The Finer Points of Designing & Building a Modern Architecture Home

Use our guidelines at UBuildIt to understand how nuances involved in designing and building a home fit your personal style and preference.

Rainey home

THE NEED FOR NEW HOMES! The demand for quality modern and contemporary custom homes has never been higher. There has been a growing interest in the past few years and the influx of Europeans and Spanish speaking cultures has helped to further fuel the demand. Newer building technologies are ideally suited to this architecture, and fill the desire to create sustainable, energy efficient homes. They also enable new outdoor living spaces on smaller city lots as well as provide spectacular views of the outstanding Houston skyline with rooftop terraces. There are many interpretations of modern architecture. The following guidelines will help you understand the many nuances involved in designing and building your modern or contemporary custom home. We hope you find the information useful as you begin your new home project.

Cost Considerations. In general, modern architecture homes will cost more than other types of architecture to construct. However, working with experienced architects, builders and craftsmen can help keep costs down. We are strong advocates of using a design/build approach, which takes advantage of the knowledge of all aspects of construction to ensure that the design can be built within the desired budget.

Architecture. Complexity - The simplicity of modern architecture can be very deceiving. While a modern design may appear simple, the underlying structure may have large quantities of structural steel to achieve the desired look. Buildability - “ This term has to do with the availability of materials and skilled craftsmen that are often required in modern construction. When materials are used infrequently in the local market, they will cost more to acquire and the workforce may be limited. Certain materials may be specified that require the skills of more expensive, commercial craftsmen.

Flat or Low Pitch Roof Leaks. Many areas of the country receive a lot of rainfall each year. Great care must be taken when constructing flat roofs, especially over living spaces, to ensure proper drainage and prevent leaks. The roofs should be inspected regularly and debris should be removed, especially from drainage areas where water could pool rather than drain. Low Pitch With Metal Roofing: Often roofs are constructed with parapet walls to give the appearance of flat roofs by hiding a low sloping roof. This approach is used in lieu of a flat roof due to cost and maintenance considerations. However, low pitch roofs will generally use metal roofing, since roofing with composition shingles is not an acceptable application for very low roof pitches. Roof Terraces: Roof terraces are becoming more and more popular, especially in areas of town that may have a skyline view. A roof terrace effectively increases the outside living space in areas where lot sizes are very small. Certainly, this increases construction costs but does dramatically increase outdoor space. From an engineering perspective, there are additional costs in designing the structure for the additional loading associated with the weight of people, furniture, etc. Green Roofs: Green roofs take advantage of the roof space as an area to grow plants, from grasses to gardens, small trees and bushes. Drainage becomes a major consideration, wanting to make allowances for some water absorption, but also needing to drain excess water from the roof.

photo of home

Structural components. Building Systems;There are many building systems available for custom home construction and we have experience with most, including a new concept that uses shipping containers. Building systems are all generally better than traditional stick construction, but with one major drawback. Price, of course! That is why most homes are still built the old fashion way. This is changing, but in Houston, where materials and labor are cheaper than most cities, it is tough to change. Modern construction is ideal for most of these newer building systems. Cantilevered Elements: This is a common element in many modern home designs. Cantilevered portions of the home can add interest, but are usually one of the more costly areas of construction, involving engineered structural beams or steel beams. Because of recent hurricanes, new wind codes also affect the loading of these elements due to uploads that can be experienced in high winds.

home under construction

Energy Efficiency: Many states have instituted an energy code that must be followed on all new construction. An overall energy code must be met in the design of the home and then actual performance is tested for as part of receiving occupancy permits. Note that the code does not specify how to design the home, but does specify the overall score. The score can be achieved thru the use of energy efficient products and materials as well as in the architectural design, site orientation, percentage of windows/glass, shading, etc. Therefore, it is very important to consider the impact of energy efficiency in the home design.

Windows- Non-standard Sizes: Large amounts of glass, especially non-standard window sizes, can add significant costs to the construction budget. Other energy efficiency factors can help offset the inefficiency of windows, glass doors and walls. Corner Windows: One window that is seen in modern designs is a corner window that has no visible support at the corner. This is an interesting design element, but can require cantilevered elements of the home, since the window offers no real structural support. Store-front Windows: Commercial or store-front windows are frequently used in modern designs. These windows can be an important part of the design, but are also much more expensive than the typical residential windows.

