Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More….Building a Modern Usonian

I have been thinking more about the possibility of building a modern Usonian home. As I said before, I have pondered this question many times over the past few years. I have been thinking about what modifications would need to be made to Wright’s general Usonian design criteria, not only to accommodate modern building codes but also to be more compatible with today’s lifestyle as well as the owner’s expectations. Below is an example of a modernized floorplan.

A Usonian style home is a design that might still be considered radical, even today. Realistically, only people who are familiar with Wright or who are very interested in modern design might possibly be interested in pursuing such a home. I love Wright’s Usonian designs for their beauty and simplicity as well as their uniqueness. And, I think there are other people out there who feel the same way; who would be willing to make some sacrifices to live in such a unique home.

One of the biggest issues for someone considering building a Usonian style home would have to be cost. In Wright’s day, these homes always exceeded their budget. Because of extensive wood finishes and the small living area, I believe a Usonian style home would be very expensive compared to other homes on a square footage basis. This is important for financing and for potential resale, someday. Ideally, the owner will not need financing and would never want to sell the home. But, the reality for most people is they will need to finance the home and they may someday need to sell the home.

Wright utilized natural wood siding and paneling extensively in his original designs. While wood is still available, such extensive use would be fairly expensive. This is another area where compromises may be considered. If the budget is not an issue, then wood finishes would not be a problem. But, if the budget is a concern, what materials might be substituted? Options might include stucco or cement siding on the exterior and drywall or stucco with wood accents on the interior.

Another consideration is the floorplan. Most people might find Wright’s original Usonian designs too small. They are certainly smaller than what is typical today. I believe most people would be happy if the size of a new Usonian home was increased slightly. Specifically, the size of the kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms might need to be a little larger. I personally don’t see an issue with minimally increasing the size of a design. The size of the hallways and doorways would also need to be increased in order to meet current building codes.

Some additional changes will be required to some structural elements in order to meet current building codes. Wright supported some roof sections of his Usonian homes in unconventional ways that would not meet code requirements. I believe these changed can be accomplished without too much deviation from the original designs, but would require some structural engineering analysis to satisfy most code officials.

But, in the end, by working through some considerations and around problematic issues, I believe that a modern Usonian style home can be successfully built. Regrettably, Mr. Wright is no longer among us to create a new design himself. But by using his principles as a guide, there is an opportunity to create reasonable, modern variation.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Irvin Residence Update

Here are some new pictures from the Irvin residence as it progresses. There has been lots of progress since my last update. Mechanicals, insulation and drywall are all done. They are currently working on tile and awaiting the kitchen cabinets. On the exterior, some of the siding has been installed.

Everything is looking great! It shouldn’t be too long before the house is complete. I will post additional pictures as they are available.

You can see more pictures of this home: and you can see more of our designs here:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Building a Modern Usonian Home

Anyone who is familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright is probably also familiar with his Usonian designs. The Usonians were meant as a small home the everyman could afford. The first couple may have adhered to this ideal, but the following designs quickly grew in scope and price, often costing the owners double the initial estimate. However, even with the cost overruns, the end result was always a unique home that delighted the owners, some of who still live in them today. Usonian homes were as much art as they were building.

There were many, many Usonian designs, none being exactly the same. There may have been several basic layouts, but each design was modified enough from its predecessor to be unique. In addition to being unique, Wright’s Usonian homes were also built in non-traditional ways, not only in how materials were used, but also in the basic layout and structure. The Usonians also used unpainted wood siding and panels inside and out. Almost without exception, the materials list mainly consisted of wood, concrete, brick and glass. Very few if any surfaces in these homes were painted.

Below are a couple of pictures of Usonian designs I like, the Melvyn Maxwell Smith house and the Pope-Leighy house. Usonian homes are scattered across the country and I highly recommend visiting one that is open to the public if you have the opportunity.

A question I have wrestled with for several years is: If a customer wanted a Usonian style home, to what extent would you emulate the original design and what types of finishes could be substituted but still achieve the same feel? In the design, there would have to be some changes to the layout itself as some of Wright’s spaces were too small to meet today’s building codes. I believe most people would also want some changes to kitchens and bathrooms as Mr. Wright’s were typically small and basic.

Also, what finishes would you use? If money is not an issue, then you could utilize the same types of finishes used in the original homes, specifically lots of natural wood. But, I believe most people could not afford to do this. So, would it be acceptable to utilize modern finishes in a home that has the same basic spatial feel of a Usonian? It is quite the quandary.

Even though compromises will most likely be necessary in creating a modern Usonian, I do hope to someday be able to work with a client in pursuit of such a home. For I have always felt that Wright’s Usonian homes were his best and most livable designs.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A mid-century modern home rises in Kansas

Here are some more pictures of the Irvin residence. It is a mid-century modern style home being built near Lawrence, KS. It is a ranch design with a walkout basement. Some of the features are an Eichler style low-pitched gable roof with exposed beams and large trapezoidal windows.

The roof is on and some of the windows have been installed. In the other picture you can see that the interior walls are all in place. The glulam beams supporting the roof offer a large open area inside while maintaining a thin roof profile. Using this type of beam system is really the only good option as opposed to using trusses in the roof which would require more depth. The exposed beams also improve the appeal of the home.

I hope to have more pictures to post in the next few days.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A new Modern ICF Home Design takes shape

As a very busy summer has come to an end, I hope to be more frequent in posting information about new designs in the works, projects under construction as well as other note worthy events.

For the past few months, I have been working with a client in Quebec. This design is finally coming to fruition and I thought I would post some images here. These images were generated from a quick Sketchup model I made. I like the ability of Sketchup to generate nice 3D models and animations but I still have very much to learn in order to use it effectively.

Anyway, from these images you can get a feel of the exterior of the home. It is basically a rectangle with a large open living/dining/kitchen area on the south side. On the north side are a family room, office and stairwell. Upstairs there are three bedrooms, 2 baths and a sitting area next to the rooftop deck over the garage. The home will be located on a large wooded hilltop; the deck offering a great view off to the west.

