Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Father's Home in Willits

With the down turn in the economy there are understandably a lot of questions from potential clients about how to build things on a tight budget.  I frequently point them to a project done up in Willits for my father several years ago.

A lot is written about square footage cost.  This is a coefficient that can be readily applied to just about any project and because of this it is a popular way for people to get their head around building cost and compare relative costs.  But there are a lot of hidden costs to a project that are either included or not include in this figure depending on the point someone is trying to make and the nature of the building type.

In the residential world for example, when one speaks of the square footage cost of a home, one often takes the construction cost of the building itself and divides it by the heated space square footage.  The cost of the garage and the other "servant spaces" go along for the ride and contribute to the square footage cost of the residence proper.  To include square footage costs that are not actually the square foot in question often strikes people as odd.  This is understandable but it is important to realize people are trying to focus on the cost per square foot of living space with all the building related prerequisites.  Conversely it is quite typical (though not categorically so) to not include the cost of the sitework (driveway, utility trenching etc.). This is part of a civil engineering universe that usually doesn't apply to the construction cost of the home itself.  The whole thing can get quite convoluted.  

Having said all this, we did my fathers house for roughly $150 a square foot.  This was done back in the mid 90's.  Even back then, that number was eye-catchingly low for a custom residence.  I don't want to frame our solution as a recipe for how anyone can build a home for $150 a square foot.  The real answer is that you use all the resources you have at your disposal and you don't invest in anything that you don't deem necessary.  

Its important to realize that most spec homes are not built this way.  At least not this second criteria dealing with neccessity.  Why?  Because a spec home needs to appeal to a broad enough audience to stay marketable out of the gate and different people have surprising tolerances for inexpensive solutions.  They also want surprising amenities and I like to believe that you can build pretty affordably if you don't try and trick your house out with every amenity to a middle-of-the-bell-curve-or-greater extent.  

My father, for example, did not need a dishwasher, a door bell, an enclosed garage or a ducted forced air system.  His house was 900 square feet and a carport with a large closet was sufficient for his "garage" needs.  Because this two bedroom house is so small there is virtually no hallway.  Everything is built around a central music-making living room.  

We also went radically light on the floor.  Except in the bathroom and the kitchen (where we used linoleum) we used floor paint over his plywood subfloor.  We didn't put down any additional carpet or wood flooring down.  He uses area rugs. The outside of the house is simply painted exterior grade plywood siding with battens applied at 12" on center.  We debated the need for the battens but the fact is they help to conceal the nails and plywood joints.  Most custom homes these days add a layer of siding.

My father also hired a general contractor as the job foreman and took on the general contracting responsibilities himself.  This avoided the usual 15% to 20% markup.  I wouldn't recommend this approach for everyone.  He and I talked a lot and he was a conscientious presence on the site.  He is also someone who has gone all his life with little to no health insurance so he is use to avoiding the moral hazards associated with lots of liability protection.

On the flip side of things we invested in a couple things he really cared about.  He got a nice wood stove and a 24 gage painted corrugated metal roof that was expressed on the interior of the house as a vaulted ceiling.  Fine Homebuilding had an article several years ago that opined that a vaulted ceiling usually increases the building's typical square footage cost by 50% in that area.  Part of the reason for this is the expense usually associated with more complicated drywall installation or the finished lumber work involved with exposed beams. We tried to offset this tendency by simply using conventional framed lumber in the ceiling.  This included simply exposing the framing plywood.  But this roof was still expensive.  The insulation of a vaulted ceiling is typically complicated and this house was not exception.  We had to sandwich a layer of polyisocyanurate insulation on top of the interior plywood and a second layer of plywood to which the metal roof itself was attached.  At the end of it all he got a long lasting roof with good acoustics in the living room due to the high ceiling.  The clerestory windows also act as a cooling chimney for the house.

All in all the project was a study in surgically installing your wants and needs and dispensing with the unnecessary things.  In many ways this summarizes the undertaking of design.

The Interior Under Construction

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