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Smaller, More Affordable Homes for Us All

Marilyn Soltis explores the benefits of smaller, more affordable homes.

    The McMansion era is fading. Energy-guzzling homes, 4,000 square feet and up, are high on the foreclosure list due to falling prices and lack of interest. The economy, the energy crisis and the green movement all contribute to a growing trend to live in more compact, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly homes. Even many wealthy real estate clients are opting for more sensible homes. A recent article in Forbes showcased 650-square-foot structures coming in at $615 a square foot. The appeal for these is the proximity of the neighbors and a feeling of community as opposed to the anonymous suburban feel. Isolation is replaced by shared gardens. Of course, many of these homes may not be primary residences.
    The past few months have seen important exhibits extolling the virtues of smaller spaces. No longer taunted by the architectural community, smaller spaces are  rising to an almost artistic level. The Whitney Museum of Modern Art revisited R. Buckminister Fuller and his philosophy of doing more with less, which led to his invention of round prefab aluminum houses. The Museum of Modern Art just held Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, which celebrated the prefab housing movement.
    Some architects are focusing almost exclusively on smaller dwellings both for the well-to-do and for public housing. Chicago architect Douglas Garafalo, FAIA, garnered attention and a second-place finish in the Chicago Housing Authority’s ABLA Homes Competition with his concrete panel units. He sought to avoid the common problem in mixed-income development, which is “reducing potential residents to their perceived least common denominator.”
    He envisioned using existing prefabricating industries to manufacture modules allowing the total unit to be completed in a couple of months, reducing construction time and costs while creating a “weave of housing” that allowed for diversity.
    Garafalo also redesigned the Hyde Park Art Center with a digital front that artists use to project their work and energize the street. It is described as a “facade developed as an experimental electronic space, made of glass and steel and equipped with an integrated system of digital projection screens, scrims and shades that allow for many alternative forms of electronic art. Using this system, the building becomes a device through which artists will be able to create works that are site specific and engaged with public space, both interior and exterior.” The development of satellite digital cinema may allow for works to be transmitted from other parts of the world.  
    “I see projects like the Hyde Park Art Center in a larger context now,” Garafalo says. “These buildings serve many purposes in the community. I look at how it fits into the city. It’s part classroom, computer lab and exhibit.”
    On the residential side, Garafalo doesn’t hold back his opinion about the size of homes. “My wife and I live in 1,000 square feet, and it’s plenty fine,” he says. “Given the state of things out there, it doesn’t even seem right to consider a large house.” Many of his clients prefer to keep their homes under 3,000 square feet.

Prefab Pioneer

The name Rocio Romero is often mentioned in the new wave of well-designed prefab housing. The Chilean American says she wanted to create affordable modern homes. “Five or six years ago only rich people could afford a modern home,” Romero says.
    Her prefab homes are boxy with floor-to-ceiling windows. Their unique modern look helped to catapult the prefab industry from the stepsister of double-wide trailers to alternative architectural art.
    Romero claims her homes cost slightly below “stick built,” where constructing a modern home usually costs 20 to 40 percent more. Her initial designs were considered unique at 1,150 square feet when most homes were being built at 3,000 to 4,000 square feet. At $120 to $190 per square foot, depending on the area, her homes have appealed to a broad range of clients, from young couples to people in their 80s and 90s. The cost obviously does not include the land, and most variables are due to upgraded interiors and the cost of labor. Any general contractor should be able to erect the house.
    In just the past five or six years, the environmental impact of homes has become an issue, and Romero has made her prefab unitst wice as energy-efficient as normal houses and capable of utilizing solar panels. The company assists clients in choosing the best energy systems for their geographic area.
    The design allows for the illusion of living in a much larger space due to large windows, which bring the outside in, creating an almost seamless connection to nature. Utilitarian spaces like closets and bathrooms are tucked in the back sides, leaving most of the house open to bringing in the outdoors.
     This may have more than aesthetic appeal. A recent New York Times article cited the “attention restoration theory” with Andrea Faber Taylor, a child environment and behavior researcher at the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. According to Taylor, the brain has two forms of attention. “Directed” attention is used for work and studies. “Involuntary” attention is the response to sounds like wild animals or crying babies. A study shows that views of green space and participation in nature gives directed attention a rest by capturing involuntary attention.
    Romero says that bringing the outside indoors is especially critical in urban areas. Some of her urban clients have opted for U-shaped dwellings with inner windows looking into a courtyard.
Luxury on a Budget

