Modern House Challenge | Part 2

September 2, 2010 — 22 Comments

Modern House Challenge Front Entry

I wrote a post back on August 02, 2010 that discussed the possibility of designing and building a low cost modern house. This is no small task because modern houses, with their clarity often misunderstood as simplicity, are actually demanding and require a skill level of the contractor building such a house to think and plan far in advance of the current status of the work. This type of skill comes at a cost and getting a contractor who simply fits the bill as a low cost provider to build a modern house will yield you a house that is something different all-together. I have been reading up on my Richard Neutra and Marcel Breuer, looking at the plans and detailing that they used to see if I couldn’t get a glimpse into the idea that the construction process would be simplified (and mechanized) in a manner that would expedite the construction process which we all know means the end result would cost less.

I didn’t get very far – those guys were better than me and I think things like production methods and skill of the average worker have change. We also know that as creative types, I have no interested in mimicking the past and recreate it, I want to infuse my own Bob-ness into the process (after all, that is what the clients are paying extra for…)

There is a good friend of mine who approached about a year ago to design for him and his family a modern style weekend home. While he appears to be doing pretty well for himself (evidence – he can afford me **snap, gun fingers + smirk/wink**), he isn’t King Midas. This was to be a weekend house just outside of town and they wanted it to be done as cost effectively as possible (who wouldn’t?). During our initial conversations, he wanted to set the budget at $125/ SF and I told him I didn’t know if I could do that … I’ve been to their house and if the finish level there was to be any indication, cargo boxes and un-air conditioned tensile structures (tents)were not what they had in mind. Another reason I had my doubts was that this project was located in the middle of nowhere and I couldn’t attest to the availability of materials or the skill level of the contractors available to us. In addition, we would have to install propane, run underground electrical about 500 feet to get from the road to the house, and put in a septic system. I am a city-boy (man) and my knowledge of septic systems is poop flows downhill and bacteria blahbedity blah blah blah. I don’t know how much those things cost or how much dynamite would be required to put them in the cliff-like rock site they had purchased (quite lovely really).


Lower Level plan


Upper Level Plan

This is the plan I came up for them. The program was fairly organic but there was a focus on:

  • provide sleeping arrangements for 5 immediate family members (and the possibility to host a large contingent of hanger-on’s and extended family members)
  • usable exterior space
  • separation between grown-ups and children
  • star-gazing exterior deck

Challenges that I placed upon myself  were:

  • design to a building module to avoid waste (16″, 32″ and 48″)
  • simple roof forms to avoid extensive and “tricky” flashing details
  • off the shelf window units and sizes
  • use local masonry for accent
  • low maintenance exterior metal box-profile siding

When the design development phase was completed, we had the design development drawings budget-priced by what has since become the contractor on the project. We initially had 3 different construction firms look at the drawings and ended up selecting the contractor who did what he said he would do and asked the most questions during the bid phase. (*Note to contractors: Architects don’t mind questions, they let us know that you are actually looking at our drawings).

We ended up with 3,257 total built square footage with a construction budget cost = $126/SF. Another way of looking at this is 2,632 air-conditioned space = $156/SF. Not bad if I do say so myself. In an effort of full disclosure, the price will go up from here. These were construction budget numbers and there were lots of unknowns still involved – one example is that the owners were thinking IKEA cabinets that they would put together themselves whereas I am trying to talk them into allowing the contractor to essentially build MDF boxes and paint the cabinets (and then pay for some super-awesome hardware for some flash!) I would think that the delta between the toe is minimal really but having the cabinets built would cost slightly more. For a while, I had them thinking clear-stained vertical grain rift cut white oak – they don’t have that much cabinetry – 24 linear feet in the kitchen – and it would add some warmth and textural interest to the space.


Modern House Challenge Front Elevation


Modern House Challenge West Elevation


Modern House Challenge Rear Elevation


Modern House Challenge East Elevation


Modern House Challenge Aerial 01


Modern House Challenge Aerial 02


Modern House Challenge Section 01


So you might be thinking what does this house have to do with the “Low Cost Modern House Challenge?” Hopefully not but just in case I will tell you; this is something that I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about and working on. Maybe it started off as a self-serving exercise since I myself would like a brand new modern house and I know that I can’t afford what is out there on the market – the good news is that I think I am qualified to do something about that. Form, massing, light, material quality – these are all ethereal things that I define for myself their worth and value. You may not like corrugated metal siding but I do when used a particular way and detailed in a manner that elevates it’s humble status to something more sublime. The house I designed above has just a few little tricks going on – most of which can’t be appreciated at this macro scale. Things like how a material turns the corner, or how the second level form cantilevers over the windows to recapture some exterior space which assigns it as an implied use … hard to see, easier to experience.

It might be hard to tell at this scale but the ceiling in the main living space (as indicated in the section above) follows the shape of the roof to provide some height and volume to a room that has an 8′-0″ plate line. In order to distribute electrical, air conditioning duct work, plumbing lines, etc. I created a dropped soffit that runs along the circulation space parallel to the main wall. This soffit makes distribution extremely simple and therefore cost effective. A trained eye will probably see that the building is made up of two rectangular extrusions – one with a shed roof and the other with a gable roof and I just offset them from one another to create some very simple building massing that hopefully looks a little more interesting than describing it.

Weekend House – Low Cost Modern Residence from Bob Borson on Vimeo.

All of these things I discussed are going to play an important role in the Low Cost Modern House Challenge. And $160/ SF is pretty nice and is hopefully in the neighborhood of where the LCMHC house eds up.

