Here at ra, we've long known the secret of the high-design, low-cost house: it belongs to an architect. In today's market—with today's prices for design services, materials, and labor—it's nearly impossible to deliver good custom work for less than $200 per square foot. Unless you're an architect designing the house for yourself, shopping off the rack at The Home Depot, and donning the GC's hat to get it all done. Everyone else has to shop retail. This is what we thought until we charged ourselves the task of finding some truly affordable but remarkably stylish custom homes. They're out there. And they all, to some degree, mine the secrets architects save for their own houses: keep it simple, keep it cheap, and use common things in uncommon ways. Put the biggest portion of the budget into items your clients will touch every day. And most important, make sure the house is very easy to build. Really, there's nothing wrong with a straightforward box.
You'll encounter in the following pages many tricks of the trade for minimizing the sticker shock for your clients. But there's one other value equation you should include in your calculations: the amount of time, effort, and money it will cost to maintain the building you design.
Everyone in the home building business gripes about how difficult it is to find talented, competent, financially solvent subcontractors. But honestly, architects and builders have it easy. It's even more difficult for homeowners to assemble the army of experts a house requires to keep it in tip-top shape. And so important tasks often just don't get done—or get done too late. Our new cars are now designed to go thousands of miles without a service interval. We should aspire to the same level of performance from our houses. As the bulk of our housing grows older and more troublesome, we're putting greater pressure on our slim resources for repair. Ever try to diagnose the source of a mysterious leak in your own house? Is it the roof, the flashing, the chimney, a pinhole in an elderly pipe? No trade wants to claim it.
We certainly love modern design at ra, but we also worry about the longevity of houses that have no roof pitch, overhangs, or window and door trim to shed water away from vulnerable places. How much can we rely on technology to protect us from the elements? Can you really count on your clients to take care of those little problems before they grow into major trouble? I think nowadays you have to assume that homebuyers—often busy with dual careers, children, and other obligations—will not micromanage a high-maintenance home. And if something goes wrong down the line, they will likely look outward to assess blame—to the architect, the builder, the subcontractor.
So, yes, our featured architects this issue are right about apportioning budget to big-bang areas of the house—to showcase rooms and high-touch items. But in the interest of self-preservation and, less solipsistically, in the best interests of your clients, you can't skimp on the integrity of the structure itself. Value isn't just about a good price for a neat house; it's also about a building that will withstand the test of time and the laxity of human nature.
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