131-Day House

Originally published in 

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.

Cooper Residence

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.

As I was designing my house I kept in mind standard lumber and plywood sizes so that there would be minimal waste. When choosing materials, I did basic research on cost per square foot and picked out some of the least expensive materials in the building industry. Basic, inexpensive stuff like corrugated sheet metal, stucco, and drywall can look really great if it’s incorporated into the design in a modern and well-thought-out way. And although I didn’t want my house to look like it was full of Ikea products, there are certain times and places where Ikea can be appropriate—such as my medicine cabinets. I also had my splurges: I love my high-quality quartz countertops in the kitchen and my Kohler Karbon sink faucet.

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.

In addition to using standard-size kitchen cabinets, which are less expensive than custom cabinets, I asked for a designer discount, and then on top of that I got another discount for actually designing the cabinetry layout myself (thus saving the company’s in-house team time). The point is, everything is negotiable, and if you’re nice and can give someone a good excuse to give you a deal, they usually will.

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.

I was so excited when I finally moved in. In fact, I did it a couple weeks before I should have. I was living in construction debris out of sheer eagerness to be out of my rental apartment, which I never liked much. To keep you from moving in before the final inspection, the city will turn on either the gas or the electricity, but not both. So I had light, but I was showering at the gym.

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.

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