risky business

Buying an empty lot in an iffy urban neighborhood with the hope it'll transition upward is a risk. Acting as general contractor for your new house when you've never built, designed, or even owned a home is also perilous. Making these plans contingent on getting a setback variance means putting it all on the desk of a bureaucrat and wishing for a miracle. For Jill Salter, a recent architecture graduate, and her artist husband, these gambles were their best bet for owning an affordable, yet beautiful home. “Simplicity in form, cost, and construction was our mantra” for navigating the tricky terrain, she says.

First, Salter met with local Raleigh, N.C., city planners. “We were told there was a 25-foot setback requirement for our lot, but it seemed out of character with the neighborhood,” she says. Most of the neighboring houses, built before the roads were paved, hug the streets' edges. Salter won her variance by measuring setbacks, photographing those nearby houses, and then submitting those photos with a set of permit drawings.

The variance allows Salter's L-shaped house to align both streets along its corner lot. Placing the garage/studio at a perpendicular angle to the long bar of the house generated a three-sided courtyard and an unhindered indoor-outdoor flow. Salter and her husband favor a contemporary aesthetic, but incorporating traditional forms made approval from city planners easier and price quotes from subcontractors more reasonable.

Ultimately, finding reliable subs wasn't a problem, but serving as general contractors meant learning hard lessons. For example, the couple discovered too late that their lot was too small to properly stage the entire lumber order, so they ended up moving huge piles of it as needed. In fact, buying anything required meticulous planning, because the bank's construction loan reimbursed expenses only after segments were built. “We ordered materials directly from suppliers and charged everything so we could get frequent-flier miles and have a month to pay,” Salter explains.

Products from big-box stores—stock cabinetry, for example—proved to be among the most cost-effective solutions. Not just relegated to the kitchen, off-the-shelf cabinets provide extra storage throughout the house and serve as room dividers. The couples' creative backgrounds also helped them look at items in new ways: more than one light fixture in their house was stripped of its plug-in cord and hardwired in place.

But not every choice was about cutting back. Salter wasn't stingy with important, defining materials. She installed black slate tiles for the entry, kitchen, and dining area floors and ¾-inch maple flooring in the living area. And pricey Galvalume roofing earned its keep with its heat reflectivity and 40-year warranty. Stainless steel countertops in the kitchen were a planned splurge also chosen for their reflective quality. “We wanted materials in their natural state that didn't have to be heavily processed,” Salter says, “so we picked rich but not uncommon ones.”

Salter Residence, Raleigh, N.C.

Jill Salter

general contractors:
Jill and Michael Salter

structural engineers:
Willy E. Stewart, PE, Stewart Engineering, Raleigh, and Jonathan Allgaier, AIA, PE, Mendenhall Smith, Frederick, Md.

project size:
2,200 square feet (house); 350 square feet (studio)

site size:
0.09 acre

construction cost:
$90 to $100 per square foot