Not Your Standard Issue

Architects design one-of-a-kind houses for the Fifth Ward, trying to prove that even lower-end houses don't have to be a cookie-cutter box

Assigned their lots, the architects began the painful process of editing their original plans to fit the real-life construction budget. Originally the "16 Houses" invitation book had urged that the houses cost the same as the Fifth Ward CRC's other new single-family homes, somewhere between $36,000 and $82,550.

That's an impressively low number, and a hard one for architects to approach. According to the Census Bureau, the average price of a new single-family home weighs in at a hefty $203,000. And obviously that average home doesn't include much in the way of an architect's fees or ambitious building procedures; and because few of those homes are unique, economies of scale smile upon the builder. Usually architects' one-of-a-kind designs are the province of the wealthy. In California, the houses Keith had helped design had cost hundreds of dollars per square foot; for his Fifth Ward house, he wanted the figure to be $50. (Developers' tract houses often weigh in at $33.)

Naturally, many of the architects had been optimistic when first estimating costs. And to make matters worse, since the houses had been designed, Houston's building boom had radically increased the cost of construction. "This market's not kind to small, strange jobs," lamented Mardie. The CRC relaxed its upper limit -- $103,000, the top price for many low-income buyer subsidies -- but even that goal was difficult.

The triangular section of Lindy Roy's roof crests upward to catch the breeze.
Courtesy Lindy Roy
The triangular section of Lindy Roy's roof crests upward to catch the breeze.
Karen Niemier and Diane Barber liked the tall, thin house.
Deron Neblett
Karen Niemier and Diane Barber liked the tall, thin house.

"Do we have to include air-conditioning?" Studio Works asked.

"Yes," Mardie said.

"How about heat?"

"That, too."

Mardie and a co-worker, John Reeves, scrutinized spreadsheets, on a search-and-destroy mission for unnecessary line items. Mardie, trained as an architect, hated to lose the designers' flourishes. She was sad to see the InSideOutSide House stripped of the BowWow House and the silly wheeled furniture, but happy that the swinging TV wall survived. With Keith, she discussed an obvious way to cut the cost of his plan: Remove the cantilevered box that hung off the living room. Mardie, Keith said, seemed more dismayed by the loss than he was. (Michael suspects that Keith is playing down his dismay. No architect, says Michael, ever compromises willingly.)

Four of the houses -- Deborah Morris's garden house, the Peavy, the Flip-Flop House and the InSideOutSide House -- will be sold for $100,000 or less. Others couldn't be brought under $103,000 without crippling the design; the CRC opted to not to make further cuts. Michael's Glass House @2°, for instance, requires one-of-a-kind, specially fabricated doors; Mardie laments that with shipping from California, they'll cost $20,000 all by themselves. Both Keith's and Michael's houses will sell for around $125,000 -- still much cheaper than the average new house, and affordable for a family making $30,000 or $40,000 a year.

In late summer Mardie began submitting the plans to appraisers. She worried: It's hard for an appraiser to guess what the houses might sell for, since there are no "comparables" in the neighborhood. Would he count a room without a closet as a bedroom? Would he accept her argument that a unique, architect-designed house is worth more than its tract-house brethren? Would he freak when he saw the InSideOutSide House's swinging walls? Would he care that the design had recently won a Progressive Architecture Award, the profession's version of the Oscars?

Banking formulas cap construction loans at 85 percent of the house's appraised value. (The other 15 percent is assumed to be "soft costs," which the builder can recoup when the house is sold.) So if the appraiser set the houses' values too low, the CRC would have to find additional money.

In early September the appraisals began trickling in. Mardie was jubilant that the InSideOutSide House passed muster: "They didn't appraise it at half value because it was goofy!"

Did they notice it was goofy?

"I think so," she said. "But I'm not pushing it."

"For sale" signs now mark the lots where the houses will be erected. In the description of Michael's Glass House @2°, Mardie opted for market-friendly understatement: "Lots of natural light."

She's especially pleased that some of the lots sport "SOLD" signs. The CRC can afford to build three of the houses on spec, but must sell the other four before it begins construction. Not surprisingly, Deborah's garden house was the first to attract a buyer.

The CRC doesn't require that its buyers already reside in the Fifth Ward, or that they qualify for low-income housing programs, but most fall into both categories. And most buyers want the kind of house that the CRC normally builds: a pleasant, traditional-looking place, with a pitched roof, a porch and trees -- a modest, American-dream sort of house, a notable sign of hope and prosperity in the Fifth Ward. Since 1989 the CRC has erected more than 500 of those houses.

Usually, when someone like Aida de Hoyas approaches the CRC, she expects to buy a house like the ones she's already seen in the neighborhood. But Aida, a Fifth Ward resident, is a gardener, and she liked the plans for Deborah Morris's house. Deborah personalized the plans a smidgen (Aida wanted a bigger kitchen, and she plans to use the third bedroom as a home office), and now, all that's left to do is the construction itself. Aida is ready to transplant her rosebushes and fruit trees.

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