It was August 10th, 2010 when I first conceived of the “Low-Cost Modern Home Challenge” with the intent to go through a design process that would help us understand how to design a modern house that people could afford and would actually want to live in … and what I learned was that this is almost impossible to achieve. Fast forward 12 years and I am going to give it another go with some slightly modified parameters.
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Today we are going to talk about something that I am doing up at my office that is a voluntary sort of side hustle – meaning, it’s not officially “work” (meaning it has no obligations associated with it and participation is not a requirement) but it still has some value and is a sanctioned activity for all that do decide to participate. But before we unbox all that, I need to address the interest that the original Modern House challenge generated … probably because I called it a “low cost” modern house challenge – emphasis on the low cost.
In a word … it was “bonkers”.
I received emails
I received random phone calls.
Most of the people who reached out to really wanted to know where they could find this “golden unicorn” because they wanted something like what they saw in various shelter magazines and a) couldn’t find it in the market, and b) wanted to spend $100/square foot to get it … which they felt was reasonable. I found myself explaining why modern design costs so much and what looked to them like a reduced amount of construction, was actually an extremely high level of execution. While that original challenge was ultimately unsuccessful, the experience has stuck with me for years, and I felt like maybe the time has come once again to dust it off and go through the exercise again.
Parameters jump to 5:09
At BOKA Powell, we have these cultural and task-focused groups called MOR groups and they are basically special interest clubs that allow people to participate in activities that might be outside their scope of daily activities. There are several of these MOR groups – Community Service MOR, Sustainability MOR, PD MOR, Operations MOR, etc. I run the Design MOR group and we meet every two weeks and cover all sorts of topics. Within Design MOR, we typically take on 1 or 2 design competitions each year and I recently decided that we are going to do a modern house challenge (the word “competition” sets the wrong tone for this exercise) and we are going to use the house-design sequence to work through our own individual design process. So just like a regular project, we are starting in the programming phase, making determinations on the size and types of rooms that will be required, lot discussions and how we place the house on the site, etc. After programming, we will then move into Schematic Design, and through design development, stopping just short of preparing construction drawings. We will continue to meet every two weeks and check in on everyone’s process and progress, focusing on all sorts of different considerations as appropriate for each person, while pinning our work up for group evaluation and discussion. In addition to pinning up drawings and sketches, I will have everyone learn how to use the 3D printer to go through massing studies, and on and on.
I will admit that I don’t have this all figured out – I am making it up as I go along. As part of this exercise, we spend part of our time discussing different parts of a residential project and how they can impact not only your design but the cost ramifications. Of course, with pricing being as crazy as it is, the conversations are focused on how things scale relative to another (slab on grade foundation versus a pier and beam foundation, how they work, why you would choose one over another, is there a financial premium to that decision, etc.).
In between our pin-ups, we will have some technical chats, and in my attempts to help support a robust conversation, I prepared a series of sketches to use as conversational starter pieces. Since I don’t prepare content for the specific goal of populating my social media feed – I just show what I am actually doing – I thought I would share some foundation sketches I prepared for our conversations … and I was absolutely destroyed. I don’t know if people want to help, or if they’re proving just how smart they are compared to how stupid I am, or what. I should know better but I know it’s coming for me. People get in the weeds at a level that boggles my mind without really knowing what the objective is – like I am producing a detail for construction. I left the sheathing off one of my sketches and nobody mentioned it, but the fact that I didn’t show the correct amount of concrete coverage for the embedded j-bolt and people jumped up out of their seats! (you can entertain yourself at my expense here)
Most of the people participating in this challenge have never designed a home before and so far, they’ve demonstrated all the things that you can imagine taking place. House sizes are all over the place, massing and site layout suggest that some people are designing a house for a Bond Villain. I know that they haven’t thought about what the roof might look like on their massing, how they will distribute air – I should point out that this project will be in Dallas, Texas on a typical R7.5 lot which means there is 7,500 square feet of land to the site.
Schedule jump to 16:13
Technically we are going to go through this all in 4 total months – which is super aggressive considering that this is a free time exercise. If I could spread it out to be a bit longer so we could focus in on some areas I probably would, but I also don’t want to pull something off the to-do list that we would normally tackle in our Design MOR meetings. As a result, we are going to spend approximately 4 months from start to end of this exercise, which equates to 8 scheduled meetings. Of those, roughly half are pinups and presentations of the work being created, and the other half are check-ins and construction chats on different considerations to a residential project (i.e. foundations, wall sections, mechanical systems) and then there are rabbit holes in each of these categories that could be elaborated upon outside of our normal meeting time (windows, framing techniques, roofing, and so on).
