Is it possible for a normal middle class to have a well designed home like those in Dwell?
August 27, 2012 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible for a normal middle class to have a well designed home like those in Dwell?

I've been looking into renovating my house and at a very preliminary stage right now. Haven't spoke to any contractors to I have no clue in terms of costing. Been skimming alot of books and magazines to get an idea of how I want it to be design wise and I have no idea whether those well designed home is actually within my means. Are those homes I see on Dwell all owned by rich millionaires or is it actually possible for a normal middle class like me to have a nice home like that? It seems like interior design books and magazines just create this fantasy for common people. In reality maybe they're all owned by rich people who have too much money.
posted by willy_dilly to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Dwell frequently gives cost estimates in its articles, so you can often approximate a project's cost. Some are fairly cheap, others are crazy expensive; location is also important, obviously, but is often ignored in comparisons.
posted by Forktine at 9:21 AM on August 27, 2012

Where are you? What, exactly, do you want to do?
posted by mr_roboto at 9:21 AM on August 27, 2012

Anything is possible.

It really depends on how much money you want to spend, and/or how good your DIY skills are.

My sister is really, really handy so we can do really cool projects on the cheap.

One way to keep costs down is not to alter the footprint. Don't move plumbing, take down load-bearing walls, etc.

One example of a cool thing to do, is to combine a small bedroom closet, with a hall coat closet, then wall up the hall door.

Another cheap thing to do is to add pass-throughs, or to widen doorways.

Replacing vanities and sinks is a relatively easy project, and if your pipes are in good repair, and not made of a weird product, you can do it yourself.

We did a beautiful powder room in our basement. Hanging wallpaper, painting and putting in a curtain were all very easy. Replacing the wall-mounted sink with a mini-pedestal. Required $300 and a plumber. Sometimes that happens.

We replaced our shallow cast iron tub with a fiberglass soaker tub. We were quoted $4K for the new tub and tile. Ended up being $14k due to structural issues, problems behind the walls, and the need to replace the siding on the back of the house (don't ask.)

The point is that there are tons of things you can do with very little skill and experience, and some things you can do if you're moderately handy, and some things you must trust to professionals, and even at that, you don't have X-ray vision, so you have to be prepared to write a check for something you hadn't anticipated.

That's the nature of the beast.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:24 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

The short answer is sure.

We've done something along these lines recently (outside room/patio/landscaping), and spent quite a bit of time gathering ideas and really sort of cementing what it is we were trying to get at it in terms of the final result: how we want to use the space, when, what sorts of maintenance we were looking for after the fact (little to none), and so on.

We brought a couple of contractors in and described our (gah) vision to them. Most of them were perfectly willing to build exactly what we were asking for, which was a screened porch, patio and pergola. One guy, however, immediately latched onto what we were trying to get at, and started supplying us with additional ideas and considerations. Some things we incorporated, other things he warned us on and we took them out of the plan accordingly. The final result is that we got precisely what we were after, and it ended up being quite a bit better than we'd hoped for, in large part because of his input as a designer.

He was neither the most, nor the least, expensive guy, and we came in pretty much at our budget for the work.

My advice would be to work backwards from your goal. What are you looking for in the renovation? Clip pictures, palettes, and ideas and save them off to a scrapbook (or Pinterest, or Evernote, or whatever). We were even able to incorporate some ideas from Alexander's A Pattern Language that really resonated with us.

Then come up with a swipe at a budget. Then - and only then - start meeting with designers. Talk to them until you feel like someone really gets what you're after and share the budget. He/she should be able to back you into your goal given the space, budget and time. Be prepared, also, to heed advice on stuff that's not a good idea. Knocking that wall down, for example, may not be possible if it's load-bearing, or it might be possible, with a ton of bracing in place that's squirreled away in the walls. And so on.
posted by jquinby at 9:25 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, in principle, harder in practice. Here's an example of one that was featured in Dwell, presented as a blog by the homeowner. However, he just happened to also be the architect and designer for many of the (otherwise expensive) fixtures.

On the other hand, my family has now build two custom homes (3-season cottages, one ~2000 sq feet log, the second about ~3000 timberframe). Some we did ourselves, much was contracted as well. We kept our eyes on costs, particularly for the first. However, costs were in line per sq. ft. with what you would see in Fine Homebuilding or Dwell for custom work. Even if you do the work yourself, good quality materials and fittings are expensive. It's been our experience too that project management has to be near full-time while construction is in progress.
posted by bonehead at 9:28 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Something I notice in shelter magazines/newspaper features on home design/etc. is how often the residences featured belong to people who are themselves architects, interior decorators, contractors, real estate developers, or otherwise involved in the home building and decorating industries. These folks are always going to get better value for their dollar than I am.

That said, we just did an awesome bathroom renovation that looks like a million dollars and came in on time and under budget. We worked with a contractor who had done a great job for some close friends, and who had also been recommended by several acquaintances.

If I have one tip for choosing an architect, designer, or contractor, it would be to talk with the clients they provide as references and get a sense of whether what worked for them will also work for you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:38 AM on August 27, 2012

The answer is yes, and I agree that it may well depend on your own abilities.

I'm in a house that was renovated in 2007. Originally built as an unheated, tiny cottage just off the lake in 1921, dark, damp, falling apart by 2005. It was slowly taken down to the foundation, a section at a time and redone over the course of two years, with all of the work, including infloor radiant heat (one of the sons spent 6 months reading up on boiler/radiant heat systems and then did all the work), being done by the owner and his two sons.

