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Chapter 9: Home Design and Construction—Making the Right Choices

Owning a home is a very personal decision. Many people don’t get the option of selecting a design and participating in the decision process. For most people, buying an existing home is their best or sometimes only option. With new construction, there is the opportunity to consider the use of space, materials and, to a certain extent, incorporate personal needs and tastes into the home.

There was no housing construction on our reservation for 40 years. We missed the whole housing boom. We won’t miss the next one.
—MIKEL CHAVEZ, Executive Director, Zuni Housing Authority

Home design typically starts with a review of basic floor plans. The typical home will have an allocation of space for bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen/dining area, and living or family room. Additional space may be created for utilities (including washer and dryer), storage, and garages for vehicles. A basement may or may not be feasible. Adding more space adds more cost, so the functional and efficient planning of space needs becomes important.

Similarly, materials used for the home construction will affect living conditions, construction cost, insurance, and health. As an example, materials used in some parts of the country, sourcing local materials, and tribal customs will determine the style or type of home that will be constructed. Some issues to consider here include:

  • Is there a location and room for passive orientation of the home to take full advantage of the sun in the winter and shade in the summer?
  • What water-saving features can be incorporated into the design to reduce monthly billings?

In many tribal communities, a cultural overlay to design and construction is a priority to the broader community. These considerations should be incorporated early in the design process.

Depending on the area and tribe, desirable design features might include the direction of the front door or entrance, an oversized eating or living room area for large families, fiesta days, and family gatherings, or extending the front or back of the home with porches or outdoor space. These features do not have to be expensive or elaborate but can make the home more culturally and aesthetically appropriate. Local materials can also be incorporated if they have been tested and have a track record of sustainability. Unique housing using flexcrete, clay straw, and straw-bales have been built, tested, and have a track record for suitability and comfort. Wood products locally harvested also may be considered.

The design process typically starts with a schematic drawing(s) of a house layout that can be changed to accommodate any specific needs. Computer-aided design (CAD) programs used by architects and draftsmen can quickly make changes to a basic plan to help a future homeowner visualize the space. It is not unusual for a homeownership sponsor to coordinate a series of housing plans with options to be presented at a community meeting or a design charrette.  This benefits the developer and the future homeowner by establishing a baseline of square footage, typical materials, and a cost estimate for each model. A one-, two-, or three-bedroom model may have slight variations to the interior and the exterior to avoid all housing units looking the same.  For example, choices of rooflines (gable versus hip roof), color schemes, floor plan orientations, or garage versus carport versus driveway might all be offered at a cost.

As life events occur, such as the addition of new family members, space needs may increase. Due to cost, however, it may not be possible to get all the desired features and space in an entry-level home. Many designs allow for the expansion of a house, adding another bedroom or incorporating another bathroom. This may be cheaper or more convenient than selling and buying a larger home, especially where the supply of larger homes is still limited. For these reasons, access to home improvement finance and local remodeling professionals is important to families that are growing or changing.

General contractors who are experienced and have a recent or current volume of construction will be able to estimate the cost of a new home or a home improvement project. Cost estimates are typically in dollars per square foot. (For example, the total cost of 1.300 square foot house at $150/s.f. is $195,000.)

A more accurate estimate of the cost of construction may require a detailed materials list breaking down the components, such as roofing, kitchen cabinets, windows, and appliances. The same size house can vary widely in cost due to quality of materials. Having a general contractor and architect who understand the price differences of adjustments can help with making decisions.

An example: An asphalt shingle roof may be a lower cost for the home than a metal roof. If high winds are prevalent, however, it may be necessary to replace shingles and the entire roof prematurely (before its expected useful life of 15 years); whereas, a metal roof may better withstand the weather conditions and have a longer expected useful life (50 to 60 years).

A general contractor is just that, a contractor who provides or arranges for all the work needed to complete the house, including coordination of the subcontractors (plumber, electrician, cabinet supplier). Normally, lenders require that all work be managed by a licensed general contractor who is responsible for the construction, all payments to the subcontractors, payments for materials, and a warranty (typically one year) against construction defects. Most contractors have a portfolio of work and former clients who can be contacted to find out how they performed during construction, paid bills, and followed up on warranty items.

Contractors can provide better pricing and are more efficient if they have a volume of work to do. Building five homes at one time is more efficient and profitable than building one. Indian Country projects often construct multiple units at one time.

The basic shell of the home will take up about one-third of the budget, the interior finishes another third. Mechanicals and plumbing amount to 13 percent to 15 percent of the total cost. Kitchens and bathrooms are the most expensive rooms to build. A basic understanding of the design and construction process for single-family homeownership is a key component of making the process transparent and avoids critical mistakes, which can cost time and money.

In 2004, Enterprise Community Partners created a Green Communities program with the intent of providing knowledge, materials, and critical thinking around the issue of making affordable housing more sustainable and healthier for the future. The 2015 Enterprise Green Communities Criteria is a resource that any potential homeownership program can access and review. The 2015 edition has incorporated criteria to include rural and tribal housing (available on the Enterprise website).

By offering an integrative design process, buildings can be certified as meeting the Green Communities standard. The criteria cover:

  • Integrative design.
  • Location and neighborhood fabric.
  • Site improvements.
  • Water conservation.
  • Energy efficiency.
  • Materials.
  • Healthy living environment.
  • Operations, maintenance and resident engagement.

Additional resources for design and community engagement for affordable housing construction are available on the Enterprise website in the resource section.

Native communities can incorporate a cultural overlay in their housing design and construction materials.