A Sound Professional Goes DIY While Building an Affordable Montana Home

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By Heather Wagner / Published by Dwell
A resourceful sound mixer sources some local design talent, rolls up his sleeves, and builds small, green, and affordable in Bozeman, Montana.

Brian Whitlock had been living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for 15 years when he began to experience an acute case of SSTF (Swanky Ski Town Fatigue). This affable, artistically inclined sound mixer for documentary films and TV longed to put down roots in a low-key community populated by fellow creative souls. And he needed to do it on a budget, which aced him out of Jackson Hole.

Whitlock ultimately settled one state north, in the laidback college town of Bozeman, Montana, where he lucked upon a lush, near-to-downtown plot of infill land bordered by century-old hedgerows and three graceful ash trees. He dreamed of a Michelle Kaufman–designed prefab home, but the price—$225 per square foot—was too steep. It turned out, however, that a custom design was less expensive than his prefab fantasy. Intrinsik Architecture, a progressive, collaborative Bozeman firm accepted Whitlock’s challenge: Create an efficient, mountain-ready modern home for $150 per square foot.

The compact-yet-airy 1,650-square-foot result of that brief has a modest foundation that tiptoes around the surrounding tree roots, steel siding, and warm brown hues that reflect the Rocky Mountain vernacular. A first-floor open kitchen leads through French doors to a patio equipped with a fire pit, the perfect spot for Whitlock’s frequent parties. The second floor features his home office, his bedroom, a guest room, and a tranquil space for yoga.

Whitlock was a hands-on client in the most literal sense—his flexible work schedule permitted him months at a stretch to labor full-time on the house with his contractor, Josh Blomquist of CWJ & Associates. Though hardly a journeyman homebuilder, Whitlock wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty, especially if it meant saving some cash. Of all his toil, though—cabinetry, hardscaping, building furniture and concrete forms— he is perhaps the most proud of his DIY electrical work. The cost of hiring an electrician can account for 10 to 20 percent of a building, so by wiring the house himself he saved around $30,000. "People have a visceral fear of electricity, which is healthy in some ways," he says. "But I think it gets a bad rap."

Those in the "scared of electricity" majority take heart—Whitlock learned a trick worth passing on to your electrician. "Run conduit for locations where you might need future electrical," he advises. "I ran conduit between panels and subpanels, to exterior locations for outdoor lights, and between my office and the mechanical room." You never know where you’ll need to plug in in the future, but Whitlock is set if his electrical needs change.

He also did all the landscaping—including digging a six-foot hole for a rainwater catchment system in the yard, a task that not only toned his biceps but also unearthed buried treasure: hundreds of turn-of-the-century patent medicine bottles. "I asked around and found out that my backyard was once the site of a Chinese apothecary," he says. Some of the more intricate and unusual bottles now serve as hard-won decorations and daily reminders of how much Whitlock put into the place.

One of the most ingenious money-saving tricks Whitlock and the Intrinsik team employed on the interior is the perfect marriage of custom and off-the-shelf. "I used the Pax closet system from Ikea in a birch finish for both wardrobes and the storage wall in the downstairs bathroom," he says. Using the company’s online planners and collaborating with Intrinsik principal Dan Harding, he tweaked interior walls to fit the Ikea units to achieve a built-in, high-end look. "It makes cabinets and closets look much more custom than they are," he explains.

Ultimately, the house came in higher than the original estimate, a bump in budget attributable to more solar panels and landscaping. But $165 per square foot includes construction costs, architect fees, Bozeman impact fees and permits, landscaping, fences and hardscaping, a solar hot-water system, rainwater catchment, and electricity. One indulgence Whitlock does feel entitled to is a state-of-the-art Bosch dishwasher, a first for him. "You have a party, you put all the dirty stuff in this box, and the next thing you know, clean dishes!" he says, enthused. The luxe life is all in how you look at it.