Oct 012011

October 2011
BuilderNews Magazine
Feature: Project Profile


A Texas Whole House Remodel

Keeping In-line With the Joneses


The Rosedale neighborhood of Austin, Texas, just north of the city’s downtown, is a quiet, residential neighborhood of winding, tree-lined streets and modest, single-family houses. Most of the homes in Rosedale were built in the 1930s and 40s and much of this original housing remains. Low-slung, single-story cottages and ranch homes sit on large, oversized lots that often top a quarter acre or more. Broad, manicured lawns, side yards and hedgerows separate one house from the next. It is the type of neighborhood where young couples move to start a family and where older folks have remained long after their children have grown. It is also the type of neighborhood, especially in Austin, that has recently attracted considerable attention.

To the city of Austin, Rosedale and neighborhoods like it are an important part of the city’s history, demarcating its progression from a small, southwestern capital into one of the most vibrant and acclaimed cities in the country. Rosedale, once having defined the outer limits of Austin, is now part Central Austin—a collection of some 40-plus neighborhoods that make up the city center. And the city, itself, is booming. Forbes rated Austin the “Best City for Jobs in 2011,” and over the past decade the population has jumped by nearly 40 percent. But, as often happens, with such a sudden and rapid rate of expansion there also comes problems, and Austin has seen its share.

Mark Lind is a Senior Project Designer with CG&S Design-Build, an Austin-based firm that recently completed the whole-house remodel of a typical, single-story Rosedale cottage. It was a squat, nondescript house, longer than it was wide, dark grey with a faded brown asphalt roof and a tiny one-car garage tacked onto the end. Two bedrooms and one bath sat on 1,100 square feet, the interior chopped up into your standard, mid-century dining room, living room and kitchen. The owners, a young professional couple, collect mid-century modern furniture and they wanted the remodel to fit that style. Lind was thrilled. “The original house wasn’t very distinct,” he says. “It was sort of like a cabin, and quite often remodeling clients want the addition to look like the original house. So it was quite refreshing to have people say, ‘No, we want to completely change the appearance.’”

CG&S first met with the clients in the fall of 2008, and Lind says that straight away things went well. A  CG&S crew visited the site, took measurements and Lind drew up some preliminary designs — just to get the ideas rolling. When, at their first official meeting and before Lind shared his ideas, the clients conveyed more of what they were looking for, Lind knew he had hit the mark. “It was as if they had already seen the drawings,” Lind says — that’s how close he’d come. Unfortunately for Lind, CG&S and the clients that was where the ease of the project ended and the worst of their troubles began.

CG&S named the project the Silver Agave house, for the three-foot, spiked desert plant that stands at the end of the drive. The Shoal Creek, a tributary of the nearby Colorado River, runs through the center of Rosedale and skirts the far back corner of the roughly 9,000-sqaure-foot lot. This, unfortunately, put the Agave house in the Shoal Creek floodplain, which attracted the attention of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA, since 1968, provides low-cost, federal flood insurance for houses in high-risk areas. The insurance is cheap, cheaper than it would be otherwise, but as a consequence, FEMA also gets a say in what can and can’t be built. The FEMA approval alone took six months, set strict restrictions and vastly hindered the design. “Basically, [FEMA] told us: ‘Limit yourself to the existing footprint, you can’t spread out,’” Lind says, “and so we changed from pushing out to deciding we had to go up.”

But to go up, as Lind notes, would present its own list of challenges and concerns, the most important of which involved the existing Rosedale residents. Rosedale, like most of Central Austin, has recently attracted a new, younger buyer, looking for homes close to the city center. As a result, the neighborhood is being redeveloped, and in several instances this has led to some of the smaller, historic homes being torn down and replaced with much larger, two and three-story homes often out of character with the existing neighborhood. Many of the residents objected, and the city reacted. In 2006, the Austin City Council passed the “Residential Design and Compatibility Standards,” dubbed the McMansion ordinance for its far–reaching and contentious efforts to limit the size and shape of homes built in Central Austin. The list of McMansion limitations is numerous and includes, among others, a restriction on the home’s floor space to no more that 40 percent of the lot size and frontline setbacks based entirely on the average setback of the surrounding homes.

While Lind’s design of the Silver Agave fit well within the McMansion parameters, not even coming close to such expansive dimensions, Lind says that nonetheless the ordinance has had a major impact on his work as a designer.“You have to put this into the context of this really rancorous debate over what is or is not a McMansion,” he explains. “What no one wants now is to be accused of building a McMansion.”

