New Economy Home in the community of New Amherst in Cobourg, Ontario
New Economy Home in the community of New Amherst in Cobourg, Ontario 

In the midst of the recession in 2009, designer Marianne Cusato envisioned a type of home that could help pull Americans out of their financial burdens and into homeownership. 

Since prospective buyers delay making the investment in a home if their financial future is uncertain, Cusato knew her prototype had to be affordable and flexible. She had heard from consumers who were afraid that they could end up stuck in a home that no longer fit their needs down the road if their finances change, they have more children, or need to care for an aging parent.

Intended to change with the owners’ needs, Cusato’s adaptable New Economy Home appealed to recession-weary buyers by allowing them to adjust the home to their lifestyle. It responded to the factors that prompt buyers to move—or to sometimes avoid homeownership all together. 

New Economy Home first and second floor plans 
New Economy Home first and second floor plans 

The original concept for the 1,771-square-foot home featured a ground-floor walk out suite that adjusted to fit a family’s personal economic needs—a boomerang child returning home, an adult parent that needed to move in, or a room-for-rent as a source of extra income. The adaptable suite has a large closet space that can be plumbed out and transformed into a kitchenette. Though building expenses may vary, Cusato estimates the cost to construct a New Economy Home ranges from $200,000 to $230,000.

“I think there is a universal quality to this plan,” says Cusato.  “The discussion of economy in general is one piece, but what we’ve seen with the plan is that it universally works in different ways for how we’re living and shifting in our home, and that becomes the bigger issue.”

Cusato's Cost-Cutting Design Tips

Designer Marianne Cusato’s key to designing an attractive home that doesn’t break the bank is simplicity.

Cusato collaborated with affordable housing expert Fernando Pages Ruiz and building scientist Mark LaLiberte to build the original New Economy Home, and together they maximized the affordability of the home by utilizing cost-cutting design strategies. 

According to Ruiz, the most efficient shape for a home is a square. Square homes maximize the amount of conditioned space within the home and reduce the amount of material needed for exterior walls. Square designs also keep framing measurements consistent and eliminate error.

The team found cost-saving tricks as the project progressed. The design changes that prompted Cusato to create the New Economy Home 2.0 responded to the demand she saw from buyers to eliminate costly extras.

The original design consisted of three shuttered windows across the front of the house. But Cusato noticed that buyers weren’t purchasing the shutters for their windows because they were too expensive, which left the design lacking. She redesigned around the change, and adjusted the façade to feature four windows that looked best without shutters. 

“Rather than forcing a design that was going to add cost, I fixed the design by just changing it, looking at where the cost is embedded, and making it work without that,” she says. 

Today, her New Economy Home continues to woo buyers even though the economy has begun to rebound. 

Cusato says the plan continues to sell, with at least 25 built across the country, from Washington state to Virginia. Many have been built in New Urbanist communities such as Warwick Grove in Warwick, N.Y. and New Town at St. Charles in Louisville, Ky., where the model is targeted toward a wide variety of demographics.  

The popularity of the design led Cusato to recently introduce the New Economy Home 2.0, a second version of the plan that incorporated the most common changes requested from buyers. (See sidebar at left.) 

While the economy has brightened, not all prospective home buyers are feeling optimistic. Cusato points out that just because numbers are improving on national economic reports doesn’t mean they’re improving on prospective buyers’ bank accounts. That’s why a flexible floor plan is relevant even in good economic times, she says.

“The reality of what we can all individually afford changes,” she says. “We tried to address that flexibility, so you can expand or contract to be able to justify moving in. Homeownership really only works if you’re in it for the long term.”