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What is the most amazing house one could build at the lowest cost? You'd think someone already built that house, but I don't think so.

When you build a custom house, you generally default to "things I like that I can also afford." That will give you a terrific house, but you'll never really know if you could have had a different house that would make you just as happy at half the cost.

For example, when you decide what rooms are near other rooms, it's usually based on lifestyle, not on minimizing the length of plumbing runs. And when you pick the bathroom shower size, you're not considering the optimal size for tiling it without wasted tile, even if that means just an inch or two of adjustment.

The subcontractor who has to run your ductwork often finds he can't get from one end of the house to the other without running through unconditioned space, because ducts are not always part of the architect's plans. That stuff is "engineered in the field." That's another way of saying too late to optimize.

A big developer might take the time to design homes with short plumbing runs and efficient duct paths, but he cares about making the sale more than he cares about livability. After you move in, you realize there's no closet space, and the two car garage only allows a few inches between cars. And forget about any extra green features in your home that can't be seen, because those don't help the sale price.

Big developers also tend to create homes with traditional spaces, because I'm sure those sell the best. So you often get the "museum" type rooms, such as a formal living room that gets no use.

I contend that no one has both the expertise and the interest in designing the ultimate home (or set of homes for various lifestyles), that provides the best living and wow factor at the lowest price.

This got me thinking that the ultimate inexpensive home would have what I will call a wet side and a dry side. The wet side would have your bathrooms, laundry, and kitchen. That consolidates your plumbing, but it has another advantage: Those rooms have few windows. So in a warm climate such as California, you put those rooms on the hot side, which is west in this case.

Homes use a lot of energy heating water, for everything from "Warm Floors TM" to bathwater. I've seen an experimental design that puts a huge water tank on the sunny side of the house inside a glass room that acts like a hot house, capturing the sun and heating the water. I imagine the heating could be magnified with reflective material around the tank. And the beauty of the huge tank is that once heated, it has enough thermal mass to stay warm through the evening. So I'd put one of those bad boys on the west side too. Obviously one side of your home would be unattractive, but you can make up for that on the other sides.

To keep costs low, I'd have one great room and no formal living room or dining room. The dining table would be rustic and casual, so it can be part of the great room for eating or game playing. And instead of a home theater, I would include a powered screen that comes down over the fireplace and is viewable from the kitchen, dining table, and family room that are all part of one larger area. If you entertain, that area can also take advantage of the home theater speaker system and become your dance floor.

This home would also include dog doors, with a fenced dog run area that has a porch to keep Fido cool and dry as he does his business, and a cat's litter box area, perhaps near the garage door so they are near the trash bins. Most people have pets, but few homes are designed for them.

These homes would also have a huge covered porch for entertaining. Make that a screened porch if it makes sense in your climate. It would be the least expensive room of the house to build, and have the most entertainment value.

Likewise, the garage would be oversized because it is another space that is inexpensive to build and requires no heating or cooling. Make it big enough for your ping pong table or even pool table, your shop, or your bike storage. If it opens up to the large covered porch, it becomes part of your entertainment space.

For green building, I would include in the home the features that are free or at least inexpensive. You start by orienting your house to the best direction of the sun, and shading key windows. That's huge. And you could add a big thermal mass to the center of your home, such as an attractive rock wall; that wouldn't be expensive but it would help regulate interior temperatures. You could also design the home to take advantage of the chimney effect, where a tower on the hot side of the home heats up in the sun, causing its air to rise, sucking cooler air into the home from the cool side of the home that might, for example, have lots of greenery. And you would have a light colored roof. That's a big deal for cooling, and costs no extra. I think a good architect could make the white roof seem like it belongs with the house.

Depending on your location, some sort of geothermal heating and cooling solution might make sense, which involves running pipes underground to take advantage of the Earth's continuous moderate temperature. A lot of the expense is in the digging of the ditches to lay pipe, which I'm assuming could be reduced by digging common ditches for several neighbors at once. So these homes probably cost the least when built in clumps of several. That way they can have their own shared park in the center. Maybe they would have a shared tool shed too, with video security to keep the honor system honorable.

For interior building materials, there is generally an inexpensive solution that looks nearly as impressive as high end solutions. For example, painted kitchen cabinets are much less expensive than high end stained cabinets, yet you see both types in the most expensive homes. So you might as well go for painted.

For flooring, carpet is the least expensive, but it also has the least wow effect. I'm no expert in this area, but I'll bet an experienced designer could find porcelain, concrete, or laminate floor materials that look incredible, cost relatively little, last forever, and are easy to clean.