The owners wanted to reinvent the house, to add more space, and the budget allowed for a near doubling of the existing home. The challenge for Lind, however, was to do all this, on the existing footprint, while creating a look that remained “compatible” with the surrounding single-story houses.

The first to go was the garage. Originally a one-car garage built on a shoddy concrete slab, Lind transformed this into a two-story addition and nearly 500-sqaure-feet of added living space. Immediately, Lind saw the impact this could have on the home’s appearance and sought to reduce it. ”I didn’t want to have a tower sticking onto the front of this one-story cottage,” Lind explains. The first floor siding is cement stucco, intended to give weight and presence at the end of the driveway. Above that, a slender bank of horizontal windows rims the entire structure, dividing the lower and upper floors. Vertical, fiber-cement siding with cedar battens on the second floor help further this division. The near-flat roof, no attic and broad overhangs then cap the tower, stopping the eye and condensing the visual height of the structure. The continuation of the standing-seam roof down one side of “the tower” further draws the eye downward, as would the flow of water over a waterfall.

Lind then continued this diminishing approach to the design for the second-floor addition on the main house. A master bedroom and bath attaches to the second floor loft and stairwell that, along with a first floor dining area, replaced the old garage. The result is an 800-sqaure-foot master suite that includes a utility room and second-floor living area. Again working to reduce the home’s visual impact, Lind slid the addition to the rear the house and recreated the original low-pitched roof at the front. The attic was once more eliminated and the second floor ceiling follows the pitch of the roof — from 8’ 6” at the peak to 7’ 6” at the outside wall. Another long row of windows faces the street. “The second floor does not have any wall at all, just a bank of windows,” Lind explains, “so that the apparent massing of the house still reads like a one-story house.”

The ground floor of the main house was left much like it was. The same roof line. The same front windows. And the recently installed Ipe (a Brazilian wood) covered porch and banister were left intact. “You don’t put Ipe up and paint it,” Lind explains. “It’s just too expensive.”

Inside the house, the interior is a stripped-down, box-like design that coordinates with the home’s exterior. The existing bedrooms were repainted and the ground-floor bath updated with new fixtures and a low-cost ceramic tile. The main living area was then opened up to include the added dining area, the sparse, open staircase and a compact horseshoe kitchen that faces the living room. The inclusion of the beefy, custom-built shelving above the kitchen counter accentuates the mid-century modern motif and melds well with the owners’ tastes in furniture.

At a finished 2,100 square feet, it is fair to say that the Silver Agave house achieved most, if not all, of what Lind, the clients, FEMA and the Rosedale community had hope it would. It is new. Modern. Different. And yet, in the vernacular of the existing neighborhood, it fits and fits well, ready to blend into the historic fabric of Rosedale, rather than standout as an obvious (and oversized) addendum to it.

Sep 012011

Autumn 2011
Vermont Life Magazine
Profile: Q & A


Every Vermonter Has a Story

 John Pelletier: Financial Literacy Educator


JOHN PELLETIER, a Duke law graduate with 20 years in the asset management industry, had long marveled at the lack of personal finance education in America. For years, he swore to family and friends that if he ever had more time, he would do something about it.

Today, two years after he moved to Vermont from the Boston area, Pelletier, 47, is the founding director of the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College in Burlington. He also provides strategic consulting services to large asset management firms through his company Sterling Valley Consulting LLC.

VL: What first brought you to Vermont?

JP: It was the skiing and Stowe, but frankly, it was the people. The people in this state are just wonderful, open folks, very different from other communities. Every time we came here, we were always sad to leave and wished we had more time.

VL: What led you to move to Vermont permanently?

JP: I was at a transition point … and my wife kept saying, “Can’t we just move to Vermont?” … So, we decided that if we were willing to change our lifestyle, we could move to Vermont to raise [our three] boys. It is a great place to raise kids. They just love it here.

VL: What inspired you to start the Center for Financial Literacy?

JP: The world we live in is so different than the world our parents lived in. It’s much more financially complex. The quality of someone’s life and retirement depends on two very important things: the ability to save — you’ve got to do it — and the [ability] to figure out how to manage your money. And where do we give you those skills? If anything, less and less of it is being taught in our schools and communities.

VL: How did you get connected with Champlain College?

JP: When I came to Vermont, I put together a PowerPoint and started to go around to people saying, “Vermont ought to have a center for financial literacy.” And, as I spoke to folks, over and over again people said, “Go talk to David Finney,” who is the president of Champlain College. He has been a great partner. I met with Dave at the end of January [2010] and we went live the end of July.
VL: What was the worst financial blunder you made as a young person?

