I enjoy operating a multi-faceted office with my business partner, Alan Barley, AIA. But of all the building types, we find that homes provide the greatest challenges and by far the greatest rewards. Over the past few years, though, we have noticed a distinct and troubling shift in the way homes are perceived by the public. The erroneous presumptions behind this shift are having a profound and overarching effect on the quality of building in this country.

Our generation has become very adept at quantifying things. We “crunch the numbers” with great efficiency. But I believe we have too often lost sight of the bigger picture in doing so, ending up with undesirable results. The design of our homes, and the construction of them as well, is falling victim to this “efficiency.”

  • Outdoor rooms, such as the porches at Pfeiffer’s own house in Austin, Texas, add value to a home. But because they raise the overall building cost and are not included in typical square footage counts, they have a disproportionate impact on the price per

    Credit: Connie Moberley

    Outdoor rooms, such as the porches at Pfeiffer’s own house in Austin, Texas, add value to a home. But because they raise the overall building cost and are not included in typical square footage counts, they have a disproportionate impact on the price per

When you buy a Ford Taurus, you know what level of quality you are purchasing and that the car is built to the latest D.O.T. safety and performance standards. You can opt for leather seats, but you know you are still buying a Ford, just with nicer seat coverings. Alternatively, when you buy a luxury sedan, such as an equivalently sized Mercedes E-class, you have a different set of expectations about the quality of what you are purchasing. Not only will there be finer-grade leather seats and other obvious accoutrements, but there is an expected increase in craftsmanship, performance, safety, durability, and overall quality “under the skin”—the things you can't see but know are built into the car. You might even be able to purchase the car from a competing dealer for a bit less money, confident you are still buying an equally well-built E-class with all the same features and craftsmanship.

This is where the problem comes in. People think they can treat buying a house like buying a car. They think that if they can buy a “high-end” house for a lower price, they're still getting the same house. What they don't understand is that if they keep looking for the lower bid, they're going to end up with lower quality.

the pricing myth

We've mixed up the adjectives “quantity” and “quality” by relying too heavily on the all-too-ubiquitous “price-per-square-foot” yardstick for evaluating homes, especially the high-end custom ones. Oftentimes you end up getting four “spec-quality” homes combined to make one big one that may or may not comply with building safety and durability codes. Sure, you may have the trophy kitchen, the Palladian windows, the multiple crown moldings, and the profusion of meaningless steeply pitched roof angles that prepare you for shedding snow during the next big Central Texas blizzard. But all too often these “high-end” homes just end up becoming a series of disparate details, the sum of the parts and nothing more. What's more, these homes usually have “behind-the-scenes” components—like plumbing, air-conditioning systems, waterproofing methods, structural elements, windows, and siding—that are no better than those used in the starter homes being built across the tracks. They can be expected to last about as long as the starter homes before experiencing expensive maintenance problems or, worse, unhealthy conditions that might affect well-being, like water leaks and mold. Their building science is as lacking as their souls.

The price-per-square-foot yardstick is a relatively new phenomenon that started gaining popularity in the early 1980s. Before then, folks were more creative in their assessments. Attributes like floor plan, flow, responsiveness to the setting, craftsmanship, and even “livability” were used to make the decision to accept the design or buy the home. Per-square-foot pricing has its roots in the volume home building business, where there was little else to distinguish the various models. Most three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath homes had approximately the same sized two-car garage, an attention-grabbing front entry, and a modest back patio. Except for shape, rooflines, and interior appointments, there was not a lot of variation.

Not so with a truly custom, site-specific home designed and built for you and your family's values, on your particular piece of property, and incorporating unique views, topography, and trees. It's not unusual for a custom home designed for our Hill Country environment to have half again as much space in outdoor areas (screened porches, decks, cabanas, and patios) as in the interior living or “conditioned” area. These value-adding areas do greatly affect the overall price to build the home, but they don't add to the conditioned area. So, encourage your clients to look beyond the price-per-square-foot yardstick. It makes about as much sense as evaluating that new blouse or sport coat hanging in your closet on its price per square inch.