Hand-Made Houses

Hand-Made Houses

By Jaime Gillin
Here at Dwell, we love houses with a good backstory. So it's no surprise that some of our favorite features from years past spotlight homes patiently and passionately built by residents with a tight budget, an obsession with modern design, and a willingness to put in plenty of sweat equity. Here, a look back at some homes renovated or built, to one degree or another, by hand.

"I’m a little wary of the construction-on-a-dime myth trumpeted in the press. Construction is ridiculously expensive," says architect Jeff Sherman (above). Nevertheless, thanks to a little elbow grease, a helpful dose of naïveté, and a decade of sustained effort, he managed to renovate his Brooklyn rowhouse for about $100 per square foot. Check out his story in New Prospects.

In a quest to develop a quartet of affordable sustainable-housing projects, Philadelphia developers Chad and Courtney Ludeman depended on inexpensive, humble materials. To achieve what they imagined people like themselves want—small, sustainable houses for reasonable prices—they first had to prove they could make one for themselves. The perpetual question in the numerous iterations of the cost-conscious design, say the couple, was "If we do a little less, can that actually be cooler than [doing what people have come to expect, but] cheaping out on it?" Learn more about the process and check out the final result in See What Develops.

Concrete floors and an Ikea kitchen and spice rack make for an affordable, cleanly geometric aesthetic in the Ludeman's 1,296-square-foot residence, which they built from scratch for just $81 per square foot in construction costs.

The striking black facade of Pieter Weijnen's home is the result of the Japanese practice of charring wood.

To char his boards, Weijnen built a brick oven to accommodate two six-foot-long larch wood boards at a time. After removing the planks from the brick oven, Weijnen doused them with water if the fires didn't go out on their own.

Inspired by the work of Japanese architect Teronubo Fujimori, Dutch architect Pieter Weijnen clad his family's low-energy passive home with larch wood boards that he charred himself—a natural way to preserve timber and make it fire resistant. Get the full story in Second to None.

Resident Brian Whitlock saved some serious cash by taking on much of the construction work himself. By wiring his 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."

To build his small, green home in Bozeman, Montana, Brian Whitlock, a sound mixer, sourced local design talent and rolled up his sleeves. Whitlock's 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. Check out the end result in Builders Special.

In Kathryn Tyler’s finished home, a palette of wood, concrete, and painted brick forms a neutral backdrop for vintage treasures, including a $30 dining table, $3 poster, and a set of 1950s Carl Jacobs Jason chairs she snagged on eBay for $400.

Falmouth, England-based interior designer Kathryn Tyler designed her home with the help of an architecture student friend, developing a floor plan around specific pieces of vintage furniture she'd amassed over a decade of collecting. "It’s probably a very weird way of working, but I’d never built a house before so I didn’t know any better!" She and her boyfriend proceeded to do a lot of hands-on labor themselves (including shifting 15 tons of earth in two days using a mini digger, buckets, and wheelbarrows). See everything in  hCollector's Choiere.

The exterior of Jayna Cooper's house in Los Angeles. "As I was designing my house I kept in mind standard lumber and plywood sizes so that there would be minimal waste," she says. "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."

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. In the story of the 131 Day House, she walks us through her completed home and reveals what it took to make this $200-per-square-foot abode a reality.


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