JP: When I got out of law school, I got a job in Washington, D.C., and I thought I had so much money. So what did I do? I went out and bought a sports car and got a high-end apartment. And at the end of that first year, I wasn’t home much and I didn’t drive the car much. I was just shocked. I assumed I’d be able to save money, and I was really living paycheck to paycheck.

VL: What was the best financial advice you’ve gotten?

JP: There was an older partner who pulled me aside shortly after I started [my first job], and the advice he gave me was, “Every time you get a pay raise, before you are used to it, allocate 50 percent, or at least a third, to your 401K plan, and before you know it and much quicker than you think, you’ll get close to the maximum amount.

VL: You have often associated personal finance education today with sex education in the 1960s. Why is personal finance such a taboo subject?

JP: There was a study that came out recently [about how] children and parents are more comfortable talking about sex than money. We teach our kids to look both ways before crossing the street, to buckle their seat belts, to avoid talking to strangers, which is all fantastic advice. We need to do the same thing when it comes to the financial dangers they are going to face. And, for whatever reason, whether it is a lack of knowledge, a lack of comfort talking about the subject or a lack of time, it is not being done very well.

VL: If you could impart one nugget of wisdom to young people about personal finance, what would it be?

JP: Don’t live beyond your means and always figure out a way to save something. Life is about choices, and to choose to buy something is a choice not to save, and to choose not to save may be a choice you regret when you are older.

Jul 112011

July 2011
BuilderNews Magazine
Feature: Project Profile


Sustainable in the Desert

Howling Winds, Scorching Sun? No Problem


Every new construction project starts with a few parameters: site constraints, budget, or a client’s special wishes. This project had a list.

The challenge: Design and build a low-cost, sustainable home in the Mojave Desert, where the sun beats down 350 days a year, the wind blows like a sandblaster, and the summer heat can top a blistering 115 degrees.

The solution: ISO shipping containers.

The project began in early 2009, when the client, Lion’s Gate movie executive Tim Palen, contacted architect Walter Scott Perry, founding principal of ecotechdesign in Los Angeles, CA. “The client wanted to build something in a remote location, for very little money, and in a short period of time,” Perry recalls of their initial meetings. Perry has worked with sustainable design and architecture since the 1970s and often takes a “kit-of-parts” approach to his designs, freely mixing conventional and innovative materials. “Shipping containers,” he says, “just seemed like the most cost effective and expedient way to do it.”

To arrive at this conclusion, Perry first worked through each of the project’s three major constraints: budget, time and the environment. The building site, a two-and-half-acre lot, sits on a small bluff outside Joshua Tree, CA, overlooking the low mesquite and chaparral brush lands of the Mojave high desert. It is hot and dry and difficult to access, making it a tough place to deliver materials and an even rougher place to work. This led Perry to first consider a standard prefabricated home, something often used in the region, which would go up quick and require the least amount of on-site labor. The only catch was the price. The client set a budget of $250,000, and as Perry notes, a high-quality prefab in southern California can run $250 to $350 a square foot. Not much home for the money, unless the price could be reduced. Perry’s initial estimate for the purchase, fabrication, and install of shipping containers was $100 a square foot.

The Mojave high-desert environment further lent itself to Perry’s shipping container design when he considered the long-term impacts the desert would have on the home. Shipping containers — manufactured, most recently, from core 10 steel and sealed with a two-part, marine-grade primer — are one of the most indestructible structures on the planet. The corrosive, salt-laden wind and persistent sun of the open ocean, for all its water, is remarkably similar to conditions in the desert. As Perry says, “If you framed this thing out of wood, the sun would just eat (it) up.” The obvious solution was steel, and shipping containers fit that bill.

Working then off the modern, industrial look of the shipping containers, Perry was able to move onto other elements of the design. One in particular is the client’s photo studio. “The owner wanted a box,” Perry recalls, a large, light-controlled box to be used for photo shoots. All factors considered, Perry was drawn to a Butler, pre-engineered steel building, with industrial ribbed metal siding. The building, a standard commercial unit, melded well with the aesthetics of the shipping containers, while also conforming to the project’s three major constraints. It was low-cost, durable, and could be assembled in a matter of days.

Another key element in the home’s design is the custom-built, sunshade, which forms the roof and southern façade of living area. Shade in the desert is a vital commodity, and Perry designed that commodity into the home. Between the living area to the west and the studio to the east, Perry left open a 400-square-foot “desert room,” with lush greenery and a paving stone and pebbled floor. The sunshade, constructed of repurposed industrial struts and perforated aluminum panels, forms the southern wall and roof of the desert room and extends out to shade the house. An eight inch gap separates the sunshade from the building’s exterior and, all told, reduces the home’s solar exposure by 50%. As an afterthought to the design, Perry might incorporate different panel opacities to achieve varying levels of shading. “On the roof, for example,” he says, “you might have 80% shading, (while) on the walls you’d have 50%, because you want to see through the walls.”