This would be a good project for students of architecture. Better yet, a CAD system should have these sort of considerations built in. Push one button and the system finds the best duct and plumbing runs. It should also be able to calculate estimated energy costs on the fly, with each change to the house design.
 
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Aug 23, 2009
Scott you might be interested in Christopher Alexander's writing about architecture. Definitely more to do with livability than cost effectiveness, but I believe both are considered:
http://www.amazon.com/Pattern-Language-Buildings-Construction-Environmental/dp/0195019199/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251043612&sr=8-1
 
 
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Aug 22, 2009
Looks like someone invented a battery efficient enough to store energy generated from solar/wind generators.

http://www.heraldextra.com/news/article_b0372fd8-3f3c-11de-ac77-001cc4c002e0.html

These would be phenomenal in an energy-efficient house.
 
 
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Aug 20, 2009
See, you lost me when you said the garage doesn't have to be heated or cooled. I work on my vehicles in my garage, which means I need heat in the winter and at least good airflow in the summer. And when it's -30 outside, you don't want to be lying on an unheated concrete slab, even if you are out of the snow.

And we already know you don't like windows, since they're just so much work. Maybe you could install automatic openers/closers/washers, set to open in the cooler morning and evening, close during the heat of the day, and wash once a week or two. Hey, you can already get the LCD ones that darken automatically.
Get on that, would you, and let us know what you come up with. Cheers.

 
 
Aug 19, 2009
Scott,

I think you are on the right track. So why not go one step further and build modular component housing. All units would have solar roof panels that would be connected in series as the components are put together. You have the "wet units" i.e. a standard Kitchen/Dining unit; Bathroom unit; Utility unit (mudroom, washer ,dryer). All of these would have on demand hot water incorporated, water connections and electrical plug-ins under the floor which can be quickconnected to the adjacent units. Living space unit, Small, Medium and Large Bedroom Units, foyer, could be added as needed. All built to be placed on stained slab flooring. Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner can put together their house in a standard predesigned pattern or with the assistance of an architect/designer that can help them design their own home with all of the units they want.
 
 
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Aug 18, 2009
Okay I guess my voice is going to get drowned in the sea of comments here. I'm Indian and we have a traditional system called Vaastu, which tries to address these issues too.

Some things I remember from it is that it is good to have living spaces facing south. The sun tends to plot an arc across the sky over the day and in the summer months the arc is more north, while in the winter months the arc is on the southern side of the sky. So if you have living spaces facing south, you tend to have a house that is warm in winter and cooler in the summers.

Vaastu also incorporates a lot of elements for airflow. In India east west breezes occur from the ocean to land during the day and land to ocean in the night. As a consequence if you had huge windows on the east-west sides of your house you would get plenty of cross ventilation, keeping your house cooler. Okay a lot of Indian design is about keeping things cooler, but it does work in California too.

I liked a recent WSJ article about Frank Lloyd Wright's designs and he seems to use huge glass windows to use natural light in the living areas. This is a multi-variable problem so you can optimize a few things for sure like you noted. Plumbing ease is not something I would optimize because it is a one-time cost.
 
 
Aug 18, 2009
If you want to see what a home like this looks like and you're near Warsaw, MO, give me a call and drop by! I built mine as a retirement home 5 years ago. 1120 SF, single wet wall, solar orientation and appropriate window screening, on-demand hot water heater, porcelain tile floors, screened porch. etc. I spent more time designing it than in actually building it. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot, but close enough! It helps to remember, "All houses (and spouses) have 10 flaws; pick 10 you can live with."
 
 
Aug 18, 2009
But why does this still happen?
Please read
http://markploch.blogspot.com/
 
 
Aug 18, 2009
Isn't interesting that this post, while decidedly longer than usual, has had only 35 posts (plus mine, 36) , while the previous entry was one of the shortest, and has (as of this posting) 155?
 
 
Aug 18, 2009
The houses in Cheapatopia should be modular to the point of efficiency, and yet changeable to the point that people can customize it for their own needs. For obvious reasons, there would be no useless rooms like living rooms, dining rooms, and foyers.

