The cross-gable roof on this European-styled home by Knudson Gloss Architects ensures that it can always be outfitted with solar roof panels, regardless of its site orientation.
Knudson Gloss Architects The cross-gable roof on this European-styled home by Knudson Gloss Architects ensures that it can always be outfitted with solar roof panels, regardless of its site orientation.

Somewhere along the way when the market was flying high, “boxy” became a four-letter word with negative implications. The simple cottage with exterior walls at right angles was derided as bland compared to the house of seven gables with all the frills and bump-outs that cheap credit could buy. But my, how tastes have changed now that builders are looking for ways to prune their construction budgets, lower their prices, and create living spaces that do more with less. When it comes to energy efficiency and cost controls, there isn’t a more economical volume than your basic box or cube. On the upside, that box may be more versatile than you think. To prove this point, we asked four leading architects in four different climates (Mid-Atlantic, Deep South, Pacific Coast, and Rocky Mountains) to design prototype plans inside a square or rectangular footprint. Their specs were as follows: a 1,500-square-foot house on a 50-foot-by-80-foot lot with parking for two cars and outdoor living space.

They came back with some great little jewel boxes.

Mountain Made

Craftsman and European elevation styles play well in the mountains, where buyers tend to gravitate toward heavy timbers and rustic stone.
Knudson Gloss Architects Craftsman and European elevation styles play well in the mountains, where buyers tend to gravitate toward heavy timbers and rustic stone.

Andrew Dratch and Jerry Gloss
Knudson Gloss Architects
Boulder, Colo.

FOCUS: Homes at all price points in classic American, European, and territorial styles Young couples and empty-nesters countamong those most likely to buy a 1,500-square-foot house. Architect Jerry Gloss and architectural designer Andrew Dratch imagined a plan that could happily accommodate both types of buyers in and around Denver and Boulder.

For the 55-plus set, there were some no-brainers. Aging in place features such as wider doors, a first-floor master suite, and a big master shower with a built-in seat (in lieu of a tub) don’t feel geriatric so much as luxuriously functional. For younger couples, a pocket office outside the master suite easily converts to a nursery for a newborn. The second floor provides a secondary bedroom and bath, plus loft space for a play room, studio, study, or hobby room.

Knudson Gloss Architects  

General livability was the main design driver. “There are specific things you can build into a home to increase its value without necessarily increasing its cost,” Gloss says, such as positioning windows for cross ventilation, shortening the path from garage to kitchen, and rightsizing rooms for furnishability. (A secondary bedroom, for example, should have a minimum measurement of 10 feet 6 inches from bed wall to opposite wall.) Understanding that buying power is constrained in the current market, the plan is designed for eventual retrofits and upgrades. Alternate plan options include an elevator, a bonus room over the garage, and a full, finished basement. “The idea is that owners could eventually add to the house once they have the money for an addition, or once their needs change,” Gloss says.

Lew Oliver’s response to our challengedraws on multiple Southern vernacular influences. To avoid visual interruption of the cottage’s symmetrical façade, Oliver pushed the porch stairs off to either side and kept the veranda low to the ground—a move that allowed an open shelf rail in lieu of the enclosures required by code for porches taller than 30 inches above grade.

For all its good looks, this house isn’t adorned for the sake of aesthetics alone. The skinny windows and reflective metal roof are centuries-old devices used to mitigate heat gain and capture cross breezes. Similarly, the porch blocks out direct sun while providing a buffer between public and private zones. And the rooftop cupola serves as a passive ventilation device.

The house is also thrifty in its use of materials. “A square envelope requires the least amount of exterior skin, and it allows a hipped roof, which is one of the simplest and most efficient roof forms to build,” Oliver explains. “Right now the front windows are drawn at 9 feet, but you could eliminate the bottom pane and shorten the schedule to 6-foot windows, which would allow you to use stock windows.”

Charming in its low country references, the design also takes some contemporary turns. “Instead of a traditional chimney, I did an exposed metal flue off to one side, knowing that more fireplaces nowadays are prefab,” Oliver says. “Plus, we are starting to see more wood stoves. I wanted to express that in an honest way.”

Don't Do This

One common mistake that builders make in small homes is not considering how furniture is going to fit inside a room—bedrooms in particular. If you put a bed wall perpendicular to a closet wall, for example, make sure the closet door will still open fully once you’ve added a bed and nightstands on either side.

“As a requirement, we have an 18-inch return off the wall that the bed is against,” says architect Jerry Gloss. “And we make sure the bed wall is big enough for a queen- or king-sized bed. Nobody sleeps in double beds anymore .”

Want more tips from Knudson Gloss on common measuring mistakes and how to avoid them? Visit

Knudson Gloss Architects

1 The fireplace is located on an outside wall, so it can be vented easily.

2 For cost efficiency, the plan has a “consolidated core” of closets, stairs, and intense framing . This center-bearing line could also become a stitch wall for prefabricated wall systems.

3 Rather than designating an entire room as a study, the architects carved a pocket offi ce into the space between the master bedroom and the vestibule. “That saves 60 to 70 square feet right there,” Gloss says. For young couples, the same space can flex into a nursery.

4 The doors to the master suite are 2 feet 8 inches wide with ample clearances in case the house ever needs to accommodate a wheelchair. This feature doesn’t read as universal design. It just feels like breathing room.

Knudson Gloss Architects

  5 One corner of the garage is set aside for an optional elevator shaft.

6 Homeowners need space to store their stuff. Gloss recommends a minimum 14 feet of linear rod space for master closets.

7 A 12-foot span of glass doors connects the kitchen to an outdoor grilling and dining area and helps channel natural light inside.

8 Window placement on perpendicular walls facilitates natural daylighting and cross ventilation in every room.