tate’s cookies and Hamptons Coffee, or quaffing Wölffer rosé.

“They have more money than time,” Farrell said of his clients, and his houses fit their needs. “Our process of building also fits the lifestyle” — meaning streamlined, transparent, enjoyable, fast. “So you’re not spending your July picking tile.” 

The Farrells are known for how quickly they work, “and people criticize us for that, too, but most of our clients hire us for that,” Ms. Farrell said.

As Farrell Building has grown, it has taken on tasks most builders prefer to delegate. There are in-house legal, architectural, and design teams, and a project-management department that includes an electrician, a structural engineer, their own excavation company, a site expert who advises on house placement, drainage, and other matters, and more. “Because we do so much business, we’re able to pay these guys as full-time employees,” Farrell said.

Two Trees Farm in Bridgehampton was subdivided into 17 sites by another developer. Farrell cherrypicked five for his own spec construction. Photograph Farrell Building Co.
 

But despite the Farrell Building Company’s undeniable dominance, it is unclear if the pace it has set on the South Fork can be maintained. Land, after all, is a finite resource; there is not as much available as there was 10 or 20 years ago. Farrell, of course, is aware of it. These days he is more inclined to stockpile lots. Or, he will buy a house and tear it down to build one of his own, either speculatively or for a client. Rumors abound about the company extending open-ended offers to buy out longtime homeowners in places like the lanes of Amagansett, where modest homes were once the norm. 

One thing he claims he has never done is subdivide land. He said subdivisions don’t appeal to him “partly because it’s not how I do business — it takes years to do — but mostly because I don’t want that stigma of buying farms and chopping them up. But if the land has already been chopped up by the farmer or whoever, and the lots are going to be sold anyway, then we are happy to buy them. If it’s not us, there are four people behind us ready to buy, that’s just the truth.”

Farrell said his company is first in line for those sales because “my reputation is that if you make a deal with me, you can bank on it to close . . . very quickly with no contingencies. I just do what I say. . . . A lot of builders and investors don’t.” Some people even sell to him for less money, he said, since they trust the sale will happen: “A lot of times, people really need the money.”

Choosing not to be part of the subdivision process itself — that is, taking a backseat until someone else has done the chopping up — has its drawbacks, including taking the heat for poor planning. One development, at the edge of Deerfield Road in Water Mill, has been criticized because the houses are all sited along the roadway. “That was the town’s choice,” Kristen said. “For us it would have made more sense to have a road in and houses on either side.” That would have preserved the farmland view, she said, not just for the homeowners, but for everyone.

Unlike the Somerset-in-Southampton look that is the Farrell calling card here, the houses he has built in Florida are modern in both exterior and interior design. And they are not cheap. Of the two oceanfront residences in Manalapan priced at more than $29 million, one has already sold. 

“Our clients here are our clients there,” Ms. Farrell said.

Whether it’s on Long Island, Florida, or someplace else, “wherever we go with our signs, it leads to more signs.” Joe said he never has to hunt for land. “It always comes to us.” 

 

Jennifer Landes