the smartest home


The promise of contemporary residential architecture has failed to find fulfillment in any great way, outside of certain showcase houses which are quickly gobbled up by magazines desperate for new fodder to publish. But ask yourself, do I know anyone who has built a new contemporary style house? Chances are you don’t. Your friends most likely find themselves in the same position as you – envious but reconciled to re-decorating their old 1930s (or maybe 1960s) houses with Ikea in which they proudly display stacks of architectural monographs, fancy European design magazines, and the ubiquitous democratic offerings of Dwell, the closest they will ever come to living the dream of a custom contemporary house.

Which begs the question, what exactly is a contemporary house? Is it different from a modern house? Does it have solar panels? I use the term contemporary much in the way the art world does, to define work that is made in our own times, no matter how similar to or inspired by the great achievements of modern architecture which, it must be said, are now more than 80 years old! But modern also references a style of design, which, despite it’s enduring progressive and aesthetic rigor, is just that: design. And design is a big part of the complex mix that goes into the creation of a new house, along with program (what exactly goes on inside the house), location (or to use the wine term terroir which is fitting because of its connotations of culture, regional influences, landscape, history), materials that are actually available and appropriate for the climate, and more than ever before, technology and it’s attendant promise and burden of energy efficiency and sustainability. And while modern design may seem as relevant today as it did in the heyday of the Bauhaus, I assure you the rest – program, terroir, materials, and technology – have changed radically. A move away from the fascination with industrial technology, big differences in the way we live our lives, increased focus on the ethics of how we build, and that nuisance we can’t escape – the computer – have brought us to the point where I don’t think any of us would be so happy, or comfortable, living in a classic modern house, or even one designed and built, today, like one from 1930, or 1940, or 1970.

But contemporary does connote a style as well. I would go so far as to say that the majority of the hallmark features of modern design – the flat roof, absence of applied trim, minimalist detailing, articulated structure (exposed concrete, beams, etc.), a diffusion of the line between “residential” and “industrial” space – still make up the core of contemporary design. Let’s just say that there aren’t any “contemporary” suburban tract developments.

As I look through my own piles of books and magazines – World of Interiors, Architectural Digest, Dwell (of course), Casa Vogue, old Metropolitan Home, and any of the hundreds of beautifully produced books with the word “house” in them, I find a disturbing pattern. On the one hand, I see sensational, mouth watering houses (and apartments, and condos, and castles) – not just homes but whole exotic styles  of living! – that make me feel poor and like I missed the train somehow. And did I say poor? $2 million, $10 million, who cares? How much did the Christian Liaigre designed island idyll in Bora Bora cost? The cost, both real and imagined, to build these projects surely exceeds the available resources – maybe even the lifetime resources – of most readers. And even the projects closer to reality – the new 4,000 sf custom house in the hills designed by a local architect in a contemporary style – still cost over $3 million – not including the land!

And then there is Dwell. These are the pioneers of contemporary design who have made enormous sacrifices to reach their (our?) dream. They have made great gains – they have the style, the materials, the technology, often even the program: except their program inevitably seems to have been reduced to 850 square feet. The living room fits an Ikea love seat and a floor lamp. The office/nursery/closet fits a crib, a hanging rack, and a laptop. And if you don’t mind cooking, serving, entertaining, and living around a picnic table set up in front of a 24″ wide refrigerator, this may be the perfect program for you. Why do I have the impression that they would have liked to build a bigger house if they could have afforded it?

They do have, however, in-floor radiant heating, cool concrete walls, solar panels, geo-thermal heat pumps, expanses of glass, and heat recovery ventilation systems constantly purging minute quantities of construction material out-gasses and replacing them with clean, fresh, life enhancing air. And, of course, they can control some of this sophisticated technology from their i-Phones.

These houses don’t make me feel poor, although I still couldn’t afford them anyway. They just make me tired. They are interesting and at the same time, monotonous. Each one looks the same, with the same materials, the same furniture, the same concrete wall and floor, the same cabinets made by the owner’s friend out of scraps of used plywood. There is an over-arching aesthetic of practicality, DIY, of young people having a first go at it, like Volvos used to have. These houses are of a singularly Protestant style, maybe the contemporary style – no one has come up with a name for it yet (I call it Dwell-style), but in any event, they have nothing in common with the contemporary house that I want to build.

