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minimalist houses with maximum prices
August 9, 2011 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Why are modern/minimalist homes so expensive to build?

Noob Disclaimer: I have no professional knowledge of construction, architecture or home building. I just like it a lot and this question has been bothering me for some time. I'm probably using the wrong terminology here but I'm having trouble finding any answers I find satisfactory.

I love home architecture made of clean lines, lots of windows, open floor plans, but can't seem to understand why those homes cost so much to build. To get an idea of the style I'm talking about you can see some modern prefabs like these. From what I read the price for prefab is comparable to just stick building one from scratch.

I guess what is tripping me up is the fact that the materials alone for something like this one is $36k, plus an estimated $138k in building costs, seems like a lot for such a small building made of straight lines. Its basically a rectangle with windows.

When I compare that to a more traditional-style home, it seems like I could get a much more complicated building for $180k (like this for example). The more traditional homes often have a lot of extra details: more walls, doors, alcoves, floorboards, shutters, window sills etc. Also it seems it would be more complicated to position load-bearing walls and such.

tl:dr; Why is it cheaper to make more complex homes?
posted by halseyaa to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Quantity. None of anything in the houses you're looking at is 'off the shelf'. You've got custom beams, windows, doors, etc. You've got special requirements for lighting/ electrical and probably plumbing. Most tradesmen would be unfamiliar with the style, and would charge a premium for labor, just to cover the unfamiliar aspects, and potential time overruns etc.
posted by Gungho at 10:24 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

My sister is an architect who works in the modernist style, and we've talked about this a bit. From what I understand, there are a number of factors at play:

The detailing (all the bits where the windows and doors and other architectural features join up) has to be done to much closer tolerances than with "traditional" styles. All that molding covers up a multitude of sins.

Some of the techniques involved require highly skilled craftspersons who are much in demand. Tinting, pouring, and polishing concrete for exposed concrete flooring, for instance, is very tricky.

Often the materials used are higher quality or more expensive because of lower demand/availability. Highly energy-efficient windows, for instance, or drawer pulls.

Finally, anything architect-designed (as opposed to contractor-built from off-the-shelf plans) scales way up to due the labor involved.
posted by libraryhead at 10:28 AM on August 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

As for prefabs, I would guess that the demand for modern/minimalist architecture is less than the demand for traditional architecture so you end up with higher prices.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:29 AM on August 9, 2011

It's like buying a tailored suit vs an off-the-rack suit. There's a lot of mass-produced items that go into "normal" homes. Plus most modernist homes also tend to go with more expensive components, like wood vs other stuff and better grades of wood, etc.

In spite of those pre-fabs being pre-fabs they're probably produced in very low volume and are essentially custom-made. And wood is expensive - a cheap garden shed at Lowes goes for a few hundred bucks. I bought an all-cedar prefab shed and it cost over a thousand dollars.

The "rectangle with windows" has custom, extremely large, expensive windows. The windows in that $180K home cost a tiny fraction of the windows in the much smaller modernist house. That alone is a big difference.
posted by GuyZero at 10:30 AM on August 9, 2011

Because while the finished product may seem more "complex," the actually building process is pretty easy, while your "simple" home involves a lot more work on-site.

The difference between pre-fab and traditional construction is blurring considerably, which is why you find that the prices are comparable. The reason is that even in "traditional" construction, a lot of the actual parts are pre-fab and shipped in. In addition, because tons of these things are going up at any given time, there are significant economies of scale to be had. For example, if a general contractor is putting up a development, they'll have one sub-contractor do the foundation, another the walls, another the plumbing, another the drywall, etc., on dozens of homes at once. But they'd probably do the same thing even if it was two dozen houses on two dozen different locations, as they'd all be pretty similar. It's essentially mass production.

These "simple," modernist homes, aren't mass produced, either on the factory side or the construction side. First of all, there just isn't enough demand to bring down the prices via economy of scale. You aren't ordering enough materials to build two hundred of these all at once, so your overhead and shipping costs are going to be a higher percentage of the total. You also aren't building a hundred of these at once, so you aren't going to be able to run the thing like an assembly line the way you can with larger projects. Second, the construction is sufficiently different from traditional styles that it isn't simply a matter of doing what you've done in x-dozen other homes. It's going to take more skill and time, and that costs money. This is true of every conceivable kind of item: hand-crafted, specialty items are almost always more expensive than their Wal-Mart, generic, mass-produced counterparts.