The exterior walls will be ICF construction with trusses for the roof structure. The client plans to use a mixture of torrefied wood and cement board for the siding and metal for the roof surface. The rooftop deck will be a walkable membrane with a glass panel railing system.

I am really looking forward to seeing this home finished in the not too distant future and I will post information as things progress.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Modern Home Design in Vancouver

A modern design home is nearing completion in Vancouver, BC.

This design is constructed with insulated concrete forms and features a large shed roof over the main living area supported by glulam beams. There is also a large deck on the south side overlooking a lake. The bottom level was designed as a rental unit.

The house has turned out great! In the photos you can see that the exterior finishes are done and only landscaping remains outside. We hope to have some more pictures to share in the near future. To learn more about this project, visit the project page:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mid-Century Modern home progresses

The Irvin residence is taking shape. It has been quite a while since I posted anything here as it has been a very hectic summer so far! But, I thought this would be a good way to get back into the groove.

The Irvin residence is a mid-century modern style design that is currently under construction near Lawrence, KS. The Irvin's are a young couple that wanted something different. They like mid-century style homes, but they wanted to build new on their land in the country. I designed this home around their aesthetic desires, their needs and the building site.

The home sits on a north facing, wooded hill. With no real prospect for solar gain, the home was designed to take advantage of the view of a valley to the north. It features a low sloped, gable roof supported by large glulam beams. The beams leave the living, dining and kitchen areas open as well as add aesthetic appeal. There is also plenty of glass to bring the outdoors indoors. The master suite and an office make up the rest of the main floor. There are two additional bedrooms and a family room in the basement. The garage is separate from the house but connected with a screened breezeway.

You can see more pictures of this home on our projects page here: and you can see more of our designs here:

I will post more on this house as it nears completion.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Green Building is for Everyone

Green Building can mean different things to different people. I often see this as different levels of green building. To some people, any building constructed to a higher energy efficiency level than the minimum code is considered green. While other people consider only the highest level of energy efficiency green. And yet another group not only requires high energy efficiency, but also reduced environmental impact from a material usage standpoint.

But I think most people are willing to settle for the middle ground; a home with better energy efficiency than what is required by code as well as a home that incorporates building materials that are either recycled and/or sustainable.

Accomplishing this is fairly easy and relatively inexpensive! One of my biggest irritations is why all buildings are not designed and constructed to be more energy efficient. For a home, higher energy efficiency can easily be accomplished by thicker walls with more insulation, insulating the rim joist, more insulation in the attic, proper sealing of penetrations and openings, and better doors and windows. These changes can dramatically increase the energy efficiency of a home yet may only add $1000 to the total cost. The energy savings alone will pay for this extra cost in as little as 3 years. For the life of the home, a more efficient home will require less energy every month and year than most other homes.

Any builder that does not offer an energy efficiency/green building package as an option is either lazy, not too bright, or maybe both. Being as these ideas are so mainstream, offering higher energy efficiency or green materials is a way to differentiate themselves and attract additional, potential buyers. This is not rocket science, it is more like marketing 101!

Many green building materials are readily available from local suppliers today. Examples of these include: reclaimed wood beams, dimensional lumber and flooring, cellulose insulation, some tile and counter top materials as well as some carpeting and natural flooring materials. Another example of a green building material is wood harvested from a forest managed in way to ensure sustainability. Cellulose insulation is a viable option in most areas today. Reclaimed lumber is typically available but may be more costly than newly produced wood. However, reclaimed lumber has characteristics difficult or impossible to obtain from new wood sources. Many of the other materials are readily available but may be more costly than more common materials.

Green Building is not hard and is available to everyone who is willing to search out or demand more than the minimum. Life is too short to accept what you don’t really want, especially when it involves what is probably one of the most expensive purchases of your life.

Monday, April 18, 2011

ICF Safety

I have told people for a long time: The only way to have a home safer and stronger than an ICF home is to live in a cave! I believe this is true and the pictures below illustrate this point very well.

I found these pictures while perusing the net and thought they were so incredible that I had to share them. I do not know who took these pictures or what ICF system was used in the construction of these homes (if the owner of these pictures objects to their use here, contact me and I will remove them).

Which ICF system used is somewhat irrelevant in regard to the strength of the finished home. All ICFs use some system of reinforced concrete as the structural wall. This makes all ICF wall systems very strong. Things you should consider as a consumer when selecting ICFs for your home are: quality of the ICF supplier, quality of the installer, location of the manufacturing plant, total insulation value of the ICF system, type and configuration of the ICF webs, compatibility with proposed finish systems, configuration of the structural system, and engineering data available.

The first picture shows an ICF home that had a very, very close brush with a tornado. You can see that two conventional homes in close proximity were leveled while the ICF home remained intact. I suspect that any conventional home located in the same place would have been leveled like the neighboring homes.

The other picture is of an ICF home that was hit by the storm surge from hurricane Katrina (as I understand it). You can see that the ICF home is still standing and relatively unscathed while every other home in the area has been swept away.

These pictures just illustrate the incredible strength of an ICF home. There is nothing quite like living in a home with solid reinforced concrete walls. I know it gives my wife peace of mind. Structural strength is just an additional benefit to the energy efficiency of an ICF wall system.

Monday, April 11, 2011

ICF House Plans

There are thousands and thousands of different house plans available from designers, architects, plan books and on the internet. But virtually none of these have been specifically designed to utilize ICFs or insulated concrete forms.

Framed construction is the most common form of residential construction, so most designers do not create many plans specifically for ICFs. But many designers are often willing (sometimes at no charge) to modify their plans for a client who wishes to utilize ICFs. I do not charge extra to modify one of my existing plans for ICFs or to design a new home using ICFs.

