Beauty on a Budget

Even with limited resources, it's possible to design and build a custom home.

January 19, 2016

Many people I speak with don’t think they can afford a custom home. But I maintain that if someone is interested in creating a thoughtful environment to live in, they can’t afford not to involve an architect to help guide the creation of their personal space.

Some say the architect is the best-suited member of the construction team to manage costs. I share this belief. Although architects are notorious for designing projects that are out of sync with their clients’ budgets, this doesn’t have to be the case. There are many skillful architects willing to work with clients who have reasonable budgets and expect their professional to stay within those parameters.

In my own work, I’ve identified several key components that are essential to executing cost-efficient custom residential projects:

1. Enlist a knowledgeable expert. If the architect isn’t the general contractor, it’s important to find a willing custom builder early in the process. Compensate the builder for early reviews of the home to head off components that aren’t in line with the budget. The builder’s knowledge of current materials and labor prices will help guide material selections and construction methods.

2. Embrace the spirit of simplicity. Develop a clear, simple design for the project, one that reinforces the client’s goals while providing a beacon for the design process. When this initial idea is refined to its essence, refer to it continually. This approach can be applied to large decisions, such as the overall form of the project, and to small decisions, such as the trim detail around doors and windows.

I believe the importance of simplicity can’t be stressed heavily enough. For example, instead of choosing five materials for the exterior cladding, choose just one and use the form of the building to allow that material to resonate and reinforce the idea of refinement. Keep the form of the building simple, to avoid costly framing. Avoid built-in cabinetry unless it’s integral to the function of the space, such as a banquette in an eating area. Built-ins are expensive and often lose their functional utility over time.

3. Allow the architect to be involved for the entire construction process. As
I mentioned, the architect is best suited to control construction costs. He or she is the most appropriate person on the team to make cost-saving decisions if something in the original design proves to be too expensive. If a detail needs to be amended, the designer has the ability to develop an alternative. 

I was recently speaking with a colleague about a certain detail in one of her projects, which had to be jettisoned for budget reasons. A small wall of glass needed to be revised to one conventional window. That window ended up being her favorite component of the project. This anecdote illustrates that thoughtful consideration of constraints can often produce great value and meaning in a project.

Building a home isn’t for the faint of heart. The process is fraught with emotion, contains both victories and setbacks, and requires patience and stamina. However, with the right team and with thoughtful planning, it’s easy to create a beautiful repository for a client’s memories.

Sean Guess is the principal of Faye and Walker Architecture, a multidisciplinary firm in Austin, Texas.


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