The remarkable thing is that said Wal-Mart versions are as good as they are, not that the "simple" versions aren't cheaper.
posted by valkyryn at 10:31 AM on August 9, 2011

Well, I disagree with your premise – ,odern, minimalist homes are not more expensive than complicated homes. However, what I see in your specific two examples: the modern home is using nicer materials, custom detailing, oversized windows and, I'm going to guess, a better enclosure system to manage heat gains through all that glass and to insulate in winter. The other house is using "off-the-shelf" products and a very standard style. Vinyl windows, home depot siding, lower standards of construction.

To do a flat roof with that beautiful corner detail, you need craftspeople who know how to make that look good and work. In order to achieve that look, builders often use steel beams which tend to be more expensive than the factory trusses that are undoubtedly filling up the attic space of the other house.

In a modern house in order to have clean lines, you need to get everything plumb and straight, you don't cover up incongruities with trim and cornices and wainscoting. It's gotta be straight or it's not going to look good.

So, the short answer is: methods and materials.
posted by amanda at 10:31 AM on August 9, 2011

That's a weird error in my post! Here's what I was saying,
"Well, I disagree with your premise -- modern, minimalist..."
posted by amanda at 10:32 AM on August 9, 2011

Quantity. None of anything in the houses you're looking at is 'off the shelf'.

This. Custom houses are enormously more expensive. Also, it's not like you just fit together all the pieces on the blueprint and ...presto... house. Houses and made up of lots of little details that all have to be built correctly *and* look good. It takes practice to do both and if you are doing something new, the time to make it work is vastly more than something you have done a million times. Time = money.

Also, even with a prefab, you need a foundation and utilities and an engineering plan for the foundation which takes up a large chunk of cash before you build the first wall.
posted by at 10:34 AM on August 9, 2011

I just graduated from architecture school. I'll keep it in point form, not in order of importance:

* Design costs
* High profit margin due to uniqueness and economy of scale
* Unconventional structural systems. i.e. in second link, hollow steel section post and gluelam beam.
* Large area of glazing (major)
* Specialized labour
* Use of overengineered components to make up (absurdly inadequately) for design compromises arising from aesthetic goals. Primarily expressed in insulation and environmental detailing.

I cannot recommend such homes over conventional designs or custom designs whose primary intention is non-aesthetically focused. This is poor architecture in this day and age.
posted by BeaverTerror at 10:37 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

In addition to all of the above, consider construction tolerances. There's a reason McMansions have all those extra details -- they hide mismatches between surfaces. You'd be amazed how much it can cost to keep two surfaces at a constant distance from each other; it's far far easier to add some cornice-work, a baseboard & call it a day.

Minimalist spaces, tending to avoid those details, consequently require greater attention in assembly and thus greater cost. I was stunned, personally, when I first saw how much it cost to create a museum display wall (very flat, no baseboard, constant 1/8" gap at top & bottom) vs. how much I knew it would cost to build that same wall area in a McMansion.

...then the architect got out a precision ruler on hands & knees to make sure the gap at the floor didn't vary by more than a fraction and I stopped being stunned at the expense.
posted by aramaic at 10:42 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I cannot recommend such homes over conventional designs or custom designs whose primary intention is non-aesthetically focused. This is poor architecture in this day and age.

It is interesting to note that these modernist houses derive from Bauhaus, a pre WW2 school of architecture where form follows function, but has no concern for energy economy. It isn't until you get to Le Corbusier that there are considerations for solar gain (but little else). His Bris de Soleil however broke up the clean lines of Bauhaus and defeated the form follows function of that style. Corbusier used the facade as a free-standing design element, often hiding ( or shading) the interior functions of the building. Unfortunately this led to Brutalism, and we all know how that ended.
posted by Gungho at 10:55 AM on August 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Basically, as others have said, it's the fact that trim hides sloppy workmanship. Modern designs tend to eliminate trim, which therefore requires much higher quality work.