While ICFs are a fairly common building material, some aspects of ICF home construction differ from more traditional stick-frame construction. One main difference is the thickness of the walls. The most common ICFs use about 6” of concrete in the middle of the wall. Then there is a layer of foam on either side, typically 2” to 2 ¾”. This brings the total wall thickness to 9” or 9 ½”. Standard 2x4 framed walls are only 3 ½” thick while 2x6 walls are 5 ½”.

In most rooms of a home, the additional wall thickness is no problem. Without a tape measure, you cannot tell the difference between a living room that is 22’ across from one that is 21’-6”. However, in small rooms such as a bump out for a master bath, this extra wall thickness can reduce the interior space by too much. This is easily fixed by slightly increasing the exterior dimensions of that area. Small rooms against exterior walls is one area to be aware of when converting a plan to utilize ICFs.

The floors of multistory ICF homes do not use stacked platforms between stories as with stick-framed homes. Typically, ledgers are attached to the ICF walls with special steel brackets to support the floor platform. This configuration allows the ICF wall to be continuous from the footing to the roof. There are no issues with this configuration; it is just different than stick framing.

But be assured that virtually any home design can be converted to utilize ICFs with a little effort and at possibly no extra cost. If you really want an ICF home, check with your designer to see if they can modify the plan for you. If not, many ICF manufacturers provide a list of designers who are very familiar with this product. ICFs are a great product; don’t let your plans hold you back.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Modern Home Design, Eby2 update

I received a updated picture of the Eby2 home in Canada today, and I have to say that it looks fantastic!

This dramatic modern design overlooks a beautiful lake in northern Canada. The second floor is carried by 3 large glulam beams, cantilevering out over the main floor. This home uses a shed roof with wide overhangs. I particularly like the wood soffit material that has been used. I also like the mixture of stone and lap siding. As you can see there are several large windows on the south side to take advantage of the sun as well as the spectacular lake view.

The owner plans to send more pictures of this home once is completed, so stay tuned for updates. You can learn more about this beautiful design here:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Insulated Concrete Forms or ICFs

Insulated Concrete Forms or ICFs are a modern building material with specific traits that most homeowners would find desirable. These include high energy efficiency, very low air infiltration, high sound deadening and a significantly stronger structure. Of course, all these benefits do come at a higher cost.

ICFs are typically made in the form of blocks. Each block has a foam panel on each side with a space in between. The space can be 4”, 6”, 8” or more. These foam blocks are stacked up to form a wall. As the wall is stacked, steel reinforcing rod is placed in the space between the foam panels on a grid pattern. Once the wall is erected, concrete is poured into the space. The ICF becomes a composite material of foam and concrete. The concrete provides the structural component of the wall and the foam provides the insulation component.

Once the concrete cures, interior walls are built with wood or steel and a conventional roof is placed on the home. On the exterior, any conventional siding material can be applied directly to the exterior of the ICF block. Same thing on the inside, drywall is applied directly to the surface of the ICF block. Once completed, the home looks like any other home, however it is stronger, quieter and more energy efficient than most others.

Building your home with ICFs will typically add about 7% to 10% to the total cost when compared to standard 2x4 construction. The difference is less when compared to more energy efficient wood framed homes. Standard ICFs are ideal for areas with severe weather such as tornados or hurricanes. As far as energy efficiency, standard ICFs are best for areas with hot to moderate weather. There are special ICFs with thicker foam on the exterior surface that are better for colder climates. There are a number of different ICF manufacturers, each with their own unique product. When choosing an ICF, while it is very important to pick a high quality product, it is just as important to pick a product with good dealer support. Also be sure to select a contractor with good experience in ICF construction.

While ICFs will never be used to build every home, there are certain situations where they are the best choice. And because of some specific qualities, once you have lived in an ICF home, you will probably never want to live in anything else. If you wish to learn more about ICFs as well as see pictures of homes during construction, please visit my website,  I am a distributor for LOGIX ICFs. On their website, you can find lots of information including engineering specs as well as videos. The URL for LOGIX is

Thursday, March 24, 2011

New Design Added, JC-91

I have finally made a new stock plan available on the ClemDesign web site. The JC-91 plan is a modern style ranch home with open living and lots of windows. Currently, there are two roof options, a butterfly configuration and a low gable configuration. The home has 2 bedrooms, 1 ¾ baths, a laundry/mud room and a 2 car-carport. Of course there is a large, open living, dining and kitchen area. The kitchen is quite large with a center island and a pantry.

Here is a link to the JC-91 design page:  This design utilizes modified 2x6 walls on a crawlspace with a conventionally framed roof supported by large glulam beams. The windows shown may need to be altered depending on the climate and orientation of the building site.

I plan to add a third roof option in the next few days. This will be a flat roof with ample soffits and a raised center section with clerestory windows.

More on Building Costs

Here are some construction cost numbers that can be found on the energetech web site. They also provide detail as to how these numbers were generated. I do think the cost of the 2x6 walls could be lower and the R-value higher if they used 24” centers.

Wall Construction                                     R-Value                 Cost/S.F.                 Cost/R-value/SF

Standard 2x6 @ 16" O.C.                          13.70                      3.72                         0.27
2x6 @ 16" O.C., 2" XPS                             25.00                      6.56                         0.26
2x8 staggered stud, 1.5" XPS                    30.00                      6.45                         0.22
Double 2x4 wall, 12" total thickness          36.50                      6.96                         0.19

By searching the web, I came across some SIPs numbers that appear to be an average, but no sure how accurate they really are.

6.5” SIP w/5.5” EPS                                 21.00                     6.50                          0.31

This is with $4.25 per sq ft for material and $2.25 per sq ft for installation of SIP panels. I am assuming the $4.25 price is for SIPs is ready to install including all window and door cutouts. Also, the $2.25 per sq ft cost for installation seems a little high, but I did find similar numbers on several web sites.

It does seem that SIPs appear to be the higher cost in relation to R-value per sq ft.

One item that is not taken into account with these numbers is air infiltration. With proper installation, the SIPs walls should have a lower rate of air infiltration than the stick framed options. But the higher cost stick framed options should have very low air infiltration rates compared to standard construction.