(we need to come up with a better name and a logo – any takers out there?)



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  • Greg

    Just found this article today. I’m curious as to what happened with the result of this? Was the house built and were you able to stay within the $160/sq. ft price?

  • Aung Kyaw Soe

    Very nice design Bob, really like this.

  • theresa

    Hi Michael
    I have enjoyed your blog. I am currently in the process of renovating a coastal home in the UK and have a zinc covered ‘pod ‘ which will be the master bedroom at the top most level of the house. Could you advise me as I believe the zinc has been fitted incorrectly allowing water to run behind the panels from the sofit. I have vertical panels of VMC zinc which meet the sofit panels. The downward return of the soffit panels ( a very short return ) actually run behind behind the vertical panels and therefore water is forced behind the panel. In addition at the base of the panels there is a ventilation gap but no protection for the batons behind the zinc. Common sense tells me that the wood is at risk of rotting. Any Ideas

    • Who is Michael?

      The sort of advice your asking for is not conversational and I don’t provide technical advice on the blog. There simply isn’t enough information here to warrant a guess.

  • Michael

    Bob, a name for the project (which I am very interested in). NeoSimplex Home. I’m not as good with logos as I am with words. Regards
    Camas, WA

  • Barabbas

    Bob, very cool design. I’m assuming you modeled the sketchup yourself? Are you familiar with the sketchup sandbox toolset? If not, then prepare to meet your new best friend.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve presented a model only to have people comment on why I’ve decided to “terrace the landscape” (head-palm!).
    If you just draw the contour lines at their respective heights, you can use the sandbox tools to create a smooth landscape.

  • $160/sf is an amazing feet. I can’t wait to see it go up! (the building that is.)

    • I’ll publish progress photos as they happen. This project should move forward this fall. The client is excited to get started (as am I).

      Thanks Brandon

  • MSHI – Modern Sustainable Housing Initiative? (why not everyone loves that term)

    Keep working at it, I know you can pull it off. In fact I tell you what, you get it designed, I will do the energy modeling for you & we can see how low we can get not only the build costs, but also their utility costs (win, win?)

  • morganrobertmurphy


    Great post, I hope your intent is to allow us to follow you through this entire process by updating posts with construction photos etc. The vernacular landscape of the Austin hill country, which I am lucky to drive through everyday, would provide wonderful site for LCMHC homes like these. I am glad the local stone front wall is not glazed. I believe this design detail has become a bit cliché and redundant, and I feel glazing it would only corrupt your attempt to elegantly define the axial details (although Dwell might disagree seeing that adding a glass wall as such could provide them with a cover money shot, and only if the exterior photo captures your friend emotionlessly ascending the stairs). I also feel it provides the structure with an “in situ” connection with with surrounding landscape. Just curious to one design detail. What is your design intent regarding the facade enclosing of the rear exterior stair which leads to the second floor outdoor space? Maybe a living wall to provide ornament and a visual barrier for anything stored in that space? Just curious to your plans for that facade and space under the stair.


    ps. I am attempting to rack my brain for alternative options regarding the the logo and challenge title, but as the clock creeps closer to 3am my brain screams for shut eye. Tomorrow I will return with something fresh!

  • I would probably put my Shipping Container castle in a wooded area some where in Iowa. Right now it is a dream, but someday, who knows.

  • I would probably put my Shipping Container castle in a wooded area some where in Iowa. Right now it is a dream, but someday, who knows.

  • Good answer. My initial thought was the same regarding the band of windows at the 2nd bath. I don’t like a ‘dark’ stairway, but I’m not the architect for this house, which is a very nice design. Is the stone going to be dry stacked?

    Check out this firm (if you haven’t already):

  • Anonymous

    You are crazy but let me know when you’re ready to start the design and we’ll make it an event.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Keith,

    I’ll take your 5 cents anytime.

    There are a few reasons why there are no windows in the stair tower. First and foremost it’s because this is the mass that acts as the anchor and visual pivot for the 2nd story mass that floats out from the floor below. One of the things I changed in the construction documents that the model doesn’t indicate is that the orientation of the metal siding runs horizontally; it accentuates the relationship of that mass to the rest of the building more successfully. This change, as a result, makes that masonry stair mass all that more important.

    The second reason is that I really dislike when you look at an a modern house and can tell where the stairs are located because of the marching windows punched into the mass. YUK. I looked at adding a band of horizontal windows at the top where the landing is but it took something away from the horizontal windows located in the metal siding located just to the side.

    Long enough answer?

  • Nice……can’t wait to see it built…one question, why no glazing in the stair ‘tower’….I get the composition of the front and such, but it looks like you could ‘sneak’ some windows in on the short side or maybe skylight (enter stage left, a tricky flashing detail)?……my unsolicited 5 cents

  • If I had an unlimited budget, I would build a massive shipping container house! I think they are the coolest thing in the world, but that is just me. Ultimately I don’t want a shipping container home, as much as I want a shipping container Castle!

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I mean shipping containers. Ugh – those things make you think Lego blocks but all I think of are those habitrail tubes for gerbils. Maybe stick one or three out in the back acre but to live in one gives me the shudders.

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad you like it. The site is about 90 minutes west of Dallas. There are several aspects that make this particular design not well suited for an urban lot but in this case, the lot is around 5 acres and fronts onto a nature preserve with amazing views.

  • I like the design. When you say cargo boxes, do you mean shipping containers? It is my dream to one day have a house built from shipping containers. I love how they look. It is perhaps owing to my love of Lego blocks as a child.

  • Where is this going to end up? I like this a lot.