Hillside cost savings


Hi everyone.

Im am in the preliminary stages of a new construction project in Eagle Rock, located on a hillside.

My plan is to take a rough design to an architect and then have them flesh it out. As this is my first project I am trying to be as cost effective as possible, so even this early on I am looking at all my choices through a cost savings filter.

The first major decision is whether to design a ranch style house or a two story house. The lot is quite large so space is not an issue, there is no 'need' for a second floor. The only reason would be aesthetics and cost. I understand that usually a ranch house is more expensive, the only reason I ask if two story is still a cheaper option is because of it being on a hillside. Two stores will mean deeper foundations. I know to give a proper answer you's have to see the lot etc but In general is two story still cheaper on a hillside?

The house will be minimalist modern. With that, what sort of roof design would be most cost effective that looks modern. Id like to use just a low pitch one way slope across the whole length of the house(if that makes sense - not sure of the correct name). So almost flat. It looks simple so naturally as a non professional I would assume it is, but I'm sure you guys can put me straight.

Those are two main aspects I'm concerned with. Other than that any design quirks/tips that can be used to keep costs down would be appreciated!

Thanks in advance


Mar 4, 14 6:51 pm

Your probably about to get chewed out for asking for free design advice on this forum. but what the heck I'm feeling generous today.

First; Going up is almost always cheaper then out, your not talking deeper foundation, but perhaps wider footing, its a minimal expense compared to addition earthwork.

Second; Flat roof is dependent on your span. Bigger span = larger structural members = more expense. The cost growth / span, compared to trusses for instance is exponential.

I would recommend you get in contact with an architect as early on as you can. I know a lot of people freak out about the expense but honestly having someone involved in making those types of decisions early on will help you save money in the long run.  what you will pay for design services will pay off later. bite the bullet and hire someone. They are your advocate for the creation of your home within your budget, use them as such.

Mar 4, 14 7:17 pm

Find 4 or 5 GOOD architects in your area.  Hire one of them after checking their references and seeing their work.

They'll have solutions to your concerns/aspirations that wouldn't occur to you in a thousand years.

It really is that simple.  If you try to do it yourself, and hire the cheapest architect in the area, you'll be no different than someone trying to defend themselves in court, and you know what they say about that.

Mar 4, 14 7:39 pm

Consulting starts @ $250 / hr plus expenses. A retainer of $5,000 will be sufficent to get started.

Mar 4, 14 8:28 pm
Advice on keeping your costs down? Hire an architect, tell them your ACTUAL budget - what you can afford to spend on construction, site/landscape, fees, and permits combined. (I'm assuming you own the land already.) Then DO NOT bid the project. Have the architect and any friends who have recently hired a contractor make recommendations, interview those people, and have the selected contractor give you an open book price, meaning you agree to pay the builder's cost plus an agreed-upon fee and the builder has to show you receipts.

Keep in mind that when you consider overall costs including land and interest over the life of a 30-year loan that the 10% fee of an architect works out to something like a 1% cost to get the house you really want.
Mar 5, 14 6:34 am
Non Sequitur

I think the OP is missing out on a great saving opportunity here. If you build your house on a steep slope, you can avoid building expensive exterior steps down to your driveway by simply building the house on tracks. Imagine this, you wake up one morning, look out your windows to a majestic view only to have reality punch you in the gut when you remember the long trek that awaits you. But, fear not, with one simple push of a button (well, 3 buttons if your engineers are useless) and zoom... the house slides down the slope. Extra points if there is a moving sidewalk in every corridor too.

Mar 5, 14 9:20 am

Miles does that hourly fee include all engineering Civil, Structural, MPE, along with soils scientist  review of soil borings?

Mar 5, 14 9:58 am

Necessary consulting engineers and other services paid directly by owner. 

Mar 5, 14 10:35 am
Saint in the City

^^^^    ...1 percent only if overall costs plus interest totals ten times construction costs at the end of 30 years....  not likely.

Mar 5, 14 11:22 am

Whatsoever you do but please give a thought about seismic activity in the region. Earthquakes are common in hilly areas so they will surely have a considerable effect on your design process.

For better understanding, must go through How Earthquakes are Changing Construction Tactics in Hilly Region 

Mar 5, 14 12:22 pm
Non Sequitur

Fahad Ali makes a good point. Hills are dangerous as they tend to attract earthquakes and other undesirable "acts of dog". Perhaps it's best to avoid them altogether. You would not leave your sandwich alone if you knew bears were in the area would you? Same thing when building on hills.

Mar 5, 14 12:44 pm
Foundations are very expensive, especially on a hill. Go up. Get a good local architect.
Mar 5, 14 12:45 pm

Just for grins, let's do some quick math to test Donna's hypothesis:


. $250,000 land cost

. $800,000 construction cost

. $80,000 architect's fee @ 10% of construction cost

. Total Initial Cost: $1,130,000 ($250k + $800k + $80k)

. Owner contributes 25% initial equity = $282,500

. 30 year fixed rate loan at 4.32% (to be conservative) on 75% of $1,130k = $847,500


. Monthly mortgage payment = $4,204 (per mortgage calculator)

. 360 mortgage payments  = $1,513,436

. Total Acquisition Cost = initial equity @ $282,500 + all mortgage payments @ $1,513,436 = $1,795,936


. Architect's Fee as % of Total Acquisition Cost = $80,000 / $1,795,936 = 4.45%

I'm sure we can quibble about some necessary refinements to the above analysis, but any resulting changes are not likely to get the number anywhere close to Donna's 1%.