So I am not sure there is a good answer in the information here. While most of the stick framed walls have higher R-values, they will probably suffer slightly higher air infiltration. And though the SIPs wall has a lower R-value, it would typically be considered a structurally stronger wall than the other options. If I find more or better information on this subject, I will post it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Building costs, stick framing vs. panel construction?

The most common form of residential construction in the US is stick framing. This is a tried and true technology that has been in use for over 100 years. It is so widely used because it is fairly efficient from the stand point of material usage, material cost and construction speed.

But, stick framing is not perfect. It may be an efficient way to build walls, but it suffers from a couple of deficiencies. Because a wall is constructed of many, many parts, it can have excessive air infiltration reducing energy efficiency. Another issue is thermal bridging. Because the studs span from the interior surface of the wall to the exterior surface, thermal energy is transmitted with less resistance through the studs than through adjacent insulation reducing energy efficiency. And lastly, because a standard wall is made from 2x4 dimensional lumber, there is simply not space to add enough insulation to attain high enough thermal resistance. All these factors added together produce a wall that is not particularly energy efficient.

In order to try and improve the energy efficiency of stick framed structures, we are now going to extreme measures. These include increasing the thickness of walls to 6”, 8” or more. Another option is to build two walls adjacent to one another with space between, increasing the space for insulation. We also add various types of foam sheathing to the exterior surface to increase the insulation value of the wall and reduce thermal bridging. Some people also add wood strapping to the interior surface to allow additional space for insulation. All of these measures do increase the energy efficiency of a stick-framed wall, but they also increase the cost by adding additional materials and increasing the labor required. Since labor is such a large part of the cost of a building, any additions that increase labor are particularly problematic.

There are other building materials that have energy efficiency advantages over stick framing. SIPs and ICFs are the two most common. Both of these materials are more energy efficient and both cost more than standard stick framing. The question is, where is the break point when modified stick framing costs as much as other, more energy efficient materials? ICFs are concrete filled foam forms. While ICFs are much stronger than other building materials, they are very different than traditional framing. SIPs on the other hand are a panelized wall system and are in some ways similar to traditional framing.

So for this discussion, I am specifically interested in a cost comparison between SIPs and stick framing of a structure with comparable whole wall R-values. At this point, I do not know of any non-biased studies to reference. But, I am going to research the question. I hope to be able to post some additional information regarding this subject in the near future.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Building a Modern House on a Budget

Can a Modern Home be built on a reasonable budget? And I guess by reasonable, I am saying within the means of most of us or for less than $300 per square foot! There is great variability in what it costs to build the average home in the US. Here in the Kansas City area, an average house costs about $120/sq ft. Depending on where you intend to build, your costs may be higher or lower. By average, I mean a home with nice finishes inside and out, not the real low-end cheap stuff, but not the very high-end options either.

A better question might be; What is the cost to build a modern home in my area? And I think the answer to this question relates to your goals and your budget. Building on a budget is the same everywhere. There are strategies you can implement to help reduce your overall building costs. For specifics, see my blog from March 9th. Beyond this, how can you achieve the modern house you want at a reasonable cost? And to be specific, I am speaking of a modern home similar to many of the MCM homes built in the 50s and 60s, not a modern mansion like you see in some magazines. Whether you build a ranch, a split level or a cube shaped home, the majority of the materials utilized are the same as with most other homes.

If we look at the differences between your friend’s traditional house and the modern home you want to build, you will see that the structure of both appears to be much the same. They all have some sort of a foundation and some variation of four walls and a roof. On a modern style home, one of the biggest differences has to do with the roof. Standard house roofs are typically built with trusses, which are fast and therefore cheaper. And most of these roofs have a medium to steep pitch, which allows the use of less expensive roofing materials (relatively). The roof on a modern style home may either be flat or have a shallow pitch. In either case, they are typically stick framed which takes more time and materials, increasing the cost. And they require more expensive roofing materials. So, a modern house roof costs more in comparison. How much more depends on the size of the home and the complexity of the roof, but for the sake of argument, lets say the roof costs an additional $25K.

Another major difference between your friend’s house and a modern house will be the windows. The modern house will typically have more/larger windows. This adds to the total cost. The cost increase is very dependent on the quantity, quality and the type of windows. By shopping around, you can typically find good quality windows at a price you can live with. Maybe the cost increase will be $5K or maybe a little more. The more windows you add, the higher your relative cost.

Exterior siding materials cost the same on either style home whether it be cement siding, wood siding, stucco or brick; no vinyl siding please! And the interior finishes have much the same cost too. Whether you use carpet, wood flooring or tile, these all can cost the same, depending on your choices. Appliances and fixtures too cost the much the same in a modern house. You will probably have to shop around to find what you want at a good price, but that is the same with everything. A modern style house uses many of the same materials as any other house, it’s just the finishes, textures and colors that make them look different.

Be aware that you can really blow your budget if you buy only $400 faucets, select tile that is $30/sq ft, cannot settle for anything less than a $6K refrigerator or spend $35K on your kitchen cabinets. To stay within your budget, you have to make realistic choices and some compromises. Keep in mind that just because something costs 5 times more, does not necessarily mean it is 5 times better. Plus, you can always upgrade interior finishes and fixtures in the future when you have more money.

One place you can save money with your modern home is by eliminating interior trim. Instead of trim, you can drywall wrap your windows and doors. There are all sorts of cool plastic drywall accessories that allow drywall to be terminated with a clean, sharp edge. With these, you can also eliminate all your base trim. Since trim is expensive to purchase and install, eliminating it can save you a few thousand dollars.

If we look at the cost of building a traditional 2000 sq ft home on a slab foundation at $125/sq ft, we get a total of $250,000. If we add the extra for the roof and the windows of a modern home, we get $280,000 or $140/sq ft. These are rough cost estimates and are only an example, but they illustrate the cost difference between your modern home and your friend’s traditional home could be as little as $15/sq ft. You have to decide if the extra money is worth spending to get what you really want. I realize that not everyone will be able to achieve this, but it can be done with a little work on your part.