There is one other problem with these Dwell houses. Regardless of how cool all of these features are – solar this, radiant that – there is no question that they cost a lot of money (even with charitable subsidies from us taxpayers) but there is some question as to their value. Unless, of course, you mean their PR value – then they are immensely rewarding: the New York Times is always eager to do a story about some cool couple in Portland building a house with a solar powered wireless network. But when it comes to their true alleged purpose – reducing energy consumption, building with a reduced utilization of resources, either synthetic or natural, or improving one’s health – there is virtually nothing I have seen to validate these claims, and worse, I have seen many practitioners of these technologies sweep the true facts about the hazards and costs of these systems under the rug. When I think of how much money these people might have saved, foregoing all of these extras, I see the possibility that they might have built a house for an affordable price. But I don’t know for sure because it probably won’t have been published.

Because the truth is, the one thing that is spoken about the least, and written about the least, is the true cost of building a house. In fact, the only time it is ever mentioned is either in a singular number, provided by the architect to the book publisher (ie, $875,000) without any explanation of what the number covers: (and how on earth would the architect ever know how much the house cost to build?) Or in the magazines, a pie eyed journalist writes about someone building their dream for $100 per square foot. I seriously doubt it.

And let’s talk about that for a minute, because that really is the core of the problem: the infamous dollar per square foot. That number is the sole point of reference for evaluating the cost of construction of a house, either before the fact or after the bank account has been emptied. And it actually means nothing. There is no standard, not just in construction, but in real-estate, appraisal, architecture, or in tax assessment, for how this number is calculated, and there is never any explanation provided when the number is used for how it was determined. Is it the total amount paid to the contractor divided by the number of insulated/conditioned interior square feet? Does it include design and permit fees, land, landscaping? Is it the total cost, everything included to build the dream house? I doubt it.

It has typically been my experience that, despite whatever great intentions and warm, fuzzy relationship may have preceded the construction, it is always the case that the realities of cost come to haunt every residential construction project, and that no one is in control of the budget or worse, no one even has the ability to control the budget. Disputes inevitably arise regarding costs for both labor and materials, and these conflicts lead to delays which then serve to further increase the expense of the project. And it is always the client who will end up paying the extra money, whether it is up front or folded into later billing. So why is it so hard to figure it out?

Let’s start with a look at the players: the clients, the architect, the general contractor, and the sub-contractors. You would think that the system had eventually developed into a harmonious, mutually enriching process after so many years, and yet, nothing could be further from the truth. There is a pervasive and systemic disconnection between these parties that inevitably results in waste: waste of time and ultimately, waste of money. The best you can hope for is familiarity. If the architects always design the same houses, and the contractor always uses the same techniques, and the sub contractors always use the same materials, and the client is satisfied with this, then the project becomes simpler. Hence the Home Depot tract “home” that pops up everywhere like mold. There’s a reason for that – it’s safe to build: there are no surprises, fewer cost overruns, less complication. But if anyone tries to break out of that rut – a flat roof, concrete floors, no door trim – look out. Suddenly everyone becomes confused, and mistakes are made, and costs begin to increase.

Having served in both roles – architect and contractor – I can clearly see the problems with both, and they are actually so endemic that they seem like cliches. The architect is perceived, rightfully, for wanting to impose some kind of program that exceeds what the contractor, and his subs, consider reasonable. It may be aesthetic, it may be an attention to detail, maybe an alternate means of construction or the employment of a new technology. In any event, the contractor will either intentionally, or through an inability to master or grasp the required change, increase the drag, slowing things down, making mistakes, charging extra expenses. And in this light, the contractor is seen as someone backwards, a simpleton with bad taste who is undermining the architect’s grand vision. And it goes on and on like this, the two constantly, if subtly, challenging each other and trying to do it the way they want to do it.

