This New House Can people of middle-class means design and build a knockout house on a moderate budget? That was the plan.
(MONEY Magazine) – The pages arrived without fanfare or warning, sliding almost furtively out of our fax machine. Yet here they were: the first drawings of what will ultimately become our family's new house.
If you'll pardon the expression, we were floored. As far as we could tell, our house was to be a pair of trailerlike objects connected by a long, narrow core containing all the wet stuff: bathrooms, laundry room, plumbing and so forth. It seemed so--dinky. Was this really all our effort and expense would come to?
But when we looked closer, we started to see the glory of the thing, for these were no ordinary trailers. Thirteen feet high and 80 feet long--counting the porch and porte cochere--covered in a gleaming skin of corrugated aluminum with high windows everywhere, the place quickly began to seem awesome. One of the trailers was a giant loftlike space with a wall of towering fenestration. The other big unit, sheltering five private rooms, was segregated from the large public space by the long utility core, whose walls were to be of masonry. We'd be able to entertain 100 people while our boys slept undisturbed in their beds. Best of all, we hoped the simplicity of the design would give us just what we wanted: modernist splendor on a budget, drama on the cheap, a knockout house for the price of the typical pretentious suburban sprawler.
As we were to learn in the months ahead, it was not going to be that easy. The simplicity of the initial design masked some aspects that made it much more expensive than we'd hoped, and we went through quite a struggle wrestling the costs down to something manageable. We learned that there are powerful financial incentives to build boring, shoddy houses, and bucking these requires creativity and fortitude. You can do it, but you've got to be determined. In the end, we hope, it will all be worth it.
Lots of people like to fantasize about houses, but what most never dream of, as far as I can tell, is building a really cool architect-designed home from scratch. That's understandable; the whole enterprise sounds ungodly expensive, and besides, everyone knows that architects are snooty aesthetes who wear funny glasses and pay no attention to how people actually live.
As with many stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in this one, but little more. My wife and I hope to become living proof that people of middle-class means can build such a home on a moderate budget. If we succeed, we hope that, perhaps, some others will be emboldened to take a stand against the sea of mediocrity out there and build something a little better. And although our taste in houses may strike you as weird, our circumstances are more typical. In fact, the house we're building--2,300 square feet for about $350,000--isn't terribly far from the average these days, allowing for regional differences (the Northeast is expensive) and our unusually large lot.
Paradoxically, we're not among those who are forever longing to build their "dream" house. We just wanted to move to the country. But when we went looking for a home in New York's Hudson Valley, we saw two kinds of places in our price range: weather-beaten, 200-year-old wrecks clinging stubbornly to busy roadways, and 10-year-old vinyl-sided monstrosities surrounded by similar faux manor houses in pretentious little developments.
The old places were drafty, warrenlike money pits. The new ones seemed built of cardboard. A lot of the dreck we saw reminded us of a comment by the outspoken architect Robert A.M. Stern, who said that most people "buy the house they hate the least." The whole thing was dispiriting. A home is the thing Americans work for and dream about, after all. It's our biggest investment and the first thing we buy when we amass the scratch, so much so that an amazing two-thirds of U.S. households own their own homes. We commit to 30-year mortgages and make the payments even before we put food on the table. So why do we settle for low ceilings sprayed with cottage cheese? Houses whose primary aesthetic feature is a pair of giant garage doors? Porch-free tract homes whose residents end up sitting in the driveway on a summer's day?
My wife Louise and I wanted something more than the least objectionable house, and given the small community we had chosen, the signs pointed toward building. We were squeamish at first, but the idea of bespoke housing quickly grew on us. At six feet, four inches and 200 pounds, I was sick and tired of bending over to wash my hands. I wanted high sinks and a shelf that can hold size 15 shoes. And I never want to wash another dish, so the plans had to include two dishwashers.
We were experienced homeowners, but this was something new to us, so we ransacked libraries, scoured the Internet, talked to builders, architects, friends and others, and began to get a sense of our options. We also read tons of shelter magazines, a genteel form of pornography that we began lusting for every time we came across a newsstand.