Doors - Retracting Glass Walls: Multi-panel sliding glass doors have become very popular recently. These doors can retract completely to be hidden in the wall, or at least to the two end sections. Meeting wind code requirements is a concern, but as these doors become more popular, the manufacturers are improving them rapidly. Multiple two panel sliding doors can be used at a fraction of the cost, but do not have the full effect of opening the inside to the lanai or covered patio. Sliding Barn Doors: Sliding barn doors are another popular element and allow the use of innovative materials for the doors. These should be used sparingly as they do not seal the way a typical door does and can be quite costly compared to standard doors. Doors? What doors? In general, modern designs do away with a lot of interior doors, opting for partitions and hidden spaces. Interior Doors: We start with Masonite solid core slab-style doors. These are very affordable and generally are painted white or off-white. They are beautiful, but best used in more visible areas, with the slab doors used for closets and less visible locations.

entry way

Sheetrock- Most people want smooth walls in modern homes. In sheet rock jargon, this is called a Level 5 finish and can be quite expensive. A Level 4 is frequently used with a very light texture. In fact, texture can be quite effective at covering slight blemishes and imperfections. Quality of Wood: To achieve a Level 5 finish, it is important to use the best framing materials to ensure that the walls are perfectly straight. This calls for the top grade yellow pine studs or even the use of Fir wood, which is straighter and more stable than pine. No Texture: The Level 5 finish also calls for a full float of the walls, which is much more labor intensive and requires a higher skill level. No Baseboards: Crown moldings are really a no-no in modern design and even base boards may be left off in some or all rooms. Special metal beadwork is needed at the bottom to allow the sheetrock finisher to actually float the corner almost to the floor, creating a small gap between the finished edge and the floor.

Cabinets- In some countries in Europe, when a person sells a home and moves to a new one, they take their cabinets with them. They treat them more like furniture than built-ins that are part of the construction of the house. Modern cabinets vary widely in price and quality, far more than traditional cabinets. Almost all of them are purchased as factory built cabinets and installed by the cabinet company or the builder. The cabinets really set the tone for the look of the interior. The cabinets are generally more expensive than traditional site built cabinets.


Countertops: Granite is out! Well, not really, but there are many options that are gaining acceptance. More clients want simple, clean counter tops with colors without a lot of variations. The manmade slabs of quartz and other materials are frequently used, as well as the granites without a lot of variations. The trend is also to thin countertops to achieve the smooth clean lines. Wood countertops are becoming more popular, but are usually only used as accent pieces, such as the island, to offer a contrast to the rest of the kitchen. Concrete countertops are increasing in popularity, but can be quite expensive.

Storage:This is one to think long and hard about, especially if you want a flat roof. Attics are very useful storage locations, particularly with the use of the newer insulation systems that convert the attic to conditioned space. It makes them usable year round and we design for easy access because they will be used more frequently. For example, if you want a one story home with an attic, you should design for a utility stairway to the attic. A walk-up staircase is very inexpensive and far more usable than a pull-down attic ladder stairway. Conversely, if you have a flat roof, then you need to have larger closets or dedicated storage spaces in the home or garage. Of course, you can visit Goodwill more often to empty out the items that are not often used!

Mechanicals: Primarily, this term is used to represent your furnaces for the HVAC system and your water heaters. This equipment is frequently installed in the ventilated attic of a traditional home. Attic: If your new home will have an attic, then chances are that the attic will be non-ventilated as are most high efficiency homes these days. With the advent of spray foam insulation that is applied to the underside of the roof deck, there is no need to have a ventilated attic with soffit and ridge vents and no need for a radiant barrier. Therefore, if the mechanicals are mounted in the attic and they are operated by natural gas or propane, then the units must be sealed and ventilated to the outside with the use of double wall piping thru the roof penetrations. Mechanical Rooms: If you have a flat roof design, you will have a dedicated room in the home to house the mechanical equipment. Generally, these are not used in homes with attics, but can be for ease of access. The same ideas apply as discussed for attics, and when combined with the use of floor web trusses can create a very efficient distribution system for the home utilities. The mechanical room can also be used to house the home electronics and are best mounted in an equipment rack. This could include the security system, home entertainment equipment, stereo equipment, computer servers, wireless routers, etc. Server Room: In homes that do not have a mechanical room, then we recommend that a small server room/closet be provided in the design to house the home electronics. We would then run a small AC vent and return to the room as well as a dedicated electrical ground for the equipment.