As far as materials and everything, it's entirely possible to design and build a modernist home using completely off-the-shelf parts and standard sizes for everything. Most modern houses are not done this way because mass tract home builders do not consider modern designs to be worth their return on investment so the only market for modern home is high-end custom places - McMansions get built because those are what sells. The modern places are built by people with the money to do a custom home, who also generally happen to have the money for better materials. However, you could easily do a house with standard size metal windows, wood studs, stucco and Elk shingles. Just look at Gehry's early stuff - if he wasn't going so nutty with the building forms, a lot of his houses in Santa Monica and Venice Beach would be pretty cheap. Wood construction is also pretty fluid - traditional homes generally have more walls, which means more places to just drop a post and beam to hang floor joists from. Modern houses would have larger spans and completely flat ceilngs, which requires more flush beams (beams located within the floor joists instead of below them).

There is some history of tract home developers building modern (search for Eichler houses for examples), but that died out after mid-century.
posted by LionIndex at 10:58 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

The reason is that even in "traditional" construction, a lot of the actual parts are pre-fab and shipped in

I saw this recently when new houses were built down the street: the framing for the exterior walls was brought in pre-built, then put up and Tyveked in half a day. So you have economies of scale, lower on-site labour costs, and the efficiencies that come from building off a set of standard plans.
posted by holgate at 11:13 AM on August 9, 2011

Here you can get rough estimates of the cost to build a house. The materials, as pointed out above, are just the beginning of the issues. One that isn't mentioned above is the enormous variation in building codes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Most new construction in California, for example, requires fire sprinklers and there are extensive and picky calculations required to demonstrate insulation integrity.
posted by jet_silver at 11:17 AM on August 9, 2011

The detailing (all the bits where the windows and doors and other architectural features join up) has to be done to much closer tolerances than with "traditional" styles. All that molding covers up a multitude of sins.

This is something that I think is fascinating about Modern vs. other traditional architectural styles. If you ever do any kind of construction work, it becomes super obvious that basically everything in construction is designed to cover up the fuck-ups of the guy who went before you. Construction is the process of averaging out fuckups from the ground (god's fuck-ups) up to nice smooth paint. Every layer takes the average fuck-up size down by an order of magnitude.

Modernism (in architecture and furniture design) is basically saying, "fuck that, let's make this as hard as possible." Consequently, its kind of a celebration of manufacturing processes. Look at our perfectly smooth expanse of gleaming metal, and so on. If you talk to architects who work in these styles, they'll even say there's some stuff it's straight-up hard to get built in the US, because no one knows how to, say, make a super gigantic wall of perfectly smooth, crack-free polished concrete.

When I was little, my parents were building a house for us to live in. My mom wanted to put these big wide moldings everywhere, because she thought they looked awesome and they'd designed the house in a broadly 'Colonial' style. My dad was flabbergasted by this: he wanted to have no molding, anywhere. For him, the wide molding was like training wheels. He saw having minimal molding as being a sort of studly move, in the building scene. If you can do it, why not show off your ability to do it? (in the end, they both 'won': my mom got her wide moldings, but they also ended up basically setting up a millwork shop in the living room forever while hand-building these crazily intricate ceilings and panels in some areas, so it was still studly.)

There is actually quite a bit of stylistic creep in the Modernist architectural world that drifted from whatever 'oh shit world war one lets take solace in geometry' ideals they cooked up back at the Bauhaus and has a lot more to do with manufacturing or construction studliness. Wider-than-they-are-tall windows, for one. It wasn't practical to build like this until around the time Modernism started to spread beyond architecture contests, so that look got associated with Modernism. Similarly for the 'giant panes of glass with no mullions" look. Nowadays, this is the cheap way to make glass, so usually, whatever mullions you see are purely decorative (unless you spring for TDL windows) and they just clip on.

Even the flat roof thing. I don't really get why the old-time Modernists made such a fetish of the flat roof, but it is still relatively hard to build a watertight one. People are all building tiny wireless computers that fit in your pocket and cost less than a thousand bucks but making a flat rectangle on top of a box watertight is still extremely challenging. This is because water is an asshole. If it wasn't for the insidious intermolecular forces that led to water's solid state being less dense than its liquid one, these roofs would be a lot easier to build. I think this is all the proof we need to determine that God does not favor a Modernist look. He prefers the sweeping, cozy shelter of a steeply pitched roof, snuggly as a hoodie fresh out the dryer.