They purchased the house for about $60,000, I purchased it, after the renovation from them for $125,000 (in a short sale, when the housing prices had bottomed out here). It's insured for about $225,000 at the advice of my insurance agent after an appraisal, that's what it would cost to replace it.

The key to the work they did was imagination (he was an artist) and sweat equity.
posted by HuronBob at 10:07 AM on August 27, 2012

Yeah. It is. Here's the thing: as with everything, you either have time or you have money. So when we reno'd our house, we spent money on structural things that were going to be expensive and/or disruptive to retro fit. This was removing a load bearing wall and putting in a steel beam; spending a ton on swanky radiators; putting in hardwood floors. We also put in a new kitchen but to be honest, it looks nice but it was cheap. We will eventually upgrade the counters if not the units. We pent money on appliances I plan to keep for a very long time.

That was five years ago. We then had no money. Since then we have slowly addressed the interior design of the house. You spend money as you can. You pick up a thing in a thrift store. You find another thing on sale. You save up for another thing. I am estimating that in another two years, we will have completed painting and decorating. You just have to do it in stages.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:09 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

One option is to not have a lot of stuff, and learn how to build simple furniture. This is easier if you don't have kids, but it's definitely possible to have a nicely decorated home that looks well put-together because everything was carefully chosen (and some would say "curated").

I am not an architect or a designer or anything, and neither is my landlord. But he refurbished the apartment I live in now inexpensively with the help of his son - the most expensive thing was having the wood floors redone by a contractor (which in my mind wasn't even necessary, but I like the rough look). The walls aren't white, which really adds a lot. And we have almost no stuff, so even though it's a small place (650 square feet) it doesn't seem small at all. It took about a month of work to get the place looking like it does now (and about 3 days to "design" it after we moved in).

Here's a link to some pictures, if you're interested in seeing what one can do on an extreme budget. The most expensive thing in the house design-wise was the couch, which I found as a floor model for $550. All of the shelving is custom-built, and cost only a bit of time and the price of lumber.

One thing I'm thinking about springing for is a new stove. Other than that, the place is perfect.

So: get rid of most of your stuff, and spend money - not too much, get everything on sale! - on just a few nice things. Spend time looking at magazines and blogs and think about what you want, and be careful when you buy things. You'll be getting so few things that you want to be sure that 1) you love it and 2) it goes with everything else before you spring for whatever it is.

PS: The attic is essential, because we need a place to put our bikes and other exercise, camping, hiking etc. gear. Also our dining room table lives under the bed and comes out for dinner parties. But what you see is pretty much what you get - we could also use a shed for that stuff.
posted by k8lin at 10:21 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes! 2nding Alexander's A Pattern Language, many of his suggestions are simple and cheap and have a huge effect. I've recently modified a staircase to acheive STAIR SEATS, it was just a matter of knocking out a 1 x 0.5 m piece of concrete and it completely transformed my yard.
posted by Tom-B at 10:39 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've subscribed to Dwell for four years now, and it seems that you could do much of what they feature on the cheap, but you have to be pitch-perfect with it, because Dwell designs are so minimalist that if you get the details wrong, it'll look unfinished.

Dwell is generally about open spaces. Most of the homes are very open-concept, with either white walls or some sort of raw plywood-like finishes. Occasionally there are touches of metal here and there, but the biggest thing I notice is the negative space.

Dwell was started to feature architecture, I believe, more than interior design. However, many of the homes featured were done quite inexpensively because the owners were the designers/architects themselves, and those people know how to edit themselves. But the houses some of the renos started with were your basic Capes, or loft spaces or whatever that were just judiciously gutted and remade with a good eye for minimalist design.
posted by xingcat at 10:45 AM on August 27, 2012

The thing that makes those Dwell houses look so good is the high degree of precision in craftsmanship in EVERYTHING. When your house is all about simple streamlined lines, you need to make sure that every wall, corner, baseboard, and piece of furniture is built IMPECCABLY because the lines/shapes are the focus, as opposed to other decor styles where the focus is on things like pattern or texture or embellishment. And that precision in craftsmanship costs a lot of money.

So, you can try (i did!) but you'll probably find that everything looks 'almost but not quite right' (which is what i find.)
posted by Kololo at 3:00 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think that the DIY/home improvement blog YoungHouseLove does a good job achieving that style while on a budget. They obviously spend a lot of time on these projects, which you may or may not be willing/able to do.
posted by hefeweizen at 3:02 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

It depends on what you mean and what your current house is like, but I would say no.

Most of those cool looking Dwell / architectural magazine spreads seem to have 500+sqft livingrooms with 12' ceilings.

Sure you can put the same stuff / minimalist style in your 150sqft livingroom with 8' ceilings. But it's not going to look the same.
posted by j03 at 6:38 AM on August 28, 2012

I think it's possible if you take your time and maintain a vision. I know a few folks who have put together some pretty fantastic interiors and are solidly in the "mid 30's normal middle class" bracket. You know what's true of all of those people, though? They all have a fairly persistent dedication to a certain particular aesthetic -- to the point that their homes do not reflect merely a decision do decorate them in a certain style, but rather the way in which their homes are decorated is an extension of their taste. They put their living spaces together over a span of years.
posted by kaseijin at 6:02 PM on September 3, 2012

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