Whenever a prospective client calls about a project they have in mind, one of their first questions is what to expect their dreams to cost. The answer is usually more than they had imagined. In these introductory phone calls, I listen carefully as they describe what they have in mind, whether for a new house, addition, or remodel. As they talk and I ask questions, I try to get a sense of the scope of the work, and I start to think about what this project budget needs to be. When I get around to asking them if they have a budget, too often the answer I hear is not even close to what I had estimated. Then I wonder if they had any advice before they bought the property that they just closed on. Or maybe some clients think it’s best not to divulge their real budget because they assume the architect will design something way over that anyway. Yes, that happens, but it makes things harder if we don’t start with some realistic parameters.
Just the other day, someone called saying they just closed on a house and wanted to re-do the kitchen, install larger windows in some areas, open up a wall between the kitchen and dining room. I’m thinking this is a $75,000 project, then hear their budget is $30,000. When I explain that this would be very difficult to achieve, they were surprised- “but it’s just one room!”. Not surprising, but kitchens are the most expensive room in the house. Plus new window openings means exterior siding patching, and taking down that wall potentially means some structural work, electrical, patching floors, walls and trim. This was their first house, and I’m sure they were excited by their vision of what it could be. Even using low cost cabinets such as IKEA (we've done many kitchens with their cabinets), they would have to select the least expensive appliances, fixtures, countertops, and finishes to come close to that budget.
When building a new house, people usually budget in terms of cost per square foot, which is a good starting point, but of course doesn’t take into account differences in land preparation, demolishing an existing house, etc. But for the house, there are some rules of thumb that are useful in planning the project. (Location also matters, it’s certainly more expensive to build here in northern NJ than it would be in the mid-west or south.) Most cost per square foot estimates include finished, conditioned space, so garages and unfinished portions of a basement or attic are usually not calculated in the area. A larger home would typically be less per square foot than a similar quality smaller home. Kitchens and master baths are the most expensive rooms in the house, and there’s typically one of each regardless of the size of the house.
Choice of finishes and fixtures can make a significant difference in the final cost of any construction project.
For example, wood flooring could run from about $8/ SF installed and finished, up to $30/ SF and more for specialty wood products with more customized finishes and patterns. Ceramic tile for $2/ SF vs. marble mosaic for $30/ SF. Make those kinds of choices throughout the house, and you can see how costs can escalate quite dramatically
For the following cost estimates, my reference is an individual architect designed house, not a builder’s cost who is doing a multi-home development. These are (NJ) construction costs, and don’t include land development costs such as bringing in utilities, removing existing structures, architectural
or engineering fees, permit costs, landscaping. Make sure it’s clear when you are talking to your architect or builder whether your budget is for the total project costs, or for the construction costs only.
$150 per square foot
Our projects never really come out at this price point, but it’s not impossible. You’ll have to stick to a fairly simple plan, no complicated roof lines, not a single level house. Two story houses cost less per square foot than single story because there is less roof and foundation work for the same total area. You’d probably get vinyl siding on all sides except the front of the house, vinyl windows, modest kitchen and bathroom fixture and finish selections, hollow core doors and builder grade hardware.
$200 - $225 per square foot
This starts to get you into the realm of a more customized, higher quality home. You’d expect cement fiber siding, some brick or stone, clad wood windows, better insulation package, high efficiency mechanical systems, and a much broader range of attractive kitchen and bathroom options, higher quality interior doors and hardware.
$250 per square foot
At this price range, you would start to expect window, siding and roofing upgrades. Features such as custom entry and garage doors, custom designed stair, high end appliances, upgraded and finishes.
$300 + per square foot
These are the homes you see in the design magazines, where seemingly no expense is spared. The exterior may have substantial stone work, slate roofs, copper gutters and trim, sophisticated heating and cooling systems. Custom cabinetry and built-ins, spa like bathrooms, integrated lighting and technology systems. Expect superior workmanship from all the trades.
Remodeling costs are much harder to calculate on a square foot basis.
There are so many variables in dealing with existing homes, and if you’re just renovating portions of the house, the square foot calculations don’t often hold up. For a full gut renovation, using the new house costs less about $50 - $75 per square foot is a safe bet. Additions run about the same as the new cost figures, but then there are added costs to make new and old come together.
Here are a few common remodel types and cost ranges:
Kitchens range from $30,000 for something not too large or upscale, to over $100,000 for a large, center island kitchen, custom or high end manufactured cabinets, stone counters, full tile backsplash, top grade appliances.
Basic size bathrooms with quality fixtures and upgraded tile on most walls can run $20,000 and up, master baths with separate tub and shower, double sink vanity, heated floors, more like $45 - 60,000.
New decks run $40 - $50 per square foot depending on configuration, material (synthetic decking, or hardwoods like Ipe or mahogany) and railing selections.
