Low Cost Modern House Challenge

Bob Borson —  August 2, 2010 — 92 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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  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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