Where can I find a builder that does mid-century modern homes?

Where can I find a builder that specializes in building mid-century modern style homes?

This is a question many fans of mid-century modern architecture ask when looking to build a new home.  Unfortunately for those hoping to flip through a builder’s book of mid-century plans to find their perfect mid-century home, there is some bad news.  You won’t find a builder who carries around a book of standard plans of mid-century modern homes that to suit your block and your budget.  Finding the perfect builder for your hopes and dreams is like finding the perfect life partner, often you need to kiss a few frogs first to find your happily ever after.

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

One of Secret Design Studio’s mid-century book of standard plans which is part of our resource library.

Building a new home today is very different from building a home in the 1950s and 1960s.  In those decades standard plan books and standard plans were readily available at a cost-effective price point through services such as the “Small Homes Service” as well as retailers like Grace Bros. The plans that were available were often published with a floorplan with scaled furniture and a perspective. Once you had decided on your floorplan then you could purchase the working drawings which included imperial dimensioned floorplans, four elevations, and sometimes interior details.  In some cases, such as with the “Small Homes Service” there was the opportunity to connect with the original architect who could adapt your chosen plan for the site or make some small amendments.  Once you had purchased the plans you could find your own local builder (or even build it yourself).

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

Typical Small Homes Service Plan that was published in Australian Home Beautiful December 1953

Today those original published floorplans and perspectives are available if you know where to look, but the working drawings have largely been lost over time, possibly due to the introduction of our metric system making imperial scaled plans obsolete.

There are lots of different types of builders today so let us kiss a few frogs and narrow the field down a bit, and explain why they won’t have a mid-century modern home plan ready for your site.

Project home “McMansion” Builders

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

Typical street of grandiose McMansions designed to impress the Uber Eats delivery man. Very grand from the front but not so grand once inside (not designed by Secret Design Studio).

There are lots of large project home builders that build thousands of big box, McMansion-style homes across Australia every year.  They have a range of standard “products” that have been designed to have broad appeal to the buying public and they are great at making the dollars stretch for the most number of rooms, which sometimes results in pokey rooms, or inadequate living areas to service the number of bedrooms.  While they have lots of plans, and lots of variations and options to these plans, they own the plans and the copyright, so if you don’t like the price or the quality you cannot take their plans to another builder.

These houses are usually marketed in display home centres with all of the optional extras on show, so they can be a bit misleading between the advertised price and what is actually displayed.  As an example, extra height ceilings and extra height doors are usually optional extras and give a display home a feeling of airiness and spaciousness. However, this extra height and feeling of spaciousness are not included in the standard, plain vanilla price, where ceiling heights are usually built to the minimum legal requirement. Many aspects of these types of homes are building to the minimum legal requirement to keep the price competitive.

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

Typical street of grandiose McMansions designed to impress the Uber Eats delivery man. Very grand from the front but not so grand once inside (not designed by Secret Design Studio).

They are fairly generic as they are designed to a formula to appeal to the average new home buyer, who often measures the value of the home by the relation between square metres to dollars spent.  A lot of these homes look like they were designed to impress the Uber Eats delivery man.  Often fairly grandiose from the street, with an impressive porch and entry hall that leads the eye through the house, but once you get properly inside mediocrity rules.

With this simplistic equation to ascertain “value,” many new home buyers are missing out on what makes a house a well-designed home for its location at the expense of additional rooms.  While these houses are often cheap to build they usually are more expensive in the longer term. They are often not site responsive so have considerably higher energy bills than a home that was designed with the climate and orientation in mind.

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

Typical street of grandiose McMansions designed to impress the Uber Eats delivery man. Very grand from the front but not so grand once inside. Wall treatment and window style become very plain around the sides and rear (not designed by Secret Design Studio).

When comparing cost by the square metre the larger big box McMansion homes always work out cheaper to build than smaller, less-boxy, more interesting homes (by the square metre comparison). This is why the average new home size has increased since the middle of last century, at the same time the average household size has reduced.