The builder on the project, Eric Engheben, owner of 44 West Construction in Topanga, CA, first met with the client at an LA home show, where 44 West had a renovated shipping container on display. 44 West began working with containers in 2006 and had since completed four shipping container projects, along with its high-end custom homes. The Tim Palen Studio at Shadow Mountain would be the company’s fifth and largest container project to date. “We like the opportunity to work with something different.” Engheben says. “It is more of a challenge.”

44 West works out of a 12,000-square-foot facility in Gardenia, CA, where it fabricates the containers into various modular units, fully finished and ready to install. To Perry, this was part of the appeal. “We do everything,” Engheben says. “The containers are laid out in the yard, and we do the cutting, the framing, plumbing, electric — everything. We then package them up, protect the windows, take out the sliding doors, and head-on down the road. All that is left to do is to secure the units to each other and to the foundation and tie the mechanicals together.”

Construction on the project began in early 2010, with 44 West purchasing six containers from the docks of Long Beach for $2,600 each, which it then fabricated into different units: three for the ground floor living space, two for the second floor bedroom and bath, and the last as a storage unit off the studio. The exteriors were then painted with a standard, low VOC exterior paint, white to reflect the sun, and custom Milgard windows were installed. To finish the interiors, 44 West uses steel studs encased in a three-part insulation system that creates a R26 wall, with two thermal barriers separating the interior from exterior wall. A layer of spray foam is affixed to the outside wall; the cavities are filled with Wool batts; and foam board sheathes the studs. Plywood is then installed and skim-coated for appearance. Plywood, Engheben explains, travels better than sheetrock.

Wanting to keep as much as possible of the container visible, Perry and the client chose to leave exposed the container’s original plywood floors, sanding and sealing the plywood with water-based polyurethane. Mahogany plywood, matching the container floors, was then used on the home’s circular staircase. The ceilings of the units were also left exposed and insulated from above with R40, slanted foam boards, Densdeck roof boards, a cool-roof TPO membrane, and, over the living quarters, the perforated sun shade.

To Engheben, delivery and setup of the containers was the most dramatic and satisfying part of the project, when in a matter of hours the building site was transformed from an open site of concrete stem walls and piers into a nearly fully finished home. “A lot of people who have come to watch the process say, ‘I could never have imagined that what you were building in that facility would end up like this,’” Engheben says. “When you build a two story home in a facility and everything is on one floor, the containers are four feet apart, and when you walk between them it gives you a cavernous feeling, confined. When these are put together and it opens up the space, people are amazed.”

In less than a year from the start of construction, the Tim Palen Studio at Shadow Mountain, a 2,300-square-foot, one bedroom, one and a half bath home, including a 1000-square-foot photography studio, was constructed for the finished price of $150 a square foot, nearly half the cost of a comparable prefab home.

“I always try to clarify affordable housing versus affordable architecture,” Engheben says. “What we provide is affordable architecture. The custom homes we build start a $300 a square foot and go up to as much as $1000. We can do these for $200 a square foot that gives you the same level of detail and quality that you’ll find in a custom home.”


Behind the numbers:

Project Name: The Tim Palen at Shadow Mountain

Photography by: Jack Parsons Photography

Architect: Ecotechdesign, Walter Scott Perry, AIA

Builder: 44 West Construction, Eric Engheben

Project location: The Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree, CA.

Project type: Custom Single Family Home

Project Design: Modern; Sustainable

Date started: May 2010

Date completed: February 2011

Construction methods: Fabricated shipping containers and a pre-fabricated steel engineered building

Number of containers used: Six

Container dimensions: 20 ft long x 8 ft wide, with 8’6” ceilings

Container size: 160 sq. ft.

Total House size: 2300 sq ft

Total living space: 900 square feet

Steel building/ studio dimensions: 36 ft x 24, with added shipping container

Studio size: 1000 sq. ft.

Outdoor, “Desert Living Room”: 400 sq. ft.

