Posts Tagged ‘value’

Many houses have floor plans that don’t work very well. In the case of this project, the first problem is a nice living room disconnected from the rest of the house.  (You have to go through the vestibule to get to the living room and the vestibule is not very big, especially if you include a coat tree and shoe storage.  When I arrived and saw the space it also became clear that the kitchen/ diningroom connection could also be improved, as well as kitchen storage and counter space.

The budget isn’t grand, but a lot can be gained with a few small changes.


We will close the opening between vestibule and dining room and open a bigger one directly from dining room to living room. Then we will eliminate a big chunk of hallway between kitchen and dining and use this space to expand the kitchen counter and add some dearly needed kitchen storage.

proposed plan

Someday things might shift back the other way, but for now, most people seem to prefer informal dining that is very connected to the kitchen.

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compost heater

A simple diagram taken from this site….full of a lot of similar concepts for sustainable living.

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drawers with cut out pulls

I have always liked this simple and affordable way to open cabinet drawers. This is a bathroom cabinet for a project here in Berkeley, CA.

Remodelista just posted a collection of some other nice examples (follow the link)

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I stopped by my job site today to have a peek at the formwork for the curved concrete steps and landing at the back of the house. I was impressed by how quickly the pros got it done.

curved concrete formwork

curved concrete steps

I noticed that they contained the fill at the center of the pour with a metal mesh box. This way they could use much less concrete than if the landing and stairs had been solid.


Here are the steps today after they pulled the forms and finished the concrete:


I learned that the concrete cost around $900, the integral color (slate green) cost $1600, and the labor to form and finish was about $2000.

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I was visiting my carpenter friend last week for lunch and got to see this project before the client finished moving in. The architect made a lot of nice moves in renovating this old house.  He vaulted the ceilings, opened up the space, and connected better to the backyard, Sunlight comes in through a few  well placed skylights, big south-facing french doors, and a high window in the hall. I am sitting in the front room and I can see the back yard at the end of the hallway. The hallway has to slice through the house at an angle to make this happen. Unusual geometries result from the angled hallway, but since they result from a purposeful  move they do not seem contrived.


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Something to be said for keeping it simple.

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Check out this innovative and easy to install handrail I saw at a Berkeley furniture showroom:



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A friend recently recommended this book:

Good House Cheap House – An Adventure in Creating and Extraordinary Home at an Everyday Price by Kira Obolensky.

The main premise of the book is that you can build your dream house for below market rate prices through creativity, salvaged materials, and hard work.  I will start by saying that I like the idea and I really like a most of the houses that she features. I also agree with Kira that the architect should not be eliminated as a cost saving measure. But now I will pick apart the strategies that she puts forward.

1) Salvaged materials – Generally this is not a viable or significant cost saving measure for most people. It is hard to find and store quantities of building materials. Using used windows doesn’t make sense in most climates because used windows are mostly not up to current energy efficiency standards. Using used framing materials often requires that they be re-certified to prove they can still perform.  Additionally, Labor costs in the United States are usually a bigger share of the budget than the materials….so it doesn’t make sense from a financial standpoint to have paid labor removing nails and cleaning up salvaged materials.  That said, if you do have a place to store materials out of the weather and access to good salvage yards, craigslist, and other places to buy used materials, money can be saved. There is often also character and charm in using salvaged materials..and of course it can be more environmentally sound. The same is true of saving parts of an old building rather than tearing it down and starting from scratch. Unfortunately, it is often cheaper to start from scratch.

2) Creativity – Kira shows many examples of ingenuity and unconventional uses of materials. Honestly, for most people with a hired contractor, I can’t imagine that this saves any money. The idea would have to be communicated from architect to client to builder, or from client to architect to builder or maybe just from client to builder and this often is a challenge.  Frequently new creative ideas scare builders who have to put a price tag on things ahead of time.  Many of the houses in Kira’s book are architects’ own houses. Its much easier to be creative on your own house. You can experiment and don’t have to spend time creating drawings, models, or other tools to convince the client of the idea.  These architects probably did some of the building themselves, eliminating communication altogether.  That said, much of the construction budget goes to finish materials. If you like the aesthetic of plywood as a finish floor or various sheet goods rather than tile for your shower and bathroom floor, curtains instead of doors for the shower and some closets, then you can save money.

It is wonderful to create something beautiful through creative use of basic materials. In my mind this is way cooler than making something beautiful by spending money on expensive tiles, carpets, and other architectural elements.

3) Hard work –  In my opinion, this is the only sure winner, but it also has to be smart work.  Experienced builders and architects and engineers are often more efficient and have tricks of the trade. Doing your own work, design or construction, can sometimes lead to disappointing results.  The hardwork that makes the most sense in my opinion is spending the time to carefully select your architect and builder, spending the time to have your needs and desires and budget thought through, assisting the architect where possible and being available and giving schematic plans sufficient thought and consideration and getting preliminary pricing before moving along to the more detailed construction documents. It is often a good idea to pick a builder early on so the architect and builder can work together for an efficient collaboration. During construction there is plenty to do. Some builders are open to clients helping with the work, others typically bigger companies, want no part of this.  I have had several projects where a small builder was happy to have the owner operate as a carpenter’s assistant. This is a great way to learn and get your hands dirty while having an expert on hand to guide the project. Home owners also frequently help with clean up and dump runs – labor intensive and low skilled parts of the job. Painting is often done by the home owners, but it is often more efficient to paint before finish electrical and plumbing, so it might be inconvenient for the contractor to wait while the homeowner does their own painting. The most important thing that a homeowner can do to make the job more efficient is to be available and spend the time to make decisions as quickly as possible. If every door knob has not been selected prior to construction with the architect, these things will have to be selected during construction. There are a lot of small decisions like this and it is crucial that they don’t cause delays.  It is even more important that you don’t change your mind about certain decisions. changing things late in the game can be very expensive.  Beyond making decisions, keeping your eye on things is always helpful. Even an untrained eye can detect issues and help things go more smoothly.

4) Simplicity – A cost saving measure that Kira does not mention is simplicity. For example: Most kitchens these days have recessed lights, under-cabinet lights and a decorative light in the middle of the room. If you have high enough ceilings to make it work, stick with one big light in the middle of the room. (if your ceilings are not high, you might not get enough light on the work surfaces.)  Every switch and fixture costs money. Complicated roof lines can be very expensive in labor and materials.

5) Lifecycle costs – It is also important to consider the lifetime costs of the building. Incandescent bulbs might be cheaper, but LED bulbs will save you money in the long run. Durable materials will last longer. Money spent on extra insulation will usually save money down the road.

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I made this painted plywood seat for my friend Matt’s family heirloom chair a while back. Just happened upon the photo while searching through my files.

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I thought this was cool – from a blog called V-spot .

The little holes in the sides make the thing sparkle.

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This was a collaboration with Matt Hornby Garden Design and Construction.

It wasn’t hard to improve upon the existing decks and yard, but the budget was a challenge.

These are before photos of the deck and yard:



This huge deck on the second floor didn’t even have real footings!

So the idea was to make the upper deck just big enough for a couple to sit and enjoy the evening, and to make a nice big lower level deck. the structure supporting the upper deck and the upper deck itself will help to create zones for different sorts of outdoor living. There is also a patio and a lot of garden that doesn’t appear in the sketch model.

sketchup model of the multi-layered landscape design

sketchup model of the multi-layered landscape design

railing sketch


Deck gone!


The middle post is actually not connected to the deck. It is for a pergola that will attach to the deck.


Now I’ll have to go back and visit to get some more photos of the finished project.

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Removal of material in decorative pattern creates sparkle of light on plain steel chair back

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