On grade paver or stone patios actually usually cost less than decks (no framing or railings needed) and average from $10- 20 per square foot, with some types of stone and retaining walls adding to that cost.
“International Style” architecture emerged in Europe during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The roots are traced to the Bauhaus School in Germany, where designers explored rational, functional, and sometimes standardized building types. In contrast to the prevalent styles of the day, simple forms, clean lines, no ornamentation, and the use of concrete, steel and glass as primary building materials defined the look. Although the principles were first adopted by architects and planners in Northern Europe, the term itself, International Style, was coined by Americans Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932 when they curated MoMA’s first architectural show. The exhibition attracted much attention to the display of mostly foreign building models and drawings.
“The International Style is probably the first fundamentally original and widely distributed style since the Gothic,” Johnson argued. “Today the style has passed beyond the experimental stage. In almost every civilized country in the world it is reaching its full stride.”
The Bauhaus School was closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime, the school was seen as a center or communist intellectualism. The staff emigrated all over the world, many to the U.S., bringing their ideals with them. The modernist style was readily adapted to any climate zone, and since it is not beholden to historical and vernacular tradition, architects around the globe were able to implement this style in their home countries.
When I started architecture school, these International Style architects (Le Corbusier, Mies Van de Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Richard Neutra, and others) were the role models we learned from. It was just before Post Modernism swept the architectural world- my interest continued to be with the modernists. So, after many years of continuing to design in a modern style myself, it is both notable and gratifying to see how many of my clients are in fact themselves immigrants from around the world. Perhaps the interest in modern design is stronger among these adventurous emigres than for native born Americans.
Working with such a variety of foreign born clients has presented interesting opportunities and challenges. For a Chinese client, I was asked to incorporate Feng Shui principals into the design. The client had their own Feng Shui consultant who reviewed our plans and suggested some tweaks to the design. For an Indian family, we worked with Vastu principles (the traditional Hindu approach to harmony in home and architecture) to achieve a customized, unique home. Vastu principles of design were important in determining locations and layouts of the house; we collaborated closely with the client- they had a family member in India who is a Vaastu expert, who also reviewed our proposed design solutions. Working with these ancient principals provided a spiritual underpinning to the design that made itself felt throughout the process.
Recently I met with a prospective client at their house for an initial consultation. Arriving at the address, a corner property, I was confused how to enter; should I be entering on the street of the address, or go around the corner? The front of the house lookedlike the back, and from the direction I was coming, I couldn’t see an entry door. I continued driving towards the corner and finally saw the door, hidden in a corner setback of the house.
The clients, aware of the problem, stated that one of their priorities was to create more curb appeal and make clear where to enter. This moment of confusion reminded me the power and importance of that transition from street to dwelling.
Most commonly the home entrance faces directly onto some type of a public thoroughfare like a street or public path, and a visitor expectsthe entrance to be clearly signaled. Some entrances are scaled large and grand, signifying the owner’s desire for public prominence.Others might be more subtle, offering privacy for the comings and goings of the household.
Usually the entrance offers some kind of overhead protection from the elements, and whether the door is centered on the front facade or asymmetric, these type of entries make a clear statement about what might be expected when you walk through the door. There might be a double height foyer that creates a sense of having arrived somewhere special, and encourages the visitor to pause or a single story height that is more cozy.
The landscaping between street and house adds to the overall feel of the approach. A straight sidewalk with formal rows of plantings and paving focuses attention directly on the door and creates a very different feeling than a path that wanders through a more garden like design. There are however other factors that might require the front door to in fact not face the street. This was the case when I designed a house for a client who wanted to use Vastu principles, which required the entry to be oriented in a particular direction, in this case sideways to the street. (Vastu is an ancient Hindu approach to harmony in home and architecture, with some similarity to the more familiar Chinese Feng Shui.) And along with the use of a canopy and low retaining wall distinguishing the entry area, any visitor would find themselves comfortably ushered from street to this house.
It’s my responsibility to walk the dogs every morning, something I’ve been doing for years. Other than keeping an eye out for other dogs that might create a ruckus, and picking up the poop, it tends to be a time when I’m thinking about what’s ahead for the day, or else my mind just wanders. Some days it’s a pleasant way to start the day, and sometimes it just seems like a necessary chore. Awhile ago, I decided that it would be a nice habit to notice something about nature each day. It might be the light or cloud formations in the sky, how the low morning light shines through leaves or makes the dew on the grass glisten, or the sharp shadows on cloudless days. It could be an interesting bird taking flight, or a ladybug on a leaf. Sometimes it’s the smell of flowering trees (the scent of lilac carried on the breeze is one of my favorites.) The changing seasons shows in the cycle of trees: budding, flowering, full green, fall color, bare branches. Even though I take the same route most days, there’s always something changing or new to notice.