Sorry Donna !


Mar 5, 14 1:10 pm

Reminds me of a rich couple who went to Vail one summer and purchased a million dollar ski home on the north side of a ridge. When they returned in the winter they found they did not get one hour of direct sunlight for weeks at a time. Surely that would be one of the first things an architect would calculate? If so, how did the home get built in the first place?

Mar 5, 14 2:00 pm

That's ok, quizzical - thank you for doing the math. I was trying to remember an article from several years ago that did this calculation, and obviously misremembered - though, as you say, the math will vary per project.  The general trend, I am sure, is that the fee of an architect is minimal in the overall scheme of having a great house that you love.

Oh, and still cheaper than the 7% you'll pay a realtor to fill out paperwork when you sell it.

Mar 5, 14 2:08 pm

Donna - I have some vague recollection of an article similar to the one you reference. As I remember, that article dealt with commercial property and their calculation also took into consideration such things as real estate taxes and operating costs over a long period of time.

Roger that on the subject of R.E. commissions, although I will say that in my area commissions are only 6% for residential. We've got our primary residence on the market right now and our agent really is working hard, and putting in a LOT of time, to find the right buyer for this home. When all the dust settles, she'll have done quite a lot more than simply 'fill out paperwork'.

Mar 5, 14 2:22 pm

No, the article I had was specifically residential.  I gave it to my ProPractice students.

Yes, there are really good, hard-working realtors.  As in any profession.

Mar 5, 14 2:29 pm
Saint in the City

Quizzizal -- I had figured around 5% when I posted earlier.  Same result, different viewpoint.

Of course, the premise of attempting to use the 30 year debt service costs to rationalize fee is 100% B.S.

Mar 5, 14 4:46 pm
Saint in the City

And I agree, Quizzical -- realtors are more than paper pushers.  The good ones save the asses of the ignorant pretty regularly.

Mar 5, 14 4:50 pm
Tinbeary There there

(volunteer, much of Vail is in shadow much of the time, the main part of town sits in a valley on the north side of a ridge, right?)

Mar 5, 14 4:54 pm

Surely that would be one of the first things an architect would calculate? If so, how did the home get built in the first place?

Designed and built specifically for sale to a self-appointed master of the universe. Like pretty much every house where I live.

Mar 5, 14 5:51 pm

Most of the Vail village sits far enough in the valley to get some sunlight year round. I was there in the early spring one time and did not notice any problem.There are some homes on the east side of town tucked in close to the ridge where I think the problem is. There is also a whole mining town in Colorado, I think it is Georgetown, that also has a problem with sunlight in the winter. Another problem on hillside building is mudslides from above. This is occurring around some of the developments in Asheville, NC. Developers go in and clear roads and building lots on steep slopes and undermine the vegetation. Cue in a stalled hurricane with sustained heavy rain and the whole mess slides down the mountain and takes out the existing homes below.

Mar 6, 14 11:55 am
Saint in the City

quizzical -- plus, how many in the U.S. stay in the same house for 30 years?  Average stay is 13 years.  

Mar 6, 14 12:10 pm

Miles, in my part of the country the 'Masters of the Universe' build multi-million dollar beach homes on barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico. Built on nothing but sand in places like Seaside and WaterColor, both near Destin. The idea that they are like bowling pins waiting for a hurricane to barrel through never occurs to them - until they try to get insurance. A couple of generations ago people would only build shacks there, if that, because they knew it was just a matter of time before it got blown north of Atlanta.

Mar 6, 14 12:53 pm

Hills are dangerous as they tend to attract earthquakes and other undesirable "acts of dog".


You should also exercise caution when designing yards that have public frontage, as they are also subject to undesirable acts of dog.

Mar 6, 14 7:25 pm

Colorado stuff. Mountain work is technically challenging.  In a lot of ways, those in the shadows have the least amount of issues.  Others have to deal with shadows caused by roof projections like chimneys and roof configurations; That creates ice damn issues since the snow around it is melting, drains down the roof then freezes in those shadows.  They build up those ice damns substantially.

Even weird stuff comes into play.  Concrete/stone/masonry/stucco; As you know, it gets wet.  At night, that moisture inside the concrete freezes and expands.  Thermal gain in the day melts it again. Because of the thin air, we get a ton of UV.  Daily freeze thaw is hard on products particularly if you allow it to saturate.  It can even cycle a few times as day since it can be sunny, then cloudy, then sunny, then night..  So code minimum clearances and slopes just don't cut it and will wreak havoc on systems because of snow stack, ice damning, etc. potentially changing the elevation of the drainage plain.

So yes... you account for sun angles. It's easier when you don't have to worry about it.   


Mar 6, 14 7:47 pm
Saint in the City

Mightyaa -- from your post:  "ice damning".....with this winter, I'm doing plenty of that.....:)

Mar 7, 14 12:54 pm

Hurricane bait, local flavor.

These are not vacation houses, they are just small parts of diversified investment portfolios.

Mar 8, 14 12:06 pm

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