Building Smaller, for Now

By Robert Knight

The completed house -- phase 1, original living room, is at left end; the removable (bolt-on) one story addition is behind the entry with the green door, at the far right.

Strategy 2: The living room serves as the house

The Nobles were committed to living part of the year in Maine in the near future. Exactly when in the future and how much of the year would work itself out, but the Nobles didn’t need the multiple options of the Chapmans. They could not spend the cash or add the debt now for the house that they wanted. 

Initially, we had designed a Greek-revival farmhouse that resolved into something that pleased all of us By our calculations, however, it was going to cost around $350,000. Although that figure was affordable at some point, it wasn’t in the cards in the foreseeable future, so why not build just the guest house first?

Although a guest house was part of the final plan, the Nobles wanted to live on the primary site rather than in a corner where a guesthouse might ordinarily sit. There was really only one great place to build on the site.

We first looked at building a core of the house: kitchen, bathroom, a place to sleep. In practical terms, though, that meant building everything but the living room, and building the most expensive rooms to boot. Another strategy that left spaces unfinished to save money was acceptable to them but was still too expensive. We needed to cut costs at least by half. Simply deleting some interior work could save 10% to 15%, but it wouldn’t yield big-enough savings.

With a flash of the brilliance that justifies my big-bucks fees, I thought, "instead of building everything except for the living room, why not build just the living room?” Actually, the living room included an attached screened porch. We would modify the screened-porch roof so that the living room space extended over it to form a loft. Extending the roof over the loft would improve the house’s roofline.


The loft could also be used as an office or as overflow sleeping space, making the living room more flexible in what is still a pretty modest house.

Bolt-on module increases space
Unfortunately, my living-room plan didn’t create enough room to make a self-contained living unit. We needed a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom (the Nobles didn’t want to climb a ship’s ladder to go to bed). Because the living room functions as the kitchen, dining room, entry and living room during the first phase, we deleted the fireplace and put in a temporary kitchen where the future fireplace chimney would be. For heat, we bought a gas-fired parlor stove.


To create a bathroom and bedroom, we attached a small room to the back of the house (photo above). In a future phase, this room will be moved, probably doubled in size and become a guest house. This added section is bolted to the living room and sits on posts anchored to 12-in. dia. Sonotubes. During phase 2, we will remove the Sonotubes and extend the foundation.

For this project, the transaction costs were low. Minimizing these costs figured prominently in our decision to put a hip roof on the back section. It would have been simpler to extend the living-room gable roof over the back section, but it would have been more difficult to remove the addition in phase 2. We also didn’t want a high gable roof on the final guest house. Instead, we chose a lower profile hip roof, whose definition emphasizes the overscale nature of the permanent part and gives it a bit of charm. 

Inside we didn’t spend money on special framing because we knew that it would be covered with drywall and trim.We did spring for #4 pine tongue-and-groove sheathing boards for the same reasons as in the Chapmans’ project.

When unfinished is enough
Both clients were disciplined. In the Chapmans’ case, we added finishing touches because their boathouse is most likely a permanent situation rather than an incomplete house. In both cases, the exterior was finished to the utmost without compromises, so no upgrading would be necessary later.

Although I see both of these buildings as works in progress, I think they still must have interest as finished objects in the present so that the owners can feel good about the outlays made to get on the land. In both cases, we spent less than 50% of the cost of building the final house, and now my clients get to enjoy their land and not be broke. My hope is that after they have lived on the land in these casual wooden cabins, they will be in a better position to make decisions about designing their “real” houses. 

To read about the other strategy (Chapman: Living in the Guest House) click here.

Robert Knight is an architect in Blue Hill, ME.

Originally Published in Fine Homebuilding

10/13/2013