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The ‘Low Cost Modern House’

Life of an Architect Podcast

The ‘Low Cost Modern House’

By Bob Borson, FAIA | September 30, 2018

Modern Design used to be about the mechanization of the process thereby making a thing affordable to the masses … but that doesn’t really seem to be the case anymore. With their clarity often confused with simplicity, modern houses require a far greater attention to execution and as a result, seem to surprise everyone with how expensive modern houses actually cost.


Quality versus Quantity [5:02 mark]

The phrase “big bag of nothing” comes out of my mouth more times than I care to admit – mostly because it seems like nobody understands what it means except for me. The meaning behind this phrase is a person who will talk at length about a subject they don’t know anything about. It’s not much different than saying someone is “full of hot air” or “all talk and no action”. Lately, I have been using this phrase while trying to describe different types of clients and the way they approach their construction budgets – and yes, it involves bags – (but in this case, the bag is a metaphor for the client’s project budget).


2015 US Census – Characteristic of New Housing [6:45 mark]

Average home size in the south in 1973 was 1,670 sf
Average home size in the South in 2015 was 2,750 sf

1973 = 12% 2 bedrooms     64% 3 bedrooms     23% 4+ bedrooms
2015 = 10% 2 bedrooms (2% drop)     42% 3 bedrooms (22% drop)     47% 4+ bedrooms (24% drop)

1973 = 40% 1.5 baths     41% 2 baths     19% 2.5 baths     3 baths were N/A
2015 = 4% 1.5 baths     29% 2 baths     29% 2.5 baths     38% 2.5 baths


Mark J. Perry, professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus, wrote in 2016 that:

“today’s new houses, compared to those built in the past, are much more energy-efficient; they come with better, bigger and more bathrooms, closets, fireplaces, and garages; they’re equipped with better and more home appliances; and they almost all include modern features like central air conditioning today (93% in 2015) that were expensive luxury options in previous decades like the 1970s (fewer than half the houses built in each year between 1973 and 1976 had air conditioning). Americans are paying about 70% more today for a median-priced new house on an inflation-adjusted basis compared to a 1973 house, largely because the size of the median house today is larger by almost 1,000 square feet and by 62%. So on an inflation-adjusted basis, Americans are actually paying only slightly more today for a new house on a per-square-foot basis ($120) than in 1973 ($114.42), for homes that are typically of a much higher quality.”


A few years ago, when I first started thinking in earnest about how to design and build a low-cost modern house, I actually had a moment when the stars aligned and the right project and the right client came together.



Weekend House – Low-Cost Modern Residence [12:15 mark]
I wrote this post originally back on August 02, 2010 [Modern House Challenge | Part 2] and it was the first time I discussed the possibility of designing and building a low-cost modern house. So what did we do and where did things end up? The good news is that we got the per square foot cost down to $126 per square foot … AWESOME!! The bad news? The house was 3,257 square feet and we were able to spread the cost of some of the more expensive rooms (kitchen and bathrooms) across more simple spaces like bedrooms and living spaces, so it’s larger than I think a house in the low-cost modern house conversation really should be for consideration.


Our guest today is Eric Reinholdt from 30×40 Design Workshop. He and I had a conversation before Landon and I recorded today’s podcast and we have artfully spliced bits and pieces from that conversation into the podcast.

Eric Reinholdt – 30 x 40 Design Workshop [18:05 mark]
At only 17 steps from his residence, the Long Studio is where Eric goes to work (in the podcast, I was off by 4 steps). The video that Landon and I mentioned, the one that was the first video Eric created that we both saw, the one that makes us both want to move to Mt. Desert Island and be Eric’s neighbors, can be found here.


Key Moments in the Show include:

Insurance for the Low-Cost Modern House [31:43 mark]

Designing the house so items can be phased over time [34:14 mark]

Low-cost modern materials [35:04 mark]


Landon’s Spare Time [43:25 mark]

The newest addition to Casa de Lando, Kylo the former downtown Dallas dumpster cat, now enjoys a posh lifestyle full of cat treats and pets from his fellow ginger.  No more need for nightly raids to scrounge the dumpsters, but he certainly knows where the trash can is in the house and isn’t afraid to leap right in given the opportunity.  His pastimes include eating the crunchiest bugs he can find and watching those furry-tailed rats run around the tree outside.  At 4 AM on a typical weekday morning he can be found pacing across my pillows and snuggling armpits, and after two weeks he’s still skeptical of the four-legged drool machine that tries to play with him every now and then.

Needless to say, he’s become a very welcomed addition to and a large part of my spare time of late (most of it involving tiring him out so I can get some decent sleep!)


Bob’s Spare Time [45:40 mark]

NOON Lighting
I spent a few hours this past weekend “trying” to install one of the coolest home automation devices I’ve seen in a while. I discovered NOON lighting during a recent business trip. I say “trying” because I couldn’t get them to work … which I have no doubt has more to do with my electrical system than the ability of the product. I will be taking advantage of their technical support line this coming week because I am extremely excited to get these switches installed in my home.

Installs like a normal switch, Noon Lighting controls feature an OLED controller called a “Director” that can control up to 10 extension switches. Utilizing your existing wiring, you can change out your light switches and take control of all the hardwired light fixtures in your house. The Director control comes with three professional scenes based on the bulbs you have in place but you have the ability to customize up to six additional scenes.


The entire “Low-Cost Modern House” conversation is really about aligning the expectations between the budget and the end product – it all centers around the square footage of the finished product. New clients might come to me with a $500,000 budget – and let me tell you that this is a lot of money – but when the programming that they want adds up to 4,500 square feet and I tell them that they can’t get what they want for $111/square foot … those same folks are shocked when they learn that I can’t reconcile these two things.

I really wish there was an easy answer for this, there just isn’t one. It really comes down to what people want and what their budget can accommodate … and based on having this conversation hundred’s of times, it is not uncommon that people’s expectations are not in alignment with one another. Maybe my 14-year-old daughter’s generation is going to be the one that says this is what’s important to us and that the way we live our lives is more important than how we live our lives.

If you’ve listened to this podcast and you are still interested in having a house low-cost modern house designed, give me a call and we’ll go from there … I really want to make this happen.


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