Fun Fact: Levittown, NY

I grew-up on Long Island and my recent visit sparked a desire to highlight the first suburban mass-produced housing development in the country, Levittown. Built between 1947-1951, the identical houses would become a symbol of the "American Dream" as it allowed thousands of families to become home owners.

The building firm, Levitt & Sons, began before WW II, however, during the war, William "Bill" Levitt served in the Navy and developed expertise in the mass-produced building of military housing using uniform and interchangeable parts.

After the war, with his architect-brother, Alfred, he designed a small one-floor house with an unfinished "expansion attic" that could be rapidly constructed and as rapidly rented to returning GIs and their young families.

Levitt & Sons built the community based on speed, efficiency, and cost-effective construction. They used pre-cut lumber and nails and built on concrete slabs. The building of every house was reduced to 26 steps, with sub-contractors responsible for each step. His mass production of thousands of houses at virtually the same time allowed Levitt to sell them for as little as $8,000 each.

The Cape Cod model: The 750-square-foot Cape Cods featured two bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen, a living room and a staircase to an unfinished attic. There were slight external differences. Homebuyers could choose from one of five colors and one of five window-arrangement patterns.

The Rancher model: Larger, 32 by 25 feet, and more modern then the Cape Cod. The ranch homes built on concrete slabs, included an expandable attic but no garage, and were heated with hot-water radiant heating pipes. This model was altered in 1950 to include a carport and a built-in television. In 1951, a partially finished attic was added to the design.

In all, 17,447 homes were constructed in Levittown between 1947 and 1951. Levittown has become so ingrained in American culture that the Smithsonian Institution in Washington would like to put on display an entire Levittown house.

Above Images of Levittown NY by Others

Cost of Construction

As someone that directs and designs building projects, clients often assume that I will be able to provide them an accurate and up front price to have their project built. However, it's not always easy to estimate - project price is affected by any number of factors and the combined matrix of these factors determine the ultimate cost, the primary being that I ultimately don't build the project, contractors do! In general, there are a few givens that will always affect the price of a project:

  • Location - different geographies, building codes, and economies affect costs
  • Size and complexity - will a contractor need multiple subs? is the scale and shape of the design complex? will new construction marry up to old construction?
  • Quality - is time important? materials? etc.

Architects may have an idea of a range of Construction Cost, but no rule of thumb can determine actually cost.  There is however one certainty about construction costs: owner(s) don't accurately anticipate the true cost of construction and are often surprised that their project is going to cost what the number(s) come in at.  Owners planning on building a custom house, building an addition, or renovating their existing home in New England should expect estimates to be an average of $200+ SF; and it can be upwards of $300 SF depending on location, topography, desired features, materials, size, etc.

In my previous blog:  A Fee Based Expertise, I wrote about the way in which an Architect structures their compensation. This blog elaborates on how that relates to the Cost of Construction.  An Architect may base their fee on the Range of Construction Cost based on their better knowledge of construction costs.  For the Architect to have an understanding of what their fees should be, they may conduct their own guesstimate of what they believe the cost of construction will be based on standard Basic Services, past projects, and the knowledge of specific project needs.

On Residential projects in New England, it is common for Architectural fees to run between 8 and 15 percent of the cost of construction. The range in percentage has to do with the specifics of the project and the quality and level of services offered.  A smaller percentage reflects the minimum requirements to obtain a building permit while the larger percentage reflects full architectural services and a robust drawing set required to build the ideal project with fewer surprise costs during construction.  

The best approach for a homeowner is to first know how much they can spend, and then discuss their budget with the Architect. This will sever as the limiting factor for size, materials, customization, etc.  When preparing for a realistic cost of construction, owners should understand that architectural services are an important and vital component of the total design project budget and just like how construction cost are determined by a matrix of factors so too are architectural fees.