The first thing, we decided, was to clarify what we were after. We agreed that we wanted to live someplace where our kids wouldn't be captives of the automobile and we wouldn't spend our lives as chauffeurs. Yet we wanted privacy as well. Good schools were essential, and wherever it was had to be within two hours of Manhattan. All these factors helped us zero in on a village in upper Dutchess County where we found a 4.2-acre lot with more than 400 feet of stream frontage for $52,500. It's a short walk to the local main street, yet secluded, and it was a bargain in a couple of ways. There was no real estate agent involved, so the seller didn't have to build the commission (up to 10% is standard on vacant land) into the price. And municipal water and sewage services were available, saving us as much as $20,000 for a well and a septic system.
Next we tried to figure out how to get a design for our house. At first we sought a good "stock plan." These readymade designs are offered in magazines, books, on cd-rom and via the Internet, and usually cost just a few hundred dollars. Some house-plan companies will even customize their designs a bit at little or no charge. When the Cary Grant comedy Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was released in 1948, stock plans of the house used as a set were sold by the studio. More than 70 versions were built all across America.
Unfortunately, most of these plans are for the same banal kind of home we were trying to avoid. Even if you choose one, chances are you'll still need some design work for mechanical systems, for properly siting the house on your lot and for any changes you want. And stock plans for more interesting houses often cost a lot more to build.
The costliest way to get blueprints for a house is to hire an architect, and even though I am a skinflint, this is precisely what we did. The reason is simple: Architects are cheap. One way you can tell this is from the houses they build for themselves--usually small places that make clever use of standard windows and other materials. And they're surprisingly affordable. If you're a desirable client and negotiate, figure 10% to 15% of construction costs. That may sound like a lot, but on a house such as ours it comes to perhaps $25,000, a small sum for the amount of work--and creativity--it can buy. Good architects, we discovered, cost about the same as bad ones, and a good one should be able to add value that shows at resale. If your architect also functions as your interior designer, you may be able to get as much as 40% off any high-end furniture you buy. That makes architects seem even more affordable.
Two Guys in a Shabby Room
The important thing to understand about architects is that, like writers, they choose their line of work for love rather than money, and there is no more powerful architectural pheromone than the chance to design a new home. Even more attractive is designing a home for someone who doesn't say, "I want it to have Gone With the Wind columns in front, a thatched roof and an onion dome over the garage." Louise and I insisted on indoor plumbing and not much else.
The result, to our stupefaction, was that long before this article was contemplated, several renowned architects were champing at the bit to design our piddling house. When I asked one of these guys who his clients were, he named Bill Gates. Another hopeful taught at the Yale School of Architecture. An excellent firm in Seattle was so eager that two of its architects read my last book. Architects in Berkeley and Los Angeles also wanted the job. We seriously considered all of these western firms, having learned early on that the most interesting residential architecture in America today is happening in the West. And we wanted interesting.
But we settled on an architect in New York City, Walter F. Chatham, about whom we worried a great deal at first. His clients, after all, have included Martha Stewart and tony businesses such as Henri Bendel. He's designed several houses in prestigious Seaside, Fla., and his work appears frequently in magazines. We felt certain a guy like this wouldn't give us the time of day, couldn't stick to a budget, would sneer at our tastes and would generally shunt our humble tepee to the back burner whenever one of his high-society clients blew into town.
After a visit to his office, we stopped worrying. The firm of Walter F. Chatham turned out to be two guys in a moderately shabby room in SoHo. No secretaries, no flunkies, no expensive paneling, no silly accents. Chatham and his associate, Evans Simpson, do almost nothing to market themselves and can't even lay their hands on photos of their work. The word cheap doesn't scare them: Chatham designed a gorgeously spartan house for a relative in North Carolina that cost just $36,000 to build--including a swimming pool.
