Architecture: Size Doesn't Matter, Quality Does

Not long ago, a potential client called architect Deborah Berke in New York. Berke's elegantly spare contemporary houses have attracted a devoted high-end clientele, and the caller had been searching for an architect when he saw one of her houses featured in a glossy magazine. As they discussed what he found appealing about the house, Berke mentioned it was about 550 square meters in size. "Oh, no!" said the man. "That's too big." He'd never build a house larger than 375 square meters, he explained—not because of cost but because it would be unseemly in these tough economic times.

In the same spirit as a Wall Street trader who wants to keep his bonus under wraps, a certain discretion is infiltrating high-end designer houses. The downward spiral of the economy has already led to the downsizing of mass-market housing, shrinking the average new single-family home in the U.S. from a high of 244 square meters to 218. Now the trend may trickle up: luxury architecture these days is not so much about building large as building well. "There is an emerging sense of being less ostentatious and more friendly to the planet," says London architect Seth Stein, who has designed vacation houses in the Caribbean and in Cornwall, England.

Some wealthy ecoconscious clients are already asking their architects for smaller, simpler dwellings. Others are moving more slowly and cautiously with their plans— or building in stages. Many are embracing local materials rather than exotic imports and seeking designs that are sensitive to the location of their dream houses. If they are economizing, it's not at the expense of quality. A well-designed house, by virtue of being customized, may actually reduce waste. "You could argue that a bespoke suit uses less fabric than one off the rack," says New York–based architect Steven Harris, "and something fitted to the way you live can be more precise and efficient." Often clients can get the best at bargain rates, striking deals with top builders who are struggling to keep their businesses afloat.

In fact, it's a good time to start a house—if you have the money. As the construction industry slows, prices are dropping. "Even with a signed contract, clients are asking to renegotiate with contractors," says Harris, who has designed houses in Mexico, South Africa and Croatia as well as New York. He has seen construction costs decline as much as 20 percent—and the best craftsmen are often those most eager to make a deal. "A year ago, the difference in cost between a good contractor and one who specialized in very fancy, esoteric finishes might have been double," says Harris. "Now the high-end contractor is only 20 to 30 percent more—and the greatest value, ironically, may be using that contractor who does absolutely perfect work for less than usual."

Some clients are slowing down the design-and-build process, asking their architects to spread the work over a longer period—say, 24 months rather than 12. That allows them to take stock of the economy and defer some of the costs. Other patrons are taking advantage of house designs that can be built in phases. Ken Crosson, an architect in Auckland, New Zealand, who has clients in Australia and the U.K. as well, has introduced phasing to a client building a beach house in Whangapoua, on the North Island of New Zealand. A small one-story glass-and-wood structure is finished, furnished and ready to be enjoyed; later, Crosson will add a second floor and an extension in the back. Similarly, Manhattan-based Toshiko Mori has designed an elaborate weekend house in upstate New York as a series of pavilions, each with its own function—living, cooking, exercise, media, guest house and so on. Yet the small living pavilion will be self-sufficient—it will include a simple kitchen—and could be built first.

Harris has approached phasing in a different way, in the redesign of vintage New York townhouses. If, after demolition and replacement of interior walls, windows and basic systems, the client feels pinched, Harris recommends stopping short of the desired finishes—for the moment. "It's better to put in a painted subfloor," he says, "than a second-rate finish that they don't want to live with forever."

Yet saving on the cost of materials and craftsmen is sometimes tough to achieve, especially in the places where the rich go to play. For a client with beachfront property on a small island in the Turks and Caicos, Stein avoided the ubiquitous and pretentious neocolonial style of the Caribbean in favor of an unobtrusive series of low-lying pavilions with gently curved roofs that "sit softly in the landscape," as he puts it. "The structures are humble and beautiful"—yet the remoteness of the island site meant materials and workers had to be imported. "Transportation is one reason why the costs are very expensive," he says. In a house he designed overlooking the coast in Cornwall, Stein was able to use locally sourced slate and timber—saving delivery costs and creating a house that nestles naturally into its dramatic setting.

Architects such as the sublime minimalists Brian MacKay-Lyons in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Hans-Jörg Ruch in St-Moritz, Switzerland, have made local materials—and fitting into the landscape—a hallmark of their designs. "We're doing more and more raw buildings that are more rustic and more low-key," says MacKay-Lyons of his starkly geometric houses, such as the Messenger House II on the south coast of Nova Scotia. "When I do a new house, I use material from here, " says Ruch, referring to building in the Alps. For a vacation house in Sent, Switzerland, the architect employed planks of larch, harvested from the forest next to the site. Ruch's test of a design's worthiness is this: "That it can stand against the mountains," he says. "I always say the most terrible thing for the architect is when the mountain is laughing."