Number of Bedrooms: 1

Number of Baths: 1.5

Lot size: 2.5 acres

Climate: High Desert: Hot and Dry

Elevation: 2700 feet

Average annual temperatures:

Average yearly low temperature: 340F

Average yearly high temperature: 1000F

Yearly rainfall: 4.57 inches

Annual rain days: <10 days

Annual sunshine: 350 days


Project Specs:

Exterior construction: ISO Shipping Containers; steel studs; wood studs; Butler, pre-engineered building

Exterior siding: Existing container; corrugated metal siding

Interior sheathing: Plywood, with skim coat


Living Space: Existing container plywood flooring, sanded and sealed with water-based polyurethane

Stairs: Mahogany plywood

Studio: Polished concrete


Living Space: Stem walls and piers

Studio: Slab on grade

HVAC: Forced air, split-unit heat /cooling pump

Sustainable/ Green Amenities:

Double-plumbed grey water irrigation system

Rain water harvesting, with 3,000 gallon storage tank


Walls: R26 / California code: R19

Ceiling: R40 / California code: R30

Finished price, per square foot: $150


Jul 012011

August 2011
BuilderNews Magazine
Feature: Project Profile


The 100k House

Sizing Up Your Opportunities

In late 2006, Chad Ludeman, his wife Courtney and close friend Nic Darling decided to go into real estate development. Their plan was fairly straight forward: They wanted to build houses on spec, and for the most part, they already knew the style and size of home they would build — the same style and size as most new homes in the city. Courtney is a licensed real estate broker, and to build on spec, they knew, meant building homes that people wanted to buy. In Philadelphia, where they live, that home — or so it seemed — was your standard 2,000-square-foot, three bedroom, two and a half bath house with an asking price of $500,000 or more. That was what most other developers built in Philly, and Postgreen Homes was planning to do the same.

Chad has a degree in technical engineering and manufacturing; Courtney is in real estate; and Darling worked in marketing, before joining his friends. They are all young, urban professionals, in their early to mid thirties, building careers and families. Courtney and Chad now have two young boys. Their decision to go into real estate development, Chad explains, was mostly a practical one. They wanted to own their own business; Courtney knew the market; and real estate, they figured, was as solid an investment as one could make. It wasn’t until they began pricing out land that their plans began to change.

Postgreen Homes, then operating under a different name, started off by scouring the nicer neighborhoods of Philadelphia, searching for a sizable lot on which to build its first 2,000-square-foot home. The company, with Chad as President, Courtney as CFO and Darling as CMO, also began then to work with Brian Phillips, the founding principal of Philadelphia-based Interface Studio Architects (ISA), a small, highly acclaimed firm devoted to sustainable design. “We started out thinking a little differently,” Phillips says. “This was right before the housing (bubble) burst and we were looking at bigger green projects, like 2,000-square-feet, getting a LEED rating and selling for $600,000 to $700,000.” After several long delays and a few land deals gone sour, Postgreen, however, had a vital change of heart. “The whole process (of buying land),” Chad explains, “made us take a step back, and one day were chatting, and said, ‘Why are we trying to build these homes that we can’t afford, our friends can’t afford and most people in their low to mid 30s, making decent money, can’t afford.” It was a moment of inspiration that would send Postgreen in an entirely new direction.

Phillips recalls that decision: “Chad had this moment when he realized that maybe there was this other market out there for first-time homebuyers, who in an urban setting are often relegated to a fixer upper or a small condo.”

In modern, demographic parlance, Chad, Courtney and Darling are on the leading edge of the echo-boomer generation, also known as Generation Y or the Millennials. They are, in loose terms, the children of the baby boomers, born sometime between the late 70s and mid 90s and representing the largest demographic surge of homebuyers since their parents entered the market over 40 years ago. It is estimated that from the start of the millennium on, close to 80 million echo boomers have or will come of age and need a place to live. As Phillips notes, most new, single-family homes in Philadelphia are built for the middle-class, move-up buyer, while the first-time buyer is largely ignored. Postgreen Homes decided then that it would serve this market.

The 100K house, Postgreen’s first project, would stand as its test case. Who were these first-time buyers and what did they want in a home? How small could the home be? How much could they cut costs? How green could they make it? As far as Postgreen saw it, they and their friends, this new generation of homebuyer, wanted different things than their parents wanted. Cost, efficiency and size became their major drivers. “They want these nice modern, energy-efficient homes, but they don’t necessarily care if the (homes) have all the bells and whistles and are 2,000 square feet,” says Chad.

Phillips adds to that description: “This generation is the most environmentally conscious, most consumer driven generation ever, and so we talked about houses as products.”

