What would make a house more affordable?
Two builders, one in Texas and the other in Oregon, offer some unconventional solutions.
The first thing, they said, is perhaps obvious — build a smaller house, and not just a notch or two below today’s average-sized 2,500-square-foot house. These builders are talking 650 to 1,200 square feet for a household of four.
The second place to save is materials. Lydia Doleman, who heads Flying Hammer Productions in southern Oregon, uses straw bales and other natural, minimally processed materials. Dan Phillips, owner of Phoenix Commotion in Huntsville, Tex., works with salvage, using materials from demolished structures that are widely available at little or no cost.
The third way to save is by doing some of the work yourself, and both these builders help their homeowners acquire basic home- building skills.
To make his houses affordable for his target market — low-income households, especially those headed by single parents and artists — Phillips sizes them according to building code minimums in his jurisdiction (240 square feet plus 100 square feet per occupant). This works out to about 650 square feet for a household of four and would include two bedrooms, a modest- sized bathroom, a kitchen/living area with “space to dine as a family,” and a “sleeping loft for the kids.” A larger household would have more space, but Phillips holds the line at one bathroom. He said he tends to go “lean on windows and storage,” but provides a generously sized covered porch that often wraps around three sides of his traditionally styled “Texas bungalows.”
The results could be forbiddingly austere, but not in the hands of this former dance instructor at the University of Houston who regards whimsy as an essential part of his designer’s tool kit. He uses 75 to 80 percent salvaged materials, giving the exteriors a rustic look (weathered wood siding and slightly rusting metal roofs) and unusual interior details (for example, a multicolored wood ceiling in a herringbone pattern made with hundreds of picture-framing samples). Phillips said his cost runs about $30 to $40 a square foot (about 60 to 70 percent below conventional new construction in his market); this works out to about $21,000 to $28,000 for a 700-square-foot house. His low- income clientele has been able to get financing from a local bank that has supported Phillips’s unusual venture.
Phillips insists that his homeowners participate in the planning and construction, not only to keep costs down, but also because “if you participate in the process, you’re vested in the results, and you’re committed to maintain the house.” The work is not just the “fun stuff,” he said. “You get dirty and sweaty and epithets escape from your mouth.” He also notes that his homeowners acquire the skills to enlarge their house if they find they need more space. Some of his homeowners, including several women, have become so adept at construction that they’ve gone on to careers in home building and remodeling.
Doleman, who began her professional career as a sculptor, says she favors straw bales and other natural materials such as earth plaster because of their plasticity and creative potential and because they are easier for novices to use. Though straw bales were once considered exotic, they are approved for home building in most states now, she said.
Doleman has built additions and backyard studios as small as 120 square feet. Her houses for a three- to four-person household average about 1,200 square feet. She can build the entire house or addition, but about three-quarters of the time she works with homeowners. The cost savings can be 10 to 15 percent (when the owners do the interior earth plaster wall finishes and gather friends and relatives to do the “bale raising”) or as much as 50 percent (when the owners also procure salvaged building materials such as doors and windows; remove trees, driveways or sidewalks prior to construction; and recycle everything to avoid dumping fees).
Homeowners who have worked with Doleman cited other benefits as well. Pedro Ferbel-Azcarate, who owns a house in Portland, Ore., said he was “not much more experienced than most homeowners” when he started building an addition with Doleman’s guidance, but he learned enough to convert his front porch into a home office on his own. Dan Carter, who built an 1,800 square-foot house with Doleman, said his input saved about 25 percent of the total cost, but that an equally compelling reason for using straw bales was that younger and less skilled people, including his two daughters, could become involved.
“It was hard, cold, stressful and we were often grouchy,” Carter’s 17-year-old daughter Rebecca said about the three-year project that unfolded over endless evenings and weekends. “But we’re closer because of it, and it’s pretty awesome.”
Are very small houses, built entirely or in part by their owners with unusual materials, becoming a trend? Lloyd Kahn’s “Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter,” (Shelter, $26.95), which profiles 150 builders and homeowners whose houses and studios are less than 500 square feet, has gone into its third printing in less than six months (it was first published in January).
Kahn said that going smaller seems to have universal appeal for very practical reasons: “People are making less money and have lost their jobs, but they still need shelter. With a small house you can avoid a mortgage and high rent.”
In our highly technological era, he added, there also seems to be a desire to “to do stuff for yourself with your own hands.”
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.katherinesalant.com.