They are also designed to be cost-effective to build by purchasing agreements with major suppliers and tradesmen for discounted products and services. There is very limited flexibility so if you don’t like what is on offer, and if the builder is prepared to change, there will be a price increase, as what you want probably won’t be subject to the same discount agreement.   For instance if your builder was using rendered, expanded polystyrene cladding on the exterior first floor and you wanted another material that was less combustible (but not part of their supplier agreements) then you would be paying the full retail price for the substitute material plus any premium the builder wanted to add on for the trouble of changing their standard documentation.

Expanded Polystyrene Cladding applied to a first floor before rendering.

For these companies, their focus is on selling as many homes as quickly as possible to keep the dollars coming in and the “factory” running. For these builders, good design and site responsive design is a cost and time overhead. Many of these builders restrict the type of blocks that they will actually build on. They don’t like steeply sloping sites as their standard products are designed for flat sites.  Sites with a slight slope are levelled by a cut and fill process so that their standard products can be built cheaply.  This means that the owner has to work out the best way to address the retaining wall and landscaping issues which are usually outside the standard project builders contract.

They won’t have a mid-century modern home as part of their standard product range as they are not as cheap to build and are not competitive in the square metres versus dollar equation.  One of the nice things that many mid-century homes have is the way that they have split levels that adds to their visual appeal and interest so that the house fits in with the topography (but this also adds to the cost).

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

Many mid-century homes were more site-responsive than today’s standard builder’s products. This home had an interesting split level to take account of the change in ground level across the site.

Project home builders will generally have a small team of in-house designers who specialize in designing the products to their standard formula. Generally, these designers are promoted from within from drafting positions where they have learnt the company’s formula and many don’t have any formal design qualifications. These designers are often kept at arms-length from customers who are encouraged to keep with the standard pre-designed products.

Like buying a new car, the customers are welcome to choose from a limited range of previously designed options. If you want to make changes to one of their standard products, such as “making it look more mid-century modern” you will be facing an uphill battle with their drafting and estimating team who will struggle to convert a box house into something completely different.  To go back to the car analogy, buying a big box home is like buying a seven seater people mover, and no amount of modifications is going to make it look like a 1955 Citroen DS.

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

 

However, project builders do have value as a benchmark for cheap building.  When considering building a new home you know that you can’t build cheaper than a project home builder as they do everything to compete with other generic products in a highly competitive market.  If your mid-century modern dream home matches the size and accommodation of a project builder’s box home, yet your budget is less than their home then you know you need to increase your budget, or decrease your wish list.

Project Builders Pros:

  • Cheap – most number of square metres for the least cost (but often those square metres of space and the relationship to the garden are of poor quality design)
  • Display homes so you can see (and touch) many of the options available

Project Builders Cons:

  • Generic design to appeal to the general public (nothing mid-century modern).
  • Not designed for the site, often with poor orientation, and rarely take advantage of the positive attributes of the site
  • Limited opportunities to redesign or specify different options
  • The character and style of the house is limited to the front façade and entry hall – the rest of the house is very generic.
  • The quality of the build is variable from house to house, and rarely to the same standard as the display home. The sub-contractors who are involved are usually guaranteed a large number of jobs providing they can be completed at very low cost, and unfortunately care and quality does suffer.
    Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

    Typical street of grandiose McMansions designed to impress the Uber Eats delivery man. Very grand from the front but not so grand once inside. Wall treatment and window style become very plain around the sides and rear (not designed by Secret Design Studio).

Design/Build Option

The design/build option is a step up from the project home builder option but has limitations and costs to be aware of.  These are often marketed as premium products with prices to match, however, a lot of the building is based on project home typologies, with more option for customisation.

Many of these builders have a number of standard display homes that define the company style which act as a starting point for discussions and customisation.  Customers get an opportunity to meet with designers to make changes to their standard plans, or even design a new home based on one of their styles.  Often the costs of this design service is built into the initial deposit, or the contract price of the home, so is never free, but may not be itemised out.

The design/build company tends to build larger homes due to cost efficiencies. There doesn’t appear to be the market for the smaller, low-cost design/build as there are problems competing with the houses built by the project builders of the same size.  While there are lots of glamorous looking display homes with a Modernist aesthetic by the design/build companies none of them could be described as mid-century modern due to their size, their design and the type of construction used.

Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, the “free” design work which is often promoted by the design/build companies isn’t actually free and doesn’t actually belong to the customer, even if they have paid a deposit. These companies make their profits in building houses, not in design services.

If a customer pays a deposit, works with their in-house designer to create a custom design, then decides that they don’t like the contract price for the building, they can’t take their plans and shop around for a cheaper quote from another builder, who may not operate on the design/build model.  If a customer decides to infringe on the intellectual copyright of the design/build company and construct their design with another builder then they will probably be sued by the design/build company.

Secret Design Studio’s design review of a proposed design/build project on behalf of a client who was concerned about their ability to interpret the final plans.

 

Design/Builders Pros:

  • Some display homes so you can see (and touch) some of the options available
  • Meetings with their in-house designer provides opportunities to redesign or specify different options from their standards.
  • Can be designed for the site, to take advantage of the positive attributes of the site, and get the optimum orientation.
  • Generally better quality control than the project home builders as they are smaller businesses with a smaller number of projects running. They should pay their sub-contractors at a better rate than the project home builders.

Design/Build Cons:

  • Designs are usually based on variations of their display homes, or the company “style”. New styles that are foreign to the company are difficult to introduce and get right.  Often their design staff have lots of experience with the company style, but limited experience outside this.
  • Providing a premium service with a premium build (without the cost efficiencies that the project home builder can provide) means that their homes have premium prices.
  • The design/build company demands commitment. It is usually hard to provide accurate pricing until the design and documentation is finalised. If you don’t like the price you can’t comparison shop your design with cheaper builders.

    Secret Design Studio’s design review of a proposed design/build project on behalf of a client who was concerned about their ability to interpret the final plans.

 

The small builder

There are thousands of small builders across Australia who don’t offer design services but will be happy to build a mid-century modern style home – if you have the plans and documentation ready.  Many of these small builders work in association with a local draftsperson.  As the discipline of design is a different discipline to drafting (and building) there is no guarantee that your builder and their draftsperson even knows what mid-century modern actually means.

Both builders and draftspeople do not have training in 20th-century design, architecture or history.  A good builder is actually a good project manager who can juggle the sub-contractors and materials needed to build a project on time and on budget.  Some builders may pick up a feeling for design, and what works and doesn’t work through their direct site experience, but they rarely have formal design qualifications.  Some small builders may have a generic display home or two to try and compete with the project home builders, but it won’t be a mid-century modern design.

Builders who specialize in building authentic mid-century modern style homes don’t exist in Australia, so there is little point in trying to find one.  However, there are lots of small builders who will build a well-designed and documented mid-century modern style home if this design work is already completed by a design professional (such as Secret Design Studio).

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

View from the north west. One of Secret Design Studio’s individual mid-century modern inspired designs that needed to cope with restrictive developer’s covenants and Bushfire Attack Level requirements in rural Victoria.

Small Builders Pros:

  • Not as cheap as the project home builders as they don’t have the purchasing power, but can be good value as they don’t have the overheads (such as in-house designers, draftsman and marketing budget).
  • Will build a mid-century modern home if the customer can provide the design and documentation by first engaging a design professional.
  • Teamed with a good design professional provides the opportunity for the right house with the right orientation. A good design professional can help tailor a home for a client’s requirements and to optimise the opportunities that the site provides.
  • If a customer has paid an independent design professional to prepare a mid-century modern style design then the customer can compare prices with different builders which is not available for the other two types of builders as they own the design, copyright and documentation.

Small Builders Cons:

  • Many small builders do not have a display home so it requires a leap of faith from customers.
  • The cost of design is concealed by the project home builders and the design/build price in the price of the home. For the small builder the cost of design is more explicit, and needs to be paid up-front, with a substantial amount of design work complete before it can be costed.

    One of the many 3D images from Secret Design Studio’s collection of mid-century modern floorplans.

Where can I find a mid-century modern home floorplan?

There is a combination of factors that don’t make it worthwhile for any builder to specialize in authentic mid-century modern style homes, or to carry a catalogue of mid-century modern floorplans for potential buyers to inspect.

