[All photos by BUILD LLC]
It seems like only a short while ago that the BUILD Case Study House was just an idea we were mulling around the office. We had identified a parcel of land in Seattle that represented many of the new circumstances of building in the city: it was a confined site involving a dilapidated existing home, it was positioned on a steep slope, it involved critical areas, and it was dependent on access easements. More and more, these are the only buildable lots left in cities, but previous potential buyers rejected the property for years because of too many unknown variables. So there it sat, a seemingly hopeless void within the community. At the same time, it presented the perfect opportunity for a design-build firm that could assess the variables and find solutions – a risky and costly exercise for the skeptical home buyer.
The further into the study we got, the more important the project became. The solutions we were finding to solve the site and environmental complexities could be applied more broadly to similar situations around the city. The design was starting to take the shape of something that could cater to a wide demographic, while the construction methods were conventional and straight-forward. And through a disciplined process of budgeting, the costs were, in terms of new modern home construction, affordable. By the time we had building permit in hand, the project had become something more significant than just a single family house on a difficult site. Rather, it became a Case Study of design, permitting, costing and construction; it established solutions to apply across the board; it became a successful formula that can be repeated.
The process and journey has been an enormous learning experience for us, and we appreciate all of you who’ve been keeping up on the progress posts and photos along the way. Now that we’re over a month into its completion and occupation, we’re ready to share a bit more on the backstory, timeline and construction costs.
Pre-Design and Feasibility (1 month)
Approximately one month was spent navigating the constraints on site – discovering the variety of setbacks, defining all critical areas and buffers. Meeting with the Department of Planning and Development at this early stage was enormously helpful in determining all of the regulatory hurdles that we’d be facing. Through all our research, the footprint ‘revealed’ itself, and the fact that it allowed for a relatively conventional foundation was good news. It meant we had a viable project on our hands.
Design (3 months)
The programmatic goals for the house were to design for a family of four, including an unofficial mother-in-law unit for an aging parent, a home workshop space, and an airy and open plan. This program had to be contained on a small buildable area. We spent a considerable amount of time tinkering with the design to strike the right balance among a variety of constraints.
Operating both as client and designer (as anyone who’s been in this position can attest) is both a blessing and a curse. At times we could be our own worst client, but the experience offered us an honest glimpse into the client side of a project. With each new venture into personal projects, we can empathize with and appreciate much more the trust and patience required of each of our clients. As rigorous as we were in exploring all the possible options, we felt the struggle of moving through the design process and transitioning into the next stages as the project progressed, revisiting issues we thought we’d resolved just to make sure. With any endeavor as big as building a home, these thoughts and emotions are only all just part of the process.
Permitting and Storm drainage (6 months)
Yep, you read that correctly: 6 months.
After jumping through all the expected hoops, signing all the necessary paperwork, codes met, easements defined, we thought we were in the home-stretch, poised for groundbreak. (With any other site this would’ve been the case, but the site we were working with was special.) Then, a curveball came our way: Stormwater drainage. Beware of this beast. The intuitive and sensible route would be to drain down into the Thornton Watershed Creek located at the bottom of the ravine, which slopes southward on the property. This drainage plan made sense to us, to the geotech, and even the DPD. It was an environmentally sensible strategy to collect stormwater from the site, tightline it down the slope and distribute it back into the creek.
We didn’t realize the issue was not about sensibility, but about arcane rules (see: lack of agreements) between various agencies that needed to be enforced. Since our water had to cross other City of Seattle land before it hit the creek, the sensible option became an impossible one. With the help of advocates at the DPD, we were guided towards an alternate solution that worked. But as these things go, this consumed a significant amount of time (months, in fact, to the permitting phase alone) and money (thousands of extra permitting dollars). One of the options that we didn’t pursue was site retention. We nixed the idea due to potential slope destabilization when the water would leave some sort of infiltration trench and head downslope. Also, adding stormwater to the sanitary sewer system was a no-go (though we pushed, and hard). In the end, the irony of it all still gets us: All that time, money, and wheel-spinning just to install a stormwater collection system to direct stormwater from the site 150′ in the opposite direction of the ravine via a private easement into an open culvert at the street, and there it would begin its circuitous journey through maintained drainage areas to finally arrive at–wait for it–the Thornton Creek Ravine!
And not being ones to squander the extra time added to the project, we worked through construction financing while the drainage permitting was in process.
Demolition, Site Prep, Utilities (2 weeks)
Demolition was a quick and easy deal. It helped that we weren’t reusing any portion of the existing structure, and the existing structure was partially demolished by its natural surroundings anyways. We covered the ins and outs of these two weeks in our original blog post on CSH demo/excavation.
Construction (5 months):
Though we mentioned the challenges of being your own client in the design phase, during the construction phase, however, being your own client has a huge payoff. We were able to short-circuit many processes and roll through decisions on the spot. Many of the decisions could be made right there on site, designs could be penciled out on 2x4s rather than going back to the office and generating AutoCAD drawings, PDFs and emails. There was no halt in momentum. It also didn’t hurt that the house was a relatively simple box. And we were game for taking a few calculated risks (like ordering windows way early to reduce time factors) since we knew we could make adjustments later if we made mistakes. Luckily, we didn’t make many mistakes.
Budget and Costs
Construction Budget (Market Rate)
2585 sf (including 590 sf shop/ garage + 225 sf loft)
460 sf elevated terrace
$182/sf ($500K divided by sf of house + 1/3 of terrace)
Other Project Costs (Market Rate)
$150K Property purchase/ carrying cost
$60K Architectural, Structural, Geotech, Surveyor
$3K Hazardous Material Abatement
$6K Demolition/ hauling
$7K Building and Drainage permits (should have been $4K but for drainage)
$10K Utilities (again, mostly drainage install)
$3K Property taxes
$8K Construction Loan Interest
$8K Bank fees/Appraisal
$260K total of other project costs
A similar project without property would cost approximately $610K. Our project at the market-rate, taking into account every single cost (including property), would come to $760K.
Since we self-performed work on our own home, we realized a pretty significant discount on the Case Study House. Being the scrappy and resourceful operation that we are, we used everything we could (equity, elbow grease, sheer will, working nights/ evenings, and calling in favors). At the same time, it’s important for us to communicate market rates for this project so that the study can be an apples-to-apples comparison and realistically relate to a variety of applications.
The BUILD Case Study House allowed us to take everything we’ve learned so far about design, permitting, budgeting, construction, and development, and accurately apply it to creating a home in today’s complex environment. Because the project documents the entire process from initial land feasibility to the landscaping around a completed home, the study is a wealth of realistic information. To us, the real genius of the original Case Study House* program was its capacity to share professional knowledge with society at large. And if a rising tide raises all boats, this project has been an important opportunity for us to share our own findings and solutions with the design-minded of today’s world. We hope that, in some way, this information forwards design in our communities and cities.
Cheers and Happy Holidays from Team BUILD
* We anticipate there will be comparisons and criticisms of this project with the original Case Study House program conducted from 1945 to 1966 by Arts & Architecture magazine. While the BUILD CSH is a design-forward response to the modern lifestyle, it is also poised as a response to the complexity of the remaining sites in our cities, the difficulties of obtaining permits, and the rising costs of construction.