A More Affordable Home Design 💲

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

There’s an old saying from a marketing pioneer named John Wanamaker that goes like this:

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.

With our house project, we faced a similar issue. We needed to reduce costs by at least 25% and didn’t know which 25% to change. But we did have some hunches, thanks to having an estimate in hand

We started with an agreement about what parts of the design couldn’t change. When we first challenged John, the architect, to reduce overall costs, we told him we would not compromise on the view and we were all in agreement. Our attachment to this part of the design was, in part, personal.

Usually, when a house has a view, there is a deck with a railing. The railing tends to obstruct the view, but it has to be there. Some homeowners use glass panels to make it less obvious. Still, when you’re sitting on the deck, the railing is in the way.

This is especially true in our design. Most of our time would be spent in the “great room” which has a kitchen, living space and dining space. The west wall of the room faces the water and will be floor to ceiling glass doors. The view through those doors is the one feature we had to get right. 

Early in planning, Sachi decided there must be some way to hide the railings and maximize the view. Being 250 above sea level, we would look downward, through the railings, to the water.

The solution she proposed was a two level deck. The upper deck would be level with the house’s floor. That deck would extend out, and then drop 30 inches, which, according to county building code, doesn’t require a railing. Then, the lower deck would sport the required railings. Stairs on both ends of the upper deck would provide access to the lower deck.

A lower deck hides the railings
A lower deck hides the railings

This means the railings would be mostly hidden and create what we call an “infinity deck” view from the house. Drew, the builder, said it was a bit more expensive to build the deck that way, but we knew it was worth it.

The view from the interior, without railings
The view from the interior, without railings

With the view issue settled, we could think bigger. 

The entire north side of the house was designed to be cantilevered, meaning it extended from the side of the house with no support aside from costly steel beams inside the structure. Architecturally, it was a beautiful part of the design, but was it required? No.

Originally, we considered the north side of the house to be guest quarters, with two bedrooms, a full bath and a powder room off the great room. Did we require so many rooms on the expensive side of the house? No.

Further, the house included a basement with walls made of concrete. In some places, the concrete wall was over twenty feet high. It was a good use of space, but was a basement required? No.

The original plan
The original plan

Bottom line: the square footage, cantilever and basement on the north side of the house were expensive and not required. Here’s what we did to change them:

Instead of two bedrooms and two baths on that side, we decided to have only one bedroom and bath, which reduced square footage. We made up for the missing bedroom by enlarging the office on the other side of the house so it could become a bedroom when needed. The powder room was moved near the office/bedroom.

Further, we decided we could do without the basement (and all that concrete) and the cool cantilever, with its steel. Instead, we would use posts and something called a “moment frame”, which looks like a soccer goal, to support the house on the north side. This new approach meant we could use approximately 55% less concrete.

The new plan
The new plan

This was the kind of compromise we had to make. No basement was fine. We have a garage. The bedrooms and baths were accounted for. The cantilevered design would be less remarkable, but the moment frame could still be beautiful.

The next big change was to simplify the overall design of the house and reduce the square footage. We loved the original footprint of the house and shape of the deck, but it was not conventional and was more expensive to build than a house with convenient right angles. You can see the difference below.

Simpler and hopefully more affordable
Simpler and hopefully more affordable

For these sorts of changes, you have to take it on faith that reducing the size and shape of the deck, for instance, will help. That’s because the deck is part of a bigger picture that includes changes to the roofline, the engineering of the posts that support it and more. Less square footage and a simpler design should mean fewer materials, labor hours, etc.

As we worked through this process, crucial time was passing. We set dates a couple of months into the future as the start date for the project. If we hit the mark, we could probably get a roof on the house before the winter storms arrive. Probably.

The scale of the changes meant going back through processes we thought were final. For a second time, we finalized new plans and handed them to structural engineers for new calculations and specifications. With their work done, we could apply for a revised building permit.

Slowly but surely, everything started to look promising. We were spending more time and money to redesign the house, but with the savings it produced, it seemed like a great investment. I felt confident that, in challenging John to save 25%, we’d been responsible and resourceful. 

The reality, however, was that we wouldn’t know the full extent of the savings until the house was already underway. There wasn’t enough time. We just had to hope our decisions were the right ones.

As the process moved closer and closer to the start date, it began to dawn on me that soon, our beloved Yurt shaped house would be gone. Once the demolition commenced, there was no going back. Living on Orcas Island for the long term would require finishing the new house.


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