And then there is the sub-contractor, the least considered part of the equation, and yet the most critical, because it is in his hands to bring about success or failure: either the roof will leak or not, the plaster will crack or not, the floor joists will creak or not creak, the air conditioning will cool or not. And who even determines what the sub contractor will be installing? The architect may have specified a certain system or material, or may make a vague specification leaving it to the contractor to figure out what to do. One thing is for certain: the architect will not sit down and have a thoughtful conversation with the sub contractor and find out what the options are. The architect will either specify something he likes (or has read about), regardless of whether it is appropriate or even available locally, or the contractor will obtain some bids from sub contractors for the work to be done the way it is always done, which means without a great deal of thought, and in my experience, frequently contrary to how it ideally should be done, or what makes the most sense to do.

Given that it is hard enough to get it right, designing and building in a contemporary style is a mad dash upstream in a strong current of mediocrity. It is highly unlikely that any of the parties building the house will have ever built anything similar before, and even the ones who have only do so because they can get the work, but they do not see it, get it, and most importantly, can’t make independent decisions and evaluations about whether they’re getting it right, which they usually aren’t. And typically, the client is in a similar position, having asked the architect for a contemporary house but not having enough familiarity with the details to direct or evaluate the work that is being performed until it is too late. It’s really no wonder that we don’t see very many contemporary houses being built.

So what does one do if they still believe that it should be possible to build in a relevant, contemporary manner that is not only efficient – efficient with regard to time, money, resources, energy, technology, and design – but affordable and even harmonious? Here are some ideas:

Since cost is essentially the driving force behind the majority of the decisions made, it would certainly help to develop a system by which costs can be evaluated. Here is an example. Most homeowners will be consulted by their architect or their contractor to select a stone – marble W or granite C – for their countertops (or a tile for their bathroom, or a siding for their house, etc.) and will be given the most simple choice between materials based on the cost per square foot of said material. And they will agonize over that choice, carefully evaluating whether they can spend W or X for their favorite or should they stick with the cheaper C or D which fits in their “budget.” No one, I assure you, however, will discuss what method of installing the material is to be used, or whether the design accommodates natural sizes of the material, or what maintenance or finish might be required, or even whether there are alternate prices available for the same material. It’s just not part of the discussion because the simple fact is, neither the architect nor the contractor really have much of an idea as to what the answer is. And it may be that even the sub-contractor who is to install the materials doesn’t know because he simply does what the architect or contractor tell him and has never actually evaluated other options.

Asking the architect is usually the worst idea since they are typically the most removed from the actual expenses. The contractor is not of great value either since they have little experience doing it in any manner other than what they have been doing all along and they have a natural reluctance to embrace different ways of doing things and will thus steer you back to the tried path. So that leaves… no one! Those are the two people you were counting on to get you through this and now you’re on your own. Embrace it. Roll up your sleeves, review estimates, discuss them with others, ask to meet the sub-contractors, get everything out on the table. Review billing, ask for itemized reports, cross check invoices from material suppliers and sub-contractors with the contractor’s billing. You, and only you (or a hired client’s representative working only for you) are the only cost control.

But what is the cost that you are actually trying to control? Everyone has their own idea. Ask them to explain how they got there. What square footage are they counting? Are they assigning different costs to living rooms and laundry rooms, decks and garages, basements and attics? Why? Are there assumptions being made that are incorrect (you didn’t want stainless steel cabinets in the garage?) Who actually measured the space? Are we including closets, stairwells, mechanical rooms, hallways, covered porches? A covered porch is outside, yet it has a floor, a ceiling, walls, lights, hardware, railings, steps – probably more expensive than the hallway inside.

Have a conversation with your architect (and then review it with your builder, and your subs) about what cost per square footage is appropriate to use for the level of building you want to have – the kind of cabinets and tile you like, the type of heating and cooling, the siding, the type of trim and detailing (Hey! Regular halogen recessed lights are 25% the cost of low voltage recessed lights!). Even if you don’t know what you want, the conversation will be productive. But more importantly, it will put cost on the table in a transparent manner and as a constant reference point for subsequent decisions. The house typically becomes more expensive not because more square footage was added but usually because more stuff (and more expensive stuff) was added to the same square footage.

