Is my big plywood box really a $10K project?
April 13, 2012 5:14 AM   Subscribe

How much should this cost? I am moving into a new loft and decided that I wanted to carve out a sleeping and storage area in a container of sorts. So I managed to talk an architect into designing something awesome for me. It can be seen here. We've been very challenged in finding a carpenter that can build it within the budget I have. In fact, quotes are coming in 2 or 3 times what I was planning to spend.

We've estimated the materials cost at around $1500 (assuming construction grade plywood that would be painted) which sounded reasonable to me. But how much should this really cost to build?

While this is intended to look nice, it's not intended to be a luxurious walk-in closet with a motorized tie selector. It's really a box with a couple of cabinets.

Am I delusional in believing that it could be done for less than $4K?

Also if anyone happens to know a carpenter in the Boston area...
posted by ursonate to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Just looking at it, I would say $3,000 would be a reasonable price in an expensive market like Boston just for the custom closet aspect alone--except this is a custom closet + custom platform bed + slider doors and shelves and who knows what all other hoo-ha, all encased in a structurally sound free-standing box on functioning casters. I think you're delusional that all that would get done by a professional for less than $4,000 including materials.
posted by drlith at 5:27 AM on April 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

If the multiple quotes are consistently in the same range, then they are probably accurate.
posted by carter at 5:32 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

You get what you pay for. You're not just making a simple loft to throw a mattress on, you're creating a custom designed/constructed new room in your home. I wouldn't expect it to cost any less than $4k.
posted by HuronBob at 5:33 AM on April 13, 2012

I agree with drlith. My brother does cabinetry work, and just the closet part of it would be a good $2500 job. Plus, it's not going to look like that snazzy sketch if you make it out of construction-grade plywood (which you wouldn't want for a platform bed, anyway).
posted by xingcat at 5:34 AM on April 13, 2012

I looked at the drawings and thought $10k, honestly. You're talking essentially about a tiny house, except with a flat, not peaked roof. It's got to be strong to hold a thousand pounds of goods and people in use, accurately made so the doors all work and won't bind both loaded and unloaded, no matter how wobbly the floor, able to take flexing of movement and use, look good, and last many years. Honestly $10K would be *cheap* if you want it to look like the architect's drawings.

Note you could probably bash it together out of 2x4s and plywood siding and industrial castors for maybe $2000 but it will look like someone had bashed it together out of 2x4s and plywood siding and industrial castors. Is that what you want? It's not what the design document describes.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:37 AM on April 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

If you do want to try a cheaper price, what may be worthwhile is finding someone who builds the set pieces for your local stage productions. I built a very similar structure on casters, albeit finished in 20s styling, as a mobile stage piece during high school (we won best crew that year, to boot!).

The effort is all going to be in giving it the finish you want.

Please bear in mind that due to inertia, this thing is going to be _heavy_ and not terribly easy to move around.
posted by bfranklin at 5:38 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

What you're looking for reminded me of this guy's apartment. Obviously what you want is not as complex, but these things don't scale linearly-- that is, paying 10% of what he paid won't get you 10% of the work. For anything with moving parts, you really don't want to cheap out. You want it to be heavy duty for daily use-- you're going to spend at least 8 hours a day on our around it.

I'm not surprised by 10k quotes.
posted by supercres at 6:06 AM on April 13, 2012

Also, construction-grade plywood, even painted, is never going to look nice. Functional at best. Splintery and knot-ridden at worst.
posted by supercres at 6:08 AM on April 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah, plywood would look awful. Maybe laminated mdf? - but that stuff can be heavy, which affects the frame. I think it needs to be well built, in order to take the use. But there's a direct compromise in the materials between plywood and 2 by 4s, and the light and graceful effect in the drawings. Although it's just a box it could be complicated to build to achieve the look that you want, with the strength and rigidity you require. I think seanmpuckett is right, it's basically a small house, but without the footings.
posted by carter at 6:16 AM on April 13, 2012

Having some experience pricing out construction and renovation jobs in hospitals and educational facilities, $6K would seems so cheap I'd assume the builder was stupid/desperate and $10K wouldn't surprise me at all. The devil is in the details on stuff like this. And there's quite a bit of detail there if you want it to look even as good as your average Ikea furniture and last 20 years.

