Coming from the east coast construction world (Fairfield and Westchester counties) I thought it would be less expensive to build in the Boulder/Front Range area. Well, I was wrong. If anything, the high demand for builders, carpenters, plumbers, and electricians makes their pricing expensive. It is a seller’s market. “Fair trade” value seems to have little meaning here … even getting an accurate bid from a qualified General Contractor can be difficult.

My design clients all have budgets. These budgets are often inadequate for their dreamed-of projects. It makes me, as designer, think long and hard about how to build high quality, efficient structures that are good values as well.

Here are some of my thoughts on the subject:

Don’t Design What You Can’t Afford

Write your “Wish List” – then get pricing early on, in the concept phase – and downscale expectations if you need to. This is not as painful as it sounds. A good design and a realistic approach can achieve significant results.

Order the Goals so Your Fundamental Needs Come First

Later down the line the “other bathroom” can get done as a smaller manageable project. Even with unlimited money, many clients stage the work to fall into their personal schedules. I have often been asked, “We will be away from date to date. Can we get the dirty work be done then?”

Do the Work Yourself

Sometimes hidden talents emerge in homeowner-built projects. Even doing all the rough labor can save lots of cash. I had a wonderful client who was a professional choreographer: Pete grew up in a family of masons and was put to work as a laborer from an early age. He knew he wasn’t a carpenter so he hired us to do that – and he did the rest: demo, moving materials, digging, clean up, insulation, screwing the dry wall. He was right-on in his attitude. This was a wonderful, respectful collaboration that yielded cost savings for both of us.

Employ Good Design using Cost Saving Components

There is no substitute for good design. In many ways it is more important than the actual construction – especially if the organization is not well orchestrated in advance! Get the plan right and then go searching for quality economic components.

For example, the Marvin Window Company – my favorite window manufacturer – has an economy line that is very high quality with many of the same features of the full price line. For 30% less! The point here is to choose a good manufacturer and buy their simpler, more common products. Do you really want a dual flush one-piece toilet? From the Kohler Company, another favorite of mine, toilets can run $200-2000 dollars. You get the point. In bathrooms, the layout is key, then the fixtures, and tile.


This one is a little tricky. Early in my career clients would go to “the house wrecker” and bring back old hardware, lighting, doors, mantle pieces – all sorts of stuff – to be installed in their homes. I learned early that “the old Victorian door” covered with five coats of paint would need to be cut and fitted, stripped of all paint (often revealing more problems), holes and dings plugged, hinges replaced … before it was ready to hang. Or the light fixture of “solid brass” that needed stripping, polishing and refinishing. I love the antiques! These pieces require a lot of work but probably are not cost efficient.

On the other hand, there is a ton of remodeling being done on almost new or relatively new houses. Window changes, door and hardware upgrades, kitchen remodeling etc., can lead to great finds. It is generally not cost effective to design around salvaged materials … Sure, some doors and windows, a bathroom vanity, or a piece of marble can be made to fit – hopefully, they were cheap. The tradeoff is carpenter time.

One of my clients, on a whim, purchased a massive amount of cabinetry from a recycling resource shop. “I thought it was too good a deal to pass up.” The problem was it didn’t really fit anywhere – not the bathroom, nor the kitchen. “The finish is not right, can’t we paint them?” Oh boy. To this day she is living with mismatched cabinets and pieced-together granite counters – hardly her dream kitchen. Get the designer or carpenter to look a purchase like this over – first. If it works great! If not, walk away.


Back east – unlike in Boulder County – I was often dismayed by the great quantities of waste being removed from my projects; some of it was recycled, but most was going into landfill. So where does salvage fit in your efficient, cost-effective model? Just today, looking at my next project – a garage that will be torn down and replaced by a new one – we wondered if the framing could be reused. Reusing the framing material would involve careful dismantling and nail removal, stockpiling and covering, and forethought as to what the material can be used for.

Labor is everything in construction – and all bidding/pricing is based on labor. No modern carpenter wants to use salvaged material; they prefer a fresh, sized, bundle of studs, pre-cut to wall height. It’s easier and faster. Some changing of attitude – a combination of re-valuing and outside-the-box thinking – will need to happen to change this predominant mindset.


On the porch of the Addition of the Future… The walls and ceiling are covered in pine, probably unfinished and aged on the backside. Will this 1000 feet of knotty pine be carefully removed and ripped to be reused as the casing and baseboard of the new addition? The numbers don’t lie. One thousand feet at 1.60/ft is $1600 dollars! Plus the sweat equity.

And this is important: Don’t build more than you need – it all comes down to cost per square foot.