Just what is it about contemporary style homes that makes people think they are incredibly expensive to build? Over the years, Homebuilding & Renovating magazine has covered hundreds of self-build projects and the average cost of both traditional-style homes and their more contemporary-styled alternatives works out roughly the same, give or take — at a little under £1,100/m².

Yet the idea remains in the minds of people looking to build a new home — and there is little element of reasoning behind it. It seems to me that people who build contemporary homes – you can see them almost every week on Grand Designs, for example – are the same people who insist on spending lots of money on their projects through a combination of willing intention – “I want that designer kitchen and nothing else will do!” – and also complete naivety about the combined importance of expensive architects and expensive solutions for pretty standard design issues. Couple that with what seems to be the standard stooge of any contemporary house project worth its salt – the hapless builder struggling away with both designs and materials completely out of his sphere of comprehension – and you have all the makings of a budgetary disaster.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. With judicious attention to planning your project at three stages – in the design, the materials, and the actual on-site management of the construction process – it’s actually quite easy to make significant savings on the figures you might expect. In this article we take a look at each of these areas in turn and not only examine where the cost implications of building contemporary homes actually lie but, more importantly, where it’s possible to make savings and achieve the kind of figures that average self-builders expect, as well as summarising some examples of contemporary homes built to modest budgets.

Design

Keeping your budget under control starts with a well-considered design scheme, both inside and out

Getting a design

Good architectural design is, of course, the hallmark of any successful contemporary home; but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to throw money at an architect to achieve what you want. Gone are the days when it was deemed essential to engage the services of a top-named architect to create a distinctive look. The increased popularity of contemporary design has really opened the can and means that competition in this area is a lot greater –— there’s much more exposure to contemporary design and therefore many more designers are able to do it well. This has translated as vast savings in design terms – one H&R reader who had hired a big-name London architect to design a contemporary home for her contacted the magazine back in 2005 to complain that she had been quoted £50,000 in design fees and wondered how to proceed – but it’s fair to say that there is still a wide variety in fees charged by contemporary house designers and, therefore, savings to be made.

Successful contemporary design is as much in the detail as in the broad architectural gestures, and as a result it’s important to appoint someone with a good pedigree in building modern homes. This could be a qualified ‘Architect’ but it could equally be a architectural technologist — it could also be an in-house designer at a package supplier or simply an experienced local house designer.

Keep it Small

It’s the number one golden rule of building budget homes and it applies just as much to contemporary homes as it does to traditional styles — keep your floor area down. Building a 200m² house at £1,500/m² (on the top end of expectations, but realistic for most contemporary homes) will cost £300,000, but building the same quality house at 150m² will cost £225,000 — a 25% cost saving. By building small you’re saving on materials and labour — many builders quote on a /m² basis.

Is Open Plan Cheaper?

A defining characteristic of the contemporary home is open plan space and this can be a relatively expensive feature to build, thanks in part to the soaring cost of steel — it’s needed to support the large spans of open spaces and has doubled in price in the past two years. “Steel lintels usually cost around £50-60/m but this price can easily triple or even quadruple,” says Dan Mutti from Design & Materials. “It can be an expensive feature of a house.

“That said,” continues Dan, “there are offsets to be enjoyed, most notably the reduced number of internal walls, meaning less blocks and less labour required, and particularly good from a cost-saving point of view is the reduced number of doors, which means the cost difference between open plan and traditional is smaller than you might think.”

Simple Design

In much the same way that many budget homebuilders like the simplicity of Georgian architecture for its broad, easy lines and lack of difficult building detail (as opposed to, say, Arts & Crafts design), the contemporary home offers similar advantages in terms of simplicity — translating through to roof structure and the number of difficult details involved. Some contractors will, however, struggle with the intricacies of frameless glazing, level thresholds and the like, and it’s important to minimise these more difficult areas if you’re going to be able to keep the build costs down to a reasonable level.

Gordon Aitken, who built a contemporary-style home for just £59,000 (Read more about this self-build), says: “Trying to reduce costs at the design stage has meant that the house doesn’t have any mid support walls. I’ve gone with the maximum span for the size of joists. It’s more economical to have a bigger size of joists than to put extra walls in the foundations. The main structural walls are the brickwork walls in the kitchen and the lounge.” This shows how big an impact design can have on the mechanics of budget homebuilding.

“In terms of final costs it has only been material fluctuations that affected the final outcome. But by keeping such a tight grip of the costs I realised that I could create elements such as the bespoke oak-clad prefabricated metal staircase,” explains Gordon. The key is to keep it simple and ensure that your budget is a key factor in the early stages of the design process.

Materials

It’s not just down to shopping around – your choice of materials can have a big impact on your build costs too.

Be Creative

The very best contemporary design doesn’t copy templates and ideas — it is bold and creative, not just in design terms but also in the choice of materials for the project. This means looking at materials that create new and unusual textures or can evoke looks from outside of the typical domestic sphere — industrial being a particularly good example. The introduction of materials that aren’t typically thought of as designed for housing use means not only is the look likely to be more impactful, but the cost will be cheaper. They can be sourced from commercial suppliers rather than expensive domestic boutiques.

