Building a mid-century modern style home for $200K? Part 2
Alistair McLean
Category: Building

Alistair: Posted on Sunday, 27 January 2013 11:49 PM


Why can’t I build a mid-century modern style home for $200,000? Part 2

My previous blog posting was in response to A&C from South Australia.  In this posting I will explain the reasons why building costs are so different today than in the middle of the twentieth century.  Apart from inflation what has changed?

To recap, A&C asked: “We are contemplating a block in Henley at the moment. North (backyard)/South orientation, flat block, but very small – dimensions are 18.5m (w) x 16.8m (d).   Unfortunately, although we live in Henley Beach currently, the home we are in has not provided the capital gain we had hoped in the 4 years we have lived in it – bloody real estate market!

The next home we build/own will be our retirement home so we wish to be as close to debt free as possible as we plan an early retirement in around 18mths, hence we have a very small budget of around 500 – 520k for land and build. The small block we are considering is 305 – 320K, which of course does not leave us a great deal for the build.

Do you think we can build a sympathetic mid century home with such a small budget or is this just a pipe dream that I should give up on now?? We would like at a minimum, a single story, 2 bedroom, 2 ensuite, open plan lounge/kitchen/dine, laundry with double garage (either double width or length is OK). The nice to haves on top of this, are a butler’s pantry, small study come storage room and I would love a central courtyard if possible (probably not possible on this block).

I have drawn some floor plans up and it seems like we could fit this (without central courtyard but a side courtyard) on the block mentioned but I have no clue of build costs…Is there an average cost per square metre that we could work with?   Your thoughts on this are very much appreciated.”


So why does a new mid-century modern style home cost so much more now, especially when so many were built cheaply for the average family back in the sixties?  If we look at what the project builders are building for the first home buyer market  on our suburban outskirts we can see that this style of housing has been designed to be built as cheaply as possible using today’s construction materials and labour in the most efficient manner possible.  If building in a mid-century modern style was cheaper than what these project builders are constructing today,  then they would be building in a mid-century modern style!  So what has changed since the sixties and why are our first home buyer houses of today so less appealing than the mid-century modern homes of the twentieth century?


LABOUR COSTS: Perhaps the biggest change since the 1950’s and 1960’s is the increase in labour costs.  Many untrained (and some unskilled) workers were available at low cost back then.  Australia had a large immigrant workforce as many had come from Britain and Europe after the war.  They were prepared to work hard on building sites, for not a lot of money, to help them make a start in a new country.  Today most people working on a job site have some formal training, like an Australian apprenticeship, and there are fewer prepared to work for low wages.  As a result many of the building processes have been re-engineered to minimise the on-site labour costs.

Prefabrication of timber trusses and wall frames in factories has replaced onsite carpenters for many new homes. Traditional tongue and groove flooring is labour intensive to install, and was the standard for flooring in mid-century modern homes, and was usually had carpet laid over!  Today, due to the labour (and timber) costs a traditional tongue and groove floor is considered a luxury item due to the expense.  The faux timber-veneer floating floor is a weak, but cost effective imitation which has become popular to attempt to give the look of a traditional tongue and groove timber floor, but without the feel, or the lifespan of the original.


SOCIETY’S EXPECTATIONS: Society’s expectations are much higher than what people expected in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.  Many of these homes were very modest in comparison with one bathroom, three bedrooms, a carport and an open plan entry/living and kitchen area.  Today our expectations are for a double garage,  a minimum of two bathrooms in every house, multiple living areas, often with an outdoor alfresco area  –  so 21 century houses are much larger what was commonly built in the 1950’s and 1960’s.


SUSTAINABILITY REQUIREMENTS: Current building regulations require that new homes meet sustainability requirements.  Most mid-century modern houses are very inefficient when it comes to heating and cooling due to their lightweight construction, lack of insulation and large areas of glass.  New homes of today require lots of insulation to ceiling spaces and walls, draft sealing to external doors, low energy lighting and usually double glazing when there is a lot of glass.  Most new home builders will also want to include the largest water tank they can fit in, as well as solar panels for generation of electricity which was unheard of in the mid-twentieth century.


MATERIAL TECHNOLOGY: Material technology and costs have increased, especially timber.  Stained timber feature walls, timber elements such as beams, and  timber ceilings were a common feature of many mid-century modern homes.  Since then the costs of growing, harvesting  and milling timber has increased astronomically.  If you take a wander down one of the timber aisles at Bunnings you will see that much of today’s timber is made up of smaller bits glued together (finger jointed), or pre-painted to hide the glue joints, or actually medium density fibreboard, with no grain or character.  For timber that is going to be clear stained, instead of painted, it needs to be a ‘select’ or premium grade.  This means that each piece has been visually inspected to ensure that it is free from knot holes and blemishes, and there is a labour component to this process, so that all select grade timber attracts a premium price.

In addition the cheap and cheerful materials that were commonly used have been replaced with more expensive materials.  Asbestos sheet products have been replaced with James Hardie Scyon products where the cheap-to-mine asbestos fibres have been superceded by wood cellulose fibres, which are more expensive. Clay brick manufacturers have almost killed off the concrete brick and breeze block manufacturers.  Fortunately the hygiene advantages of melamine and laminate products have killed off the use of Masonite in homes, but at an increased cost.


REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS: The Australian housing industry is more regulated than in the 1950’s and ‘60’s and meeting these requirements adds cost to construction.  Areas such as occupational health and safety, waterproofing of wet areas, smoke detectors, energy usage,  engineering and using licensed electricians and plumbers etc are all now compulsory requirements.


So today’s houses are  bigger, more expensive and indeed better in many respects than houses of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  However the cost of these increase often is often seen in the lack of innovation in the design.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s there was a tradition of many small homes which were carefully crafted by design professionals to make the most of the limited resources available, and to make the houses work well for their size.

In Victoria this was championed by architect Robin Boyd, who was the first Director of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects Small Home Service from 1947-1953. The Small Homes Service provided designs of inexpensive houses, which attempted to incorporate modern architectural aesthetics and functional planning and were sold to the public for a small fee.

Unfortunately today this type of design expertise has been neglected by many of the project builders who show lack of innovation from year to year, usually with only minor re-tweaking of last year’s successes.  Designing a small, compact, workable home that is a pleasure to live in is actually much harder, and takes a lot more work than designing a large home, and today few project builders are prepared to pay for these professional services.

Unfortunately for A&C, despite their wishes, their brief and their budget don’t relate.  For clients with a larger brief I would suggest reviewing the brief to see if we could downsize the wish list to get closer to the budget, and looking at a moderate increase in the budget.  In A&C’s case I don’t think downsizing the brief will work for the capitalization or get them the accommodation they need as it is already fairly modest.  To get the new house that they want they will need to increase their budget.


They may be better off buying a modest and established home that is liveable, such as some of the $300K, 2 bedroom homes in the area, and renovating as they can budget. $200,000 will go a long way to renovating a small home – providing it has been well maintained and is structurally sound.    If a mid-century modern home has not been well maintained, and is in need of structural work, the renovation costs can often exceed the rebuild cost – refer to Secret Design Studio’s earlier posting “Mid Century Modern Death Trap” at