How to Balance Costs and Aesthetics in New Home Design
Building a house is expensive. There’s no question about it. It’s probably the single biggest investment of anyone’s life. And as such, it takes time and effort from the new homeowner, architect or designer, engineers, and contractor to make it successful and be exactly what the homeowner always dreamed it would be and more.
But, to build a house AND make it cost-effective requires even more effort to ensure that the right decisions are being made while retaining the discipline required in the approach to keep it affordable.
Recently, I was in Europe with my family on vacation and noticed how the aesthetics of design for even the smallest of houses was such an emphasis. So many homes were ensconced with detailed exterior and interior details that it seemed normal. But, to the American visitor, it did not go unnoticed. Certainly, everyone is aware of the gaudy display of wealth on display in the Versailles, but there is a balance that can be struck to have some of the beauty of a palace such as that with the logical budget conscious construction of a new home without losing the aesthetics of a home to be proud of. The amenities of the local community are as important to the community as the aesthetics and features of a new home are to the value of the home. The Château de Chambord, for instance, is much less gaudy than the Versailles without sacrificing any of the beauty of the construction. It’s as nice as any building I have ever seen and yet has many of the practical aspects to make it a logical construction without the extravagance of some others. Planning and balancing the aesthetics with the practical aspects is something that needs to begin at the start of any new home construction. And, your builder can work with you to make it right from the start.
When designing an affordable home, so much time is spent planning, creating an efficient floor plan with a simple, straightforward layout and simple details and materials, as well as optimizing the building systems so that all the efforts will pay off in the building of the home. A well-conceived, affordable home design doesn’t matter if the construction isn’t as equally optimized, planned out, and held in the highest regard.
Cost-effective home construction not only takes clear and open communication and planning between you, the architect, and the contractor to get the design just right, but also time and dedication on the part of the contractor, his crew, and all the sub-contractors and suppliers. Attention to material limitations, proper construction techniques and installation, energy efficiency, and strategic material sourcing are just a few areas of focus to help make your house construction more affordable.
Understand Home Construction Methods and Optimize Accordingly
When designing your home, it’s a good idea to be mindful of how it will get built. Select building materials based on affordability, structural capacities, and design aesthetics. Wood is cheaper than steel. Masonry and concrete usually fall somewhere in between. Understanding where certain materials fall on the cost spectrum will help make cost-effective decisions.
It is important to note that there are trade-offs to low cost. While steel is expensive, it is much stronger, can span farther than, and has smaller sized members than wood or other cheaper materials.
Understand Construction Modules and Dimensions
Efficient use of materials using standard construction dimensions and modules will be most cost-effective and reduces material waste. Reducing waste will save money because you’re buying less material to begin with and not wasting any.
For example, most building materials that come in sheets (plywood, gypsum board, insulation board) all come in 4’x8′ sheets. If you aren’t sure exactly what dimension to make your walls, consider a dimension that works with a typical stud spacing of 16″ or 24″ centers for widths and standard 4’x8′ sheeting for heights.
9ft high ceilings are nice, but that extra 12″ means that you need to install another piece of drywall on the wall. That 12″ piece across the entire floor area adds up to extra sheets of drywall and extra labor to install it 9ft up in the air – not to mention extra energy costs to heat the extra 12″ of space you’re not even using.
Consider limitations in stud lengths and framing member spans. Stock lumber typically comes in 2ft increment lengths. Also, if you plan to use 2x10s or 2x12s to frame your floor, remember there are limits to how far they can span without a beam support. Prefabricated wood truss and joists are cost-effective. Consider using these over site-built or built-up framing members.
Consider Advanced Framing Techniques
One of the latest developments in recent history has been the slow migration to advanced framing techniques. The current industry standard wood framed wall uses 2×4 studs at 16″ centers with double top plates, 3-stud corners, jack studs, cripples and double headers. This method is starting to get replaced with 2×6 studs at 24″ centers with single top plates, 2-stud corners, no jack studs, no cripples and single headers.
Advanced framing techniques provide cheaper and faster construction and save energy. It’s cheaper because there is less lumber. It’s faster because there are fewer pieces of lumber to install. And it saves energy because it provides more cavity space for insulation and less thermal bridging. This results in a 5-10% reduction in lumber cost, a 30% reduction in framing labor costs, and a 75% increase in thermal performance. Building Science Corporation has much more information on advanced framing techniques if you’re interested in learning more about it.
Build With Energy Efficiency in Mind
We’ve mentioned before that improving energy efficiency is cost-effective because it lowers operating costs and ongoing monthly utility bills. During the construction phase, it’s important to properly build your home so all the great energy efficient design strategies you’ve incorporated into your design actually work properly.
Insulate Your Home Properly
One of the most important ways to make your home more affordable is to make sure the house is properly insulated.