Today’s expectations of new homeowners, our stronger building regulations, and intellectual property law make it impossible to recreate a completely authentic mid-century modern home exactly as it may have been built.

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

The amount of glazing in many mid-century modern homes can make them hard to cool in summer, and hard to heat in winter.

In the post-war years, building materials were scarce so architects were often experimental in pushing the materials that were available to go further with less. The result of this is the light and airy homes that define the mid-century modern style, that had lots of glass and lightweight construction that looked great, but were not always the most thermally comfortable to live in during the depths of winter, or the heat of summer.  These thermal comfort issues were partially addressed with power-hungry air conditioners and wood-fired heaters. But with the lightweight construction, the amount of glazing, and the lack of insulation meant these measures were often inadequate.

Today building a new home is heavily regulated to make them more energy-efficient and more appropriate for their climate.  In Melbourne, which is considered a mild temperate climate zone, with four distinct seasons (sometimes in one day) a thermally well-designed house is often the opposite of what a mid-century modern home is perceived to be.  Usually lots of brickwork for thermal mass, and careful consideration of window sizing and placement.

House size and lot size

In the 1950’s and 1960’s the cost of building a new home often meant that homes were built as a single story with only two or three bedrooms, an efficient kitchen/laundry, a three-way bathroom, a single multi-purpose living area and a carport. Many were cleverly designed to make the most of the space and with the use of large windows looking out into courtyards and gardens which made them feel larger than they actually were.

Today’s buyers’ expectations are quite different – usually four bedrooms, at least two bathrooms, two living areas, a spacious kitchen (often with butler’s pantry), and a double garage.   Today’s new home buyers’ expectations are for considerably more space, but at the same time as land has become more valuable the lot size in new subdivisions has become smaller. Larger neighbouring houses closer together reduces the opportunity for well-proportioned gardens and courtyards.

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

The increase in house size, and the reduced availability of larger lots has meant that outdoor living space, which was so important with mid-century modern homes is sacrificed with many contemporary homes.

Covenants

Many land subdivisions (both new and old) include covenants on the title of the property to control the types of houses that are built.  Typical covenants include requirements for a minimum floor area, and particular materials (and sometimes even colours) are used externally.

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

These covenants are usually imposed by the developer to assure prospective buyers that their neighbours will be building “quality” homes and that the finished neighbourhood will appear cohesive and consistent.  Some developers also have design guidelines and any proposed house is subject to a design review, which often goes into the details of roof pitch, brick colours, front fence treatment, landscaping etc. This means that if your dream home is a small, stylish, flat-roofed, board and batten statement in an elegant modernist style then you should be very careful about purchasing a lot in a development that is subject to the developers design guidelines as they will be very conservative, will probably exclude anything that is not a McMansion, and will be enforced by their design review panel.

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

View from the east. One of Secret Design Studio’s individual mid-century modern inspired designs that needed to cope with restrictive developer’s covenants and Bushfire Attack Level requirements. One of the developers’ requirements that was expressed in the covenant was that a substantial proportion of the exterior walls were required to be brick or stone construction.

Material Substitution

The need for new houses in rural, semi-rural and many regional areas to comply with the Bushfire Attack Level requirements is another level of regulation that works against the lightweight materials that were traditionally used in the construction of many mid-century modern homes. Depending on the Bush Fire Attack level this can also influence the exterior materials to be used (non-combustible) and the window sizes and style. The higher the Bushfire Attack Level the less external timber that can be used, so elements such as stained timber panelling, exposed timber rafters, timber pergolas and even timber decking can’t be achieved with the highest Bushfire Attack Levels.

Asbestos external sheeting has been substituted for safer fibre cement products. Corrugated asbestos roofing has been substituted by Colorbond corrugated roof sheeting. Some products have been superceded, so that large Oregon beams, which are now difficult and expensive to source have been substituted with treated pine and laminated veneer lumber, which have quite a different character to the old rough sawn Oregon.

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

In the middle of the twentieth century timber was cheaper and more plentiful, and labour was cheaper and more skilled.

This has resulted in changes internally with labour intensive and timber products being substituted for cheaper alternatives. Hardwood skirting and architraves substituted by Medium Density Fibreboard. Mosaic bathroom tiles substituted by porcelain tiles. Plywood walling substituted by plasterboard.