Another factor they considered was the home’s location. Echo boomers, it appears, want out of the suburbs and back into the city centers. Philadelphia’s population, over the past decade, saw its first population increase after more than 60 years of decline. Inner city neighborhoods, like Fishtown and Northern Liberties, just north of the city center, are revitalizing, with an influx of art galleries and restaurants and an increase in property values. It was in these neighborhoods that Postgreen first looked for lots, but soon found that they were constricted by cost. Their search widened, moving progressively out from the city center until the lots became affordable.

Just north of the Northern Liberties / Fishtown neighborhoods is the hard-scrabble industrial blocks of East Kensington. It, like many inner city neighborhoods, fell on hard times over past 50 years. Though the neighborhood is small, Chad estimates that there are some 2,500 vacant lots (about one in five), overgrown with weeds and litter-strewn, scattered amongst the houses. And not one new home, Chad says, has been built in area for at least 20 years. In terms of development, Phillips adds, it was, and still is, a neighborhood where “all bets are off” with a disjointed pattern of old industrial buildings, early twentieth-century row houses and vacant lots. The lots were cheap. Postgreen paid only $37,500 each for two — one at 1100 square feet and the other at about 2,000. And best of all, East Kensington sits along the Market-Frankford rapid transit line, which makes the neighborhood only 12 minutes or less from anywhere downtown.

The 100K house, for all its conceptual complexity and considered approach, is, in terms of design, remarkably simple. The original challenge (and hence the name) was to build a 1,000-square-foot, super green home for $100,000 in materials and labor. The resulting design was a box — no juts, no jogs, no bays, because all that costs money. And, in fact, there are no interior doors, either, except for on the bathroom. It was a design process, observes Phillips, unlike anything ISA had worked on before. “I often use the phrase industrial design for what we did,” he explains, “because it is a little more like designing a can opener, in that there is a function and the design is always going to follow that function.”

That function was to be a super-efficient, market-rate affordable home that retained its market appeal. No small feat, for sure, and one that brought ISA to a unique conclusion. The way they saw it, Phillips explains, is that they had two choices: They could either design a traditional home that looked like all others, only with cheaper, less attractive materials, or they could push the limits, use quality materials and redefine our expectations of home. Obviously, they chose the latter, and the resulting home has garnered considerable attention. The 100K house, since its completion in May 2009, has won awards from the national American Institute of Architects, its Pennsylvania chapter, as well as its local, Philadelphia chapter. It received a LEED Platinum for New Homes and was recently reappraised in early 2011 for $299,000. The finished size of the home came in at 1,150 square feet, with a final price for materials and labor of only $91.00 a square foot. Including all costs, materials, labor, permitting and design, the home’s final construction cost was around $200,000 — an impressive success in a city with few new homes priced under a $500,000. Postgreen and ISA have since completed nine additional homes, modeled off the 100K concept, and are now designing several more. Postgreen has also started another company, Hybrid Construction, to serve as its general contractor.

“We feel that the 100k approach, that a building should look like its parameters, inspires almost everything we do at this point,” says Phillips. “It has almost become a fundamental ethos for us. A building needs to do certain things, and it can look really great doing it, but (it’s design) shouldn’t be about a certain look that people anticipate… about some nostalgic idea of your childhood home.”

“The 100K house,” he adds, “taught us how to give up other things that in our minds are superficial, while still maintaining this core, performance-based model of a home.”


Behind the numbers”

Lot size: 1080 square feet

Lot Price: $37,500

House size:

100k house – 1,150 square-feet

120k house – 1270-sqaure feet.

Footprint: 648 square foot.

Construction method: Structurally Insulated Panels

Construction costs: $105,000.

Construction price per square foot: $91.00 per square foot

Finished cost: estimate $200,000 / $173.00 a square foot.

Appraised resale value in March 2011:

$299,000 – 100k

$319,000 – 120k

Number of bedrooms: 2

Number of baths: 1

Climate: Northeast: cold winters, warm summers.


Project Specs:

Exterior Construction: Structurally Insulated Panels

Exterior siding: James Hardie Fiber Cement sheets & stucco

Interior walls: Drywall/ Birch Plywood


Downstairs: Polished concrete

Upstairs: Birch Plywood

Heat: Subfloor radiant

Hot water: Solar thermal hot water / gas boiler back-up

Air conditioning: Split-ductless, passive and Energy Recovery Ventilation


Walls: R24 (6.25 inch (Structurally Insulated Panels)

Ceilings: R40 (10.25 inch Structurally Insulated Panels)

Green Amenities:

Solar Thermal Array

Solar tube in bathroom, to bring solar light to interior space.