Make sure your building envelope is entirely insulated (walls, roof, floor/foundation). Talk to your designer, architect, or builder about more efficient ways of building your home that will improve its thermal performance. There are various strategies to achieve this such as increasing the amount of insulation, using a more efficient type of insulation, minimizing thermal bridging, and using higher performing windows to name few. The more efficient the home is, the less energy you expend to keep it a comfortable temperature.
Keep in mind that there are various types of insulation with different performance characteristics and different costs. Evaluate which type and how much insulation you want/need and go from there. Also, building codes dictate minimum insulation requirements, but it’s a good idea to go above and beyond code when the budget allows.
Ensure an Air Tight Building Envelope
Properly sealing air leaks in the home’s thermal envelope can help reduce future energy costs by up to 50 percent when compared to other houses of similar type and age. It’s also one of the most cost-effective building practices to an efficient home.
Penetrations through exterior walls are the likeliest of places to have air leaks. You can witness this in the winter when you put your hand next to the window and feel the cold air coming in. That’s just more air your furnace has to heat and more money out of your pocket. When you have a chance to build a new home or even replace windows of your existing home pay close attention to properly sealing around windows both on the interior and exterior.
Other areas to seal around the exterior perimeter are at top and bottom plates of walls and rim joists. On the interior, sealing around device penetrations such as wall outlets and switches is a good idea.
Insulate Ducts and Pipes
Within your home, it’s also important to insulate hot water pipes and air ducts to minimize heat loss as water and air travel through them. Make sure your contractor seals and tapes the ducts to prevent air loss.
Actively Participate in the Construction Process
Find Ways to Reduce the Amount of Labor
If you want to save money on the construction of your home, consider taking on some of the work yourself. If you’re familiar with construction, consider being your own general contractor. If you’re not THAT familiar but are handy with construction tools and enjoy getting your hands dirty, you can elect to do a portion of the work yourself. If you have family or friends who are in the construction industry like electricians, plumbers, or other construction specialists, see if they’d be willing to help out. They will most likely be cheaper than another contractor, if not free.
Remember to make sure to communicate frequently and from the start with your builder to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding your responsibilities. Be realistic about your skills and capabilities. The last thing you want to do is spend money on the contractor fixing your mistakes.
Creatively Source Materials & Products
If actual work isn’t for you, consider helping to source and order fixtures and finishes. You don’t need to buy from expensive showrooms. There are hundreds of discount supply stores and online retailers that more offer cost-effective light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, hardware, and bath accessories. Make a list of what you need and get creative. Look on Craigslist, the classified section, Habitat for Humanity Restores, eBay, and discount warehouses. You may even find some nice salvaged materials that come with a nice story to tell your friends and family.
If you’re concerned about the quality of a product you find online, see if you can find the same item in a local showroom, hardware store, or building supply store where you can check out the quality in person before buying it online. This tip can even work the other way around. Browse your local stores for products, make a list of the ones you want, and then search online for them to see if you can find a better price than at the store.
It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t feel like you’re sacrificing anything. It’s OK to buy nice things and splurge on certain parts of your home. Just splurge strategically. Make sure you set priorities and decide what really matters to you. If a really nice bathroom oasis is important to you, then by all means, get the bells and whistles. But then consider taking a more modest approach to rooms or areas that are less important to you.
Bonus Tip: A contractor’s fee is usually based on the total cost of materials and labor plus a certain markup percentage for their own overhead, expenses, and profit. If you can find ways of reducing the actual material and labor costs, the actual amount of the contractor’s fee will be reduced.
The strategies mentioned above for a cost-effective house construction process are well worth the time and effort to make them happen.
One additional important thing not mentioned in this article that can help provide some additional construction cost savings is to use a well-qualified, licensed, reputable general contractor on your house. They not only have more experience and skill to build and manage the home construction process, but also have established relationships with suppliers and subcontractors who can potentially provide services at a more affordable price than you’d find elsewhere on the market.
And lastly, changes during construction are inevitable. Whether due to unforeseen conditions, discontinued products, or design changes these changes do impact the construction cost. Making changes early in the design phase have very little cost associated with them. However, changes made during construction can have huge impacts. So to help control and minimize any additional construction costs, try to avoid making costly changes late in the game. Your wallet will be much happier for it.
Parker Associates works closely with Builders and Developers to ensure that the planning is done up front so that the final product is as good as it gets. New Home Builder, TerraWise Homes is a great example of this. TerraWise Homes works closely with their customers to ensure they are planning the home with all of the most affordable and functional features while considering the holistic design of the site and home on the site. It doesn’t happen without a focused approach and they are very good at making sure this happens.
There are so many difficult questions that must be faced in a great many developments and building construction. We can help. Contact our seasoned professionals at firstname.lastname@example.org or (904) 992-9888.
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David WB Parker is a principal of Parker Associates of Jacksonville, Florida, marketing consultants to the real estate industry; President of PTC Computer Solutions, IT Specialist, and an active real estate sales professional with PARFAM REALTY based in Jacksonville, FL. He can be reached at 904-607-8763 or via email email@example.com.