You can find a similar article with a little more information on our Green Building page here:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Modern ICF house design

We recently received a picture of one of our projects under construction in Vancouver, BC. It is a modern style house being constructed with LOGIX ICFs (insulated concrete forms).

This modern home was designed with the main residence on the upper floor with a rental apartment below. This home utilizes ICFs for the exterior walls and conventional framing for the interior walls and roof. The large center shed roof is carried by 3 large, exposed glulam beams. The main living area beneath the shed roof is large and open with windows on the south side to bring in ample light. The main living area opens onto a large, partially cover deck. One unique feature of this design is how the glulam beams are carried well beyond the south exterior wall over the deck to provide shading as well as a sheltered area.

ICFs offer several advantages over other building materials. These advantages include high energy efficiency, high sound absorption, very low air infiltration and a structure that is stronger than can be achieved with lesser building materials. To learn more about ICFs, you can visit the LOGIX home page at

You can learn more about this home by visiting the Samson project page here,  You can see some of our other current projects by visiting our projects page here,  We hope to have more pictures of the Samson project soon.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Green Building Talk

Another web site I highly recommend is This site offers a wealth of information provided by a number of professionals actively involved in the construction industry. There are sections of the forum pertaining to: Residential Construction, Commercial Construction, Green/Energy Efficient Design and Planning, Green/Energy Efficient Building and Construction, Insulated Concrete Forms, Structural Insulated Panels, and several other categories.

On this site you can create a login and ask questions on any related subject. Chances are you will get some very well informed and creative answers. Whether you are seeking an answer to a general question or need information on something very specific, you may very well find your answer here. You may also gain a lot of useful information simply by perusing the various topics every week or two.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Home Building on a Budget

It seems that the cost to build a new home is much too high. Not everyone wants to spend $300K or more. Some people want a nice, medium sized home with some style for a more reasonable cost, maybe $150K or so. This would be a Midwestern cost, building on either coast will be more.

Regardless of where you build, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your building costs. Below is a list that I have put together:

1. Plan to save – As you develop plans and the design for your home, it is a good idea to start assembling initial estimates. Although these may not be quite accurate at this time, they can help you with making choices for the structure and finishes to be used and to help you understand what your total costs will be.

2. Build small – Every square foot of the home costs money. By reducing the footprint of the home, you will reduce your overall cost. You want the floorplan to be as efficient as possible but still have the spaces you truly need. Eliminate rarely used spaces such as a formal dining room and consider how rooms can serve double duty such as a home office can also be the guest room with a murphy bed.

3. Squares and rectangles – The cheapest form to build will typically be some variation of a square or a rectangle. Most other building shapes are more complicated to build will increase the cost.

4. Build up – Depending on the footprint of the home, it will typically be more economical to build up rather than out. Building up reduces the size of the foundation and the roof, reducing your overall costs.

5. Build for quality – As with any home, it is important not to skimp on the structure in order to save a few dollars. Use 2x6 framing on 24” centers. This costs the same as more typical 2x4 construction, but allows for more insulation. Also use quality exterior finish materials that will last for many years.

6. Build for energy efficiency – Making a new home more energy efficient costs very little up front but will save you money every time you pay the utility bill. Amortizing $1000 into your loan for energy improvements will typically cost you less each month than the money you save on utilities.

7. Consider alternative materials – Alternative materials include recycled and re-purposed products as well as using materials for uses other than originally designed. All of these can reduce your material costs.

8. Postpone frills – Actually, this should be postpone or eliminate the frills. For some things you can substitute for less expensive materials today, and upgrade at a later date. Other things can be eliminated entirely such as interior trim. If you are building a modern home, what is more modern than the clean look of no trim? Drywall returns at window and doors is an inexpensive way to eliminate trim.

9. Save in the kitchen – Traditional kitchen cabinets can be very expensive. $20K or more for cabinets is not uncommon. Consider alternatives such as a recycled stainless commercial counter/sink, homemade concrete counter tops, or possibly wire shelving racks for storage. Yet another option is cabinets that need assembly such as those from Ikea.

10. Sweat equity – Labor costs today are very expensive. Everything you can do yourself during the construction of your home can save hundreds or thousands of dollars. Painting is a great example. The average home costs several thousand dollars to be painted by a professional while the materials cost only a few hundred. So, the more of your time you can invest in the construction, the more you will save.

I am sure there are other ways you can save money on the construction of you home, but the list above might give you a good start. With good planning, hard work and a reasonable budget, you too can make your dream a reality.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Modern Home Options, Build New, Rehabilitate or Remodel

You want a modern house but you quickly learn that your desire may be difficult to fulfill. If you want a modernist home, you are basically faced with three options; build new, rehabilitate an older modern home, or take an existing home and extensively remodel it to modern style.

The first and the most straightforward is to build a new modern home. For this option, you need a lot on which you can build, plans, a builder and financing. Seems simple enough, but it isn’t. The first problem may be the lot. In most municipalities, building lots are primarily controlled by developers. And typically, developers don’t want your modern house next to their standard offerings for a number of reasons. Your other choices may be an in-fill lot in an existing neighborhood, or find a lot with no restrictions or build in the country. All of these options may be valid; they may just take more effort on your part to locate. Plans are pretty easy to come by these days, either from a website such as  (yes, this is a shameless link to my own site) or have them created by a local professional. Builders are readily available too. But, finding a builder who won’t get in your pocket because you are building something a little different is another matter. Builders need to ensure they make a profit and are thus skittish about unusual buildings. So, they may increase their bid to account for the unknown. One way to reduce this problem is to find a builder who will work on a cost-plus basis in which they get an agreed upon profit margin for their services. This is typically a percentage of the total building cost. The last issue is financing. This too is pretty straightforward, it just may take a little work on your part to find a bank that is comfortable financing a modern home. Building new may be the easiest, but it may be the most costly of the three options.