That snowcapped peak isn't going to laugh at a luxury home that not only fits into its natural setting but is also sustainable—an increasingly important factor for high-end clients. Of course, houses can be green in a multitude of ways: through the use of such technologies as photovoltaic cells and wind turbines or, more passively, by being situated to take advantage of the sun and the prevailing winds. In New Zealand and Croatia, cisterns to collect rainwater are part of local tradition, and so they are naturally incorporated into designer homes.

But the grand scale of so many grand manses is hardly sustainable. "The first rule of green is to make it precisely the size you need," maintains Harris. That doesn't necessarily mean make every residence small: "We do townhouses that run from twelve and a half feet [3.8 meters] wide to 40 or 50 feet [12 or 15 meters] wide. Each has its own opportunities." He points to clients who entertain for charity or who collect art—and therefore need big rooms. But, says Harris, "to have a 20,000-square-foot [1,860-square-meter] country house that you use four times a year is absurd."

Great designer weekend houses weren't always grandiose—in the modern era they often were modest in scale, if not ambition. Think of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoie outside Paris, or Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, in rural Pennsylvania. "When I started my practice in 1969, people were not building big houses," says Robert A.M. Stern of New York, who now specializes in high-end houses that recall an earlier gilded age. "Most of the architects of my generation made our reputation with modest beach houses." All that changed toward the end of the century as people began spending what London architect Tony Fretton calls "euphoric sums of money." If that was the manic phase, it's time now for many people to sober up and downsize. Mori has revised the design of a home on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, six times, bringing the size down from 325 square meters to 250, specifying off-the-shelf, not custom, windows and reducing the scale of the kitchen and some of the bedrooms.

Stein's Cornwall country house is similarly modest, with one "great common room" and six compact bedrooms that are almost dormitory style. Crosson maintains that you can cut 30 percent of a design's size and save 20 percent of the cost but still make a house feel spacious through the use of glass and openness to the outdoors. By the same token, a vacation home that Harris and Lucien Rees Roberts, an interior designer and artist, have created on an island off the Croatian coast consists of a compound of four small stone structures, ranging from 17 square meters to 80 square meters, though the spaces between the little buildings—the gardens and terraces—"matter as much as the buildings themselves," says Harris.

The Croatian compound was created out of a quartet of modest 16th-century limestone buildings—a recycling project surely as worthy as any involving old newspapers or soda cans. Nowadays, adapting old buildings is a common route to obtaining a stylish custom dwelling, especially in cities with strict rules governing historic preservation. "It makes a great contribution to urban regeneration," says Stein. But it turns out that residential rehabs are often just as expensive as building a brand-new house, if not more so. In London, with property at a premium, architects like Stein are creating new spaces under old row houses. "We're going down a lot, going down very deep," says Stein of these projects. "It's tremendously expensive."

Fretton has also dug deep behind a Chelsea apartment block with a neo-Georgian façade for the artist Anish Kapoor. Fretton strives for "sparseness, not extravagance" in his work, and created for Kapoor a sequence of spaces that optimize natural light by using glass and inner courtyards. For a Russian client who's in oil and gas, he's adapting an old London townhouse, with a design that calls for digging into the basement to create a 25-meter swimming pool. In Switzerland, Ruch is best known for converting ancient farm buildings of the Engadine region into highly prized country houses. "It costs a lot to restore these houses," says Ruch. "They have been stables, hay barns, cattle barns—just a small part were once for living, with a kitchen and a room where everyone slept together. You have to start by getting rid of 400 or 500 years of dirt, of animals passing through. The insulation and heating problems are enormous."

Yet when builders finish one of Ruch's rehabs and the client moves in—well, just imagine the view. For it turns out, of course, that the most valuable asset of so many high-end houses is location, location, location. Whether it is a rare sliver of central London, or a windswept hill on the coast of Nova Scotia, or a paradisiacal beach in New Zealand, the magic is in the spot. After that, says MacKay-Lyons, "we are really good at making architecture out of stuff that's free—the space, the light, the landscape, the ideas." Mori had a client who asked for a simple house near the Hudson River, north of New York City. "It has all the elements of luxury—a great view and the idea of light," she says. "If someone has a great site, that's everything." As long as nothing else gets built to ruin the view.