The fourth in our series of Design Case Studies visits the super low-budget Auckland home of architect Michael O'Sullivan (of Bull O'Sullivan Architects) and Melissa Schollum, which Michael mostly built himself. It's an inspiring tale of creating architectural magic on a low budget. This series is brought to you by Altherm Window Systems. The photographs are by Florence Noble.

Michael O'Sullivan (centre) with Melissa Schollum and some of the neighbours who
helped them build their house. From left: Seti Faaofo, Rhys Hanna, Ikimau Ikimau
(holding Michael and Melissa's daughter Mary), Michael, Melissa
(holding son Seamus), Fred Taupa and Mary Taupa.
Michael and Melissa’s 115-square-metre home in the Auckland suburb of Mangere Bridge (which was a finalist in our Home of the Year award in 2009), cost just $152,000, but that doesn’t mean you should presume you can get a house that cheap for yourself. The house cost so little because the couple didn’t pay a builder – Michael did all of that himself, with the regular help of some of the couple’s neighbours. “It’s the labour that kills projects,” Michael says, estimating that, if they had paid for a builder and for architects’ fees, their house would have cost over $300,000 – which is still a pretty good deal. 

Melissa in the kitchen, with its brass-clad island.
The plates on the mullions behind her are by Rachel Carley.
On this project, Michael was determined to do things differently from the start. “We didn’t have a budget,” he says. “We had $70,000 to start with, and we had decided to work with that in the first instance and see how we went.” That amount of money, along with many hours of Michael’s labour, got them as far as the basic timber structure being erected, and with the roof on. 

The kitchen and living areas have a cedar ceiling
with lights residing behind the triangular cutouts.
With their funds depleted, it was time to visit the bank, but not to request a conventional mortgage. “We went to the bank and said this is how far we’ve got, but we didn’t know how much it was going to cost to finish off,” Michael says. They did, however, know how much they could afford to pay off a mortgage each week, a figure the bank used to estimate the maximum the couple could borrow and set up what was essentially a floating overdraft. “They were initially a bit sceptical,” Michael says, “but they’re pleased now they’ve seen what we’ve done.”

This view of the dining area (with a dining table by IMO) shows
the home's main entrance. A small deck outside is shaded by an oak tree.
Michael and Melissa needed to remain extremely mindful of how much money was required to finish the building within their budget, but in a sense, the most pivotal budgetary decision – to keep the house relatively small – had been made early on. There is only one bathroom, but a more difficult choice was to design the house with just two bedrooms, as by the time it was nearing completion, the couple’s third child was about to be born. So far, however, children Seamus (4), Finbar (3) and Mary (2), as well as Michael’s son Rem (11), who stays occasionally, like their relatively large room with its bunk beds, and the house has been designed so the later addition of another bedroom is possible. Michael thinks the decision not to have a third bedroom saved between $15,000 and $20,000 in materials alone, as well as making the building process about two months quicker because of the home’s smaller footprint. (Since these photographs were taken, Michael has added an upstairs area with more children's bedrooms).

Seamus in the hallway leading to the bedrooms,
which feature heavy velvet curtains instead of doors.
Savings like this meant that there was enough money for strategic splurges in other parts of the house. The kitchen has marble-topped benches – a luxurious addition in a low-budget house – and the bathroom is lined entirely in vivid green marble. Admittedly, Michael managed to secure most of these materials at bargain prices, but although they still cost more than more basic materials would have, these additions add a textural richness that makes the compact house feel warmer and more generous that it might have otherwise. 

Finbar and Seamus in the tub. The bathroom is entirely
lined in green marble, a splash of luxury in a low-budget home.
There are other areas where Michael wished the budget had stretched. The bedroom ceilings are lined in basic pine ply, which Michael feels lacks the elegance (and is a little less forgiving of his limitations as a builder) of the cedar that the couple purchased to line the ceilings of the living area. But these are small quibbles compared to the overall satisfaction their completed home now offers – not only the space and shelter it provides for the family, but the lasting relationships this collaborative project established with the neighbours who helped Michael and Melissa out so much.  

A view of the home's second deck that connects to the living area and hallway.
Q+A with Michael O’Sullivan
HOME Your house cost $152,000. What would it have cost if a client had to pay for a builder and your services as an architect?
Michael O'Sullivan It would easily be double that if you included builders’ and architects’ fees. It’s the labour costs that kill a project.

HOME If you were a client hiring an architect, what lessons would you take from your own project?
Michael O'Sullivan Engage a quantity surveyor at the outset. As architects, we are very respectful of our clients’ budgets, but quantity surveyors have skills that we weren’t taught at architecture school.

HOME You said that you’re not generally in favour of fixed-price building contracts. Care to tell us more about that? 
Michael O'Sullivan Fixed fees can be quite stifling. There’s no suspense or element of surprise, no room for excitement. The appropriateness of different materials becomes apparent as you build – quite often the built form gives clues as to what the interior finishes should be.