The second option is to rehabilitate an existing modern home. I say rehabilitate rather than remodel because you are bringing the home back to life, not necessarily changing it. There are typically not a large number of older modern homes available on the market, but they do exist and they do come up for sale. 10 years ago, most of these could probably be purchased at a great price. But, with the resurgence in popularity of modern, prices have increased considerably. Beyond the purchase price, you have to consider what it will take to rehabilitate an older home to the condition you want. Like with most rehabilitations, you may have the pleasure of replacing any number of things, roofing, siding, flooring, cabinets, interior finishes, plumbing, electrical, insulation, etc. etc. etc…….. It can be fun, frustrating, maddening, and expensive, but it can be done successfully. As a bonus, many older modern homes have a unique feeling or atmosphere that is very difficult to reproduce in a new build.

The last option could be to buy a nice ranch in a nice area at a nice price and remodel it into a modernist style home. With this option, you would be making dramatic changes to the structure, style and finishes of the home. This too can be can be great fun along with great frustration and nearly limitless options. In order to improve the finished product, you might want to consult with a design professional. A benefit with this option is that it offers an opportunity to get what you want for possibly the least cost compared to the other two options. But, it is not an option for the timid or faint of heart.

So, being mindful of your choices and the pros and cons associated with each, go out and find or build the modern home you really want. Don’t settle for anything less, because you will never be as happy!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Did Wright copy Schindler?

Did Frank Lloyd Wright really copy Rudolph Schindler’s design concept to create his most prolific style of housing? Wright was undoubtedly a great architect, but it certainly appears that he copied (and improved) his one-time employee’s design concept to create his Usonian houses.

Schindler emigrated from Austria to the US in 1914 and worked for Wright between 1919 and 1931. During this time he also engaged in the design of several private commissions. The Kings Road House and the Lovell Beach House are among Schindler’s most well know works.

When you look at the design of the Kings Road House, it is strikingly similar to the majority of Wright’s Usonian houses, yet was built at least 12 years before the first Usonian. The basic construction techniques and layout are similar in many ways. Watch this video to see how the Kings Road House was built:

Both modern designs used a concrete slab floor instead of the more traditional footings and crawlspace to reduce costs. Wright scored the finished concrete into a grid pattern to control cracking and added radiant heating. Both designs utilized masonry walls to support the roof structure. Schindler’s design utilized tilt-up concrete walls for the majority of the exterior walls while Wright utilized a light weight board and batten configuration. Two other similarities are the use of large sections of windows to open the designs to the outdoors and the use of flat roofs with clerestory windows.

While there are some differences between the two designs, their similarities are much stronger and more obvious. Wright’s designs were more varied and well-appointed with high quality finishes and probably more design artistry. But it appears that Mr. Wright, though he would never admit it, recognized the qualities of Schindler’s design and made it his own. Below are a couple pictures of the Kings Road House.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

John Lautner

John Lautner probably designed some of the most spectacular modern homes of the 20th century yet he remains relatively unknown to the general public. Although he spent time as an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, he did not have Wright’s flair for self-promotion. Another contributing factor to Lautner’s anonymity is that most of his designs were for private homes and not open to the public. This greatly limited his exposure. Lautner was probably Wright’s most successful apprentice. It is interesting to note that Lautner’s design style was completely different from Wright’s as so many of the apprentices simply emulated Wright’s style.

However, if you enjoy architecture, chances are you have seen pictures of some of Lautner’s designs without realizing it. Lautner’s Elrod house in Palm Springs appears in the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever. It is in the scene where Bambi and Thumper bounced on Bond.

Here is a link to a YouTube trailer for a film about Lautner’s works called Infinite Space,

You can find out more about Lautner as well as purchase the DVD for the film at You can also see many images of Luatner’s designs by searching Google Images.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Eby1 project update

I received an updated picture from a customer yesterday. Below is a picture of the front of the finished Eby1 project in Whitehorse, Canada. This design originated as the JC-65 stock plan: Because of the long winters in northern Canada, the customer wanted a sloped roof instead of a flat roof. So, we modified the design by adding a shed roof. We also modified the floor plan, adding more space to the master suite and the third bedroom and enlarged the main floor slightly to accommodate a larger kitchen.

I really like how the home turned out. I think the contrast between the dark colored lap siding with the natural trim and the natural board-and-batten siding on the living room looks great. You can see more pictures from this project here:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Are TVs Ugly?

I guess my basic question is; Are TVs ugly? And by ugly, I am asking if they add to the esthetics of a room or are they simply a device that we use often and need? We have 4 TVs in our home, most of which get used for several hours every day (yes, my kids watch too much TV). But they are also an important source of news and educational information, as well as a form of entertainment (I saw a wonderful program about Green Building on PBS the other evening).

We have a TV in the living room, office, bedroom and family room. The most often used is in the living room and the least used is in the bedroom. The TV in the living room is set in a large wall nook and can be covered up with a large painting when we choose. But, because it is so frequently used, it is rarely hidden from view. I arranged the living room television in the wall nook for a couple of reasons, mainly to reduce glare created by light through the windows. But, this also made it easy to hide the TV. I had originally planned to build a mechanical lift that would raise the TV out of view and replace it with a bookcase. But, hanging a picture over it was a much simpler and cheaper option. I want a TV when needed, but I pretty much don’t want to see them otherwise.

It’s not that I don’t like TVs or utilize them; I just don’t think they add to a room. One of the things that I have to consider with every design is what will be the focal point of the main room, typically the living room. Today, that focal point is always an entertainment center of some type with maybe a fireplace taking second place. Some people place a flat screen TV over the fireplace, but I really dislike this arrangement. It just detracts from the beauty of the fireplace. Placing the TV adjacent to the fireplace and preferably in combination with a built-in cabinet with doors to hide it is a much better option.

The TV in the bedroom poses just as much of a problem. It’s just kind of big and ugly, yet I use it for a little while almost every evening. I recently saw a very nifty dresser advertised where a medium sized TV would raise and lower from within the dresser when needed. Very, cool, but I have no idea what the cost is. I have also seen beds where a TV raises up out of the footboard. Again this is cool, but I am not sure I would really like this option too much.

