Low Cost Modern House Challenge

Bob Borson —  August 2, 2010 — 96 Comments

The Incredibles House

I am starting a side project  – one I don’t have time for but it has been nagging at me for a long time. I am going to take on a challenge to design a low cost modern home. This is going to be a single family detached home with all the program requirements you would assume to accompany a new home. What this project will not be: 

  • a dressed up mobile home
  • a prefab box
  • it will not be made of shipping containers or reclaimed wooded pallets
  • made of cardboard
  • a do-it-yourself assembly project

This is to be a real world project and if I can pull it off on paper and I can find a piece of land that supports the model, I will escalate it and get the funding to build it. 

Container Homes HyBrid Seattle - not doing this

The main reasons I want to do this is I am starting to wonder if the low cost modern house is Santa Claus – something you believe in until to get old enough and learn enough to know better. I get asked all the time how much does a house cost – the question takes time to answer and I can almost see it the the question-asker’s eyes after I have been answering the question for 10 minutes, they wished they hadn’t asked. Think of it this way – you go to the movies and want to get some popcorn so you go up to the counter manned by the disinterested ADHD teen (played by me because I used to do this to people when I worked at the movie theatre): 

You: “I’d like some popcorn please, what size popcorn do you have?”
Teen Bob: “All our popcorn is the same size” (holding thumb and index finger about an inch apart from one another) 
You: “No, what sizes of containers can I get the popcorn in?”
Teen Bob: (looking at the 3 different size containers sitting…right…there…in…front…of…you…) “Regular, small and extra small” (otherwise known in the thinking person’s world as regular, medium and large)
You: “Well, I don’t want an extra small and since I’m…..well, okay, I’ll get the regular.”
Teen Bob: “That will be $9.50 please.”


Do you see how stupid your popcorn questions were? Back to architecture now – when people ask how much does a house cost, can you see now that the question isn’t a very good one? How big, where is it located, what style, what amenities, landscaping, is there a pool, would you like butter on that…? Get it? I think the question people seem to want to ask is how cheap can a modern home be and not look cheap. That, is a good question and I am glad people don’t ask it very often because I can’t answer it yet. 

Modern design used to be about the mechanization of the process thereby making a thing affordable to all – that isn’t true anymore. In my office, we can’t do a good modern house for less than $200 a square foot, and that’s only  if the clients don’t want a bunch of name brand stainless steel appliances that rhyme with “Viking”. You other designers that read this blog – have you done a kitchen lately for less than $20k? Don’t lie to me…. 25 linear feet of cherry upper and lower cabinets by themselves will cost you $15k to $17k installed. Now add appliances…..things get out of hand really quick don’t they? Plug in $12k for appliances and another $6k for stone counter tops. Don’t forget $1k for sink and faucet. A $35,000 kitchen won’t work in this challenge but I don’t think it has to (thankfully). 

Taliesin West Modern Pre-fab - not doing this either

So, the next few steps should be interesting because I need to flesh out the programming, square footage, amenities, etc. and see what I come up with. I also need to determine what is low cost – and that is a value question. Just like the expression “you get what you pay for” the same can be said “you don’t get what you don’t pay for” and I am interested in the latter. To me, the first phrase is about getting more for less and that means sacrificing value, or at the very least quality and I am not interested in a no quality or no value low cost modern home challenge. The latter is about getting what you pay for but you are setting the expectation level appropriately – that’s a far better and worthwhile challenge. 

This low cost modern home will need to have all the low-hanging fruit that you would expect: 

  • Living Area
  • Bedroom (2) minimum
  • Bathroom (2) minimum
  • Kitchen/ Dining
  • Bonus room (office, library, etc. – a multi-purpose space)
  • Outdoor storage
  • Place to park your vehicles

There should also be a consideration for ecological minded, earth-friendly and sustainable design as part of this challenge. I am sure that I will receive a lot of advice and direction in this area (feel free tree huggers) but I honestly do not expect this house to have exotic sustainable features like; wind turbine, geo-thermal, or a giant solar array. I expect to have some solar, good insulation, efficient footprint and floor plan, passive thermal and the like – but feel free to offer up an opinion – I want it. 

I also think there is going to have to be some study on the square footage and a balance between any exterior built-out space. My initial thoughts are that a 2 bedroom unit will have approx. 1,400sf while a 3 bedroom unit would be over 2,000sf, maybe as much  as 2,200 square feet total. 

I think this  challenge is going to be a lot of fun and I hope you regulars will chime in with an opinion, in fact, I am counting on it.

