Targeted Development Spells Success

By Steve Hudson | September 28, 2010

Southern Land Company was established in 1986 by company founder and CEO Timothy W. Downey. Today, Southern Land Company has completed or is in the process of developing 17 communities in Tennessee and in Texas with a total investment value of $1.7 billion. Vertically integrated, the company employs more than 320 professionals in the fields of architecture, land planning, horticulture, construction and engineering, homebuilding, finance, and community development. According to the company, this business model enables critical communication to occur throughout the development process, increasing efficiency and follow-through.

"Southern Land's steady growth stems from its ability to identify ideal locations for development and pair them with community concepts that make sense for the end user, the municipality and the investor," the company notes. According to its website, the company's approach "begins with an exhaustive research of the area, followed by focused due diligence measures that anticipate obstacles and uncover opportunities."

In today's often challenging development market, that has proven to be an effective approach.

"Southern Land Company understands that the key to a flourishing community — commercial or residential — is a well-designed and constructed infrastructure," the company has noted. To that end, the company includes multiple divisions focusing on areas ranging from design, construction, architecture and landscaping to landscape maintenance, home building and even mortgage services.

Maintaining these various divisions internally, the company notes, helps to ensure that work is completed "on time and within budget in order to expedite the delivery of building sites to home and commercial contractors."

Developing Westhaven

One current project where this approach is paying off is Westhaven, a master-planned "traditional neighborhood development" of about 1,800 acres located several miles west of historic downtown Franklin, Tenn. In addition to the residential component, the project includes construction and development of a large mixed-use town center as well as an 18-hole golf course.

As is the case on other Southern Land developments, at Westhaven, almost everything is done in-house.

"We are doing all civil and architectural design, all infrastructure construction, landscaping, homebuilding, and financing" notes Angelo Fish, director of infrastructure construction for Southern Land. "We even have our own plant nursery." Among the few project elements subbed to others, he adds, are asphalt and concrete work.

Work at Westhaven began about six years ago; currently, the development is about 40 percent completed. Work is progressing in phases, with individual sections being developed as dictated by market demand. Southern Land fields seven crews on the project; these include two grading crews, three utility construction crews, an erosion control crew, and an equipment maintenance and service crew.

The specialized elements of constructing the Arthur Hills-designed golf course are being handled by subcontractor Lepanto Golf Construction, Pompano Beach, Fla.

Large-Scale Site Work

Not surprisingly, earth work has been a major factor of Westhaven's development phase.

"We have handled close to a million yards of material so far," Anderson says, adding that the goal is to complete any required excavation and placement of necessary additional material to provide "controlled fills" on the building lots so that building crews can move onto the site and begin work without fear of hitting rock or encountering unsuitable soils.

Among the site work challenges has been the matter of constructing a lake while simultaneously providing the fill needed in a low area of the site.

""We moved a huge amount of dirt during that part of the project," Anderson says, adding that crews worked "all day, every day, for three months" to get it done. A pair of Cat 631 scrapers helped complete this portion of the work.

Stockpiling topsoil has been another major site work challenge.

"The topsoil on the project ranges in thickness from 18 inches to more than 7 feet," Anderson says, adding that in some areas as much as 16 feet of topsoil has been encountered. All topsoil is removed and stockpiled, and the resulting stockpiles are respread on the completed lots and open spaces.

Yet another challenge has been the matter of dealing with the combination of broken rock, phosphate ore and saturated clays that are encountered in some areas, a legacy of previous phosphate mining operations. As found, the material is unsuitable for building.

"But we spread it out, let it dry out, and then run it through a crusher," Anderson says. "The crusher mixes it all up, and the blended material is well suited for use as fill." So far, he adds, about 50,000 cubic yards of such material has been processed for reuse.

Recycling Rock

Not surprisingly, considering the nature of the terrain, larger bodies of rock have also been a factor in many of the sections during the site work phase.

"Excavation has been 30-percent to 40-percent rock so far," notes Greg Anderson, general superintendent. He expects to encounter even more rock as construction moves into other areas of the development. Massive rock is handled by drilling and shooting; elsewhere, where individual large, isolated boulders are encountered, excavator-mounted breakers are used to reduce the boulders to manageable pieces.

Plans are to crush the excavated rock on-site, Anderson adds, producing crushed rock for use as riprap or rock fill.

"That will allow us to make otherwise unusable material into something usable," he says.

Clearing Debris Recycling

Rock is not the only thing to be recycled on the project. Because of the wooded nature of much of the site, even the carefully planned site work of the Westhaven community has generated a significant amount of clearing debris. To recycle that debris, Southern Land is processing it in a Vermeer whole-tree chipper to produce a mulch product. That mulch will be used on pathways and as an aid in erosion control.

"We have stockpiled debris from about 10 acres worth of clearing," Anderson says. He adds that as clearing continues in the future, "We will bring the chipper back and process additional debris as required."

Utility Construction

Southern Land has found that timely construction of underground utilities is a key to project success, and the three utility crews working on the site have stayed busy installing a wide range of underground utility services. To provide water service to the development, these crews have been installing water lines of up to 12 inches in diameter; the utility crews also install sewer lines up to 16 inches in diameter. In addition, utility construction includes installation of electrical and phone lines as well as cable.

As of two years ago, Southern Land is also certified to install natural gas lines. On this site the company's natural gas line installation team is installing 4-inch, 2-inch and 3/4-inch lines.

Selecting Equipment To Maximize Efficiency

The equipment lineup at the Westhaven project includes a mix of excavators, off-road trucks, dozers, rollers, and other machines, each selected to handle a particular aspect of the work.

To keep the Westhaven project moving smoothly, notes Fish, Southern Land works with dealers such as Diamond Equipment, the local Case dealer, to select equipment with an eye toward "cost, efficiency and service."

Recently, for example, Southern Land added two Case 460 trackhoes to its Westhaven site work fleet.

"The 460s have more than adequately satisfied our needs, in terms of capacity and efficiency," Fish says. The machine's large digging capacity meant greater production, important in light of the huge amounts of earth to be moved; the larger machines also had what Fish calls "more ability to peel out rock."

"We're becoming more and more attuned to productivity," he says, "and higher efficiency and greater productivity are plusses." In fact, he adds, the limiting factor has been the availability of haul trucks to keep up with the large machines' production rates.

Targeting The Market

What is allowing Southern Land Company to succeed in a market that is stretching some developers to the limit? Part of the reason, Fish and Anderson agree, is the company's vertically integrated approach to project development.

"We are a soup-to-nuts developer," Fish says.

But another key may be the product itself.

"It's going to be a city within a city," says Anderson, "with a school, a bank, grocery stores, a clinic, and more."

"We think that the product which Southern Land is marketing is a product that everybody wants these days," Fish adds. "It's going to be a neighborhood."