Dream Home: Diving into Details
We were recently approached by an adjacent land owner who was interested in combining our properties and re-platting them lengthwise. Our current arrangement is a bit odd in that our typical city lot was divided ‘hamburger style’ instead of ‘hot dog’. Most city lots in Houston are approximately 50′ wide x 100′ deep. Any available properties or ‘tear down’ quality homes are snatched up by developers and re-platted into two long, skinny lots that will accommodate townhouses. Since our property was divided into two lots sized approximately 65′ wide x 45′ deep, it was unattractive to most developers; it wouldn’t be easy to place two town homes and make a profit. While this was an unusual and potentially problematic element for most buyers, it wasn’t for us. Over the last year, we have honed our design to take advantage of this unusual condition and have grown to really love the solution that fits on this property, and only this property. It is the unique condition that allows us to approach our house from a very different angle and gives us spaces that would not otherwise be possible. Below is a diagram of our property (the black square) in relation to the surroundings. If you’ve never been to Houston, this is no-zoning at its finest: A warehouse, a church, a park, a tear down, townhouses and empty lots all within a single block. And yes, we’re only a few blocks from the bars, too.
We had not intended to meet with builders for at least another 6 months, but due to this opportunity to combine properties, we were forced to quickly come up with an alternate design for the new condition and compare our options with builders for preliminary pricing (no sense in pursuing a design we couldn’t afford!). We really had to look at it from two perspectives: on one hand, it is our home, but on the other hand, it could potentially be much more of an investment than just a commodity. Below is the design I whipped up to see if we could get something we liked. The first level is on the left, followed by levels 2, 3, and roof deck. I tried to incorporate similar features as our original design, but the layout definitely changed the feeling and functionality even though the spaces were ‘the same’. It goes to show that how you put spaces together and their relationship to one another really impacts the overall quality of space!
The particulars of the financial analysis were a bit difficult, as the adjacent property is landlocked. Luckily, my husband is sort of a financial wizard and was able to analyze the situation (3 degrees in economics/finance count as wizardry in my book). Remember the hot dog/hamburger division? Well, since the lot was split in an odd way, the adjacent property has no street frontage (ours has access to a public Right of Way, but it is not paved…in the middle of the city). That means that ultimately, the ‘fair market value’ of the lot next door would be determined only by those property owners immediately adjacent to it (i.e. no one else would be able to access it). That meant us and one other party; the church next door. In theory, we would decide the price of the land since no one else would be interested in purchasing it. The only way to determine a fair value outside of a sale to yours truly was to look at the only other plausible alternative: donate it to the church as a tax-deductible contribution. The value of the adjacent property is only realized if and when it is combined with ours – on its own, the value is much less. This is an important point, since the difference in value between our property and the adjacent lot tells us what our financial incentive would be if we combined properties. In the end, we added the difference in property values to the cost of a typical town house design and compared it to the ballpark estimates for our current design. Ultimately, the benefit of combining properties and going with a typical design was rather small; just 11% of the value of our dream home.
What does all this mean? It means that for an 11% premium over a ‘typical design’, we could get the dream home we wanted, or we could put that cash in our pockets by combining properties. We also considered purchasing the property outright and shifting our original design to the back in order to create a large front yard (great idea from my dad!), but there were issues with this as well. The lot narrows at the rear, and our house’s width is already tight. In addition, there was the possibility of over-developing for the neighborhood, higher taxes, and more operating costs (Mowing a big yard takes time, y’all!). Ultimately, we chose to pass on the option to combine or purchase and we are moving forward with our original design since an 11% increase in cost over typical was well worth it in order to get our unique design. (Below is our latest and greatest iteration – can you spot the changes?)
In tandem with our financial analysis of the adjacent property, we met with 3 local custom builders to get preliminary pricing based on our dream home schematic drawings. We wanted to get an early ballpark estimate of our construction cost before we made any decisions to combine properties or pursue our original design. I highly recommend the ‘design-build’ process, which gets a construction expert involved early in the design process and helps you know costs much earlier.
Two of the initial ball-park estimates came in at $150/SF and the outlying bid of $200/SF came from the ‘high end’ builder. The builder that gave the high estimate had unfortunately received some bad news just as I walked in for our meeting. I’m certain that pricing a new home was not at the forefront of his mind, and I certainly cannot blame him for throwing a number out based on ultra-high end designs in his portfolio (much higher end than we plan to build, i.e. imported everything). Given the other two estimates were on track with our own calculations and hypothesis, we were comfortable deciding to pursue our original design. The details will get worked out over the next year and the pricing will adjust to fit those choices.
We now find ourselves at the point of endless choices. Up to now, the focus has been on making the spaces work – did the volumes make sense, did the plan layout flow well, did the functions meet our anticipated needs? Now, we will do a more in depth code review, product search and systems investigation to make sure everything works together and meets all the various legal requirements to the “T”. We’re considering Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF), metal stud construction, and rain screen cladding options among other things. The cladding itself could end up being terracotta panels, fiber cement boards, slim brick panels, or even weathering steel sheets. We are now getting into the ‘truth in materials’ debate as we consider which materials are best suited to the climate, application and aesthetic goals we have. We are also scrutinizing our priorities to predetermine where we want to spend our money if we need to value-engineer some things and bring costs down. Even a dream home requires compromise.
By another stroke of financial wizardry, we are looking at breaking ground much sooner than expected; likely fall of next year. That means we have to spend our weekends figuring out these questions, getting it drawn up and landing on a final pricing structure with the builder. It may seem like a long time, but in the design world, that will go very quickly.
I’ll be writing about the dream home decisions as we think about them, including posts on various products, systems and services that we are considering: home automation, rain screens, weathering steel – you name it! If there is something you want to know more about, let me know in the comments section and I’ll try to write a post on it. We are even open to talking about budgets, and I may focus an article on ‘how to afford design’. It’s always been a question that plagues new designers and potential clients: how much does it cost? I think it is a disservice to talk about everything except the cost when discussing design – cost is pivotal and we consider this a learning opportunity. We hope you’ll see it that way too.
Stay tuned for more updates, images and plenty of scrutiny as we progress through the process of design. If you want to see images of design inspirations and our potential products, be sure to follow my Rose Street boards on Pinterest and brush up on the design process via the series of articles I wrote for Archability. Until next time!
Written by: Brinn Miracle