High R, SIP Panels walls and roof, with sealed vapor barrier

Energy Recovery Ventilation unit

Rainwater collection / rain barrel

Ceiling fans

Sunshades on exterior windows

Estimate monthly heat/hot water costs (winter): $70

Jul 012011

July 2011
BuilderNews Magazine
Feature: Construction Market Analysis


Lost Illusions

How the Real Estate Jitters have Reshaped Rental Housing


In early 2011, New York City interior designer Darren Henault, owner of Darren Henault Interiors, was working on two different development projects in the city. The first, for the developer Vanguard Investors, is the re-imagining of a six-story apartment building in the East Village. The second, for Cogswell Realty LLC, is the new construction of a seven-story apartment cooperative in Harlem. One of the key differences between these two projects, besides their locations, is that the East Village project, once completed, will remain rental apartments, while the Harlem apartments will be sold at market rates. What makes these projects remarkably similar, however,  is just how much the current real estate market and a shift in urban demographics have influenced Henault’s designs.

Henault is a New York City designer. He also works in LA. Urbanity is his canvas. And for the fifteen years he has worked as a designer, space has always been at a premium. It is the consequence of having more than eight million people crammed into a city the size of Austin, Texas — population 790,000. Designing small is what Henault does. “I think New York designers and architects have become very adept at using every square inch of space that is available to them,” Henault says, “because of what the cost per square foot is.” This has made New York city apartments the epitome of small, and yet, says Henault, he’s recently noticed a change in the market. New York city apartments, it seems, are getting even smaller. And New York is not alone. Across the country, as foreclosures increase and home sales decline, forcing a rise in the demand for rental apartments, the average size of those apartments appears to be shrinking.

Tom Shoup is the eastern director for Wood Partners, one of the largest builders of multifamily housing in the US, and Shoup points to one leading factor now currently driving Wood Partners’ development goals. That factor is the anticipated arrival of echo-boomer generation, or more precisely, the estimated 80 million baby-boomer children, born between 1980 and the mid-90s, who will over the coming years graduate from grad schools, colleges and high schools and be looking for a place to live. The last time the real estate industry saw a boom of this magnitude was in the late 60s and early 70s with the coming of age of the baby boomers. And it is this boom that we just recently seen the end of.

But, as Shoup notes, not even that tells the whole story. If this surge in home-buying population were viewed through the rosy lenses of just five years ago, we may well have seen a continuation of the sprawling suburbs and an increase in the demand for the once-coveted single-family home. But, as it goes, it is not five years ago, and a lot has changed since then. The housing market has taken a wallop. New home starts dropped to a 70-year low in 2009, with just 580,000 new homes built nationwide. The average price of a US home fell by nearly a third since 2006. The echo-boomers, like many of us, are skittish. The home was once the gold nugget of a family’s net worth, but for many that confidence is gone. As of May 2011, Zillow Inc., a Seattle-based real estate listing company, reported that 27 percent of US homeowners owed more on their home than the home was worth. Add to this the nation’s pockets of depression-level unemployment and the immobility of homeownership, and Shoup predicts than many one-time or potential homebuyers will simply opt out of the market and choose to rent instead.

Architect Mark Humphreys, CEO of Humphreys & Partners Architects and a recognized authority on multifamily housing, shares Shoup analysis of the market. Humphrey’s estimates that if the percentage of homeownership in the US dropped by just 10 percent over the coming years, this would add over 7.4 million new renters to the market. He also estimates that because of the economic downturn there is a significant pent up demand from renters who have stayed out of the market and will enter again as the economy improves. To this, Humphries then adds an estimated nine million echo boomers entering the market a year, together with the potential for their parents — the 74 million baby boomers— to downsize from the family home and into apartments, condos, and senior housing, all of which he expects will drive up demand for rentals.

And still there is more. Humphries, whose firm is headquartered in Dallas but works throughout the country, has also noticed an important shift in social attitudes, which he predicts will have an equally important impact on US housing. Humphries calls this shift in attitudes the “Manhattanization of the United States,” and he sees it as characterized by an increased demand, especially among the younger demographic, for a more urban lifestyle. The reason for this shift, according to Humphries, is due to a number of factors, the most important of which are the spike in fuel prices and increasing environmental concerns, along with the fading panache of a suburban life. This too, says Humphries, is driving up the demand for apartments, while helping to drive down the average size. “What we are seeing,” he says, “is that younger people coming out of college want to be in the cool hip areas and are willing to take much smaller apartments to get their rents down to an affordable range.”

