At $200 per square foot, this San Diego house might seem a long shot for a story about custom homes on a budget. In bang for the buck, however, it was a huge bargain. Code restrictions limited the building to 1,400 square feet. But architects Taal Safdie and Ricardo Rabines detailed the building at the same level as their more elaborate commissions, with such high-ticket features as stainless steel cable railings, pocket sliding glass doors, a roof deck, and custom zebrawood cabinetry. A steep canyon site required that all materials be carried in—and the foundation dug—by hand. Under those conditions, Safdie says, there were two keys to delivering this much house for only $300,000: “It was the square footage—and a good contractor.” Stepping down the canyon, the house consists of four living areas—five, including the roof deck—each at its own elevation. Stairs between levels comprise the building's only circulation space.The layout yields large rooms and a great interplay of building and site. But, Safdie points out, “That didn't translate into the cheapest house per square foot, given the amount of kitchen and bath and complicated construction.”

“For that caliber of house, it was definitely on a lower budget,” says builder Ken Miner. He kept the lid on cost by subcontracting a minimum of work—he handled the foundation, framing, and finish himself—and by keeping his own operation lean. “I work out of my house, so I don't have huge overhead,” he says. “At the time I did that house, it was around 10 percent.” Miner went to bat for his client to save on materials, searching as far as New York to find zebrawood veneer at the right price. When bids for the railing system came in high, he hired a welder to fabricate the custom bits and put them together himself. That $200 per square foot sounds better all the time.

Project Credits
K&W Construction, San Diego
Architect: Safdie Rabines Architects, San Diego
Living space: 1,400 square feet
Site: .23 acre
Construction cost: $200 a square foot
Photographer: Undine Prohl

Resources: Bathroom plumbing fixtures: Dornbracht; Dishwasher: Bosch; Glass pocket doors: Fleetwood Metal Pocket Doors; Refrigerator: Sub-Zero; Roofing: Galvalume; Windows: Windowmaster.

Undine Prohl
The stainless steel railings on this house are integral to its woodsy-Modern look, but when the prices came back from the metal fabricators, builder Ken Miner saw his client's budget going down the drain. “I had bids of $50,000 and $60,000 for the steel railing,” he says. Believing he could do better, Miner found a welder able to produce the custom pieces and strung the cable himself. “We got that all done for like a third of what the bids were,” he says.