Great Design with Low Budgets


Looking to start a conversation where architecture can have great design with low budgets.

Can you post any projects or details showing well thought out projects despite a low budget?

Apr 11, 14 8:41 pm
Too lazy to search for it now, but Marlon Blackwell did a church on a super tight budget. I I think it's a Greek Orthodox Church? Somewhere in the southern US.
Apr 11, 14 9:33 pm

Yea Donna, that church was awesome, metal building, with an interior dome made out of an old radar dish plastered over.

I think great design is hard to do on a low budget, most firms that claim they are doing work at a pretty low cost per sf are doing design build or some version of that model. Rural studio does projects dirt cheap, but they have free student labor.  

There is a huge disservice to our profession, when publications (Dwell), claim very low costs per sf of some pretty great projects that are design-build, or a large portion of owner built contributions that are not factored in.  It gives owners a totally unrealistic idea of budget to sf ratio.

The reality is you can't beat the system...if construction is xx/sf in your area for a low. medium, high, super high quality project, that is what you will get on your budget.  There is no way around it, short of free labor and materials.  


Apr 11, 14 10:00 pm

When I remodeled my house a few years back, I did it as an experiment in low-budget construction techniques. Some were successful, some not.

The most important principle I took away from the exercise was: you can accomplish a LOT with a coat of paint.

Apr 14, 14 1:30 pm

I met Marlon Blackwell once - nice guy.  He does very smart budget-conscious design. I always enjoy seeing his (self-designed) house when I go take a trip back home and happen to drive past.  Its a pretty interesting design with a tar and wooden rain-screen cladding.

Apr 14, 14 4:33 pm

Low design budget or low construction budget?

Apr 14, 14 6:31 pm

@ Miles Jaffe


Why not both?

Apr 15, 14 8:42 am

@ jdparnell1218, Don't sell yourself short.  If you do good design, negotiate a fair rate for it.  Good design might not be necessarily more expensive material wise or construction wise - but it could take more of your time to work out the details.

Apr 15, 14 9:56 am


I try not to sell myself short.  I'm just saying that not all projects have the budget for design and construction that we may want.  The very first architecture firm I worked for did a lot of little projects.  They were a very small firm, only 6 total employees.  They pretty much nickled and dimed their way through the recession.  The projects weren't glamorous by any standard; but there were several of them and they looked good, were simply and well designed,  and kept the doors open.  I'm with a bigger firm now, which comes with bigger projects and bigger budgets, but I try my best not to forget how I started.

Apr 15, 14 10:29 am

The reality is you can't beat the system...if construction is xx/sf in your area for a low. medium, high, super high quality project, that is what you will get on your budget.  There is no way around it, short of free labor and materials.  - chigurh


maybe i'm just jaded, but i totally agree


i get potential clients who call who want super cool hip awesome design, but then tell me they've got about 30% of what I expect the construction budget to be and we haven't even talked design services yet. i have to tell them: "your ambition is awesome, but you probably can't afford an architect with your budget" and "good luck!"

Apr 15, 14 12:22 pm

In the US, bigger is better. If drinking a beer is good, drinking a keg is better. Thus the profusion of overly-large low-quality construction.

The obvious solution is to reduce scale and increase quality, but that is directly opposed to the capitalist philosophy (or as tammuz would say, neo-liberal).

Apr 15, 14 12:38 pm

Link to previously stated church.  Think it was around 500k.

Apr 15, 14 12:55 pm

miles is spot on.

empty nesters come into our office all the time wanting to build a 5000sf house for two people.  

They rarely have the budget to complete a project of that scale, but they think they do, because they still think its 1980 and they can build a custom residence for $125/sf.  

Then you have to break the news, they can only afford 2000sf and they pound sand only to bother other architects hoping they have the key to a cheaper project.  

God forbid you live in such a "tiny" house.

Apr 15, 14 1:00 pm

Check out projects by architecture for humanity.   

Apr 15, 14 1:08 pm
Could we post pictures of examples?
Apr 15, 14 2:31 pm

I think if you want to build a cheaper house - its going to come from both the contractor and the architect.  Materials are usually around 20% of the cost of construction, and if you use prefab components the labor probably wouldn't be that difficult.  Being a design-builder, I'd think you could make things for a pretty cheap cost.  The permits and licensing are what might drive costs up.

Apr 15, 14 4:08 pm

I think you should check out Rural Studio. It is probably the leading program regarding the title of this thread. The 20th anniversary is coming up. If you want, you can attend the pig roast not this weekend but next.

Apr 16, 14 7:46 am

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