big deal

Another frightening occurrence of the past decade—the super-sizing of the new American home—also owes its existence, at least partially, to the price-per-square-foot yardstick. Homes have become bigger for two reasons: It's easier to get the price per square foot lower if the house is bigger, and we tend to overestimate our need for space.

  • Credit: Connie Moberley

When we endeavor to design and build a fine home, we have to investigate more than the obvious. Let's not forget attributes like cohesiveness of design, human scale, comfort, climatic responsiveness, and regionally appropriate design. (No, Central Texas has not collided with Tuscany through a mysterious shift in plate tectonics, nor is its climate the same.) Fine designs that “live” well require a lot more than drama and street appeal to carry the day. The design recipe includes ample amounts of comprehensive thinking, a fair bit of soul-searching, ample time for critical evaluation, and well-honed talent. This recipe isn't adequately measured on a price-per-square-foot basis.

When negotiating a fee with your client, or the cost per square foot with the client and the contractor, make sure the client understands there are other, better ways to calculate a house's value. If they just go by the price-per-square-foot model and take the lowest price, they may well end up getting what they asked for. And it may not be what they expected.

Remember, they can easily sell that leather-seated Taurus without much loss of personal energy, time, and investment if the car doesn't live up to their expectations. They can't do the same with the custom home you designed for them.


  • Peter Pfeiffer, FAIA

    Credit: Connie Moberley

    Peter Pfeiffer, FAIA

Peter Pfeiffer, FAIA, is a principal of Barley & Pfeiffer Architects in Austin, Texas. He specializes in sustainable building practices. A version of this article appeared in the Austin-based magazine Tribeza.