Another option would be to setup the living room TV to display a slow slideshow of paintings and photographs. While that would certainly add some wonderful visual interest, I just can’t bring myself to waste the energy. So, I am not sure if there is any better option than to design a home so that the TV can be hidden in a nook, built-in cabinet or entertainment center. It typically does not take much effort to do so and it does give you the option of not having to look at an ugly TV.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Stock or Custom House Plans

If you are going to build a new home, you will typically need a set of plans or construction documents to give to your builder as well as to your local building authority.

There are basically two types of residential plans you can choose from: stock house plans or custom house plans.

Stock house plans are those that have been previously created and readied for sale whereas custom house plans are created specifically for you and your needs. You can acquire stock house plans from plan books or from internet based plan providers. Some stock plan providers will make minor modifications to their stock plans as part of their purchase agreement or for an additional fee.
Stock plans are pretty straightforward; they are what they are and have not been specifically designed for the needs of your family or your building site. But, they cost less than having custom plans created and they are typically available immediately. And, there are thousands of these pre-configured designs available today. The cost of stock house plans typically ranges from a low of $500 to as high as $5000 with the majority costing around $1000.

Custom home plans on the other hand are created specifically for you and your needs. With custom plan, you will typically spend time with the designer discussing what you want, what your budget is, where you will be building and many, many other details. Your designer can then begin to create a custom plan based on your needs and desires. This takes time and typically costs more than purchasing stock house plans. Typical custom house plans range from around $1000 or $2000 to $5000 or more. Some designers or architects may offer to create the plans and oversee construction of the home for a percentage of the total cost.

My main focus is modernist home plans. You can see my stock plan offerings on my web site:

There are a number of other designers and architects that offer modern, stock house plans. Some of these will customize their stock plans or design custom house plans. Each has their own unique style as well as price range. Below are links to some other modern design providers, Enjoy.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Do you want a modern style home?

There are many people who love modern or modernist homes. But most of us who see new modern homes in magazines or on the web realize that we will never be able to afford these. They are simply too big and too high-end for the average person. But, the average person can afford a modern style home, just maybe not such an elaborate one.

An average person with an average income can have a beautiful modernist home if they stay realistic about what they want. Like with most things, making a few compromises can increase your options. A key aspect is to reduce the square footage of the home to what you really need. Keeping the footprint of the home in line frees up funds that may be needed elsewhere. Secondly, you might not be able to have all those high-end surfaces and fixtures in your home, at least initially. Opting for other, less expensive items when you build your home can greatly reduce your construction costs. Then at a later date, you can upgrade and change things as money allows.

Beyond the size of the home and the finishes, finding the right contractor is very important. Contractors and builders need to stay profitable like any other business. Since modern is most likely different from what they typically build, there is a very good chance that your contractor is going to increase his fees to ensure he can make a profit. Two ways that you can avoid paying too much is to find a contractor who is familiar with building modernist homes or one who will work on a cost plus basis. With cost plus, your contractor is ensured of making a specific profit margin over the actual cost of the home.

These are just a few things you can do to help attain your dream of a modern home. With planning, effort and perseverance, you can have the home you want and not settle for something less.

Friday, January 28, 2011

New Designs

I know that I have not added any new stock plan designs to the web site in quite a while. Not because I have not wanted to, I just have been busy with some custom projects and all the other stuff that gets in the way of designing buildings.

I currently have 5 new designs in various stages of completion. A couple of these are based on previous custom designs, but modifying these seems to take as much time as starting from scratch. Why do I have 5 designs going at the same time? Not sure, I just have not been happy with how each was evolving, so I started working on another. I like to let a design linger while I take my time to think about how to improve it.

So, I am searching for that balance of interesting design, livability, practicality, build-ability and affordability. You may be able to achieve all these goals in a small home, but as you increase the size, affordability typically suffers. I am also working to improve the design quality.

Below are a couple images from the JC-91 design. It is interesting because of the butterfly roof and clerestory windows. I hope to have it finished in a few weeks.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Castleman residence completed

A few months ago, The Castleman residence in Indiana was completed. This is a classic mid-century modern design combining a large shed roof over the majority of the home with a flat roof over the bedroom wing. This home has a large, open and bright living dining and kitchen area along with an office and three bedrooms on the main floor plus a partial basement under the bedroom wing. It has a sunken living room with a wall of windows that brings the outdoors in.

This design offers good energy efficiency utilizing insulated concrete forms (ICFs) for the foundation crawlspace and basement with 2x6 framed walls for the main floor. You can see the floorplan as wells several photos of this home on our projects page,

Wright Chat

Virtually anyone who has an interest in architecture is familiar if not a fan of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Widely hailed as America’s most famous architect, Wright may have also been the most prodigious designing almost 400 buildings during his long career. If you want to learn more about Wright, a great resource is the Wright Chat forum provided by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy at Here you can find lots of information regarding Wright, his buildings and his associates. You can also create a login and join in on the discussions. I just cannot say enough about what a great resource this site is.

You can also find links to other interesting web sites with information regarding Wright’s buildings on my Links page,

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Building more energy efficient homes

It’s a sad fact that most homes built today could easily be more energy efficient. And by more energy efficient, I mean at least 20% more efficient (or more) with very little effort or additional cost. And sadly, the main reason we do not build more efficient homes lies with builders and developers. The majority of builders simply do not want to spend the effort, time or money to offer more efficient homes. There are some builders who have embraced energy efficiency upgrades and provide them as their standard offering or as an upgrade package. But why do most builders not offer more energy efficient designs? It mainly boils down to the bottom line, their profit margin or money in their pocket. They have no or very little concern for what it will cost their customers to live in the home or the amount of energy that will be wasted during the life cycle of the building.

