Builders tend to define themselves by their buyers. Who’s your target market? Move-up families with kids? Downsizing empty-nesters? Millennials? The creative class? People who love smooth jazz and wire-haired fox terriers? During the boom, psychographic preferences were parlayed into what builders hoped would prove to be market-differentiating features, from pet-washing stations to wine caves to poker dens.
But as we enter a new age of pragmatism, the goodies that were once deal-closers are backfiring. Fully loaded homes are unsellable now that buyers can’t afford houses built around their hobbies du jour. They’re no longer treating home as an ephemeral commodity to be swapped out with each life change or whim.
Instead, many homeowners are finding that what they really want are flexible dwellings that can expand and contract with them as their physical, relational, and financial circumstances ebb and flow. It’s no longer feasible to uproot when that second baby is born, when grandma moves in, when the kids leave for college, when one spouse launches a home business, or when the other gets laid off.
At the same time, builders looking to mitigate risk are realizing that in order to stay afloat, they must build smaller, less prescriptive homes that can appeal to a broader swath of the population—all the while value-engineering their plans to provide more bang for the buck.
But there’s a fine line between universal appeal and vanilla design, and the need to differentiate remains. How do you build something practical and compact that still feels special? Do you shrink the entire floor plan equally, or do you abide by different rules of proportion? How do you parcel out a limited construction budget to create the most value? And how can you make one structure work equally well for buyers at different stages in their lives and in different tax brackets?
For answers to these questions, Builder turned to designer Marianne Cusato, who is perhaps best known as the creator of the original Katrina Cottage. Who better to ask? Disaster relief is what this beleaguered industry needs right now, and that includes a pro forma or two that skittish lenders will be willing to bankroll. Cusato joined forces with building scientist Mark LaLiberte, and came back with a no-nonsense plan that wastes little, appeals to many, and can be built just about anywhere.
Including on the Web. Unlike previous Builder show homes, this one isn’t a brick-and-mortar structure. It’s virtual. Why? Because the beauty of this versatile little house is that it can be configured in, oh, so many ways—more ways than we could possibly have space for in print. We showcase a few variations here, but for a full tour you can visit www.builderconcepthome2010.com.
Dollars and Sense
How much does our Home for the New Economy cost to build? Construction costs vary by region and the level of finish will greatly impact price, but Cusato estimates that the basic house can be built for about $110 per square foot, excluding land costs.
Let there be no doubt this is a smart little plan that faces the recession head on. At 1,700 square feet, the Home for the New Economy is essentially a saltbox with another box tacked onto the back. In other words, it’s uncomplicated massing that’s easier, faster, and cheaper to build—particularly from a framing and foundation standpoint—than a house with lots of bump-outs and undulating roof forms.
“Somewhere along the line, homeowners were told they needed 10 gables or they didn’t measure up,” says Cusato, whose book, Get Your House Right, lists this phenomenon among a litany of superfluous extras that end up devouring construction budgets.
“When you don’t have tons of gables, you aren’t putting money into extra flashing in the peaks and valleys of your roof, or in a patchwork quilt of different materials on the front elevation.”
Take away those expenses and you can spend more on features that serve multiple purposes—such as a deeper porch that doubles as outdoor living space. Or double-hung windows on all sides that channel natural light and allow cross-ventilation, thus reducing the burden on the HVAC system. Aesthetics alone aren’t sufficient justification for any one line item, Cusato cautions. There’s more value for the buyer in features that do double, or triple duty.
Apply the same value test to every other design decision and four-sided architecture suddenly becomes doable, she points out. Better to perfect one clean element—say a 6-foot window and trim detail—and repeat it consistently than to muddle up the face of the house with 10 competing pieces of eye candy that give the front elevation the fake appearance of a façade in the backlot of an old movie studio.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN.