What is the most amazing house one could build at the lowest cost? You'd think someone already built that house, but I don't think so.

When you build a custom house, you generally default to "things I like that I can also afford." That will give you a terrific house, but you'll never really know if you could have had a different house that would make you just as happy at half the cost.

For example, when you decide what rooms are near other rooms, it's usually based on lifestyle, not on minimizing the length of plumbing runs. And when you pick the bathroom shower size, you're not considering the optimal size for tiling it without wasted tile, even if that means just an inch or two of adjustment.

The subcontractor who has to run your ductwork often finds he can't get from one end of the house to the other without running through unconditioned space, because ducts are not always part of the architect's plans. That stuff is "engineered in the field." That's another way of saying too late to optimize.

A big developer might take the time to design homes with short plumbing runs and efficient duct paths, but he cares about making the sale more than he cares about livability. After you move in, you realize there's no closet space, and the two car garage only allows a few inches between cars. And forget about any extra green features in your home that can't be seen, because those don't help the sale price.

Big developers also tend to create homes with traditional spaces, because I'm sure those sell the best. So you often get the "museum" type rooms, such as a formal living room that gets no use.

I contend that no one has both the expertise and the interest in designing the ultimate home (or set of homes for various lifestyles), that provides the best living and wow factor at the lowest price.

This got me thinking that the ultimate inexpensive home would have what I will call a wet side and a dry side. The wet side would have your bathrooms, laundry, and kitchen. That consolidates your plumbing, but it has another advantage: Those rooms have few windows. So in a warm climate such as California, you put those rooms on the hot side, which is west in this case.

Homes use a lot of energy heating water, for everything from "Warm Floors TM" to bathwater. I've seen an experimental design that puts a huge water tank on the sunny side of the house inside a glass room that acts like a hot house, capturing the sun and heating the water. I imagine the heating could be magnified with reflective material around the tank. And the beauty of the huge tank is that once heated, it has enough thermal mass to stay warm through the evening. So I'd put one of those bad boys on the west side too. Obviously one side of your home would be unattractive, but you can make up for that on the other sides.

To keep costs low, I'd have one great room and no formal living room or dining room. The dining table would be rustic and casual, so it can be part of the great room for eating or game playing. And instead of a home theater, I would include a powered screen that comes down over the fireplace and is viewable from the kitchen, dining table, and family room that are all part of one larger area. If you entertain, that area can also take advantage of the home theater speaker system and become your dance floor.

This home would also include dog doors, with a fenced dog run area that has a porch to keep Fido cool and dry as he does his business, and a cat's litter box area, perhaps near the garage door so they are near the trash bins. Most people have pets, but few homes are designed for them.

These homes would also have a huge covered porch for entertaining. Make that a screened porch if it makes sense in your climate. It would be the least expensive room of the house to build, and have the most entertainment value.

Likewise, the garage would be oversized because it is another space that is inexpensive to build and requires no heating or cooling. Make it big enough for your ping pong table or even pool table, your shop, or your bike storage. If it opens up to the large covered porch, it becomes part of your entertainment space.

For green building, I would include in the home the features that are free or at least inexpensive. You start by orienting your house to the best direction of the sun, and shading key windows. That's huge. And you could add a big thermal mass to the center of your home, such as an attractive rock wall; that wouldn't be expensive but it would help regulate interior temperatures. You could also design the home to take advantage of the chimney effect, where a tower on the hot side of the home heats up in the sun, causing its air to rise, sucking cooler air into the home from the cool side of the home that might, for example, have lots of greenery. And you would have a light colored roof. That's a big deal for cooling, and costs no extra. I think a good architect could make the white roof seem like it belongs with the house.

Depending on your location, some sort of geothermal heating and cooling solution might make sense, which involves running pipes underground to take advantage of the Earth's continuous moderate temperature. A lot of the expense is in the digging of the ditches to lay pipe, which I'm assuming could be reduced by digging common ditches for several neighbors at once. So these homes probably cost the least when built in clumps of several. That way they can have their own shared park in the center. Maybe they would have a shared tool shed too, with video security to keep the honor system honorable.

For interior building materials, there is generally an inexpensive solution that looks nearly as impressive as high end solutions. For example, painted kitchen cabinets are much less expensive than high end stained cabinets, yet you see both types in the most expensive homes. So you might as well go for painted.

For flooring, carpet is the least expensive, but it also has the least wow effect. I'm no expert in this area, but I'll bet an experienced designer could find porcelain, concrete, or laminate floor materials that look incredible, cost relatively little, last forever, and are easy to clean.

This would be a good project for students of architecture. Better yet, a CAD system should have these sort of considerations built in. Push one button and the system finds the best duct and plumbing runs. It should also be able to calculate estimated energy costs on the fly, with each change to the house design.
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Aug 17, 2009
Where's Howard Roark when we need him?
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 17, 2009
Good idea in theory, however, ask the chefs of 10 households if they'd want a kitchen with no windows, or to sit on the toilet without natural light. I know most apartments don't have bathroom windows, but most homes do have at least one bathroom with a window.