I know the above paragraph will greatly anger some builders and I expect to get some hate mail for it, but sorry, it is simply the truth! The common argument from builders, developers and even the NAHB (National Association of Home Builders) is that energy efficiency upgrades will add too much cost to a home. Their claim is that the extra cost will be $800 to $2500 per home. These numbers are inflated or simply not true. The truth is, with smart design, improving the energy efficiency of a home can range from $0 to maybe $1000 to attain significant improvement. Sure you could spend more than $1000 to attain a much higher efficiency level, but that is another subject. I want to be clear and state that builders are typically good people but they are just very reluctant to change the way they do things, especially if change has the potential to impact their profit by increasing the cost of a building and/or reducing the salability of a home.

So why should we care about energy efficiency? There are a number of very good reasons including reducing our overall energy consumption as well as improving our national security by reducing our usage of foreign energy, but the best one starts at home and is how much your home costs you to live in every month. Here are some numbers to give you an idea of the potential savings. Lets say you spend $200 per month on energy for your home. This would include all energy used in the home for heating and cooling (HVAC), water heating, cooking, washing, lights and appliances. Now, only a portion of this can be impacted by energy upgrades to the home, but it is a significant portion. The typical home uses about 73% of its total energy usage for HVAC, water heating and lighting. So if we take that $200 per month times 73%, times 12 months, we get $1752. With simple, off the shelf upgrades and small changes to the way the home is built as well as changes to the HVAC system, water heater and lighting, we can easily reduce the energy usage by 20% (the savings could be more depending on the changes made to the home).

This works out to $351 saved per year at today’s energy costs. The savings per year will increase as energy costs increase over time. While $351 per year is not a huge number, the savings would pay for typical energy upgrades within three years. After that, it is simply money you don’t have to spend to live every year while making no changes to your lifestyle. Over the life cycle of the home, this adds up to a significant total savings as well as a significant reduction in energy used. These savings are simple to accomplish. Below is a laundry list of simple upgrades that can easily designed into any new home:

Thicker walls, more insulation (min 2x6 framing). Don’t use fiberglass batt insulation ever (it’s difficult to install correctly and not dense enough to reduce air circulation). Use foam sheathing on the exterior walls. Utilize roof trusses with an energy heal. Use roofing materials that reflect more of the suns energy. Insulate the rim joist. Insulate the basement walls. Insulate under the slab floor. Insulate between the main floor and an unheated basement. Use more insulation in the attic. Use slightly better windows and doors. Minimize or eliminate sliding windows and doors. Eliminate un-needed windows. Reduce the number or size of windows on the north, east and especially the west sides of the house. On the east and west sides, use window glass that blocks more solar gain. Use triple pane windows on the north side. Use a more efficient HVAC system and water heater. Use more efficient appliances. Use more efficient lighting. Orient the home to take advantage of natural solar gain.

These are just simple suggestions that can make a home more energy efficient without adding much (or maybe nothing) to the cost. You will notice that I mentioned nothing regarding solar panels, solar water heating, LED lighting, hot water conservation or heat re-capture etc. All of these would be additional options.

The bottom line is, You do not have to accept a home with poor energy efficiency! Talk to your potential builder about the energy upgrades he uses or has available and what your cost will be. If the extra cost seems unreasonable, it is! Find another builder. Good builders are out there, you just have to look.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Introducing the ClemDesign blog

Welcome to my blog for ClemDesign. My name is John Clem and I am the chief cook and bottle washer here at ClemDesign. I am re-introducing my blog because I had let it languish for almost 2 years. During this time, I have been busy with a number of interesting projects. So, my plan this time is to be more vigilant in posting updates as well as other interesting architecture related information here for anyone who is interested.

ClemDesign offers custom and stock home designs. Our focus is mainly modern or modernist design, as that is my personal preference. I like classic mid-century modern homes as well as newer modern designs (not so much post-modern designs though). So, typically, everything I design is of the modern style or incorporates modern elements. I do offer a few contemporary designs because I have customers who are not interested in modern.

In case you are interested, I am not an Architect, I have not attended a school of architecture, nor do I expect to do so in the future. I am a residential designer with many years of hands-on experience in residential construction and design. I have always been involved with construction in some way during my life and learned to build from my father. He had an interest in architecture which I share. I am also a LEED AP.

I personally like modern style homes for a number of reasons. I believe modernist designs are a breath of fresh air compared to the boring and monotonous designs built by the millions in every subdivision in the US. I think I most like the lines of a modern home, such as low-pitched roofs (or flat roofs) that do not dominate the structure. I also like the window styles that are associated with a modern style home. There are typically more windows in a modernist home, but it is also the heights, types and groupings that make the difference. I also like car ports on a home as opposed to a garage. It bothers me when driving through a subdivision and all I see are two or three large garage doors and a small entry door on the side. The size of the garage doors on these buildings dominates or overwhelms the front of the house. A car port on the other hand does not really have a front or a back; they shelter vehicles, but in a less obvious way.

Its not that I like modern homes because they are different, I think they offer a better environment for the occupants. There is a different kind of feeling you have when you enter a modern style home. I describe it as a "lighter" feel. They typically have very open floor plans with lots of windows. The windows help to expand the feel of the rooms and to bring the outdoors in. Modern style homes also typically utilize simpler materials and contain very little if any ornamentation. This also adds to the lightness of the atmosphere. I believe that a modern style home can have a positive affect on the occupants by creating a more relaxing atmosphere.

The majority of my home plans are designed to use traditional platform framing techniques. This helps to keep construction costs down. However, some of my designs are a bit more elaborate utilizing large beams and cantilevered spaces and will have slightly higher construction costs. I do specify all the exterior walls of my designs to use 2x6 studs with foam sheathing. This helps to provide the owners with a well insulated home on a realistic budget. I can alter my designs to utilize more energy efficient materials such as ICFs or SIPs upon request.

In this blog, I will post information about designs I am currently working on as well as some past projects and other things related to modern architecture. I will do my best to keep it current. I do hope you find some interesting topics here.

Thanks for visiting,
John Clem