I like the design, but yeah, you don't want cheap plywood, $2 2x4's and a coat of benjamin moore here. Most of the cost is labor and it makes no sense to cheap out on materials. I'd probably use $$$$ Fin-Ply and leave it unpainted, personally, unless you really feel the need for a glowing white box, in which case you still want a surface that is super smooth and can take some kind of fancy (again, $$$) ceramic paint or whatever.
posted by pjaust at 6:16 AM on April 13, 2012

Three times materials cost is a good metric for guesstimating the cost of a job. Which puts you around the 4K your getting.

Pay every penny you can afford. Cheaping out on projects like this can ruin them as the devil is really in the details - there's much less room for error than otherwise.

It looks cool, well built it will also be cool.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:17 AM on April 13, 2012

I'm not surprised about the cost. Suggestion: you might be able to buy form cabinets - probably in melamine - from a bigbox furniture warehouse [I'm in Australia, you'll have different companies there] or a secondhand find, that can be assembled, then clad in plywood, and adapted by a professional. [I wouldn't use plywood, as a personal preference. If you spend so time and effort getting an architect to draw up your idea, pay for all the labour, why not get a decent fabrication?]

I'm also dubious about the casters - and I love furniture on wheels and would love to see it work.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:20 AM on April 13, 2012

yeah, the casters really up the structural demands of the whole project, but I suspect they're central to why you want this self-contained unit, so that you can rearrange your space whenever you want. there are reasons why people just build a sleeping space up high and leave the rest alone, and $$ is the biggest one.
posted by acm at 6:23 AM on April 13, 2012

If you are really looking to do it on the cheap, maybe toss it over to Ikea Hackers. Maybe they would post it to get some ideas from the community.
posted by effigy at 7:24 AM on April 13, 2012

Your budget is completely unrealistic. Looking at hardware alone you've got a dozen casters at ~$10 each (and that for ugly industrial casters), double sliding door hardware at $100-200 (maybe more), at least a dozen hinges at $20-$50 each, $100-200 at least in exterior shelving hardware, and you'll need either spring latches or handles for your doors. So figure a minimum 120+100+240+100+50=$630 and you haven't bought any screws, glue, filler, paint or primer.

If your box is 8Wx8Lx6 high you are looking at 384 square feet of surface area time two to finsh both sides and actually worse than that because of all the shelving and the interior divider. Call it 1200 square feet, two coats of paint at about 300 square feet per gallon is 8 gallons of paint at $20-40 per gallon. So $160-$320 Floor paint is more per gallon.

384 square feet is 12 sheets of plywood if you had no waste, no center divider and no shelves. Figure at least 25 sheets depending on your dimensions. Even with the cheapest $20 3/4" plywood you are looking at $500.

Then realistically one needs to triple the cost of materials to stay in business to cover overhead and salary.

I'm a hobby woodworker with an extensive cabinet shop and I don't think I could build this with half way decent materials for $1500 in materials alone.

We've estimated the materials cost at around $1500 (assuming construction grade plywood that would be painted) which sounded reasonable to me.

Construction grade plywood isn't going to save you anything. The $20 difference in price will be quickly eaten in time spent finishing and in dealing with voids. At a minimum you need a sanded spruce/pine plywood if you want to go that route or a combination of MDF and Plywood if you are looking for minimum cost.

Finally cost is going to be increased because unless you are living in a converted garage your bed will need to be assembled on site. That means it'll have to be fully assembled in the cabinetmaker's shop then disassembled and reassembled in your room or it'll have to be constructed on site which greatly increases the cost of production and finishing.
posted by Mitheral at 7:36 AM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Even if this this was on enough casters, would one person be able to spin and move it around? If this was built out of the thinnest plywood possible, it would still probably weigh north of 500-600 pounds. Add a mattress and other stuff, maybe half a ton?

Build it out of MDF and double that figure. MDF is a *bitch*.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:51 AM on April 13, 2012

My gut reaction at looking at the mockups was $10K. $4K would be a bargain for something like this if it's well executed.

You don't want to use construction-grade plywood for this. You can get a finish-grade surface more easily from birch plywood, which isn't all that much more expensive, and will save you money down the line. Or you could look into something like maple plywood and just clearcoat it if you like the look of wood.

You could cheat on the casters by getting less visually appealing ones and hiding them behind a skirt that comes down to about 1/2" above the floor (although you'll need to make some access to the lockable casters).