Anyway, there are plenty of other reasons, as raised earlier in the thread: predictability, experience, economies of scale and so on. Hell, the fact is you generally aren't comparing a Modernist house with a KHov house anyway, if you call up a high-end builder the ppsf on your non-Modernist house will rise substantially. But still, I do think these issues with Modernism are funny.
posted by jeb at 11:24 AM on August 9, 2011 [39 favorites]

I worked in many "traditional" McMansion type house projects when I was a house painter and a lot of the economy comes from the speed that the workmen can blast through houses like that. Each craftsperson has worked on hundreds of similar houses in the past and can get right to work with a minimum of supervision and seldom has to stop to ask questions about what to put where.

When you work on a custom modernist house, there are constant questions about what goes where and how things fit together and delays while the architect has to come on site to make decisions. Most builders won't even want to bother with such a project since it's so much faster and easier to throw up standard suburban houses.
posted by octothorpe at 11:28 AM on August 9, 2011

It's not just Modern aesthetics. Other sorts of construction with similar features are also more expensive than conventional custom builds. We've built a couple of timberframe structures, and they are were also considerably more expensive than a custom, but conventional design would have been.

Our big costs were windows and large open spaces. Windows are simply more expensive than a wall would be. Large open spaces mean that support structures have to span the width of the space, requiring more expensive construction materials, wood or metals beams, for example, where standard studs would do for a normal bearing-wall. In all, timberframe and log was 150% to 200% more expensive than a conventional build because of design choices, similar to the premioum that Modern contruction would command. Fit and finish was part of it (why scrimp there?), but the structural design choices we made were more important to the final costs.
posted by bonehead at 11:39 AM on August 9, 2011

...lots of windows, open floor plans...

Let's start with the basics: the walls have to hold up the roof. Thus the walls have to be strong enough to hold up the roof.

Windows have no structural strength. If you have lots of windows, those are major holes in the walls, places which don't contribute to the job of holding up the roof. If a wall has no windows, then it has a long row of studs which contribute structurally, but with lots of windows, then there isn't much wallspace left to handle the structural problem.

I'm assuming that by "open floor plan" you mean "not very many internal walls." But in many home designs, the internal walls are also load bearing and help to hold up the roof. If there are few or none of them, then the outer wall has to do it all -- and you've put all those holes in the outer wall for those windows you love.

Making that all work is tricky, and it means you have to put lots of wood in the few places which are left in the outer wall. There has to be considerable bracing all around the windows, to spread the load bearing out. (Otherwise the ceiling over the window will come down and the window will shatter.)

It ends up not being a wash. Yeah, there's cost associated with internal partitions, but if you don't have them there's even greater cost associated with the outer walls, to make them strong enough to handle the whole structural load. Putting lots of holes in the wall only makes that worse.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:02 PM on August 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I cannot recommend such homes over conventional designs or custom designs whose primary intention is non-aesthetically focused. This is poor architecture in this day and age.

See as a minor counterpoint Living Homes beautiful modernist houses that are LEED Gold certified.
posted by lalochezia at 2:27 PM on August 9, 2011

Just for comparison, a 4x8 "chunk" of regular wall is a sheet of exterior sheathing, which is maybe $15. Three vertical studs and the equivalent of one stud horizontally. That's $12. A sheet of drywall is $10? That's $37. A window, at a bare minimum, is $100. And it still uses the same amount of studs (if not more) and maybe 3/4 of the sheathing, plus a header beam. Plus another $15 worth of interior trim, another $15 of waterproofing sealer stuff. And that's just adding a standard window to a 4 foot section of wall. It takes maybe a minute to bang together a section of wall that size, and it takes at least 15 to install a window. (And I'm talking the best, fastest carpenter there is.

So just for standard cheap-ass housing, it takes 5x the materials and maybe 15x the time to add a window in place of wall. The sky is the limit for anything fancy or interesting. If you add so many windows and delete so many interior partitions that you need to build with steel beams, kiss your wallet goodbye. 'Cause steel isn't cheap, and the crane to put it in with really isn't cheap.
posted by gjc at 5:56 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

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