 Building to this New Market

When Henault’s clients, Vanguard Investors, first considered the redesign of their East Village apartments, the New York City rental market was still fairly strong, demand was high, and the expectation of renters was still in throes of the housing bubble. People wanted big and the bigger the better.  The original plans for the building laid-out a single, 1500-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment per floor.  “Not grand,” Henault says, “but a larger and more luxurious apartment that would command much larger rent.” The upsides to this, he notes, are that the units would fetch higher rents and be easier to managed and maintain with fewer tenants. But, before the project went into construction, much of that had changed. As Henault’s notes, the reality of the East Village market couldn’t be ignored. “This was the East Village and the real estate market had been tanking for years,” Henault says. This led Henault and the developers to reconsider their plans and to realize, as Henault explains, that “there will be, in the coming years, more people who can afford smaller, lower priced housing than there will be who can afford luxurious apartments.”

The developers decided  to scrap their original plans, and they chose instead to divide each floor into three smaller units: a 425-square-foot studio, a 500-square-foot one bedroom and, through an impressive feat of space efficiency, a remarkable 550-square-foot two bedroom.  “This is not low income housing,” Henault says. “We still use high-end finishes.” Rather, the apartments are being tailored to young, urban professionals — the echo boomers, with money and incomes, but not so much as to afford a large apartment.  The approach that Henault and developers took was to maintain a certain level of upscale appeal, while reducing the space for more affordability. Henault achieved this by centering the design around the main living space and minimizing the reduction of space where it mattered most—the kitchen and living room—while stealing space from the places he felt he could. “People want the main living area to be the bulk of the square footage,” he explains, “so they don’t feel like they are on top of one another when they are in one room. But when everyone goes to their bedroom at night, a 10ft by 14ft room is fine.”

On the national level, Shoup, whose company generally builds in smaller cities and suburbs, contends that if there is a statistical shrinking in the average size of apartments, it s not that the sizes are actually getting smaller, but that developers are building more studios and one bedrooms, versus larger, two and three bedrooms apartments. This, Shoup contends, is what is forcing down the overall averages. “Urban markets,” he says, “appeal to the 24 to 32-year-old range who don’t have a lot of possessions yet and who work better with these smaller types of units.”

Humphries, who often works in large urban centers, is not so sure. He has watched apartments shrink in size over the last 20 years. It makes sense, he says, real estate is expensive. “Twenty years ago, it was at about a 1000-square-foot average, then about 15 years ago, it was 900-square-foot average. Five years ago it was about an 850 average, and today we’re seeing it into dip into a 750 average. And I think it is going to get smaller,” Humphries says.

Whatever the reason for the shrinking, for Henault, Humphries and Shoup, the challenge is the same: How do you make these smaller, often tiny apartments, both cost effective and appealing to this new and trending market. Shoup says that the most obvious and important approach is the use of the open floor plan. Wood Partners eliminates kitchen wall in smaller apartment, replaces it with kitchen islands and half-walls, and other scraps altogether the hard definitions of living and dining areas. This, Shoup notes, not only increases the perception of space in an apartment, it also provides a greater degree of functional flexibility, which then opens the appeal of the apartment to a broader range of potential renters. “So,” he says, “rather than having really hard, designated areas, for example a dining room, we build a space that could be a dining room. It could be a den. It could be a home office.”

In The Woodlands, Texas, a multifamily development project just north of Houston, Humphreys & Partners Architects is working with Cambridge Development Group and USAA Real Estate and demonstrating that luxury and size are not, by any means, mutually exclusive.  The project, Boardwalk at Town Center, once complete, will contain 450 premium apartments, some of which will be highly space efficient, yet elegantly designed, 340-square-foot studios.

“Designing 340-square-foot units causes you to be very innovative,” Humphreys says, adding that the only truly fixed space in any apartment is the bathroom. In one studio design, Humphreys & Partners includes an electric fireplace (“for effect”) built in to the back, lower portion of a closet. The fireplace is open to the front and side, which creates a greater feeling of depth and space in the unit, as one looks from the living area, through the fireplace and into the far corner of the kitchen. In another, slightly larger unit, a 558-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment, Humphries & Partners uses an open half wall between the bedroom and the living area and a closed soffit above the kitchen island, both of which help divide the rooms without constricting the space.

“Just because it’s small doesn’t mean you are not doing something attractive,” Humphreys says, “These people are smart, and they want to live in something cool.”

Shoup agrees. The bottom line, he says is that “the things (echo boomers) are interested in is not the things their parents were interested in. What they really want is an interesting home in an interesting community that they can live in and that says something about them and their lifestyle.

“I think,” he adds, “that a lot of people have stopped measuring their success by the ownership of a home, and that certainly plays well into the apartment market… And it is why apartments are now the place to be.”