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  • Altoidian

    My idea would be first
    to start with the question; “What a “home” should provide to the
    occupants?”, or, put another way, “What do the occupants want from
    the home?”. First answer most people would give to those questions is
    comfort. How much actual space or cubic feet of living volume does each person
    need in order to find the space comfortable? One might start with a very small
    space, such as (for argument’s sake) a prison cell…people do live in them.
    The bare minimum living space would thus be about 2.5 meters, 1.75 meters or
    about 5 m2. My home, which I find just about perfect in space is about 150 m2,
    with two people living in it..or about 75 m2 per person. That would give us a
    starting point of around 160 m2 for a family of four to find maximum comfort. I
    think that is a huge difference, 5 m2 minimum to 40 m2 per person (about 1,500
    ft2 for a family of 4) average per person. Now we can say, almost certainly no
    one would want to be permanently confined to only 5 m2. And most would agree,
    they could find comfort in 160 m2. The thing a minimalist home builder should
    then ask is how much less would the average person tolerate and still find
    comfort? I believe a great deal of that “comfort” can be found in
    design alone. For example, I think my home would be much more comfortable
    if the divisions of space within it were of different proportions entirely.

    to your formula, you have divided your spaces into areas almost everyone would
    find familiar…bedrooms, baths, kitchens, dining, etc. These are spaces
    primarily divided into areas dedicated to things to do…eat, sleep, visit, bathe,
    study, etc. However, I suggest those “things to do” could be
    easily accommodated into something we might think of as appliances— what if
    instead of bedrooms, we simply had “sleeping accommodations”? Why
    consume vast areas of a home just for a room to place a bed (the appliance). Or
    why dedicate an entire area simply for food preparation and another for
    consuming that food? What if we started thinking about what it is within the
    home that really pleases us? Is it privacy? Is it community? Each person is very
    likely to have different evaluations toward those desirable portions of a home.
    So, I think the home itself should be minimal in the things we find less
    desirable and maximal in the things we find most desirable. That means any
    future home must be designed in such a way as to be as flexible as possible
    toward those functions.

    my mind, I see a home as starting out as one huge interior space, void of rooms
    and doors. That space should be properly heated, cooled and ventilated to give
    the people as comfortable an envelope as possible. There should then be
    openings to allow natural light and ease of entrance and exit. Suppose we began
    with a space about 25 m2 per person? So,
    a four person space would be about 100 m2 at a minimum (about 1,100 ft2). The
    very first consideration must be privacy. How much space does each person
    require for their personal privacy? That’s a good question, indeed. Again, I
    expect everyone is different. But, what if we started with a “cell”
    instead of a bedroom? It would certainly be unpopular to call it a cell, but we
    might get away with calling it our “Private rroom” This flies in the face
    of convention, I know. People need places for their clothing and their nick-knacks
    and their personal belongings. They need places to go just to get away from
    other people for a while. So, the space should be just enough for a bed, a
    small study desk and a minimal wardrobe to hold a change from day clothing to
    evening or lounging clothing. Perhaps each person has a much larger wardrobe in
    the “community” space. What if the bathrooms were much larger to accommodate a
    community closet in which each person’s clothing and various storage items were
    kept in. Why do we need to use up valuable interior comfort zone space storing
    clothing we may not wear for six months? What if that large “stuff” storage
    space was in the unheated garage space thus giving us much more actual living
    space? Why do we need to keep our washing machine and dryer in the “living
    space”? Those appliances can go to the garage space as well, with openings only
    to the living space? What if instead of
    bulky closets, we had small storage areas better described as “lockers” located
    in the community bath areas? Now the ratios of “sleeping” space to actual
    community/functional space changes dramatically.

    The idea is to reduce
    space in which we actually do very little other than sleep or recline and add
    that ‘saved” space to areas in which we do a lot.

