Architects on how they save money when building their own homes

Here are three money-saving tips architects use when constructing their own homes:

1. Prioritize—Duh.

“We worked really hard to get to the essence of what was important to us,” Jeff Stern, from Portland-based firm In Situ Architecture, tells WSJ, “rather than starting the process wanting it all and having to compromise.” For Stern, splurging on super energy-efficient triple-glazed windows meant incorporating a mix of budget-friendly solutions like concrete floors, fir cabinetry, and plastic laminate countertops.

Thomas Gluck of NYC-based firm Gluck + Architecture gave the exterior of his Tower House a tinted-glass treatment usually only used for commercial projects. “Even though the glass itself is inexpensive, the technique of applying the tint can be costly,” WSJ’s Nancy Keates writes. Still, this was a calculated risk that’s central to the design of the home; the dark glass exterior allows the structure to blend in with its woodsy surroundings. Inside the home, he kept the design and finishings simple…

2. Find off-price steals—it’s like bargain-hunting at T.J.Maxx but for building supplies.

According to David Wagner of Minneapolis-based firm Sala Architects, considerable savings can come from purchasing materials that are discounted for negligible imperfections. For example, the white-oak flooring he used for an 1,000-square-foot addition to his house was a few grades lower than what most clients demand, but he knew that “the flaws were just some ‘character knots’ in the wood.”

3. Think ahead—anticipate how design decisions will affect labor cost.

For his ultra-modern T-shaped home, architect Marc Manack from Silo AR+D in Fayetteville, Arkansas “made the infrastructure as easy as possible for contractors” by grouping utility hookups and connections together in an easily-accessible location. And because Manack did not plan for any “ornate millwork” or “high-end finishes” in his design, he was also able to reduce labor costs by hiring rough-in carpenters instead of more expensive, highly-skilled carpenters.

This helps get at two questions I’ve had about architects, builders, designers, and others that help people build and design homes:

1. Do they give their clients all the options like the cheaper ones they might use themselves? Or, do they look at the money available and present fewer options at each design decision point? Presumably, some clients only want the nicer/perfect items or labor but others might not. I suppose this might be something to negotiate or know in the beginning. Plus, we probably have different expectations: a builder, especially one who constructs large numbers of housing might have lower levels of quality compared to an architect.

2. Do the professional’s tastes actually align with what they design or recommend for clients? On one hand, authenticity is a big deal in the creative arts. On the other hand, the professional needs to have some flexibility in designing things that aren’t exactly what they would choose themselves. Again, this might be clear in the hiring and design process in the beginning.

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