Another option is to take materials that are seen as slightly outdated, update them and reintroduce them in different settings. Materials and applications such as pebble-dashing, plywood and vinyl have been seen used creatively in low-cost, high-design contemporary homes in recent years — creating a real wow factor at minimal cost.

Exterior Materials

New homes in contemporary style have a distinct look to them and while brick is an occasional option, the most common solutions are render (usually painted stark white) or weatherboarding (usually cedar). Recreating the thin, crack-resistant effect of Sto render (which costs between £70-100/m²) might be tricky, but the cheap alternative is to specify a standard render finish at £40-50/m² and paint it in something flashy like Sto’s Lotusan self-cleaning white external masonry paint, which costs £3.82/m² (material only).

For those after a timber finish, expect to pay £50-65/m² for western red cedar boarding (installed). Fibre cement weatherboard (try Marley Eternit’s Cedral Weatherboard) costs around £17/m² (supply — probably £40/m² or so installed), but because it’s effectively maintenance-free, it will save £100s in the medium term.

Glazing

Nothing defines the contemporary-style home more than glazing — lots of it, and as dominant as possible. But getting the look can be incredibly expensive — in the region of £3-5,000/m. There are two ways to reduce this cost. The first is to commission a local glazing firm to make up fixed double glazed units based on your architect’s designs that fit into tracking systems on a DIY basis, rather than going through a named retailer; the second is to investigate buying window systems from one of the leading aluminium window suppliers (such as Velfac) who can provide solutions that minimise framing for around £10,000 for a whole house.

Flat roofs

Most contemporary houses benefit architecturally from the addition of at least partially flat roofing. While the actual structural elements of a flat roof are relatively straightforward, materials required to ensure that they look and work well – meaning no more 1960s-style leaking roofs – can be relatively expensive. Dan Mutti from Design & Materials, who has built several flat roofs in recent years, however, says that it is possible to make savings by approaching the construction thoughtfully. “We build them effectively as a beam and block floor, which is then covered with Celotox boards, damp treated and then a screed added, onto which tiles can be laid. Thanks to savings on roof trusses, tillers and so on, we find flat roofs relatively cheaper than standard structures.”

Interiors

It’s easy to spend £10,000s on interior finishings for your new contemporary home, specifying German kitchens, hardwood floors and designer lighting. The reality for self-builders working to a modest budget is that these items can still complement a contemporary scheme without costing a fortune — by judicious shopping. You can create a limestone look which would usually cost £30-50/m² by choosing travertine instead (around £15-20/m²); engineered flooring with a real wood veneer (solid walnut floor at around £50/m² compared to engineered walnut at £25/m²). Likewise, a designer kitchen will set you back between £30-50,000; a cheaper alternative that should have a similar impact is dressing up a good IKEA kitchen with Corian work surfaces and designer taps (total cost around £10,000).

The Project

The way you get your contemporary house built will have a big impact on your project’s budget

Get Involved

One of the main reasons that new homes of contemporary design tend to cost a lot more to build is the build route that their self-building owners take. The self-builder of this month’s cover story house in Devon – the build costs were kept private, but one can assume they are not in the ‘budget’ category – had almost no involvement with the project either on site or even in much of the material and design specification. He’s ended up with a wonderful house that beats every possible standard of contemporary design, but this isn’t a route to be copied by those with one eye on the budget. As with any construction project, the less professional labour and expertise you’re employing, the more money you are likely to save. According to the The H&R Average Build Cost Guide, published using figures from the Build Cost Information Service, there is at least a 20% saving to be enjoyed by managing the project yourself as opposed to outsourcing it to a main contractor.

One of the key ways to save extra money on a project of this nature is through getting involved in DIY. Be cautious, however — more than any other style of house, the key to successful contemporary design is in the detail and particularly the quality of the finishes. Jobs like creating shadow gaps, plastering and so on really are professional tasks — but even taking on relatively simple tasks such as decorating can save £1,000s on a larger project.

Consult Your Builder

While materials will contribute a significant portion of your build costs on a contemporary home, an even higher amount is likely to be in the form of labour — because builders tend to see contemporary design and materials as awkward to deal with, time intensive, and therefore costly. Getting a builder on board early to consult with on design and materials decisions means that you’ll have someone who can give you instant advice on the cost implications of your choices — meaning that your expectations can be managed and there will be no (expensive) surprises during the construction process itself.

Consider Packages

One of the best ways to ensure that your build cost is established as early as possible – absolutely essential for contemporary projects where issues on site can have a considerable impact – is to use a design and build package supplier where costs are an integral part of the design process. While many designers of contemporary homes may turn their noses up at schemes package companies have to offer – and some are better than others, it has to be said – many package companies are really pushing the boundaries of design and you might well be pleasantly surprised at what they have to offer.

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