Proving that creative problem solving can add more gusto to a project than a large budget, these 10 houses show that cost-consciousness reaps big rewards.
For a house in Atlanta, architect Staffan Svenson zeroed in on three materials: steel for the cantilever and entrance bridge; local cypress for the deck; and red-painted, fiber-reinforced concrete panels for the cladding. The resulting home has a loftlike upper floor, with 11-foot-tall glass windows and a large sheltered porch, and a private lower level with three bedrooms and an office completed at $150 per square foot. The form is simple but eye-catching—a beacon of affordable modern design and a fine payoff for perseverance. Photo by Gregory Miller.
Adventurous but subtle. Something different that doesn’t scream for attention. These were the prompts John and Erika Jessen gave to architect Elijah Huge for the addition to their 1920s home in New Haven, Connecticut. With those in mind, Huge set out to find a cladding material that was both eye-catching and cost-effective. “Good design doesn’t require the most expensive materials. However, it does take time to explore ideas and find innovative solutions,” says Huge, who, through online sleuthing, discovered the shingles from Reinke Shakes, a Nebraska manufacturer that usually sells its product to builders of barns and geodesic domes. Photo by Andrew Rowat.
By pooling their resources and giving their architect complete creative control, two busy Mexico City–based brothers built a high-design vacation home for just $70 per square foot. In terms of budget stretchers, recinto, an inexpensive local volcanic stone, represented Castillo’s masterstroke, one he deploys to varying effect. For the walls downstairs, rough-cut slabs provide a textural richness reminiscent of travertine. For the downstairs floors, a matte finish turns the stone into something resembling slate. Castillo didn’t cut the recinto into small blocks, which is the usual custom. “Instead, he used larger pieces, which makes the material seem more beautiful, more luxurious,” says Oropeza. Like recinto, the upper story’s concrete shell construction helped keep costs down. Photo by Mauricio Alejo.
Contemporary architecture in Lawrence, Kansas, is an anomaly. “On one of my earlier projects, I got the middle finger from passersby while constructing a flat roof,” says architect Dan Rockhill. As a result, Rockhill eagerly accepted a rare request for a modern home that came in at $142 per square foot. A slatted screen of Cumaru wood adds a visual flourish to the exterior.
By keeping the budget strict, the insulation tight, and its values clear, Philadelphia’s Postgreen Homes shows a little brotherly love for green, urban housing. The novelty, and the success, of the Ludemans’ two-unit building (the 100K House is just one of the houses; the adjacent 120K cost a bit more to build) is due to its small size and devotion to green building practices, but the real selling point is that their 1,296-square-foot residence came in at just $81 per square foot in construction costs. Photo by Mark Mahaney.
In Hillsborough, North Carolina, local firm Tonic completed a modern home at a modest $155 per square foot. Its in-house team of skilled builders constructed the house and crafted the custom touches without subcontracing—a costly and common undertaking. They also reined in expenses by using readily available materials, like oak and steel. Though the home is nearly 800 square feet larger than their previous residence, the residents’ energy bills average 30 percent cheaper thanks to spray foam insulation, tightly sealed ducts to reduce drafts, low-e glazed windows, and Energy Star appliances. Photo by Richard Leo Johnson.
Architect Jeff Sherman, of Delson or Sherman Architects, has more guts and gall than your average home renovator. In 2000, strapped by a “very finite budget,” he bought a wrecked row house in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, that had been used as an illegal breeding kennel. Over the next ten years, working as his own general contractor and builder, he transformed the scariest building on his block into a high-design home, all for about $100 per square foot. “I’m a little wary of the construction-on-a-dime myth trumpeted in the press,” says Sherman. “Construction is ridiculously expensive. But yeah, I wound up doing a house for next to nothing.” Photo by Dustin Aksland.
On a once-vacant corner lot in a transitional Jersey City neighborhood, a pair of local architects devised a clever prefab for a resourceful client. “Denis didn’t have any preconceptions about what he wanted the house to look like,” says Nicole Robertson, 37, an adjunct professor of architecture at Columbia University and Barnard College. “He wasn’t someone who came to us and said, ‘Oh, I want a Tudor house,’ or something like that. He had more performance-based requirements. He wanted it to be environmentally sustainable. He had a material requirement of concrete and a budget of $250,000 or so, which he was very clear about from the beginning. And that really set the parameters for the project. For us, that made it a lot of fun.” Photo by Samantha Contis.
Like a little chapel on the prairie, architect Jean-Baptiste Barache’s simply elegant retreat in the tiny Normandy town of Auvillier is a modern play on centuries-old forms and technology. Barache bought a semi-enclosed, hoof-trodden field in Auvilliers, a mere stop sign of a village two hours northwest of Paris. With financing from his brother and his own savings, he paid a local barn builder to throw up a wooden frame. He collected lumber recycled from theater sets, red cedar shingles for the exteriors, and cheap veneer and particleboard for the rest. And then he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. The result—18 months of DIY efforts and $105,000 later—is a house dropped onto the field. It would be a stretch to call the terrain undergroomed, as it looks like the herd only recently vacated the premises. Photo by Celine Clanet.
An 880-square-foot home’s reductive palette of concrete, anodized metal, cedar, and stucco was chosen not only for its cost-effectiveness, but also for durability and practicality. To keep the final cost down to $140 per square foot, architect Brian Johnsen planned strategically in the building process. The bathroom was situated on the lower level to reduce the amount of plumbing infrastructure, and the mechanics were built into one wall. “We weren’t trying to be grandiose in any way; we just wanted it to be very warm, simplistic, and inviting,” says the architect. Photo by Narayan Mahon.