In Tuesday's "Shelter Lab " discussion, Edward M. Binkley, AIA, Randy Brown, FAIA, LEED AP, and Eric Naslund, FAIA, discussed the ways they experimented with their own homes and how their experimentation—largely on the cheap—informed later projects.

Using the materials and products offered at his local big-box home improvement store helped Binkley, of Oviedo, Fla.-based BSB Design, stick near his goal for his "Whistling Winds" home—a cost of $50 per square foot. The project was completed for about $80 per square foot. Nearly 80 percent of the products Binkley used throughout his 3,862-square-foot home were off-the-shelf purchases that created a modern interior with industrial touches, such as exposed structural members and connections, interior windows, mismatched light fixtures, and simple materials transformed into design features.

"Whistling Winds" taught Binkley the possibilities of off-the-shelf products and materials, and he carried the lesson over into several firm projects, including the 2007 New American Home, the Boomer House, and a workforce housing project outside Orlando, Fla., among others.

As many architects can attest to, being young in the profession and not "knowing any better" leaves the door open for innovation and risk taking experiences. Fifteen years ago, before San Diego-based Studio E Architects' Naslund knew what he couldn't achieve, he built his own experimental house: a one-room-wide, three-level building that wraps around a 60-year-old specimen tree in the back. Its light-filled interiors are oriented to the outdoors, and a rooftop deck offers views of the city, the bay, and the ocean. Naslund designed the one-room wide house for views and daylighting. Completing much of the work himself, Naslund used materials he admired for their inherent qualities, such as galvanized sheet metal (used as wall panels) and sheets of OSB and plywood cut, installed as flooring, and urethaned for an attractive sheen.

From his experimentation, Naslund learned to first "design the site" to take advantage of view exposures, natural light, and outdoor spaces; to ennoble cheap materials; to embrace the budget, no matter its size; to be place-specific in design; and to invite occupation and use through design. He applied these lessons to several later projects, including an award-winning multifamily affordable housing project; a transit-oriented development in Long Beach, Calif.; and a seven-story urban condo development.

Experimentation defines much of Omaha, Neb.-based Brown's architectural work, and his own residences are perhaps the most avant garde examples of his experimental design. Brown's first home experiment was the renovation of an existing 1970s-era passive solar residence into a live/work studio with an open floor plan on both levels. He spent a lot of time at his local home improvement store exploring the potential of off-the-shelf materials. With features like a pull-out conference table integrated into a room divider that continued up to a loft and terminated as the headboard of his bed, exposed plumbing supply lines in the bathroom, an illuminated toilet, and a knee-activated sink faucet salvaged from a dental office, the building served the secondary purpose of giving Brown's clients fair warning of exactly what kind of design they could expect from him.

Brown described the extensive and ongoing experiment that is his second and current house, named "Laboratory." A mixture of Brown's ideas and those of his University of Nebraska Lincoln students, "Laboratory" is just that: a test lab for any conventional material used in unconventional ways, as well as for unconventional and improvistational construction methods. Brown again depended on his local home improvement store for most of the materials, while the rest he obtained through "dumpster-diving" and by repurposing materials from the tear-down site. Although the project was officially completed two years ago, Brown says he and his family are planning to relocate the kitchen and reconfigure a few other rooms. And, he hinted, it will remain an ongoing laboratory for ideas.

Brown's takeaway lessons are, simply, to experiment, to work with existing context, and to trust your own competence and your own ideas. Finally, Brown added that there is no reward without a little—and sometimes a lot of—risk.