Each house should have a kitchen with plenty of storage and places to put appliances; a family room with a couch, TV, and table; an eating room which can be conveniently switched from formal to casual and back "adjacent to the kitchen;" some bedrooms with closets and bathrooms; dozens of nooks and crannies that can be used for anything such as a litter box or broom closet; a general storage room for things like survival equipment and other things that you put in your garage; and a "theme" room for whatever things you like/need that are not in a normal house, football players could turn this room into a gym, techies could turn it into a tech lab, most people could turn it into a home theater or game room, single desperate trekies could even turn it into a shrine to Kate Mulgrew or Jeri Ryan, bottom line, it would be the customizable room. This house design would be modular, yet customizable.

There would be no home offices. Instead, each nine houses or so could chare a tenth module about the size of one house that incorporates the home offices. This way, the offices could have a meeting room, break room and all the other conveniences of offices that are part of a cooperate building, without the inconvenience of having to use obscene amounts of space in your home. This wouldn't work if you like to work in your underwear or something like that, "unless you use the customizable room as an office." However, if you are one of most people, this would be a good arrangement.

Each house would not have an actual lawn. Lawns only take up space and produce oxygen. Instead, you would grow genetically engineered plants on the side of your house. This way, you could get oxygen without using up space!

There would be no garages since Cheapatopia has no cars.
 
 
Aug 18, 2009
I have thought quite a bit about the home I'd like to build. I care mostly about ease of maintenance and low a/c bills. The actual layout for use comes third. I have recently been thinking that a two-story with the first being essentially a garage/basement. The first floor would not be air-conditioned or heated and would allow access to all electrical, supply and drain-side plumbing. Each room would have it's out circuit (I don't care about wire and plumbing material costs since I'm only building one house) I want access and ease of maintenance. A great room would be best for the way we live and a large screened porch as you suggest.
 
 
Aug 18, 2009
LONGEST POST EVER!
 
 
Aug 18, 2009
Scott, most of these are great ideas.

I would like to point out that in Australia a lot of them are already commonplace. For example:

* About a quarter of the homes I see in my area have the distintive Solar hot water system on the roof. You are right in that the tank adds thermal mass, and in one design of heater that is taken into account.

* The covered porch is called a Verandah in Australia, and almost all homes have them to a greater or lesser extent. If it is screened, it is called a "Queensland Room". Some people have their BBQ set up in a verandah, in extreme cases complete with an extra sink and fridge; in summer most meals are cooked and eaten in the open air if this is available.

* Double garages are very often built into houses (usually acting as a basement), and using them as entertaining spaces is commonplace.

* The high thermal mass object (e.g. cavity brick wall in the middle of the house) is often a part of Australian homes, though it has to be said that this is often more for structural reasons than warming/cooling[1].

* Nearly all Australian homes are carefully orientated to make the best use of natural heating and cooling.

Still, some good stuff. I hope someone expands on your ideas!

[1] I have one such wall, because my house is a duplex. I had often wondered why the home is so cool in Summer and warm in Winter; now at least one of the reasons is clear!
*

 
 
Aug 17, 2009
I think your concept is too Idealist, particularly when you start talking about the communal park and the projector screen that is perfectly viewable from every room.

I do like the idea of the porch. Not sure why they went out of style.

Your green ideas are a lot like saying you're going to drive one mile less a day. It won't help.
 
 
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Aug 17, 2009
scott- your home posts always remind me of one thing. there is definitely a reason i went in to commercial architecture and not residential. owners are always the worst clients.

some of these are great ideas that are already considered in commercial architecture as SOP. but building your shower based on tile size? you'd spend more money in architect/designer fees, revisions of drawings, bulletins to contractors and coordination with subs than the tile for the shower cost in the first place. all to save on the waste of 20 or so tiles. (when they'll order an extra box anyway in case something happens and they break some.)
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 17, 2009
I've said it before, but Scott, your Cheapatopia homes need to be modeled after dormitories. You get the best energy efficiency, the best social opportunities, and the best mass transit options when people live together in buildings instead of individual homes. I realize you've done lots of research on energy efficient homes, and you want to share that, but in terms of land use, transit patterns, and social interaction you need to be thinking in terms of collective use. That's how we can live cheaply, yet happily, and feel as if we have everything we need or want.

You might have a great idea about a cheap house that's energy efficient and pleasant to live in, but a city full of them will never be as energy efficient per capita as New York City is right now.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 17, 2009
The wet side dry side is very basic design technique. If you see the plan of high rise, all the wet stuff are in the middle. The problem is that the final decision is often depends on how the buyers feel about the place. And how they can show off their wealth to their peers. It is like we all know that fake boobs aren't practical, but they draw attention.