    Susannah Sirefman, president of Dovetail Design Strategists of New York and author of Modern Shoestring: Contemporary Architecture on a Budget, questions the hoopla about prefab housing.
    Sirefman starts with the premise that prefab construction is not as cheap as it seems, with hidden costs like delivery, site prep and local labor. She believes that custom-tailored homes are also affordable if you find the right architect.
     The eighteen homes features in the book range from $51 per square foot in Lubbock, Texas, to $220 per square foot in Echo Park Hills, California. All of the houses are tailor-made by licensed architects or designer-led architect teams.
    She writes in her book, “The 18 projects here do not save money by using less space or material. Instead they squeeze as much usableliving space out of a budget as possible.”
    Even though the homes range from 1,200 to 5,000 square feet, the average is 2,283 square feet.
    Their style is called “topical modernism,” a concept composed of a sense of linear rigor, clean streamlined spaces, pragmatic flow, precise detailing and established relationship between inside and outside.
    One of the houses featured in the book was a house built in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood for the City of Chicago’s design competition “Green Homes for Chicago” in 2000, before the term “green architecture” became marketing fodder for the industry.
    The two-story, 1,830-square-foot house has a rooftop herb garden fed by water runoff. A passive ventilation system, solar chimney and planted sod roof help to reduce monthly energy costs. The solar chimney has a fan that pulls warm air up and out of the house in the summer, eliminating the need for air conditioning. A floor-to-ceiling wall of recycled bottles filled with tap water creates a heat sink.
    The house sits on a typical 25-foot by 125-foot lot, and a garage was eliminated in order to facilitate more living space.  Marc L’Italiens, principal of EHDD Architecture, said of their design, “Our low-tech energy-saving concept is not radical or new; we simply reinvented strategies used in residential building at the turn of the twentieth century.” This incredibly green home was constructed at a cost of $120 per square foot in 2003.
     The Newfield House in Newfield, New York, designed by Central Office of Architecture in Los Angeles, came in at $200 per square foot. A stunningly simple one bedroom, at 2,400 square feet, the home is a long rectangle with a garage at one end and a deck at the other. The single story glass and steel house requires little maintenance. The floor is part of the concrete slab and is fitted with radiant heating. The spartan interior is juxtaposed against a surrounding 14-acre forest, home to deer and wild turkeys.
    The $51 per square foot home in Lubbock, Texas, was designed by Urs Peter Flueckiger, the owner. The 2,750-square-foot home is a one-story structure clad in sheets of corrugated metal. It has a traditional southwestern courtyard, and every room opens to the central outdoor space.
..The home includes two 440-square-foot studios, one for the architect and the other for his wife, an art professor and painter. He constructed his own maple kitchen cabinetry and instead of built-in closets, wire racks and metal foot closets are used.  The floor is concrete. Despite the utter simplicity, the home is still comfortable and inviting.
Cutting Costs, Keeping Quality

    Some of the ways clients in the book saved money was by finding reclaimed materials. One client found recycled parts from leftover temporary materials from Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project—600,000 pounds of steel and concrete.  Some shopped for discarded custom material orders or bargains at auction houses. Among the more popular money-saving efforts was the use of commercial windows, industrial hardware and galvanized or corrugated metal. Sweat equity also saved clients quite a bit.
    Homeowners may design around a collection. Sirefman had one fascinating couple who had been collecting discarded windows. She says they came in with an excel spreadsheet listing 40 windows they wanted to use. They came in every shape and size from octagonal to square to large and small. A home was designed around the windows.
    Sirefman’s company, Dovetail Design, helps clients to choose the right designer, architect or landscape architect for contemporary-built environmental projects. “An architect costs anywhere from 12 to 20 percent of your costs,” she says, but it is well worth it.
    She advises clients to be very clear on budget and time resources. When trying to save money, it may take longer to complete. She says a visit to the architect or designer’s office can tell you a lot from the office culture. Visit other projects they have done and assess their willingness to be very individual. Ask the right questions upfront to prevent problems later. One cost-saving device is to hire an architect who is also the general contractor, according to Sirefman.
    “Working with an architect or designer can be a magical experience, and there is no reason that those with limited funds should not be privy to that process or product,” Sirefman says.

Published: December 06, 2008
Issue: Winter 2008 - Annual Philanthropy Guide