Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Program of the (More) Affordable Green Home

As we use it in connection with residential architecture, "program" means a list of spaces or activities that you would like to accomodate within your house and on your lot. It may also include specific requirements for each of the spaces, general ideas of the dimensions, and thoughts about the qualities of the space, or materials to be used. It can be quite general, or very detailed and specific. Often it starts out fairly vague, and gets more specific as the design process progresses.

Which is what we'll do here.... Let's see.

Main Floor
Entry - a place to greet guests, a bench to sit down and remove shoes, with a coat closet nearby.
Great Room - including kitchen, dining alcove and sitting area with a gas fireplace, possibly in an inglenook, plus a study alcove.
Away Room - a quiet room when the rest of the main floor in noisy, a noisy room when the rest of the main floor is quiet. Also will function as a guest bedroom.
Main Bath - actually two rooms, each accessible directly from a hallway, possibly with doors to the outside: one, a generous "bathing room" with a vanity and sink, a (non-whirlpool) Japanese soaking tub, and a walk-in shower big enough for two, and the other a "toilet room" with a wall-mounted dual-flush toilet and possibly a small sink. (This is the "Australian model" bath. In Australia there wouldn't be a sink in the toilet room—just a toilet.)
Laundry/Mudroom - near the kitchen. Front-loading washer and dryer. Hooks for coats. A "utility" sink.
Patio or Deck - exterior living space directly accessible from both grade and the interior of the house.

• Two Small Bedrooms (kids' bedrooms, or studies)
• One Larger Bedroom (the "master" bedroom)
• Powder Room Plus with a sink, bidet and a composting toilet.
• Balconies and/or possibly a sleeping porch. Some sort of exterior space accessible directly from the second floor.

• Depends on the site. We'll include one in our hypothetical house in order to investigate the issues of making a basement.

An Outbuilding
• for storage, workshop, car parking, potting shed, etc.

The Garden
• integral with the home, making the lot effectively part of the living space.
• edible landscaping (herb garden, fruit trees, edible flowers...)

Let's start with that.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Big Plan for a Small House

What we're going to do here is design a compact green home using some of our favorite ideas, detail and spec it out, and get it priced by one of our favorite contractors to prove to ourselves and to our prospective clients that we can get a (more) affordable green home built in the Seattle area.

In our spare time!

We may also offer the design for sale, once we get it finished. Not everyone wants or needs a custom home, and this will allow those who the design suits to have the benefit of our expertise without paying all of the design and development costs.

If we're lucky of course we'll meet someone along the way who'd like to build a house like this. Hint, hint.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Construction Cost: A Definition

Construction Cost has a very specific meaning in the trade. Construction Cost is the cost of everything inside the footprint of the house. Construction Cost doesn't include Sitework, or Soft Costs. When we talk about a cost per square foot, we mean "the construction cost per square foot, not including sitework or soft costs."

Sitework Cost includes the cost of everything outside of the footprint. For example providing utilities—a septic system or connecting to the city sewer as they case may be, providing telephone and electrical service, digging a well or connecting to city water. Sitework also includes landscape work, like a driveway or sidewalk for example, as well as any landscape planting and reseeding. A city lot usually requires a lot less sitework.

Project Cost is Construction Cost plus Sitework Cost.

Soft Costs include the architect's or consultants' fees, boundary and topographical surveys or site analyses like a geotechnical engineer or wetland biologist might provide, as well as building permit fees and reimbursable expenses. Depending on the site and the jurisdiction and how many external expenses you account for (such as the cost of financing the project, living elsewhere while the project is being built, or moving once or twice), Soft Costs run 10% to 22% of the Project Cost.

Of course, you've got to have a place to put the house, don't you! We'll call that the Land Cost. Most people who come to us looking to build a house already have the land, but if you haven't, we may be able to open up some interesting possibilities. If you buy a piece of land without services like water, electricity, and sewer or septic, a lot of great green alternatives are going to make much more sense financially. More on that later.

So the grand total expenditure for a new house is going to include...
Land + Construction + Sitework + Soft Costs.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

What is (More) Affordable?

