Not So Big turns Do It Yourself in Montopolis
Family adapts a house plan by Sarah Susanka to an inner-city hilltop, and saves money by acting as general contractor.
Sarah Susanka's design philosophy draws on a Japanese aesthetic, Frank Lloyd Wright's conceptual use of living spaces, the Arts and Crafts movement's use of warm, natural materials and a general principle that more is not better. Beginning with her 1998 best-selling book, "The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live," the North Carolina architect started a comprehensive lifestyle vision that now includes not only building plans for new construction but also landscaping, interior design details, home improvements and remodeling.
It was the Not So Big concept and a modified blueprint of a Susanka design that inspired Montopolis residents Fred McGhee and Lisa Goddard as the couple embarked on a new living space for themselves, their two young children, Alexander, 3-1/2, and Thelonious, 2, and for Fred's mother, Theresia.
The light-filled, two-story, 3,300-square-foot Prairie Style home takes advantage of a 1.13-acre hilltop lot with sweeping views and a country feel. Completed in November 2009, the home combines German efficiency with a Japanese aesthetic and embraces the best features of modernism, McGhee says. Generous wood trim and accents throughout the home balance the contemporary aspects with a warm, natural feeling. It has a five-star rating from Austin Energy's Green Building program.
Both Goddard and McGhee came into the marriage owning property. McGhee, a maritime archaeologist, historical anthropologist and building contractor, lived in a 1,800-square-foot condominium just around the corner from their current home. Goddard, online marketing director at the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, owned a quintessential small bungalow in Bouldin Creek.
McGhee moved into Goddard's house, and all was terrific until their family began to grow. By the time Lisa was pregnant with Thelonious, they began to explore possibilities to stay in Bouldin Creek, seeking solutions that would include room for Theresia to join the household.
"Our first choice was to build an addition. We explored demolition," says McGhee. Neither proved viable.
They found this Montopolis lot for sale on Craigslist. McGhee says the property was known in the neighborhood as undeveloped land where a considerable amount of illegal dumping was taking place. Part of the heavily vegetated lot also was being used as a homeless camp.
Having lived in Bouldin Creek and Barton Hills, McGhee recognizes they could not have afforded this size lot in many close-in neighborhoods or the construction costs if he had not acted as the general contractor.
After purchasing Susanka's plans, McGhee and Goddard enlisted architect Philip Keil of Furman + Keil Architects, an Austin firm that specializes in custom residential work with a regionalist approach. Keil notes that three of the firm's homes were featured in Susanka's book "Home by Design: Transforming Your House Into Home."
"When they first came to our office, Fred was saying how he was planning on building this house and had never been a contractor before," Keil says. "I tried really hard to talk him out of it, as I would with any client. It really takes a pretty particular set of skills to pull off a successful contracting job.
"I was very much proven wrong. Fred did a great job with the contracting. But I still wouldn't recommend it for the average person. Fred is not an average person."
And there still were many challenges in the process.
"I helped them through a process of making the house appropriate by taking a generic floor plan done by an architect for a generic site in a different state, perhaps, and making it suitable for their site and the particulars of the trees, solar exposure, wind, slope of their site, and also making it more particular to their lifestyles and modernizing some things.
"It's a little bit different than what we normally do as custom residential architects," says Keil, who also helped the couple customize and update the plans for key functional spaces such as the kitchen and bathrooms.
Keil notes that many of his contributions are hidden behind the walls. "A lot of the things I worked through with Lisa and Fred were on the specifications," he says.
"We wrote specifications that weren't even included with the original plans and laid out a design for the insulation, air barrier and the overall design of the building envelope to create a high-performing building that uses low energy as the ultimate goal of green building from an energy standpoint," he says.
With plans in hand, the Web- and tech-savvy couple maximized their research skills to track down green technology and affordable-yet-stylish building materials and fixtures.
Walking through the house, McGhee points out tiles, handles and pulls and bathroom fixtures and cabinets the couple found at retailers such as Costco and IKEA, as well as high-end appliances such as the German-made Stiebel Eltron solar water heater. McGhee explains that they were able to incorporate off-the-shelf materials into a custom-built home, saving time and money.
As with Frank Lloyd Wright's concept of compression and release, varying ceiling heights separate spaces based on their importance.
The foyer is the main artery to the home and opens into the large primary living area, which has a more than 20-foot ceiling and windows and doors leading to the large wraparound decks. Built-in bookcases line one wall. Ceramic tile with a copper overlay makes a statement, defining the circulating fireplace and hearth. Beyond the living area is an open dining area and a roomy kitchen.
The couple changed Susanka's traditional screened porch to create a screened second living area fondly referred to as the "man cave." Tropical-style ceiling fans cap off a room with a deep red Persian rug, a comfy built-in day bed, and Tuscan-style tile. "This is where I can smoke cigars," McGhee says.
The master suite is comprised of a modest-sized bedroom, commodious his-and-her closets with ample built-in shelving and a Zen-like bathroom with a river stone-tiled steam shower and a large 6-foot Kohler Tea-for-Two tub that looks out onto an enclosed lava rock garden housing reproductions of two Frank Lloyd Wright sculptures.
Completing the first floor are the laundry, a bedroom used as McGhee's office and a full bathroom.
The boys' bedroom, a guest room and a full bathroom are on the second floor, which also features a large, functional landing that overlooks the main living area.
Situated halfway down the long, sloped driveway is a cheery, bright blue 576-square-foot cottage that is home to Theresia. "We were doing research online on small house design for constructing quality, low-square-footage housing," McGhee says.
Known as a Katrina Cottage, the home's plan resulted from a competition to design affordable homes for the Gulf South after Hurricane Katrina. Brad Pitt, through his Make It Right Foundation, has used these plans, constructing homes for New Orleanians displaced by the hurricane.
Plans are now sold by Lowe's, which also sells materials packages to build the homes.
McGhee says, "You can build that house for as little as $40 a square foot." Green building features and upgraded finish-outs pushed his building cost up to about $70 per square foot, he explains.
The main home's solar system came online in July. McGhee says they've generated 4,319 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which averages out to 617 kilowatt-hours per month. They still buy some electricity from a utility company, for an average of $156 per month. Their high, in September, was $248 and their low, in November, was $64. The house has all-electric utilities.
They also prewired the property for wind turbines.
"We are on a hill, and based upon my anecdotal data collection, I think that installing two grid-tie turbines will bring the house down to net zero," McGhee says. Net zero energy homes consume less energy than they produce.
"That's the eventual goal," McGhee says.