Building a new house?
Are you trying to build an affordable house?
Are you willing to exercise a little discipline?
As an architect, there are many things I often suggest – some of them will NOT likely work for you. However, after building our own home in 2007, we learned firsthand several ways to build affordable. If budget is critical, stick to your guns, make the right choices; ones you won’t regret later.
These are a few suggestions that worked for us. It is possible to work on a real (reasonable) budget, be green and still have a nice design. Many of these options favor the custom design process, but they can be adapted to stock plans. It also speaks of high owner involvement, an interested and committed contractor and I always recommend hiring an architect to coordinate these items.
Keep it small – As we look at the houses around us, we see one common problem – building too big. Just how much space do you really need? Seriously. Instead of building a bigger house, get rid of your stuff – you know, that broken appliance in the basement, those old outdated clothes, and do you really need 3 coffee pots? This one is simple; most families do not need more than a 2,400 square foot house unless you’re the Brady Bunch. This is “green” 101. Our house is 2,200 sf and includes my office.
Avoid useless complexity – One common feature today (in a builder house/plan book house) is a roofline with umpteen gables along the facade with a myriad of things glued on. Rarely can anyone experience the complexity of space inside? Is it just a gift to your neighbors to stare at from across the street? Learn to love the box. The box is the simplest and most affordable thing to build. A floor plan that zigzags with multiple corners is something else to avoid. Watch how the spaces are arranged in three dimensions. Is there a logical structural organization? In other words, do walls line up between floors? In many stock house designs, I have seen no logic between floors, which requires additional structural elements to be added to hold everything up, especially the roof. Good design has a clarity to its parts which should make it easy (and affordable) to understand and build. If you want a feature that has complexity, then it should benefit those who live in the house – it should be able to be experienced so the added expense is justified.
Open Floor Plan – Keeping the plan simple and open accomplished several things for us. Obviously, fewer walls equal less material; but more importantly, the visual connection between spaces increases the perceived space, making it feel larger. This means my family can be in different parts of the first floor (kitchen, living, dining), but remain connected. When space feels bigger, you can actually build smaller (see #1 above). This is a win-win situation. Insist on a good plan design to eliminate wasted space – open on its own can fall short of goals.
Simple details – This is somewhat related to style but it is critical to price. Fussy details can quickly raise the price. One way we addressed this is no wood casing around the windows (and never crown molding). The jambs are wrapped in drywall with a painted wood sill – quite stylish and clean. Now we use a different detail that we believe surpasses drywall wraps as we keep experimenting. At the exterior, the brick details are limited to soldier coursing at the window heads and along the parapet. At the window sills, we used stone (a trade from a stone fabricator friend). The brick course directly below the stone is recessed 1/2” giving a bit of detail expressive of the construction process. Simple details do not equate to lesser quality or impact but can keep it affordable. Just like complexity, does the detail contribute to the experience of the owners?
Smart material choices – This is where some people lose their minds in an effort to keep up with the Joneses. In our case, we felt strongly about wood flooring, but we couldn’t afford for the door trim and baseboards to be stained/finished wood. The flooring came from a warehouse wholesaler (**gasp**) for a very good price. The doors are solid, but paint grade. You may have to opt for drywall over hard coat plaster, or…laminate countertops instead of granite right now (**blasphemy**). Yes, when the budget is that important, we must rein in our dollars. Make real and hard cuts – you’ll appreciate it when you write your mortgage check. Also, think bold colors and durable materials. Color can bring the unexpected pop to the design; durable materials save money on future maintenance.
Splurge strategically – Frugality doesn’t equal sacrifice. If you want to have a few really nice things, decide where it really matters. The remainder of the house can be more modest. The public spaces such as the kitchen, dining and living room can have a higher degree of finish while keeping the bedrooms and bathrooms subdued. You don’t need travertine in your bathroom if you’re building on a budget. I’m sure you can get by with ceramic tile or go green with natural linoleum. Another way to address this is to choose nice lighting fixtures for rooms such as the dining room and entry. Use plainer, budget fixtures elsewhere – we prefer recessed lights for a clean and inexpensive solution (watch for air leaks and insulation gaps). Simple clean door hardware in a brushed chrome finish was all we needed. But the custom kitchen bar top that I designed makes a big impact in our house.
Design copycats – Now that HGTV has made design popular, designer fixtures and finishes are everywhere. If you know what you have in mind, shop around for that item in many places to see if you can find a similar item for less. Cabinet pulls can shock you once you add up how many you need. You find a knob that’s $8.00 each and figure, “hey not bad.” But then you calculate you need 40 to 50 of them and you’ve dropped hundreds of dollars. In our kitchen and on our closet doors, we opted for long thin stainless steel pulls. I searched dozens of places and was shocked at the cost. Oddly enough I found them at Lowes for less than half of what others wanted. We had specific ideas about our dining room pendant lights. I found a beautiful fixture in a design magazine and contacted the lighting fixture representative. They were $500 per fixture! I hunted and found an online distributor that sold a similar fixture for $100 each. That leads to our next suggestion…
Shop Online or at Discount Warehouses – You don’t need to buy from the expensive showrooms. They have marked up their products many times over and you’re not getting any benefit besides a snobby person looking down on you. There are hundreds of online retailers that sell lighting fixtures, hardware, bath accessories, and furniture. Catalog what you need, make your lists and go shopping. This way you can calculate your fixture costs as you go (before you purchase them) and compare them to your budget allowance. If you are concerned about quality, find the fixtures at a local showroom, check the quality first. Then search for them online and see if you can’t beat the price. Be careful with plumbing fixtures. Often online retailers do not sell the correct internal housings for the faucets and shower fixtures. We have a local plumber’s warehouse that worked with us to coordinate all of the technical things. Stand firm and don’t worry about what your friends did. That leads to…
Avoid peer pressure – Your friends may expect you to purchase materials where they did (or where their contractor insisted they purchase it). What does it really matter where you bought something as long as it is in good taste and fits with your theme? Unless your friends are contributing to your mortgage payment, don’t fall to peer-pressure just so you can say you bought it at such-and-such place. Who cares? We hired a kitchen fabricator that does superb work, yet no one has ever heard of him. He doesn’t need to advertise because word-of-mouth keeps him more than busy. And as for quality, he can’t be beaten. We were able to customize many things that didn’t cost more yet gave a richer result. People are always shocked by how little we paid for our kitchen and bath cabinets. Ask your architect or ask around, I’ll bet you’ll find that obscure carpenter who does excellent work for less than the mainline kitchen showrooms.
Put the garage in the basement – this one is obvious but causes the most controversy. Who needs a basement that big? Get rid of your stuff, (see item #1). Putting the garage in the basement is virtually free (if you live where there is a slope to the land). In most parts of the country, people will likely build a basement anyway, so add a door and drive in. If you have a completely flat lot, this may cause trouble. Adding another structure for a garage could easily add $70K to $100K (or more) to your project. Think about it, you’re building a little house next to your house for your cars. Unless you have health reasons to avoid stairs, the exercise up the stairs is good for all of us. Oh, and more than a two-car garage…please, don’t get me started.
These are general concepts that worked for us and also work for my clients. There are so many other things to consider. It does require being engaged in the process and often going outside the traditional boundaries. You’ll need a cooperative contractor and I always recommend an architect. Many books and articles have been published on this subject. Send me your ideas. When I get enough, I’ll write a follow-up post.
top photo is from matt binns photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License) … he stopped by to photograph my vacation home…we were out sailing