This story starts with the 1999 purchase of five acres amid an oak hammock in central Florida that were plagued by thick, humid growth; huge spiders; snakes; and occasional flooding. My wife, Sherry, and I had embarked on an experiment: to design and build a 2,800-square-foot custom home on a budget of $50 per square foot (or $300,000, including land costs). Although it seemed idealistic, we considered the task possible if we did some of the work ourselves and kept the systems and structure simple.
We wanted to address current affordability concerns by developing a contemporary model that falls within the means of most middle-class home-buyers. Ikea, Target, and Apple have done great jobs of exposing the mass market to high-end, low-cost design. I feel that we, as residential architects, owe that same level of opportunity to the public. Everything we design does not have to be out of reach of the mainstream buyer.
The design process began with many hours of walking, sitting, and experiencing the site—an opportunity I wish were available on more projects. I spent hours there with a 300-foot tape measure, bug spray, a machete, the occasional six-pack of beer, a camera, and a stool. I really believe that before you start to design, you must learn the site, how it rests, and how a house asks to sit within its boundaries.
alternative means Sherry and I were on the same page with regard to design. Our goal was to employ off-the-shelf items in unconventional ways. We used sanded and sealed MDF for countertops and bookshelves, 16-inch strips of bamboo plywood sheets applied with exposed stainless steel screws for wood flooring, and waxed concrete floors with impressions of naturally fallen leaves and critter footprints. Concrete block walls, galvanized ductwork, and floor and roof trusses were left exposed. We added industrial stairs and a floor grate as a bridge on the second floor, and we incorporated interior windows to allow visual and verbal connection and to assist with air circulation.
Because this house was more experimental than a typical job, the contractor needed to share our vision. After interviewing several, we selected one who understood and embraced our objectives and would make sure our expectations were met. Sherry worked as the job superintendent, coordinating with the contractor and taking care of the finances and scheduling. We wanted this endeavor to be a very personal and hands-on adventure.
We also felt it was important to team with a creative craftsman—a guy who can do everything others may not want to deal with and do it with passion. This is the person who spent hours with me designing and collaborating on systems and details that were foreign to us both. How can we transform raw MDF board into a smooth and glossy countertop that will withstand wear and tear? How can we then mix cables and connectors with that same product to make contemporary bookshelves? How do we create stair rails out of electrical conduit and metal straps? We would walk through The Home Depot or Lowe's when we didn't need to go, find items we weren't really looking for, and develop techniques to use them in unintended ways. My suggestion for architects who are interested in doing something similar is to go through these big-box stores looking for nothing in particular and keep an open mind.
end result The most rewarding part of the process was seeing construction actually start. In general, it went smoothly, despite several early delays with grading and earthwork due to bad weather. Some of the most exciting and gratifying moments came during the framing stage, when opportunities not apparent on paper would present themselves. For example, we raised the roof of the main living space to take advantage of a view to the upper branches of a 150-year-old live oak tree that we had never seen from the second-floor vantage point.
Our experience with The Home Depot and Lowe's greatly simplified the entire project. We purchased a majority of the interior items—cabinetry, lighting, fans, hardware, and pre-hung, solid-core doors—directly through the store. The process was easy, cost-effective, and convenient.
In the end we exceeded our budget by about 50 percent. (The house cost between $75 and $85 per square foot.) This happened partially because we didn't allow for a learning curve for the labor force in performing the desired quality of work. They're used to covering up many of the things this house leaves exposed, like the concrete floors and the ductwork. We had to get through to them that this was the finished product. But the contractor was great, and everybody finally caught on. It became a challenge and an opportunity for all involved.
This home has helped create a model I intend to introduce to mainstream housing. My firm, Blood-good Sharp Buster Architects & Planners, has developed a trademarked housing prototype called “off the shelf” that will give the buyer a chance to be more involved in the process, to have some DIY opportunities, and to make choices on finishes that allow the chance for self-expression. It offers them exposure to a variety of unique design solutions. We see plenty of contemporary models that are similar, but few of these homes reach the masses who appreciate that level of design at a reasonable cost.
We are currently developing a program for implementation with a select group of builders. The challenge for mass-housing builders is to rethink the way they normally do business—especially in a boom market, when they do not need to change protocol. It is very possible that the process will take longer than normal construction projects would due to the added involvement of the homeowner, so it does require a very entrepreneurial and broad-thinking builder; we are fortunate to be associated with several who share our vision. In an effort to assist the homeowner further, we are also talking with banks and mortgage companies willing to create financing opportunities that offer incentives for alternative housing, green construction, and sweat equity. We may just open up a whole new range of possibilities for mainstream housing that is more creative, personalized, and affordable.
Ed Binkley, AIA, is a partner in the Orlando office of Bloodgood Sharp Buster Architects & Planners.