front of home

Exterior Materials:The exterior materials of a modern home set the tone for the home and are often used inside to tie the interior spaces together with the outdoor spaces. Also, the exterior materials are seldom structural or used in a structural application. They should generally be considered cosmetic materials. Masonry: Stucco, stone, brick, concrete, CMU blocks, and Hardie siding are all widely used in modern construction, with stucco being the most prevalent. Cost-wise, stucco, brick and Hardie are comparable with CMU blocks being more costly and natural stone even more costly. Concrete is very specific to how it is utilized. Panels: Various types of panels are used and are generally made of metal. These are usually more costly than masonry and require experienced installers. However, from an aesthetic viewpoint, these can be major contributors to the uniqueness of the design. Wood: Wood is frequently used and mounted often as a horizontal design element and can transfer seamlessly into fencing. Tiles: Many tiles are now manufactured for exterior use, including natural stones such as travertine, slate, marble and granite. Man-made materials can be utilized as well.

HVAC: In most modern homes, there will be no attic. Therefore, the home must be designed with a mechanical room in which to locate the equipment. This is actual living space, as opposed to putting the equipment in the unused attic space. You would also generally locate the water heater and other equipment here. Aesthetic considerations would include: Supply & Return Registers: These air vents can be rather unsightly, but there are modern sleek alternatives that are more visually appealing. The returns can be particularly unsightly, but here too, with proper planning, they can be placed in less noticeable locations or even hidden. Ductwork: Some like the industrial look, with the metal ductwork exposed in warehouse fashion. As you might guess, this is more costly than flexduct that is very inexpensive and designed to be hidden in the walls and ceiling. However, it is very effective for large open spaces in distributing the air.

Flooring: Concrete floors can be incredibly attractive and durable. From a price perspective, it can run the gamut from just polishing and sealing the concrete, to staining, and/or scoring the floor with a saw to create lines or intricate patterns. If the slab is to be used for the final floor, you need to protect it as much as possible. Note that you should consider concrete the same as wood flooring. There are going to be imperfections, variations, shading, etc. If you don't like the idea of this, go with a tile. They even have tiles meant to mimic concrete. If you use different floor types, you will also have to be sure that the foundation is poured with the varying flooring thicknesses considered if you want them all to match at completion. Once the foundation is poured, you may have to live with your choices.

Stairs and Railings: This is a major design element in modern design and special attention should be paid to make it stand out. Floating Stairs: This term is used to represent stairs that are not attached to walls on one, and especially, on two sides. They are free-standing and thus self-supporting. Generally steel is used for the basic structure. Slab Treads: Big thick beautiful pieces of a hard wood are frequently used in this application. The thickness of the wood shows the beauty of the wood, but also solves a safety issue if done properly. Building code requires placement be designed to prohibit a small child from fitting between the treads and getting stuck or worse. Cable Railing: Cables are a frequent and very attractive option. The prices do fall on the high side compared to traditional railings with wood or metal banisters. Some municipalities do not allow horizontal cabling, reason being that a small child can use them as ladders. Glass Railing: Glass railings are very popular, but are sometimes limited by cost and sometimes by the idea of constantly needing to clean them.

entry hall

Plumbing Fixtures: You just need to find a supplier that carries lines of modern fixtures. This needs to be considered early in a project because it can affect the foundation and framing designs. There are all kinds of unique sinks. Remember that unique equals rare, which means more money. Another item quickly gaining popularity is hidden toilets. This means that the tank and plumbing connections are behind the wall. The only portions visible are the bowl and seat, which protrude from the wall, so there is nothing to clean around on the floor - very cool and unique.

Lighting and Light Fixtures: Can lights are very popular and inexpensive and are used generously in modern construction. Recessed rope lighting is used to create different effects, such as a "floating" ceiling. Landscape and exterior lighting can be the most dramatic of all effects.   If you wish to integrate your lighting into a home automation system, be sure to have the automation and electrical contractors coordinate this early in the process as it can dramatically change the electrical wiring.

dining and living rooms

We hope that this information has been helpful in some way; helping you decide which direction to go in and also what to use or look for.      

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