Let’s say you’ve got a bit of money saved and are looking to upgrade your living situation. You are doing well but don’t consider yourself rich by any means. You’ve looked around at Pittsburgh existing homes and dislike both their look and the cost to make one livable. So you are considering either buying or building from scratch.
What does an architect-designed single family home cost to BUILD in Pittsburgh? Of course the answer is that it depends. Developer-built homes cost less than architect designed homes. Rectangular boxes cost less than complicated forms. Simple finishes cost less than fancy details. It costs less to build on a flat site than one that is hilly. Here is my take on your alternatives.
DEVELOPER BUILT NEW HOMES
Let’s take as an example a brand new three bedroom home with a garage. Here is what architects are competing against:
Developer-built 3 Bedroom New Home Outside of Town: $510,000 minimum
Forty minutes outside the city in, say, Mars, a house can be built by a developer and sold to an owner from pre-existing drawings and specifications in a subdivision for as little as $150.00/sf. You don’t have to pay an architect because the design cost is built-in to the selling price.
A decent sized three bedroom house with a two car garage will probably cost you $400,000 in construction cost at a minimum. Now lets add another $50,000 for the land and $30,000 to snake the gas, electric, telephone, cable, water, stormwater, and sewer lines into the home. Adding in the developer’s overhead and profit, my professional opinion tells me you could probably move into this home for a bit more than $500,000. That’s a $2,200/month 30 year mortgage with 5% down.
This home, as anyone will tell you who has lived in one, will be of decent but not exceptional construction quality. And it should be noted that most people who build these homes will spend at least ten percent more as they add special features to personalize their place. If you work in town your commute will not be pleasant. Also, your house will likely resemble those around yours.
Developer-built 3 Bedroom New Home in Town: $550,000 minimum
The price for a developer-built new home goes up a bit to almost $550,000 if you want to live in a desirable urban neighborhood like Lawrenceville. Mostly you will find that these places will be complete renovations, meaning that they are pre-existing buildings that have been gutted and rebuilt. Or they will be townhouses which will share walls with adjacent units. You will likely get one parking stall rather than the two you would expect out in the suburbs. Your house will likely be three stories tall, so be prepared for stairs.
These developer-built new urban homes will be of acceptable construction quality. However, many people would agree with me that for the most part their design quality is not high at all.
FISHER ARCHITECTURE NEW HOMES
Now let’s say Fisher ARCHitecture is doing a design with a similar size. Because we draw with exceeding care and collaborate with only the best contractors in town, your construction quality will be excellent.
As for the design quality, Fisher ARCHitecture has won AIA awards for EVERY home it has has built. EVERY SINGLE ONE1, which is an amazing feat considering the Pittsburgh AIA only gives out one or two awards per year to home designs… Just as important, you will have a direct role in the design process, so you will get exactly what you want.
But can you afford it?
Fisher ARCHitecture 3 Bedroom New Home Outside of Town (including fees): $630,000 min
The least expensive three bedroom home with the same area as the developer home and a two car garage that we can design conventionally will have a super-simple shape. Your construction cost will likely start at about $500,000 including architect fees for a good quality three bedroom house with a two car garage built by a strong contractor. That’s about 20% more expensive than the cost of a developer-built home. It will be a bit tougher to get a nice lot that is not in a development, so lets budget $100,000 for that and, as before, $30,000 for utilities. So your total out of pocket cost will likely approach $630,000 at a minimum. That’s a $3,100/month 30 year mortgage with 10% down.
Fisher ARCHitecture Three Bedroom New Home in Town (including fees): $630,000 min
I see no reason why building in the city would be more expensive than building in the suburbs. You likely won’t be able to find an affordable open lot in a super-desirable neighborhood like Shadyside or Highland Park, but there are lots of sites available in the city for $100,000.
Embrace Minimalism: Let me be very clear here. This price is a bare minimum. As soon as you start pushing and pulling the building volumes and adding special feature your price will increase. High quality interior finishes will also dramatically increase this number.
One major factor that could thwart your plans is that the median price in 2018 for a three bedroom house is only $150,000. You will be spending much more to build your own place. Perhaps you can afford to pay more but are worried that if the value of your home will far exceed the value of your neighbors’ then you won’t be able to sell it in the future. That is a fair concern.
How can you address your cost issues? There are a couple alternatives:
We see NO reason why new homes have to be so big. Do you really need so much area? Our opinion at Fisher ARCHitecture is that big homes are the gas guzzling finned monster cars of the new century. They are expensive to build, expensive to run, and have loads of unused interior space. We can design you an efficient, open home that uses twenty percent less space than a home with a traditional plan. Now our price is suddenly competitive.
Transplants from New York or Los Angeles are shocked to discover that there are very few well designed twenty-first century style homes in Pittsburgh. Although a Fisher ARCHitecture designed home may not suit everyone’s taste, there is a certain group of people who will pay much more to own one. And you have to think about the future. Our work represents where much of the rest of the world is now and where Pittsburgh will no doubt be in a decade.
Don’t be Afraid to Experiment
While there is no magic bullet for bringing down construction costs, Fisher ARCHitecture will do ANYTHING possible to make your project affordable: Insulated concrete forms, structural insulated panels, foundation-wall-free construction, or prefabbed building parts, no strategy is off limits. All can be money savers with the right committed, experienced contractor.
We’re not afraid to experiment either: Build like a developer and roll your design costs directly into the cost of construction. A building process where the contractor and the architect work as a single purpose entity2 creates efficiencies that may be able to save you money. For a cash-challenged project, this may be one way to go. Fisher ARCHitecture is open to working this way although we haven’t yet. We are currently investigating this process in house and are looking for the right construction partner.
Quality, innovation, and the assurance of construction quality for less than you would expect: Our opinion is that you can’t afford NOT to work with a skilled architect. If you’ve read this far, you may be interested in chatting with us to see if we can find a way to make YOUR project work on a budget. We don’t want to just design houses for rich folks at Fisher ARCHitecture. Our goal is to make our services available to the general public. So please give us a call. The first meeting is free.
1 One exception: Our recently completed River House, featured May 2018 in the Wall Street Journal, has not won yet…