The modern man is defined by his modern technologies – laptop, iPhone, German car… you get the picture. So it is a natural step to conclude that modern technologies belong in the home as well. Similarly, the contemporary citizen is defined by his attention to current ideas: recycling, sustainability, composting, and again, these notions spill into said citizen’s idea of how his life should be lived, and in what way (his home) he will make that possible. And suddenly, the contemporary home is saddled with an impossible burden of technologies and requirements that have nothing to do with the home itself, or whether the home is comfortable, attractive, energy efficient, or livable. And for no small price either. The cost of these additional “lifestyle” features can easily double or triple the square foot cost of a house, regardless of how you measure it. Here’s an example.

A super “high efficiency” heating and cooling system can be had for under $15,000. A heat only radiant system, typically wasteful in a moderate climate where it must be turned on and off throughout the day, will begin around $40,000. The first one heats, cools, filters, circulates air, even humidifies. The second only heats. And yet, there isn’t a house in Dwell that doesn’t have radiant flooring! Why? That could have been another 200 square feet!

The home industry has eagerly embraced the new technologies because there is a great deal of money to be made in radiant, solar, alternate energy, alternate building systems, and a plethora of other specialties. And without exception, they are horridly expensive, often 3 to 4 times the cost of their “low tech” siblings. But they don’t work “better” – they aren’t making the air better, the planet healthier, the bills lower, the world safer. They look cool, and sound cool. That’s it.

The one thing that we do seem to have right is a pragmatic, cost effective system of construction: wood framing, plywood sheathing, batt insulated walls, rain screen siding, forced air heating and cooling. And that is where the biggest saving is to be had: sticking with inexpensive materials that people know how to install well. Take those materials, and use them to achieve your goal: design better, build tighter, waste less, size up for strength or appearance. But keep it simple. Separate those technologies you actually desire for some personal, emotional, or technological reason (controlling your lights from your iPhone?) from generic technologies that putatively promise some enhanced way of living or that are being crammed down your throat by LEED hungry architects or bored contractors, not to mention every magazine or newspaper article featuring the word “smart” in it.

You are undertaking an inherently risky proposition which is solely for your benefit. Chances are that neither your architect or contractor are driving Bentleys (maybe a Hummer) and that this has not proven to be an incredibly lucrative career for either of them. Your sub-contractors are likely to be poor, poorly educated, sloppy, but nice (or maybe not) guys who completely fail to understand what you are aiming for (or why you are trying to keep the finish concrete slab from being destroyed by glue and paint). Most importantly, people make mistakes, and in this case, usually lots of them, whether out of stupidity, haste, bad luck, or poor planning. And it is most likely that you will pay for these, in one form or another. Think about it: who else will? Sure, you can demand remuneration, but there are so many ways that an architect, a contractor, or a sub, can roll that expense back into something else he does that you end up paying for, and unless you are diligent in controlling costs (see above!) you will pay for it. Think of it like the chef spitting in your food when you send it back to the kitchen.

So what is to be done? Pay attention. Look for problems before they happen. A clean jobsite is a sure way to avoid problems. Have a sloppy contractor? Clean up yourself. Daily. (Or get your kid to do it, or hire a laborer.) No soda cans, no trash, sweep up, store materials neatly, cover things that need protection. This will invariably shock everyone although they will completely ignore it. But it gives you the opportunity to see when something is about to happen, or has just happened, and to deal with it as fit. Turn the radios down a little, ask workers to be careful, discuss their work with them, engage them into responsibility based out of respect for you and your care for the project.

How many houses are you going to build in your life? How many stupid boring houses are going to get built every day in the world? Make yours special! There are plenty of reasons to build in a contemporary style, however you even choose to define that. But whatever way, it is going to involve turning against the current and setting out in your own direction. Which will mean extra work, hard effort, difficult decisions for which there are not a lot of clear answers. And you will be dependent on the integrity and competence of those you have selected to take out of their familiar routines. Make it special, but also make it big enough, a little grand even, comfortable, sensible, practical (unless there is some compelling reason to be impractical, but then it should be your reason, not one forced on you), and ultimately, actually doable! Make sure you have started something that is quickly finishable, without huge delays finding or making something that doesn’t exist, using a product that is inappropriate, or launching into a technology that is about as avant garde as last year’s cell phone. Spend your money on what is truly important to you – beautiful marble, precise lighting, good appliances, high ceilings. Expensive foundations, heating and cooling systems, insulation materials, or waterproofing systems just don’t deliver much pleasure!