IKEA is building houses in Europe that are very close to your cheapatopia ideal. http://www.boklok.com/

BTW, "cheapatopia" sounds like a menu item from Taco Bell.
 
 
Aug 17, 2009
arbyisme: "Today this house design is excellent for low income urban infill residential areas."

I can think of another use for that design: multi-generational housing. Actually, I'm thinking more like a really simple, one bedroom - handicapped-accessible home. I'd like to have my MIL move in with me, because she really can't make it entirely on her own - but she'd be miserable sharing space in my busy, noisy house. I know I'm not alone in this. Everyone eventually needs to figure this out. We have a large enough lot that we could build a second home - though I'm not sure about zoning. I know we could subdivide. I don't know about this plan.

Efficiency-thinking should encompass generational housing issues as well. I think more families would take care of their own - if they could figure out living arrangements that didn't drive everyone batty. You can't get much more efficient than that.

 
 
Aug 17, 2009
This is an awesome post. What a thinker! Thank you!
 
 
Aug 17, 2009
Good ideas. Higher income families can afford these larger efficient homes. However, the real need for housing in the country today is for low income families. Several years ago in California I designed and built efficient and inexpensive one story rectangular 780 to 1040 sq. ft. 2 X 4 stick 2 and 3 bedroom SFRs for rentals. They were somewhat similar to the post WW II houses mass built for returning GIs.

A common kitchen/service/bathroom 2 X 6 wall held back to back plumbing and electrical for the sinks, toilet, fiberglass shower/tub, free standing stove/oven, refrigerator, wall heater and washer/dryer. Electric service panel, drain and water main located at exterior end of common wall to reduce wire and plumbing runs. The common wall’s 2 X 6 lumber was originally used to form the concrete foundation.

Gable roof framed with inexpensive manufactured trusses. Wallboard covered with strong thin coat plaster. House has common entry, living, dining, kitchen, hall space with a sliding glass door off the kitchen to the back. All vinyl tile floors, solid Formica counter tops and painted particle board cabinets.

Were not pretty but functional and much stronger, efficient, easier to maintain and longer lasting than mobile homes or manufactured housing. Improvements added later are ceiling fans, central AC, porch, patio cover, attached garage, carport, sheds, walks, fencing and landscaping. They stand today twenty five years later in excellent shape with minimal maintenance with almost zero vacancy. Tenant's utiltiy bills are curently 50 to 100 dollars a month.

Today this house design is excellent for low income urban infill residential areas. There is no extra cost for existing infrastructure. Public safety, transportation and a central location are already in place. City planning regulators should require that developers and builders place two or more of these units close in to help revitalized and recycle the city center for every one built elsewhere. Many cities already lower permit and mediation cost for such in close homes.
 
 
Aug 17, 2009
Good ideas. Higher income families can afford these larger efficient homes. However, the real need for housing in the country today is for low income families. Several years ago in California I designed and built efficient and inexpensive one story rectangular 780 to 1040 sq. ft. 2 X 4 stick 2 and 3 bedroom SFRs for rentals. They were somewhat similar to the post WW II houses mass built for returning GIs.

A common kitchen/service/bathroom 2 X 6 wall held back to back plumbing and electrical for the sinks, toilet, fiberglass shower/tub, free standing stove/oven, refrigerator, wall heater and washer/dryer. Electric service panel, drain and water main located at exterior end of common wall to reduce wire and plumbing runs. The common wall’s 2 X 6 lumber was originally used to form the concrete foundation.

Gable roof framed with inexpensive manufactured trusses. Wallboard covered with strong thin coat plaster. House has common entry, living, dining, kitchen, hall space with a sliding glass door off the kitchen to the back. All vinyl tile floors, solid Formica counter tops and painted particle board cabinets.

Were not pretty but functional and much stronger, efficient, easier to maintain and longer lasting than mobile homes or manufactured housing. Improvements added later are ceiling fans, central AC, porch, patio cover, attached garage, carport, sheds, walks, fencing and landscaping. They stand today twenty five years later in excellent shape with minimal maintenance with almost zero vacancy. Tenant's utiltiy bills are curently 50 to 100 dollars a month.

Today this house design is excellent for low income urban infill residential areas. There is no extra cost for existing infrastructure. Public safety, transportation and a central location are already in place. City planning regulators should require that developers and builders place two or more of these units close in to help revitalized and recycle the city center for every one built elsewhere. Many cities already lower permit and mediation cost for such in close homes.
 
 
 
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