Copyright and Intellectual Property

Secret Design Studio has a wide collection of mid-century modern house plans from our extensive magazine and plan book catalogue.  However, the copyright law excludes Secret Design Studio (or any other party) re-using these plans, even if they are amended for a client’s 21st century requirements.

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

It is actually easier for an experienced design professional to create a new design after taking a client’s brief and completing a site inspection than it is to redraw an old, imperial scaled floor plan, and adapt it to meet a client’s needs.  As part of this design process an experienced design professional will take into account the siting, the orientation, any covenants, any Bushfire Attack Level requirements and budget to create a home that is free of copyright infringements, and which can be competitively priced by a number of appropriate builders.

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

Rear view (south west). One of Secret Design Studio’s individual mid-century modern inspired designs that needed to cope with restrictive developer’s covenants and Bushfire Attack Level requirements. One of the developers’ requirements that was expressed in the covenant was that a substantial proportion of the exterior walls were required to be brick or stone construction.

The result of an individually designed mid-century modern style home to be built by a small builder.

A few of the previous images have been of one of Secret Design Studio’s recent new house designs.  The client, a family of four approached Secret Design Studio for their semi-rural property in regional Victoria as they realized that a custom-designed solution by a design professional would be the best way to make the most of their site.  The site is much wider than a traditional suburban lot so it automatically excluded all of the standard project home builders products – they did not want a suburban home looking out of place on their semi-rural land.  The site slopes down towards the road, and the idea was to build the house close to the rear of the property to take advantage of the northern aspect and views to the east, west and north.

Secret Design Studio Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

View from the north and approach from the road. One of Secret Design Studio’s individual mid-century modern inspired designs that needed to cope with restrictive developer’s covenants and Bushfire Attack Level requirements in rural Victoria.

The result is an elongated home that stretches across the width of the property with a split level, the lowest level is the garage, storage and music studio.  The mid-level consists of a sheltered entry, and four bedrooms facing north to the views, with utility rooms to the south. The upper level consists of open plan living, dining and kitchen opening out to a chevron-shaped terrace to make the most of the views for their elevated outdoor living.  The biggest challenge was to locate the kitchen to the northeast corner which gives a panoramic view towards the road and over town. The home was designed to be their forever home so allowance has been made for a future lift that services all three levels.

Exterior materials were selected to comply with the developer’s covenant that required that a substantial amount of the exterior be in masonry or stone and also needed to comply with Bushfire Attack Level requirements. As the house is the highest house on the hill and overlooking a town the clients did not want a home that would stick out like a sore thumb but be nestled into the hill and look comfortable in its rural environment.

“We want to thank you so much for the service you have provided us throughout our house design project. This will be the one house we build in our lives, and we came to you seeking something special. We believe we have achieved that outcome in the designs you provided, and we’ve learned a tremendous amount along the way. We could not have predicted the end result when we started – it truly was a tabula rasa. It’s amazing to think that we now have a clear picture in our minds of the house we will build, the home we will make, on our property.

It’s tremendously exciting to have a strong sense of the living environment we’re creating. We also appreciated the extra lengths you’ve gone to with the colour selections and including them in the 3D artwork. It’s a testament to your striving for quality results that you felt personally driven to go that extra mile.

Rest assured that we will share the secret of Secret Design Studio when people see our completed home next year!”

Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

Preliminary design concept by Secret Design Studio for a modest mid-century modern style extension to an existing residence

So instead of asking “Where can I find a builder that specializes in building mid-century modern style houses?” perhaps the question should be “Where can I find a design professional that specializes in designing mid-century modern style houses?”. We hope that you will consider Secret Design Studio.

Alistair McLean
B.Sc(Architecture), B.Architecture(Syd)
Principal
Secret Design Studio
Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

Preliminary design concept by Secret Design Studio for a modest mid-century modern style extension to an existing residence

To make an enquiry about Secret Design Studio designing your mid-century modern style home please go to our enquiry page:

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Secret Design Studio. Melbourne mid-century modern architecture

Preliminary design concept by Secret Design Studio for a modest mid-century modern style extension to an existing residence