Proof in the pudding: some townhomes went up down my street. Because they back onto another building (with about five feet of space between), the back of these townhomes have no windows. The architect did ecactly what you said -- the ground floor was a kitchen open to a great room (living/dining), second floor bathroom in the back as well, etc.

For over $800,000 each, they're not moving. They're pretty much done and only 50% sold. Even before the economy tanked last year, only one of the ten units had sold from the plans.

When it comes down to it, unless you're an engineer, personal preference tends to trump efficiency.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 17, 2009
[What is your monthly energy bill? -- Scott]

On average I burn 750 gallons of oil a year, price of which varies greatly from year to year. I dislike oil heat, unfortunetly it is very common in the northeast.

My average electric bill is $75/month.

The house has just over 1,300 sf of living space, about 300 of which is in a finished basement room.

Btw: How space is counted varies from place to place. Ask homebuilders in the Denver/Boulder area what counts as square footage, the answer is essentially everything under roof. My house would be sold as a 2000 sf home in that market, whereas in the Boston area it is listed as 1,000 sf. The rooms in the basement don't count and the add on dining room at the end of the house off the kitchen that doesn't have any heating (use it year round just fine) isn't counted either. Those rooms are taxed at a reduced rate.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 17, 2009
I always wondered why most houses sucked. A custom built or even a heavily remodeled home was a better choice because even if it was not quite right it was usually way better then some spec house.

Builders are cheap and lazy, so we get cheap and stupid designs that ignore obvious things like the Sun. Those cute little floors plans you see in the magazines are probably the total extent of the design process they go thru.

Surely we can convince the architecture schools to have a class dedicated to making a well thought out design that they put out in the public domain or some kind of inexpensive license. With the thousands of students graduating every year just one complete design for each student would do wonders.
Aug 17, 2009
BTSinAustin: I think the extra cost of such a projector is probably outweighed by a factor of no less than 10 by the reduction in cost resulting from not having an extra room.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 17, 2009
@ R.Saunders "You should consider moving Cheapatopia out of California. Then you can have a basement."

So why don't California houses have basements? We lived in the bay area in the 90's - and noticed that none of the houses had basements. In contrast, most of the older homes, at least, in the Seattle area have them. Basements are great. We don't have air-conditioning - so the two days the temp broke 100 last month - we slept in the basement. Perfectly comfortable. Great space for a game room. Great place to throw themed parties for kids. I even turned the basement bathroom into an emergency indoor barn for a few weeks one year. They are inexpensive to build, easier to heat/cool - and extremely versatile. Even better, when my husband or sons lug home some new monstrosity (like a whale rib and vertebrae), I have a place to send them....

[Answer: Home builders know that basements are expensive (for them) compared to what they can sell the house for. Basements, if unfinished, don't count toward square footage of the home, and square footage rules price out here. Since buyers assume the lack of basement is an earthquake issue, which it is not, the builders get away with it. If a builder wants to add rooms, it is cheaper to build up, and easier to sell. -- Scott]
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 17, 2009
The most amazing houses don't have pets, IMO.
Aug 17, 2009
Your great room TV / movie screen has a flaw. You can get a projector that does not have to be in a dark room but the price goes up like a rocket.
Aug 17, 2009
Our house in Alameda has a wet side, with both bathrooms and the kitchen along the northwest wall. It was built in 1924.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 17, 2009
We have six kids, six messy messy kids. Our kitchen and living room needed a hard floor that was pretty much indestructible and we found it in the form of PVC planks from Lowes. They are stamped/printed with a wood pattern and look and feel like a plank floor. They look more real than laminate and are entirely plastic - completely kidproof.
Aug 17, 2009
Scott, I foresee you writing a housing book in the near future. You should plug that book on your blog because I'll buy it!! Just please be sure to include a chapter on what you think Canadians should be considering.

-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 17, 2009
You need to read up on architectural history. Cheap efficient homes already had their run. Look at a well designed ranch house. Mine has 1.5 baths (.5 in the basement) on top of each other. In the basement it is next to a laundry room, on the main floor close to the kitchen, very minimal plumbing. My living room has a large window facing east which heats the house up a lot, nice in the winter, no good in the summer. Being in the northeast it is ultimately the right choice. Massed produced cheap efficient housing became unpopular, perhaps it will make a return. A big thing now showing up in the states is modular housing, extremely efficient design and build. They don't look so bad either, Ikea is a huge dealer in Europe.

For the design aspect residential architecture is far behind commercial. The new big thing is called BIM. An impressive array of software applications that is for designing buildings without all the plans. You make an electronic model and print off whatever drawings are needed. There are electronic libraries of building products you can choose to insert and even do 4D simulations of how the building performs over its lifespan. Someday this type of software will be use more in residential design making for better designed cheaper houses.

[What is your monthly energy bill? -- Scott]
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