I love the concept here. If you do it, do it right. The pain of paying a lot of money for something you love will pass. Having a giant box in your loft that you paid kind of a lot of money for but dislike would suuuuuuck.
posted by adamrice at 8:43 AM on April 13, 2012

Unless they were a friend that owed me a huge favour, I would be pretty suspicious of anyone (here in NYC, so I assume likewise in Boston) who told me they could do this decently for 4k or under, tbh. I'd assume they were planning on hitting me with another 3-4k's worth of expenses at the end of the job or something.
posted by elizardbits at 8:55 AM on April 13, 2012

going another route, this 167cuft surplus storage container is on ebay for under $500, shipping not included.

So you could conceivably start with a thing with truly the opposite aesthetic to the object in the renderings and use your own sweat equity and ingenuity to get kinda close to the original design and probably cut down on some materials cost.

i found 20x10 truck-trailer shipping containers available for under $1500; you could cut one of those in two (gaining the open end), work out the finishes you want, build two, and sell one. weight would be a concern. as would getting it into the space.

i could not find a listing for an off the shelf plywood 10x10 container, like a storage and moving pod. why not call your local Pods service business and see what they would sell one to you for?

Anyway. These are tangential to your question and will only get you part way to your goal; the fit and finish and aesthetic of the design shown does not match these source items. so there would still be significant materials and labor cost to bring these to your standards.
posted by mwhybark at 9:25 AM on April 13, 2012

What's really driving the cost here is that you are dealing with a large object that requires precision, but doesn't have room for any of the techniques that builders use to bury error. Also, because of its mobile nature, it's going to have to be built very strongly since it cannot be attached to a wall. I think Mitheral's reasoning looks pretty sound.

The other issue is the cost of building a prototype. If you had fully planned construction details and someone had already built one of these somewhere else (so that everything was a known entity and there would be no false starts) it MIGHT be possible to do this and meet your budget, but as is, if I could teleport myself and tools to Boston and you agreed to feed me, let me, sleep on your floor and cover just my monthly bills during the time I constructed this thing for you, I don't think I could do it before you spent more that $4000 and were fully tired of tripping over me in the dark.

So that said, using a torsion box for the floor (know anyone with a Shop Bot?); frame an panel construction for the walls, and a paper thin canopy for the roof might let you shave off some materials costs without compromising strength or making it look too much like something kids built in the woods from scraps they stole of a local construction site. Doing the torsion box in two pieces piddles away a lot of strength. Doing it in one piece means that, short of bringing in a chainsaw or sawzall, it will be more or less impossible to move to a new location once it is assembled.

Like I said, though, I think the real issue with this is going to be making it mobile. It adds a lot to the strength requirements, not just for the floor, but because the walls will have to be able to handle the mighty shove it takes to get it going and then the thud when it hits the wall on the opposite side of the room. Assuming it's 10x10 and literally weighs a ton, though, you might be able to save some money on casters and reduce the structural requirements at the same time by adding a blower motor and making the whole thing into a hovercraft. One psi would be more than sufficient to lift it if you had a blower and skirts that could produce and contain a sufficient volume of air.

NOTE: What Kid Charlemagne does not know about the rigidity and durability required for apartment rated hovercraft skirts or what materials might meet those requirements would probably fill books. Those books, to the best of my knowledge, have not and may never be written by anyone as of all the niche interests, it's a strong contender for nicheiest.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:02 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I live in Boston, and I have found when getting quotes sometimes the quotes are dependent on how badly the person doing the work wants to do the job. I once needed to have all the wood work on my first floor painted in my house, one quote was $12,000 and one was $3000. I also think that right now in this area construction jobs have picked up and people can be choosy on what they are doing.

And having said that, I also think $4000 sounds like a bargain for that if it isn't someone you know and you aren't tying any other work into it.
posted by momochan at 10:31 AM on April 13, 2012

i agree with the others that this is closer to at least $10K, given the structure (and no, you don't want to go with construction ply). my question is how your architect wouldn't more accurately know about how much it would cost.
posted by violetk at 10:38 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

You didn't mention it, but if you're renting, this is the kind of thing you probably want to give your landlord a heads-up on. From a structural-integrity perspective, you'll want to make sure that there's adequate support underneath for the added weight.
posted by evoque at 10:53 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with most upthread comments, but would like to add two things:
#1: No, don't use MDF. Just don't. Don't use construction ply either. Someone mentioned birch ply, unpainted. That's a good idea, and then paint it in five or ten years when you need something new.
#2: The best thing you can do is to invite the contractor you like the best to a price-cutting conversation, including the architect. Be ready to accept some ideas and veto others, you are the client. And accept that you cannot cut it down to 1500, but maybe to 3000, if you are lucky, and the conversation is productive. Make a legal document concluding the meeting, including drawings, specifying the changes and fixing the price. Use all the time necessary to get a result.

