When film producer Helga Richter and her husband John Goskowicz began the search for their own vacation home, they kept running into what she called the "modern tax." The couple, who live in Carpentersville, Illinois, 40 miles northwest of Chicago, wanted to build a contemporary home on a budget. But they always found that any building espousing modern design included an added premium.
Inspired by midcentury modern architecture and the kind of structures often found in California and the Pacific Northwest, Richter sadly found the cost of having that type of prefab structure shipped to the Midwest was prohibitive. Build-your-own home kits merely offered vernacular styles and log cabin clones. Richter decided that to have the type of home she wanted, DIY was the solution.
"I always found modern architecture carried such a higher price tag," she says. "I figured I would have to design my own house, so I acted as my own architect and general contractor."
Taking inspiration from one of her architectural heroes, Mies van der Rohe, Richter designed her own version of the Farnsworth House near the shores of Lake Wildwood in a gated vacation community in Varna, Illinois. The 875-square-foot, steel-clad escape, which she calls the Blakboxhaus, offers the kind of comforts one may find in a modern dwelling located on the coasts, including a wall of windows looking onto the surrounding woods, spray-foam insulation and steel siding for energy efficiency and durability, as well as an open floor plan and wood stove. But the best part may be the price tag, less than $150,000 in total, including furniture and artwork.
"I love that it’s modern and was built to fit the landscape," she says. "I like to call it the biggest piece of artwork I’ve ever made."
It took Richter about a year to finish the home, which was completed earlier this spring. She started by sketching out the building in AutoCAD—she has an art and design background, and had the plans checked by a pro—and then worked as her own general contractor to hire a crew and oversee construction.
A standard, stick-built structure, the home features an array of green features, such as foam insulation, bamboo flooring, and a tankless water heater. Richter splurged on expensive Andersen windows for the back wall, since the view of the surroundings, and connection to the landscape, were a big selling point. A "small house, but not a tiny house," it’s a great fit for weekend visits, and has a pair of PTAC (packaged thermal air conditioner) units if they decide on longer-term visits in the fall or winter.
"It’s a bit of a monolith and doesn’t really fit in with the other homes in the area, but it looks really sculptural sitting in the woods," she says. "We’re really proud of it."
Richter says anybody thinking about embarking on a similar project needs to do their homework, and make the extra effort to find the best craftsmen and builders. She did extensive research on materials and spent time negotiating to get the best prices, often buying items online (the steel siding was shipped from Washington state).
During design and construction, Richter found a lot of inspiration from magazines such as Dwell, but felt that there weren’t a lot of resources for someone like her looking to build a modern structure in the Midwest. That’s something she hopes to change.