We also spent a lot of time choosing a contractor. Reynolds Tate and John Harrison Jr., the local builders we chose, had stellar reputations and seemed to charge fair prices, so we made the unorthodox decision not to put the house out to bid. By giving them the job up front, we hoped to avoid missing the clement weather (good builders in the Northeast are often booked up months in advance) and get valuable input from the people who would actually be wielding a hammer on the site. As it turned out, we missed most of the good weather anyway, in keeping with one of the two iron laws of home building: It will take longer than you think. The other rule is almost the same, except it involves the word "costs."
The $4,000 Window
The design process did not begin auspiciously. On the day we had agreed to rendezvous at the site, the Hudson Valley lay brooding under darkened skies, and halfway to our destination the heavens opened up. My wife and I, the builders, the architects and the seller of the land (by now a friend) walked the site through a haze of freezing rain, Louise and I each sheltering one of our twins against our chest. The ground was covered with snow and the temperature seemed to be in the low 20s. For this we were leaving Los Angeles?
Fortunately, everyone agreed the property was grand, and the architects soon set to work. To our surprise, they treated our budget as gospel, declaring almost immediately that they would jettison the second floor, most of the basement and as many corridors as possible. Why spend money on hallways and staircases that you can't live in? The foundation and rooflines had to be exceedingly simple, yet the architects were determined not to sacrifice high ceilings and square footage.
Not that they were always teetotalers when it came to spending. We noticed that our suggestions were sometimes deflected with solemn references to the tight budget, yet one day Simpson said his boss felt strongly that what we needed were plywood walls throughout the house. I pointed out that finish-grade plywood costs five to 10 times as much as Sheetrock and, guessing we'd need 200 sheets of one or the other, figured that all-plywood interiors might cost an extra $10,000. "Well, you would save on all the mudding and taping that goes with drywall," Simpson suggested feebly (he later insisted that the design at that point called for some interior plywood for strengthened walls, so he was merely trying to kill two birds with one stone). But plywood needs finishing too. Besides, we just didn't feel we wanted to live in a humidor.
Working with an architect also means heightened tension between aesthetics and practicality. The initial plans, for instance, contained a basement only under the central core of the house--a basement some 50 feet long but less than seven feet wide. This looks great in drawings of a transverse section of the building, where the slabs on both sides make for fearful symmetry. But as we would soon find out, it made no sense from a financial standpoint.
Being involved with an architect also means you feel sheepish about going down to Sears and ordering a bunch of Kenmore appliances, even if the brand typically gets high marks in Consumer Reports. Judging from shelter magazines, the "professional appliance" disease is spreading like athlete's foot in a low-rent gym. Architectural Digest showed playwright Wendy Wasserstein in her Central Park West apartment, which has a stainless-steel Viking range that must have cost thousands. But she admits that she can't even make oatmeal.
The design that Chatham ultimately produced draws on a variety of sources, from the rural sheds common in the Hudson Valley to the work of Australian architect Glenn Murcutt, and whimsically suggests the stainless-steel subway cars I used to ride growing up in Brooklyn. The architects did a dramatic house in a similar vein--what Simpson calls utilitarian vernacular--in Mississippi, a house so appealing it was one of the reasons we hired them. Their design for us was a model of simplicity, with wonderful features such as radiant heat embedded in concrete floors (which we decided to cover with wood because they would be too hard for kids). But its greatest strength was practicality: It was all on one level, which is ideal for a family like ours, and since we dispensed with stairways and most corridors, it had more usable space than comparably sized conventional houses. Unfortunately, the design was not as simple as it looked, and our builder, accustomed to standard houses, took more than a month to develop an estimate. When he finally came up with a price, we were stunned to hear that it was almost double what we had hoped: $329,000 for construction and site work, compared with our original budget of $175,000.
Why so high? There were lots of reasons, including the foundation design, the costly radiant heating system, the outsize doors and windows, a masonry core containing the bathrooms made up of some 2,000 concrete blocks, poor communication between architect and builder, and a roof design so seemingly perverse that the builder refused to warranty it--except to guarantee that it would leak. A single corner window--a neat detail, we thought--would cost $4,400.
