Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Not So Big House

This is one of my favorite times of the year, because I always ask for lots of books for Christmas (or money for the purchase of books) and in January I get to read them! One of the books that I got from my Mom for Christmas was The Not So Big House, by Minnesota architect Sarah Susanka. You've probably heard of it. When it was published around 1998 it was so popular that it has now ballooned into a whole series of "Not So Big" themed books (almost 10 of them). For instance, check out this search on Amazon. One tip: I would stay away from her The Not So Big Life; it's about simplifying, which we all can do and is laudable, but she has a rather new age and synergistic spirituality (i.e. generic spirituality) which isn't really compatible with the Catholic faith. In regard to her original book, The Not So Big House, I was skeptical about it prior to reading it because I figured it was just another "pop architecture"/Better Homes & Gardens style book that wouldn't really be that relevant to our home project. Instead, after reading it, I was very impressed and can say that it's an excellent book for anyone who owns a home, is thinking of remodeling, and especially anyone who is going to build a home.

The title of the book is kind of a misnomer. Most of the homes shown aren't really "Not So Big" at all, they just contain lots of detailing and were designed by an architect, with a mix of smaller and larger spaces. The title would make more sense if it said something like, "The Well-Designed Home." And there are few other minor problems with the book. For instance, for some reason she seems to define her audience for the book as those who are very wealthy, and would otherwise build a generic McMansion, who should consider her message and build just as expensive a house but smaller and more cozy and detailed. This is kind of an unnecessary constriction of her audience, because there are lots of concepts in the book that would benefit people of any budget. The main thesis applies: Americans build huge, non-descript, poorly designed, cheaply built homes as status symbols and "because they can" rather than doing what we as humans really desire -- spaces that are cozy and welcoming, well-designed, and say something about who we are. In some respects, her message caused me to re-think some things about our own home.

For instance, right now our library/sitting area is quite open to the family room (see below). There actually is no completely private space (other than the chapel) on the first floor. I have a men's group, and Molly is part of a women's group, and it got me thinking, "where would we meet that would give the necessary privacy and insulate from the noise of the rest of the home?" Also, "is there a place to go in the home (other than the chapel) to get away from all the commotion and read a book or relax?" (Susanka calls this an "away room"). The library area would definitely serve these purposes, but again it is open to the family room. So I suggested to my brother we look at adding a wall between the fireplace and the South wall of the home that would further enclose the library, and potentially a sliding door on the North side of the fireplace that would allow for some acoustic insulation when necessary. This would bring more into balance the amount of open spaces on the ground floor private spaces which are good for family life. So, he's taking a look at this right now.

Additionally, the real strengths of The Not So Big House are in the second half of the book, where she goes through a rather thorough list of how one can build an economical home that is still well-designed. I've never come across a book that does this so well, and it has vastly improved my knowledge about how we can keep the cost down for our home (especially as we start to talk to general contractors). I went through the book and documented some suggestions for my own reference, and for anyone else who is thinking about building a home but worried about cost. I recommend you buy the book and read it, but this will give some useful tidbits of information that are very interesting (I've included page number citations in parentheses).

Tips for keeping construction costs down

  1. Quality-Quantity-Cost triangle – all are related and interdependent. (136)
  2. Keep the form or shape of the house square or rectangular. (138)
  3. The outer “skin” of a building is typically the most expensive component of the house. (138)
  4. In general, the fewer corners you have in the exterior perimeter, the less expensive the house will be. (139)
  5. Keep ceiling heights to the typical 8-ft. or 9-ft. height (materials are being made more readily available to easily assemble a 10-ft. height, which can be an option). (140)
  6. Use drywall for walls, which is readily available in sizes that fit standard wall heights. (140)
  7. To make an 8-ft. ceiling, typically use a 92 5/8” pre-cut wall stud. This dimension, with one floor plate below and two horizontal plates above, results in a wall height of 8 ft. after ceiling and floor finishes are taken into account. Pre-cut studs are also available for 9-ft. ceilings. (140)
  8. A common mistake for the inexperienced is to order 8-ft. studs, which result in an 8’ 4” ceiling height, which is a non-standard ceiling height. (140)
  9. The most common floor joist is the 2x10, which has a maximum span of 15’ 6” when installed at the conventional 16” on center. Large floor areas uninterrupted by walls or supporting columns generally require something other than the standard floor joist, such as pre-engineered floor trusses or manufactured floor joists. The longer the clear unsupported span, the more you pay. (140)
  10. For foundations, 12” concrete block is typically used for basement areas (8” or 10” block is sometimes used in other areas, such as beneath a garage). Multiple corner offsets, changes in elevation, and curved forms require more work and consequently more cost. (141)
  11. If you want to make a vaulted ceiling in the roof area, or otherwise make use of the space within a pitched roof, you need to use an engineered “scissor” truss. This costs more than a standard pre-fabricated truss. (141)
  12. Houses in cold climates require frost footings, which on a flat piece of land would create a basement level and it wouldn’t cost too much more to convert this to a basement or finished living space. (148)
  13. A two-story high space is equivalent in cost to almost double the square footage of the floor (almost equivalent to having the second story of space finished with a floor, etc.). Avoid these if possible. (154)
  14. Materials, fixtures, and finishes are the most common items that can increase the per square foot cost of the home. (159)
  15. Any angle or curve in a ceiling increases the cost (including vaulted ceilings) because it takes more planning and work to finish. The standard rectangular box is always the least expensive. (162)
  16. If you use horizontal siding on the exterior, vertical corner boards can significantly reduce the cost because the carpenter doesn’t have to miter the corners to fit together seamlessly. (163-164)
  17. Brick costs significantly more than wood siding. (165)
  18. Higher ceilings inside can require other items such as more trim, transom windows, or more cabinets that can significantly add to the cost, just in order to make the room look right (166)
  19. Use standard size windows to reduce cost. (168)
  20. Pre-wired sound systems, intercoms, etc. increase cost and may be obsolete within a few years. Design to have such systems easily replaced or leave them out.
  21. Any large expanse of interior wood, such as a wood ceiling instead of drywall, can significantly increase cost. (160)

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