Architecture on a shoestring

One of my aims of this blog is to make site specific Architecture (with a capital A)  available to all – including those on a shoestring budget with dreams of building their own  home. If this is you – your architect will be able to suggest more ideas with regards to materials and construction techniques so that you can pursue your dream, but hopefully these tips will help keep you on track to achieving your goal.

1. Site constraints – choose your site carefully.

Your site, slope, ground conditions will have a big impact on the cost and time of building your foundations. Obtaining a geotechnical analysis for difficult sites BEFORE you even purchase the site, (and especially prior to designing and building the house) can save you in unexpected issues and budget blowouts during the construction. Make sure your contingency is sufficient to cover issues that arise at this stage as it’s generally one of the bigger ‘unknowns’ until you start digging. That’s not to say a steep bush clad site isn’t amazing – just ensure you have allowed for it in your budget. You can even get your architect to cast their eye over the site before you sign on the dotted line.

2. Bigger is not always better

If your budget is tight, don’t try to stretch it over the largest floor area possible with a 2.4m stud height – this will just result in a bland effect as there will be no money left for special features that make an architect designed space special. Look at the brief you give your architect and work out which areas are critical and which areas secondary. Consider doubling up the use of some spaces and allow your architect to ‘borrow’ space/vistas between inside and outside to create the illusion of bigger rooms, or increase the stud height instead in key areas giving the feel of a large volume. It’s better to think carefully of where the money is best spent, rather than just assuming that the bigger the floor area the more impressive a space is – that is certainly not always the case.

3. Contingency amount in a budget is not optional even on a shoestring budget.

There are always things that happen on site that are unexpected. The cost of steel has increased hugely in the space of a couple of months before, items are uncovered on site that have not been factored in, you decide to alter some details mid-build. There are valid extensions that a builder/contractor can claim for on top of their tender price. If renovating an older house – consult with your Quantity surveyor and Architect as the ‘unexpected discovery’ list can suddenly rise once on site. (refer to our ‘building budget’ tip sheet.)

4. Preliminary Budget costings are essential

Don’t go into a design, build or a tender blind to what you are going to pay. A good architect will insist on a Quantity Surveyed costing after the initial design (outline) and then after detailed design (more detail) and then go through it with you with suggestions – this is the point where you need to change elements or alter your expectations to bring it in line, the tender results will very rarely will decrease from these indications. Pay the fees now and save on unpleasant surprises later.

5. Limit scope creep

There is a tendency to keep adding detail and extending the brief to make a house perfect – we call this ‘scope creep’. It happens during the design stage when different ‘ideas’ occur to you that might be nice to add, and then can occur when you are on site and decide that you want to make changes. Especially try to be as disciplined as possible after the ‘design freeze’ point when the architect is documenting for building consent, or when your building is on site, as both of these can occur costs from fees/building consent amendment fees/builders labour/ and timetable delays.

6. DIY – What skills do you have?

Any one handy with the paint brush, want a go at making your own garden retaining wall, can you make your own curtains? Its great when people get involved in building their own homes. Know your skills, and your limits. There are compulsory things that only a registered electrician, plumber, builder can do, but there are many things you can get involved in to craft your own home and save some money. Remember that quality building comes from experience – if in doubt leave it to the experts they have far more experience and contacts in the industry to make the wheels of the building machine move smoothly and (generally) quicker than you!

There is a tendency in NZ to think ‘Labour only’ contracts save you a lot of money – however they are really for the fully experienced only and those with a lot of time available to spend on site coordinating and chasing up trades. There are a huge number of things that can slip through the gaps and end up costing you because you didn’t realise you needed to include them or you got the programming wrong. Then there are the tradespeople who will turn up at a moment’s notice for a builder who can give them future work, but place as low priority a ‘one job’ wonder, and of course there’s the time – oh the time – involved in this sort of contract for a full house build.