Louise and I were depressed. Maybe we would have to put up one of those nondescript builder's colonials after all. In retrospect, a lot of the problems we were having at this point were related to the age-old gulf between builders and architects. The former tend to be conservative, practical and too busy building to spend a lot of time on the phone. Often they dislike working with architects, and some jobs degenerate into open warfare. A friend reports that when his house in Los Angeles was being remodeled, the crew actually hanged his architect in effigy.
Some of this animosity is understandable: Architects enjoy the patina of a college education and dispense orders from cushy offices. Builders are the ones who have to do the hard labor involved in following these directions, even though the person issuing them usually knows less about construction. Also, the builder knows he's the one I'll call if the roof is leaking a year from now, so this isn't just theory for him. Like many good builders, ours was hugely in demand, and for weeks on end we couldn't get hold of him. At one point I offered to buy him a cellular phone, only to learn that the one he already had was of limited use in his rural area. Finally I resorted to sending faxes to his home.
Honey, Where's the Basement?
When we finally did manage to get the builder involved, tens of thousands of dollars in costs melted away. Ever practical, Tate made us redesign the roof a bit to shed water more effectively, and showed us that we could have a capacious full basement for $10,000 less than the cost of the complex foundation in the original design. A prefabricated fireplace saved another $15,000, and forced-air heat saved so many thousands more that we were able to add central air conditioning basically for free. The masonry core was scrapped in favor of conventional framing. The architects readily incorporated these money-saving suggestions but staunchly defended the essential aesthetics of their design.
When the builders repriced the house (an arduous process that seemed to take weeks), it was still tens of thousands too high, so this time we attacked the plans with a machete. We made various additional cuts, two of which mattered most: We eliminated the basement altogether, and we lowered the height of the entire structure by about a foot and a half. These two moves had a ripple effect on costs, lowering expenses throughout the project and saving more than $40,000. We had given up some grandeur, but the house was buildable.
The keys to affordable construction, we learned, are off-the-shelf components and ease of assembly (time really is money in the construction trades). And the trick to affordable elegance is using common, low-cost materials--often borrowed from nonresidential design--in ways that aren't hopelessly tacky. The house's corrugated metal skin, which is cheap, sexy and strong (and doesn't need painting), is a good example. Another is the commercial-grade carpet we chose for the bedrooms. Tightly woven and virtually bulletproof, it can be had for $1 a square foot, including installation. Conversely, it's important to know where to spend a little extra. In higher-traffic areas, we opted for hardwood floors, which will outlast all of us. And for added strength and water resistance, the frame will be sheathed in plywood, rather than a cheaper pressed-wood product.
Only 10 Weeks Behind Schedule
Although so far we've had none of the hysteria people warned us was certain in building a house, the triangle of architect, builder and homeowner-to-be is inevitably stressful. Since I'm self-employed and Louise used to be, we had to provide a truckload of paperwork for a construction loan (see "How Exactly Do We Pay for This?" on page 111), and we had to find a landlord--from 3,000 miles away--who would rent to a family with two toddlers and three cats. We had to sell a house, make a living, care for our kids, relocate and get our new place going more or less simultaneously. This kind of thing does get hairy at times.
But we did it. By October we had disposed of our old house, moved across the country, found me an office to work in, dealt with lawyers, insurance and so forth, and were ready to break ground--only 10 weeks behind schedule and perilously close to what we feared would be a bad winter. Still, by the time we broke ground we had cut our projected cost of construction to $250,000--a lot more than we had hoped to spend but relatively little for all the house we would be getting. Of course, this was all on paper. It's hard to describe the feeling you get as the heavy equipment sweeps onto your land, digging the hole that, planted with part of your life savings and a bunch of money from a bank, will eventually hold your house. You start to wonder if maybe the entire thing wasn't a little crazy, and you realize with a shiver that you won't know the answer until all of the money is spent.
Daniel Akst is the author of St. Burl's Obituary, a novel.