I have saved a lot of money doing #2 for my clients. Up to 25% of a budget, as suggested. It can even be a creative process, improving the final result.
posted by mumimor at 11:34 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow you guys! Thanks so much for all of your feedback! It's giving me a lot to think about.

Just a couple of FYIs, I'm moving into a loft building that was originally a factory for dyeing automotive upholstery. My original inspiration was shipping containers but I wasn't sure how I would get one into the build and though a reasonable amount of weight can be supported, I'm pretty sure that would be too heavy.

The idea was that it would be constructed in 4 pieces - so if you're looking at it from the closet side, you can see the 4 sections. My aim was $3250 for materials and labor with the expectation that it could potentially go up to say $4K.

Anyway, my expectations are being adjusted a well as the design probably
posted by ursonate at 12:34 PM on April 13, 2012

Couple more comments:

You want to hire a cabinet maker not a carpenter.

The largest, flatish, single piece you can realistically move is a queen sized box spring. IE: 6'6"x5'x1'. A very hard limit is no pair of dimension larger than 6'8" (standard door height)
posted by Mitheral at 1:05 PM on April 13, 2012

@ mitheral Our doors are 8' tall. the building was renovated with artists in mind, including sculptors who might be dealing with large, heavy or unwieldy objects.
posted by ursonate at 2:55 PM on April 13, 2012

Everyone above has made great points already.
I will just add: Think of it as a piece of custom furniture, not a very small house. Custom furniture gets very expensive very quickly, and this is not a small piece. This is a half dozen custom pieces, all needing to be combined with incredible precision, with concealed structure and reinforcement.

Just as a gut check, here is what some $10,000 furniture pieces look like, in terms of scale, complexity, and workmanship.
posted by misterbrandt at 3:02 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for that link MisterBrandt - that looks like the answer to an AskMe question that I didn't even know I wanted to ask!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:36 PM on April 13, 2012


That link was really interesting to look at. I think there's an interesting perception challenge here. I view this project as 4 pieces: the closet, the mattress frame, the whiteboard and the box itself. As I dissect this problem, I wonder if simplifying the closet portion is the answer (though I don't know how it could be simpler other than losing the angle and/or not having shelves). When I look at the set of wooden bookshelves that I have, which are as simple (excepting the angles) as what I am proposing here, I have trouble reconciling the huge difference in price. The cost model probably isn't exactly comparable, but you'd think there would be some kind of proportional relationship there.

Anyway, when I look at the projects on that site, my first reaction is that I would never pay that much for pieces like that. But I'm probably reacting more to the aesthetics than anything. Plus many of those items I would deem way too fancy and much more complex than what I would be looking for. Sure there are structural issues to contend with, but my project has far less in terms of trim, shaping and finishes. There aren't even any drawers.

Thanks all!
posted by ursonate at 8:44 PM on April 13, 2012

I wonder if you could do part of it yourself and save some money? I do feel like you really should have professional do the main box part, especially if it is to be on casters . Maybe you could handle some of the closet or shelf stuff yourself? The shelves look basic. Attaching the closet (if it needs to be attached?) would be harder, but I'm sure Ikea has closet units that look just like that.

(As an aside, if your loft is designed for industrial use, maybe you could do something with a ceiling mounted hoist or winch instead? I'm sure that would require different structural strengths in your container design- but it would be cool.)
posted by Secretariat at 8:16 AM on April 15, 2012

I'm going to do the painting/finishing myself so that should help. Funny thing- yesterday 2 quotes came in: One reasonably close to my budget and another for nearly $20K.

@secretariat Interesting thought about making use of the ceiling. I deliberately chose not to do anything elevated because I am fairly groggy when i wake up in the morning and didn't want to risk falling out of anything. ;)
posted by ursonate at 9:31 PM on April 19, 2012

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