7. Wise shopping for materials

When shopping for fittings keep an eye on the allocated budget for ‘light fittings’ ‘sanitary wear’ ‘kitchen gear’ and look for specials of quality fittings. There are great sales that occur through the year that are good to take advantage of and you may know people who can get you a trade discount. If you are in the ‘initial’ design stage of your building – don’t go shopping for furniture or light fittings yet … wait till the design has been resolved and talk with your architect about what will work best for the house. Can you find demolition materials that you can use inside the house adding both character and saving money, (in NZ for new build external areas you need to have a certificate from the suppliers saying that it meets the current code – often they don’t – so reusing old windows is mainly applicable for a ‘replace to match existing’ context). Can you mix high cost finishes in focal point areas with some lower cost finishes in other less obvious areas? Balance your details and materials carefully with your architect to achieve your goals and select carefully the key areas you want to spend a little additional money on to achieve architecture alchemy.

I hope that helps with some of your planning stages. I’d Love to hear from you if it has or if you have any other helpful tips (for those unfamiliar with the building industry) from your own experiences!


2 thoughts on “Architecture on a shoestring

  1. Hi Lisa,
    Alison here from agnes coy. I’ve spent a good couple of hours this morning reading your blog and website. This post in particular, I found really useful. We are most certainly going to be building on a tight budget! Our house has sold and we move into a little rented cottage at the end of June. We haven’t found land yet but have a good idea of what we want. I, in particular, have very strong ideas about how I want the new build to look. Having said that, so far, it’s been a real journey. What I wanted at the beginning of the year compared to what I want now, are very different. I imagine that you are used to that with clients!
    We have looked at kit set homes but they really haven’t grabbed us. I’m now thinking that perhaps we need to work with an architect but it’s always sounded so expensive. Having read around your two sites, I now realise that we could save money employing an architect so maybe it’s the way to go. Architects are very limited on our area (Wairarapa). How would you suggest we go about choosing one to work with? What do we need to be looking for? Such a shame that you’re all the way up there in Auckland!
    New builds in the Wairarapa tend to be safe and ordinary. We really want to push those boundaries and go for something a little different.
    Thank you for your really informative posts and articles.
    Bye for now, Alison

  2. How exciting for you! Its a great time thinking about your own home build, and yes there’s nothing quite like a site specific design to make the most of your budget, site and space (as soon as you start modifying the kitsets/standard plans available, you can end up paying about the same as starting from scratch anyway!). In terms of looking for an architect, I would suggest interview a few and choose one that listens to you and that you can see they understand where you are coming from. Some of the little or young firms as well will be keen to tackle a budget architecture challenge so don’t overlook them, you just ensure that the ‘build’ budget you give them is a fixed parameter (take out a contingency allowance and GST), get the design cost checked, and you will be amazed at the creative solutions they can come up with that fits your brief.

    Architects don’t necessarily have to be local unless you want them overseeing it from beginning to the very end (Iv’e done jobs in the Hawkes Bay and some designs for Lake Taupo before after my initial introduction to the family and the site), but for residential it IS important they get a feeling for the site and local conditions and spend some time getting to know you and your family. So in your case you could expand your search a little to some of the bigger cities nearby if you need to.

    Getting the design nailed at the beginning will help make the rest of the design go smoothly and make a home that is livable and cost effective to run (its a bit like a hand crafted cushion to one you buy from the ‘big red box’ – you can FEEL the difference). If your budget only stretches to getting the design done by an architect then I would certainly recommend that. Also start asking around about great Master Builders or Certified Builders in your area now and talk with people/architects etc they have worked with. Great ones often need booking in – and it makes ALL the difference when you are ‘on site’ building. Again someone who LISTENS and understands where you are coming from is key.

    If I can help in anyway, just msg me on Facebook or you can find my contacts via the website. We are working on projects in Palmerston Nth and Wellington at the moment and are often down country on adventures with the family (we could ‘create’ a timely family trip!), so if you ever want to just chat or catch up when you find your site just let me know – more than happy to help even if its just to talk! All the best with your project!!!!


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