By getting creative with financing, searching for contractors who were willing to experiment, and shopping wisely, these architects and homeowners accomplished building elegant houses affordably.
In the kitchen of this tightly-packed apartment in Helsinki, Finland, Susanna and Jussi tore down the ceiling and wall cabinets with the help of Jussi’s father, a skilled craftsman. “Behind the cabinets we found lovely little nooks that work perfectly as shelves for things like salt and pepper mills. When you strip everything to its original state, you are able to see what the house is truly about.”
Photo by: Petra Bindel
In Kansas City, architecture firm Kem Studio designed an adaptable house for a musician on a budget. They kept materials simple. The frame is standard wood; with studs every 24 inches rather than the typical 16 inches, it economizes on timber. The exterior is reclaimed cypress and steel, an inexpensive cladding that references resident Sarah Magill’s farm roots. “This was a project where you’re using basic things, but you’re using them in new and unique ways,” architect Jonathon Kemnitzer says. The 1,250-square-foot house came in at about $235,000, or $188 per square foot.
Magill and Copa, her golden retriever, relax in the kitchen of her home in Kansas City, where an eco-quartz-topped island can be used as a dining table—one of the home’s many adaptable features. The Akurum cabinets and handles are from Ikea, as are the Franklin folding bar stools, and the appliances are compact models from Summit. The maple floors are composed of inexpensive “shorts” left over from other projects and sold at a discount.
A tight construction budget informed the choices Sean Guess made as he designed a house for a couple in Austin, Texas. Budget-minded materials, like the James Hardie fiber-cement siding, helped hold construction costs to $130 per square foot. Sherwin-Williams’s Cyberspace hue colors the exterior and Parakeet coats the custom kitchen cabinets by Austin Wood Works. The planter is made from Cor-Ten steel.
Guess used inexpensive graded pine plywood so that he would get heavy grain patterns on the surfaces. One of the main goals in the kitchen was simplicity. To that end, he opted for a poured-in-place concrete island. "We didn’t know if we could afford to do that, but we found a great subcontractor [Nate Francis of Countertop Creations] here who had never really built anything like that," Guess says. "Because he was interested in giving it a shot and adding it to his portfolio, he didn’t charge an exorbitant amount of money because it was sort of an experiment for him as well." The kitchen features a GE Profile refrigerator and KitchenAid range, microwave, and dishwasher. The sink and faucet are from Kohler. The project's builder was Joe Doherty with Custom Homecrafters of Austin.
A steeply sloped site in the Wisconsin forest plus a tight budget led architect Brian Johnsen to reinvent the archetypal cabin for a sturdy vacation home. The 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, 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.
In 2008, architects Tiffany Bowie and Joe Malboeuf purchased a 28-foot-wide vacant lot in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood with the plan to build a home. It was an economically precarious time, so Bowie and Malboeuf put the build on hold for a couple of years. During that period, a Seattle zoning change made it possible to build three units instead of two on the property. Increasing the project’s size made financing more feasible and profitability more likely. Bowie designed the project so that it was permitted as a single structure. “There is a certain economy of scale when you construct one building with multiple units in that you have one siding bid, one foundation bid, and so on,” Bowie says. “That can save you money on the overall cost since it minimizes the number of subcontractors and construction phases. From a financing aspect, there was less risk to the bank since we were building two additional units to sell and cover the cost of construction for the entire project.” The architects set a $200-per-square-foot budget at the outset; it came in under that number at $189 per square foot for design, build, and permitting costs.
“We chose materials that are durable as well as cost effective and splurged in a few areas where we could afford to,” Malboeuf says. He and Bowie specified Carrara marble for backsplashes in the kitchens but opted for thin-cut white quartz for the counters. “You save a lot of money using countertops just two centimeters thick,” Bowie says. Malboeuf stands at a Fisher & Paykel refrigerator in the kitchen. He and Bowie shopped around to find appliances that balance cost and performance: the dishwasher is Bosch, the gas cooktop is Dacor, and the oven is Fagor. Walnut veneer clads the cabinets, and the floors are bamboo.
Intrinsik Architecture, a progressive, collaborative Bozeman, Montana, created this 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 resident Brian Whitlock’s frequent parties. The second floor features his home office, his bedroom, a guest room, and a tranquil space for yoga.