Few builders had the time or the inclination to pinch pennies during the housing boom. They were too busy keeping up with demand and giving well-leveraged buyers anything and everything their hearts desired. Fast forward to today, however, and the picture is a bit different. Now that profit margins have narrowed and buyer equity has shriveled, those in the business who can fashion design gold out of lead have a talent that everyone wants.

We touched base with a handful of recessionary alchemists and asked them to share some of their tricks of the trade.

Second Chance

Ken Wyner Photography

For his own kitchen in a mid- century, high-rise building, builder Alan Abrams traded traditional upper cabinets for open shelves and pot racks that put his culinary gear on display (and easily within reach). “The shelves replaced the equivalent of at least seven conventional wall cabinets,” Abrams says. “If we had used upper cabinets of the same series as the base cabinets, the cost would have been about $3,500 more, plus $50 per cabinet for installation.”

Ken Wyner Photography

And that’s not the only stroke of budget genius here. All of the wood was sourced from an architectural salvage yard, Community Forklift, for half the cost of new materials. The shelves and countertops are made from reclaimed joists and rafters from a teardown project, while the wall paneling and range hood are fashioned from surplus tongue-and-groove cedar. The dark soapstone counter tops were sourced from an abandoned quarry and cut from leftover slabs.

Cost: Shelving and paneling, $350 in materials, plus $1,200 in labor;  Pot rack hardware (Ikea), $15 per unit.

Builder: Abrams Design Build, Silver Spring, Md.

Walk Wise

Eric Hernandez/Look Photography

Many of the features in this Hawaiian home that look high-end were in fact quite easy on the wallet. To give the stairs a contemporary edge, architect Eric Zuziak mixed traditional newel posts with a stainless steel cable rail that’s less costly than hardwood pickets. He also saved on flooring choices. High-traffic areas are outfitted with Design Materials Inc.’s Seasons woven vinyl flooring, a material that looks and feels like woven sea grass, but is more durable and—get this—waterproof. “It’s great for beach locations, is easy to sweep or wet mop, and is cheaper than stone and many types of tile or hardwood,” he explains. “Plus it can really take a beating. We used it in the bathrooms, mud rooms, kids’ bedrooms, and guest house.”

Eric Hernandez/Look Photography

Cost: Cable rail, $3,000 installed for 27 linear feet of rail length (about $111 per linear foot);
Woven vinyl flooring, $3,800 including installation for 1,126 square feet of space (roughly $3.50 per square foot). Architect: Eric Zuziak, principal and director of design, JZMK Partners, Irvine, Calif.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA, Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, Los Angeles, CA.