    The food preparation
    area has to be changed, too. Modern families seldom actually do what we used to
    call, “Cooking” and instead that space is really more like a community “break
    bar”. The microwave oven has almost entirely replaced the range that families
    used to require. We certainly need to keep our ready reserve of food available,
    in both refrigerated and dry storage. But, one might ask, why do we need to
    keep so much of it readily available? I think one very good though
    conventionally unrealistic example of this space might be Jerry Seinfeld’s
    apartment “kitchen” (from the popular TV show Seinfeld). He had a small refrigerator,
    a counter and a few small cupboards in which it seems he kept only dry
    breakfast cereal. Perhaps there was a small range, a place for a coffee brewer
    and a sink. That might be fine for a single person. A family of four would
    likely require something a bit larger, especially for dishes. But, I might
    suggest the entire modern kitchen should be revamped to fit the actual reality
    of modern life styles. A smaller stove, certainly a sink and refrigerator…but
    the actual storage spaces could be greatly reduced. I think the whole thing
    could be adapted into a space called a “Kitchen wall” as opposed to a “kitchen room”. The dining area would be part of
    a kind of universal room, used for ‘cooking”,
    dining, visiting, study and relaxation in which the Kitchen Wall would be
    located. There could be a much larger room that combined all these functions,
    which instead of a “Living room” we would call the “Unity Room”- one large
    living space that accommodated the kitchen, dining, living, den and study
    functions of the family. With proper design, the problems associated with
    cooking, such as odors, grease vapors, etc could be managed.

    The entire home would
    thus be divided into one large community room and a few very small sleeping/privacy
    rooms. I think special consideration should be applied to the interior spaces
    with creative ideas incorporated for storage spaces. In my home, at present, we
    have fully 1/3 of our living space dedicated to storage, hallways and
    bathrooms. These spaces really contribute very little to our actual comfort
    area, aside, of course, for the bathing and bodily functions needs. Those
    actual areas could be greatly reduced in size or eliminated all together and
    accomplish the same functions. Our bathing rooms could easily be reduced by
    half in size and still be comfortable to get around in and perform our needs.
    With the great “unity room” the halls completely eliminated.

    I should express, also,
    the idea that a home is not all about space and function. Our homes allow us to
    express a reflection of who we are as individuals. So, some thought must be
    given toward the individual creativity we use to make our home’s become what we
    feel is an extension of ourselves. The home should be pretty, and somewhat
    unique in appearance with flexibility to let us make our own mark on it’s
    appearance. Within the home, I really
    like the idea of movable/removable walls, which would allow us the ability to
    change our division ratios at will according to both whim and functional needs.

    With these ideas I
    therefore suggest a new kind of home, which might be thought of as a kind of
    cross between a functioning conventional home and a more well thought out mobile
    or motor home. It would certainly change our relationship with our home in the
    conventional sense, be much more compact in space, more economical to purchase
    and to maintain and yet, give us even more in the way of comfort and meeting
    our everyday living needs as participants in modern society.

    My guess is it would be
    about 60 to75 m2, with the following ratios of space…living or common space,
    about 55%, sleeping space about 30% and interior storage and bathing space
    about 15%.

    By the requirements you
    have set out, you have limited the home design away from modular construction.
    But, I expect modular would be the most economical way to build such a home,
    especially considering the unique nature of replacing much furniture and
    storage space with built-in functions. I would even go so far as to actually offer
    built-in beds, dining area and, of course, the “kitchen wall”. Factory built modular construction offers extra
    opportunities for better electrical, HVAC, insulation and newer if
    unconventional building materials, such as fiberglass, carbon fiber, blown
    plastics and injection molded products, such as cabinets, doors and roofing (to
    name a few). Also, modular factory construction can offer quality and accuracy that
    would allow the home later expansion and remodeling. Imagine if you could take
    your car in to have the latest model accessories installed instead of having to
    buy a whole new car every few years. This home could offer the same flexibility.

    I believe a whole new
    way of home purchasing should also be part of the project. Instead of outright
    buying the home and going through all the details of finance, why not make a
    home leasing project, making the homes readily available without huge down
    payments or financial outlay? What if the builders or even the community
    offered the land and pads and the manufacturers could simply deliver the home
    to the pre fabricated pads, complete with utility hookups, assemble it and hand
    you the keys…all in a day or two?

    I have been a builder
    for many years (now retired). I saw a great many unconventional homes built
    that had great, new ideas on every aspect of home construction, from material,
    to design to financing. They all were absolutely crushed by the conventional
    banking and government guarantee companies that insisted every home must have
    the same materials and design as all standard homes with a few size,
    landscaping and exterior differences. Those homes had to be as conservative as
    possible in order to receive financing. This must change before any
    unconventional home ideas are allowed to flourish. Today, you can see we are
    actually still building almost exactly the same style of homes we built in
    1958, 1979, 1988, 1999…we have really not advanced in home design, finance and
    construction but very little if at all in that time. It is long past time we
    totally revamped what a home really is.

    Finally, we must
    consider the question; “Is the public ready for such a home?” I actually
    believe they are, provided the homes were properly designed, well built,
    offered on the market with creative financing and futuristic flexibility for
    expansion and remodeling potential. All it is going to take is one bold investor
    to kick it off. The whole concept of what it means to have a home would change…I
    think for the better…except, of course, for the conventional banking industry.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Longest comment ever –

  • Mitt Bama

    The minimum rooms should be 4 (includes the bonus room).

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  • Debbie Pelzmann

    Any update on this challenge? I’m curious to know if, five years later, your thoughts on modern housing cost have become more optimistic or less!

  • Jenifer Sharkey Ray

    So did you manage to come up with a design? I’m trying to find a modern home in Columbus, OH and it seems to be an impossible dream for under $500k. It’s all the same, boring, traditional homes….meh.

  • Jay

    Perhaps the answer is “take the time to save, and once I have saved enough, I will have an answer to this challenge in 20yrs+” :).

    – Gal who will always dream of an affordable modern home.

  • dacaldera

    Hi Bob, Interesting proposition here. I was under the impression that as technology progresses and better materials become available that the cost of building a modern house would decrease. But here we are in 2015 with $250/sqft prices! I dont get it. Why haven’t architects been able to bring the costs down while still providing a quality product. I know that prefab is a step in the right direction, but still not the right answer. So where does one begin designing a low cost house and at what stage do all the costs really begin to add up? answer it if you can. Afterall, the foundation and the frame are the bulk of the structure and that, I presume, is not the bulk of the cost. Is it that we become ambitious by purchasing the finest interior finishings like the kitchen that you mention that the costs of building a house skyrocket?

    • Altoidian

      It all has to do with the banking people. New designs are available. But, banks simply refuse to loan against them. Believe me, I’ve tried to get banks to lighten up on unconventional home designs…it’s like pulling teeth from a cocodile.

  • GG SanDiego

    So? How’s the design coming along? I’m waiting. . . .

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I am waiting too …
      Sadly, no development to report

  • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

    some of what you say is true, but some couldn’t be further from the truth (a wild guess on your part at best). I wish I was able to get $75/ft fee on a $250/ft house – that is a laughably ignorant comment.

    Getting to simple is not as easy as people seem to think, and the number of people who drag in pictures of modern houses and state – “look how simple this is, it should be cheap! and then show me a house that has $500+ square foot construction budget are more the norm than not.

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  • Ron Reygan

    I am working on the same type of design for a 15 to 30 home development. Please let me know what you have come up with and any other links that might be helpful. We will be using geothermal, solar panels, radiant heated floors, fiber Crete or hemp Crete for the walls. Its funny that every one has to have the new smart phone, the new innovative car with all the safety features but they continue to ignore that their house is inefficient and not secure. I believe security needs to be added to your challenge list.

    • Altoidian

      See my post above.

  • ower

    For us diy’er can you break down the $250/sq foot number into labor and materials?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      That’s a really hard thing to do and is asking this “rule of thumb” methodology to do something more specific than intended. Without specific moving parts, it’s like trying to ask someone to value a car by the pound.

  • Flora Xiao

    Do you receive emails from people responding to this idea with their designs and plans for a low cost modern house? If so, how often?

  • lulu

    are you still there?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      for the most part

      • lulu

        Hi. I came across this blog when searching for inexpensive contemporary homes, which I am beginning to believe is a platonic or non existing term. I just want a modern house but refuse to pay even $250 per sq ft. I have the design I want. I am about to buy a property and have been asking around since I have a few friends in the business. Finally decided to go with the GC who says we should be able to do the house for $200!!! I do not care about imported materials nor expensive faucets, toilets, etc. I just want functionality…..but it has to be modern. Can do concrete floors as well since I love them.

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  • Chet Schutzki

    Hi Bob,
    I’ve come across your website awhile ago, but have been following it regularly through facebook the past few months. I’m an “architect in training” in Dallas, and I appreciate the things you have written about the profession.
    I am intrigued by your ideas about affordable, modern homes, and the past few years I have had some of the same ideas. I have developed designs to explore this idea as myself as the client. My requirements for size, number of bedrooms, and number of bathrooms are a little different as I’m a single guy with just my dog!
    I have not had my drawings priced yet, so I’m not sure if my ideas are truly “affordable”. However, reading your posts similar to this one has kept me motivated to continue my exploration of this idea!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      if you figure it out, you will have essentially won the golden ticket. Trying to find something that meets mainstream needs and fits mainstream budgets is a lot harder than people think. People thought prefabricated and modular housing (units) were going to provide the solution.

      They haven’t.

      Good luck! and thanks