Architecture’s sphere of influence was on Nick Mancusi’s mind when he began designing a starter house for himself and his wife a few years ago. The couple, graduates of the Taliesin School of Architecture, had first decided that an existing house would best fit their budget. They didn’t imagine themselves as the typical architecture patrons. However, an analysis of the resale market put them on a different path. Small homes that required a lot of work were selling for $400,000, Nick says, and he figured renovations would cost another $100,000. That half-million-dollar entry point posed an intriguing challenge: could they design and build a modern house they liked for the same cost? It turns out they could. The result is the 1,728-square-foot Casa Mancusi, as much a structure as a narrative about building smartly and simply.
Economy and sustainability were top priorities. “We had two goals,” Nick says. “One was to prove that architecture doesn’t just have to be for the elite. We wanted to show that you could build a house that’s cost-competitive with tract homes, rather than succumb to the dreariness of most of them. The second was to be as responsible and honest as possible with the site.”
The lot, in Cave Creek just outside Phoenix, was a bargain. Three-quarters of an acre with beautiful desert views, it was discounted because the steep grade of shale and volcanic mud was considered unbuildable. Nick knew he could construct something dynamic and affordable by adapting the house to the land. Such ideals were central to the Taliesin school, taking cues from the natural environment to create architecture that embraces the landscape. “For Frank Lloyd Wright it was, how do you grace rather than disgrace the landscape?” Nick says. “For us it was, how do I touch the desert as little as possible? It can take 70 years for a saguaro cactus to grow an arm; whatever you touch in the desert will look that way for a long time.” In addition, “minimizing the difficulty to build, in theory, makes things cheaper,” he says. “We considered how little we could dig for the footings, and how little we could cut.”
Designed as a 24-by-60-foot rectangle, the house runs east-west in 12-foot-long modules. The sloping driveway, which required minimal grading, ends in a two-car carport under the overhanging west end of the house. From there, exterior stairs rise along a site wall on the north to the front door, where the extended roofline creates an entry patio on the east. This patio and the living room form a 24-by-24-foot pad that rests on the rock grade. Beyond, the kitchen and dining area are open to the living room. Stretching behind them along a side hallway are the den, laundry, and guest suite. The main bedroom—comprising the last 12 feet of the house—hovers over virgin desert.
Below, adjacent to the carport, a walkout architecture studio and storage room were tucked under the kitchen/dining area. This concrete-block structure also retains the hill. “The cut for that space was about 8 feet deep, and we used the fill to level out for the carport, which goes under the den and laundry room and guest room,” Nick says. Supporting the overhang is a 48-foot-long glulam beam—a cheaper alternative to steel—spanning from the living room pad. On the opposite end of the house, the cut for the entry patio and living room pad was also minimal—about 5 feet deep—and the solid rock eliminated the need for a retaining wall.
“There is a lot of dynamism with the main bedroom cantilever and walls that shoot out of the desert, but they’re just the gestures that were most cost-effective to build on the lot,” says Nick, who is also a licensed contractor and learned the trade from his father, a general contractor. He and some friends placed the footings, poured the concrete, set the rebar, and framed the house—another incentive to minimizing the construction difficulty.
The relative lack of structural gymnastics also allowed the couple to spend money on glass expanses that make them feel like they’re part of the Sonoran Desert. The long north wall has 48 feet of floor-to-ceiling glass and the short east side is all glass, while the west wall is windowless to minimize heat gain, and there is minimal glass on the south. “I love the fact that the house is so small but feels so big on the inside because of simple things we did,” Nick says. Some of these were structural. For example, “along the north elevation, the bottom of the joists aligns with the bottom edge of the beam, creating an 8-inch ‘curb,’” Nick says. “This allowed me to place 8-foot-tall windows and sliding doors on top of the beam to achieve 8-foot, 8-inch ceilings—essentially a wall of glass—using standard-size sliding door and window units.”
Off the Shelf
The clean, white interior adds to the feeling of spaciousness. With only one interior door—on the guest bath— Nick used wall planes to divide space. “I find it’s a lot more interesting for a home,” he says, adding, “When you live in a glass house, you don’t have a lot of space to hang art. We have a lot of artist friends and like to show off their work. These small walls create a gallery-like view of each piece.” The long hallway also doubles as an art gallery. The main bedroom’s placement at the far end of the house provides privacy, yet a Soleri bell over the bedside table is a focal point from the living room. In the future, the 4-foot-wide hallway can be fitted with a pivot door if necessary.
Throughout, drywall and $3-per-square-foot gray floor tiles provided inexpensive finishes. The tile is easy to maintain, keeps the house cool, and extends the interior out to the patio. A rigorously imposed order supplies polish—every function is defined by color or material. “If there’s a wall plane or work surface, it’s white,” says Nick. “If it’s cabinetry or millwork, it’s maple; if it’s metal, it’s black— fridge, faucets, and window and door frames.” In the living room, maple bookshelves rest on metal brackets. Kitchen cabinets are from IKEA, topped with quartz countertops that wrap up the backsplash. Track lighting, another economical choice, highlights the artwork and eliminates the clutter of can lights.
Within that white canvas, pops of color—pink on the patio wall, yellow along the hallway—express the shear walls. At the entry, the pink stucco wall (a nod to Luis Barragán) backdrops a built-in bench, and on the north, the yellow wall is offset on the stucco exterior so it reads structurally. Inside, a drywall reveal suggests that the yellow panel runs from inside to outside.
The lower-level office, where Nick works with a small staff, was designed to be comfortable for three people. It has concrete block walls and a glass wall facing the carport. “After we finished doing the block work, we decided to sandblast it because we like the textures,” Nick says. “We rented a sandblaster and made a mess, but it was totally worth it because it exposes the aggregate. There’s this beautiful backdrop of concrete with maple millwork for the desks.”
Show and Tell
With costs carefully managed, the final figures did not disappoint. The price of the land ($75,000) and house, which has solar panels on a light-reflective roof, came to $400,000, putting his costs at $188 per square foot. (That figure includes a $30,000 sewer system, which many new homes don’t need.) Nick estimates that the cost of a GC would have brought the construction cost to $260 per square foot, or $450,000. “We got more than we imagined, and it was less money than a fixer-upper would have been,” he says, “so it’s a pretty good win.”
This scrupulous attention to efficiency now informs his client work too. “As an architect, you want to be able to show not only what you can do, but experience it,” he says. “I get to live in what I preach from a philosophical standpoint, and I don’t think I’d change a thing about how I did it. I love waking up and having the desert say good morning.”
Cave Creek, Arizona
Architect: Nick Mancusi, AIA, Mancusi Design, Cave Creek, Arizona
Builder: Mancusi Design
Project size: 1,728 square feet
Site size: 0.75 acre
Construction cost: $260 per square foot
Photography: Bryan Black
Cladding: Sto Stucco
Cooking Vent Hood: IKEA
Doors/Windows: Western Window Systems
Faucets: Delta, Blanco
Flooring: Daltile, Marazzi
Home Control System: Apple Home
Lighting: Halo, Juno
Lighting Control: Leviton
Paints, Stains, Coatings: Dunn-Edwards
Security System: Nest
Thermal and Moisture Barriers: FortiFlash
Tub: MTI Bathtub