Architect Jayna Cooper had never designed a house before, much less played general contractor, when she broke ground on her new home in the middle of Los Angeles in 2009. After a grueling four months of hands-on hard work—managing subcontractors, sourcing materials, driving the front loader—she moved in. Here, she walks us through her completed home and reveals what it took to make this $200-per-square-foot abode a reality.
To afford property in Los Angeles, I was going to have to buy something cheap. I had been monitoring the MLS [Multiple Listing Service] almost daily for a year or so, and when I saw this property come up for sale, I pounced. Although the lot wasn’t in the best neighborhood, it was geographically central and just a couple of blocks away from a future light-rail station [now open] which I found appealing. The asking price—$225,000—was also low for 2007.
While collecting all the materials, products, fixtures, and furniture I’d need, I constantly inquired whether vendors and shops would give me a deal—designer discounts, seasonal, multiple items, referral, clearance, friendly neighbor discounts, anything to save a few bucks. For example, when picking out my plumbing fixtures I found the ones I wanted online using discount plumbing websites, then I called the manufacturer and spoke to a sales rep and just asked, “If I buy this, that, and the other from you, would you consider giving me a discount?” People almost always said yes.
Another huge way to save money is to be your own general contractor. Though I’d never done it before, I have the personality type to run a really tight, efficient job site. Before I started construction, I interviewed between six and 12 subcontractors for each trade. I got recommendations from people in the industry, used Super- pages, the Internet, and the phone book, which meant I had to spend money upfront on printing and mailing out drawing sets to over one hundred subs. For weeks, I was buying out the entire stock of mailing tubes at Staples and Office Depot and standing in line at the post office like a crazy person with an armful of them.
Then came the interviews. During the process I would pick up on something from one company that I would realize that I needed to ask another. Everybody I talked to seemed to notice different things about the project, and I caught a lot of my own mistakes and had a chance to correct them before construction commenced. Once I’d narrowed it down to the competent subs, I called references and looked at previous work, which helped me find the truly qualified. The next factor was the cost, and of course the lowest bidder looked the most appealing. But I’d often call the sub that I was the most comfortable and excited about working with, and offer them the project at the low-bidder’s price. In almost every case, they accepted.
At the end of each workday, I would make a friendly call to each sub to remind them of the next few days’ schedule, to confirm that they would show up when expected, and that they would bring everything needed for the work to be done. I tried to be friendly, always asking rather than demanding, and as a result the subs were accommodating and worked within the tight schedule.
The best advice I got on this project, and advice I give now, came from a wise friend and seasoned architect. He told me: “Don’t try to do everything in one house, especially your first house.” Just keeping in mind that this would be one of many houses I’d design in my lifetime took a lot of the pressure off to cram in everything that I’d ever dreamed of.