There is a lot to cover and I am already conceding that we will not have enough time to cover everything that we could.
Programming jump to 22:07
We discussed the concept of a programming document in far greater detail in Ep 95: Schematic Design but programming was the topic of our very first meeting. We discussed what rooms should be included, how big (or small) should they be, who many people should be able to exist within the house? We also worked our way through the total home size, and discussed whether or not there is an appropriate size (of course there is …). This is really about finding a place within the market and trying to balance it with the eventual price tag. We did not put any requirements on undisturbed exterior space, mostly because I didn’t want to intentionally force someone into doing something wacky.
I personally have a goal of creating a product that would be considered market-ready – back to the original stated goal of designing a house that people would actually want to live in and would be viable in my neighborhood so as a result, I am targeting north of 2,000 square feet but south of 3,000 square feet. (nobody said this was a tiny house exercise … that’s a different sort of project)
Schematic Design jump to 33:24
So what exactly is schematic design? In short order, schematic design is the initial design phase in any project. The first step is called programming which is when the client and architect discuss the requirements of the project (how many rooms, the function of the phases, etc.), testing the fit between the owner’s needs, wants, and budget. This first phase is incredibly important but it is a fact-finding and data collection process, but the first time I get to put pen (or pencil) to paper is during the schematic design process. For this initial meeting, our goal is to turn our programming diagrams into functional plans. So what does this look like and how does it manifest itself into presentation materials? What sort of information would we pin up on the wall to support our narrative?
I also have the goal of teaching more people in the office how to use our 3D printer and using it as part of their overall design process. The residential group in our office currently uses it the most but it is a viable design tool for any of the projects we develop.
We have previously covered the entirety of what Schematic Design is on podcast episode 095: Schematic Design so if you would like a bit more elaboration on that process and what it looks like, it’s a great article.
Design Development jump to 36:32
Next up is Design Development, and for me, this represents how I was taught. During this phase, we will take the plans that we generated during schematic design and take everything vertical and start to show what our projects will look like as 3-dimensional buildings. We will start putting together exterior and interior elevations, discussing materials and finishes, roof layouts – this will be a really fun part of the process, and most likely the one that will feel the most pressed for time considering all the things we will want to cover as part of our discussions.
I hope to get into the materiality of these projects with the focus being on durability, cost, ready access, and the flexibility in the workforce to install them. This is a HUGE topic and I already know that we will not focus on it as a group in the manner it deserves.
Preparing construction drawings is not a part of this challenge, but it isn’t all that uncommon for us to engage with contractors and start to proof up our designs and get some preliminary estimates on the cost of the work generated so far. I would love to do this but this is not really a favor that I want to cash in on with my contractor buddies … unless they WANT to do it. So if you are a contractor and want to participate in this exercise and price this project, let me know and we can get something worked out.
Again, similar to schematic design, we have discussed Design Development as part of an ongoing residential design series and you can find it singularly broken out and discussed here.
What the Rank jump to 46:56
We are going to keep rolling on with a “worst” rank list and today, the category is brought to you by Andrew. He let me know a few hours ago what the topic was so I’ve had time to think about it … which might have only made things more confusing. Are you ready?
Today we are ranking [drum roll please] …. The worst three breakfast foods.
What are the Worst Three Breakfast Foods?
|Bob’s Worst 3 Breakfast Foods||Any Omelet||Grilled Tomatoes||Uncooked egg whites|
|Andrew’s Worst 3 Breakfast Foods||Lox||Oatmeal||Sweet Pastries|
Of all the lists we have done, I have a feeling that this list will be the most controversial … especially for Andrew because he has called out some breakfast stalwarts.
Ep 110: Modern Home Challenge
This was a fun conversation to have and I am excited to see how this exercise unfolds in the office. I have many objectives and goals in place for this challenge and just a few of them have anything to do with actually designing a house. However, I think everyone who is participating should strive to introduce a viable product in the market, with the goal being to develop a house that could actually get built and that people would actually want to buy. All the other things I have in mind, like thought process, methodology, presentation techniques, graphics, learning how to use the equipment in the office, these are all terrific outcomes for the overall process and if we get to have a bunch of interesting conversations about anything and everything along the way, everyone is the better for it.