The first step in this exercise ought to be defining what we mean by "(more) affordable." What's our target?

Although many of the ideas we'll be looking into here can be applied to renovation projects, I'll mostly be talking about new construction.

I'm thinking it will be a bit like Sarah Susanka's approach to the "not so big" house. She says, take the size of the house you think you need, and work toward making it 20% smaller. So one approach would be to take our 2005 standard $225/SF budget figure for new construction, and work toward reducing it by say 20%, which would make our target $180/SF.

Another approach would be to roughly calculate the mortgage a hypothetical client might be comfortable with. According to the US Census, in 1999 median income in Seattle for householders 45 to 54 years old was $58,777. (There were almost 6,800 male and 1,700 female architects, surveyors, cartographers and engineers in Seattle in 2000 by the way. Clearly it's not us architects who were skewing that median income up to $58K!) Younger householders made slightly less, older householders slightly more. Let's round it off to $60,000/year for a household. The classic 33% devoted to mortgage yields $1650/month. At a fixed rate of 5.25% over 30 years, that will get you a loan for about $300,000. Let's assume our hypothetical client has equity from an existing home or enough cash to cover a 20% or so downpayment, so we'll round off the total price to $350,000.


Down the street from us, a house in need of a complete renovation just sold for $425,000. A modest renovated 40's three-bedroom bungalow is for sale for $616,000. It appears our hypothetical client will need more equity, if they want to build in the Seattle metropolitan area. Land costs may be less in unincorporated King County, but other costs (both financial and environmental) would be higher.

A couple of recent prospective clients have had construction budgets in the $350,000 to $500,000 range. Setting aside $50,000 for site development costs, that leaves $300,000 to $450,000 for construction. At $180/SF we'd be looking at a 1,700 to 2,500 SF house including basement (if any) and garage.

I think we're closing in on a general idea. More later.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The (More) Affordable Green Home

We here at RHA find ourselves in a bit of a pickle these days. Residential custom construction costs have gone up 10% to 15% per year for the last three or four years. Compounded, that's an increase of around 50% over construction costs in 2000! In the late nineties, we could comfortably tell prospective clients they should budget $150/SF for their building projects. Now, we recommend people allow $225/SF for the same (high) level of quality and features. And our projects tend to be toward the modest end of custom construction.

When I explain all this to a prospective client, the reaction is (understandably) often dismay and disbelief. They've spoken with their friends who built a project similar to the one they have in mind a couple years ago, and have often already adjusted their budget expectation upward. And here I am asking them to add another 50%!

At that point I often advise people to consider other options, such as selling their current house and purchasing another house more suitable as it is, without renovation. Or scaling back the size of the house, or eliminating program, or adjusting the level of materials and finishes.

But we want it all, don't we? I know I do. I want a warm, healthy, satisfying, beautiful home for my family that has the least possible impact on our local and global ecosystems. I want it to support all of the wonderful life we live as well as all the interests and hobbies we all have, with adequate room for organized storage of the things we've accumulated and have deemed too precious to part with. And I don't want it to be beyond my financial reach. I don't need it to be ostentatious or glitzy. I want it to fit the context of its site. I want it to embody all the precepts and as many of the techniques as possible of my own manifesto.

That is, I think I want pretty much what my clients want.

So I'd like to explore this idea: The (More) Affordable Green Home.

Stay tuned.

Green Roof Garage

Green Roof Garage

Watch our web site for updated photos and story on our green roofed garage/workshop in Kirkland. Jim Sproull has done a fantastic job finishing off the interior of his workshop, artfully crafting workbenches and storage using many salvaged and reclaimed items.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Welcome to Lyrical Sustainable Design!

After participating in several conversations on the Northwest Environment Watch blog (eg The Little Engine That Could), I thought it would be interesting to create one for my own firm, Robert Harrison Architects Incorporated. This blog will feature news about our projects, notices of employment opportunities, and (mostly?) general ranting and raving on the subject of residential green architecture and sustainable culture in the Pacific Northwest. I hope you enjoy it.

Rob Harrison, AIA