DIY $100,000 dollar modern home

GRM reader Sarah was kind enough to send me the story of the house that she and her husband built in in Texas last year, and I absolutely LOVE it. Long story short they built a 20' x 40' modern home by themselves for $100,00, and it turned out fantastic. You can read the whole story after the jump.

Story by Sarah Lindsey

When we were given the opportunity to build on 2.5 acres, we knew we couldn’t afford an architect to design our dream house. But we also knew we didn’t want a cookie cutter plan from a book. So we set out to design a house that fit our needs and tastes, that was energy efficient, and that we could afford. Oh, and that Chris could build by himself.

When we started to put our ideas together, we were working and living on a sailing yacht, but we were ready to make the move back to shore to start our family. We decided that we would save a portion of our salary toward building the house, and that we could leave the boat when we had $100.000. It took just over three years to save our goal, so we had a lot of time to think about what we wanted in a house.

We started with Google Sketch-Up. Our priorities were these: First, we didn’t need a lot of square footage. Living on a boat had taught us that it’s not the amount of space you have, it’s what you do with it. And frankly, any bedroom where you could sit up in bed without your head hitting the ceiling would seem spacious. Second, Chris needed a workshop. For the sake of our marriage, he needed a mad-scientist lab where he could make stuff (and messes), that was totally separate from our living space. Third, we didn’t want to have to stay sealed in an air conditioned box through the hot Texas summer, so we wanted to incorporate passive cooling techniques. And fourth, it had to be as simple as possible, be- cause Chris was going to do all the work himself. And we were determined to stay within our budget of $100,000.

What we came up with was a two story 20’x40’ rectangle, with Chris’ shop on the ground floor, and our living space up top. The interior, one big open space with a sleeping loft. To keep it cool, we decided on a south-facing shed roof (perfect for solar panels), clerestory windows to vent the warm air, and a big covered deck running the length of the house to keep the sun from coming through the two 8’ sliders into the living room. We took our Sketch-Up drawing to a sympathetic architect, Travis Young at Studio Momentum in Austin, who agreed to be our advisor and work with what we gave him for a fraction of his full service fee. He drew full plans, made sure the engineering was solid, and served as a valuable mediator in helping us make final decisions. We were ready to start the permitting.

Chris had built houses before. And his duties as captain of a yacht, aside from driving it, included maintaining all the systems. So he had experience with electricity and plumbing. But there was certainly a learning curve. For one thing, the materials he was used to from building in New England were clapboard and shingles, not stucco and standing seam steel. But once he started, he resolved to do everything possible by himself. From the framing to the wiring, the stucco to the concrete countertop, the drywall to the bathroom tile for Chris, it was a one man job. At first I helped a bit. Mostly cleaning up, handing him things when he was on the scaffolding and providing company. But 6 months into it, I became pregnant, and queezy. After that, even I stuck to budget minding and other stationary jobs.

Our choice of materials had two criteria. One, that it be low maintenance and as sustainable as possible, and two, that it fit in the budget. For flooring, we didn’t want pre-finished wood or laminate, but couldn’t afford hard wood, so we opted for plywood. Chris cut it into 4’x4’ squares, then stained and finished it with satin polyurethane. The result is clean and warm feeling; Fireslate countertops were out of our price range, so we went for concrete. Chris built the form and poured them 2” thick. We left them grey and they really pop with the plywood cabinets and stainless appliances, making the kitchen my favorite part of the house; Our dream was to frame with steel and concrete block, but we went for stucco on stick frame. The best part was, we never felt we were making sacrifices. It was more like a fun puzzle. Ikea cabinets for the kitchen were the least expensive option, but we didn’t like any of their fronts. So we bought the frames, and Chris made the fronts out of a beautiful, grainy Chinese birch plywood from Home Depot. We liked the look of the birch so much, we used it to panel the kitchen and one of the living room walls.

What we ended up with is a house that is very specifically ours. There is only one interior door (on the bathroom), giving it the feeling of a loft apartment out here in the woods. Sure, there’s not a lot of privacy, but as the baby gets bigger and busier, it’s easy to keep an eye on her in a big open space. We don’t have a dishwasher, because we never had one before and we got to like hand washing the dishes. Our dining room is outside on the deck because living on the boat gave us a taste for al fresco dining. And we live on the second floor, so Chris can have his shop and because we love the tree house feeling we get up here. Yes, we will need more space and privacy when our little girl gets to be a big girl, but we’ve got 2.5 acres and plenty of time to build the next phase of the Rhombus Ranch before then.
Chris and I have been together since 2002, and this is the first home we’ve had together that was really ours. We’ve lived in a glorified tent, in a friend’s spare bedroom, and then on other people’s yachts for 5 years. This place is ours, for exactly the way we want to live, from the slab up.

Photos by Adam Glick Photography, Chris Renner and Thao Nguyen

The Statesman also did a nice article on the home which you can read here. I've included some of the pictures from the article above.

Huge thanks to Sarah for sharing!
You can contact her at sarahelindsey (at)

Please excuse me while I pay some bills...