MCDhouse | “The $12,000 Green Dream Home”

Huntsville (greater Houston area), Texas
Design, Engineering, and Construction | 2006
Client: M.C.D.
Cost: $12,000 (excluding land and permits)
Size: 484 S.F. (legal, interior) + 730 S.F. semi-covered outdoor space and loft
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The MCDhouse was designed to prove that living in harmony with nature is not a hindrance to comfort and affordability, but a means to radically improve the way we live. There are many ways to describe the MCDhouse, but ultimately it is the realization of an “impossible” dream: to create a comfortable, elegant home that is cost-free, energy-free, and has zero impact on the earth.

In brief, the MCDhouse is a house that cost less than a car ($12,000), allowing a single-mother artist to own her own home. It is a house that keeps itself cooled, warmed, and lit by the sun and the wind—that has $60 electricity bills in a region with 100° F+ summer temperatures where houses average $400+/month. It is a house that evades taxes by design and is built around a tree as a reminder of how pleasant nature can be when we cooperate with it. Built as small as legally possible—with one-fifth the interior square footage of the average American home—the house creates the feeling of space without creating space, and was built almost entirely out of scrap and contractor waste to achieve the lowest embodied energy possible.

Realization of an “Impossible” Dream

Before the MCDhouse existed, no one believed such a house was possible. In fact, it sounded ridiculous. A cost-free house? Zero environmental impact? Impossible. A house with no air conditioning in Texas? Unlikely.

From a traditional viewpoint, it was impossible. But to us it was not impossible: it was a challenge. This is how we did it:

In order to keep the cost as low as possible and to be as close to “zero impact” on the earth, we designed the entire home to be built from salvaged scraps and contractor waste. In doing so we diverted waste (which would have taken up space at landfills) and gave it a new life and meaning. If you look closely, you’ll see that some walls and railings were made from old oak palettes; that windows were made from discarded coffee tables and sliding glass doors turned sideways; that faux “glass block” walls were made from salvaged translucent tiles. Only the roof trusses, plumbing, electrical, insulation, drywall, paint, concrete piers, metal hardware, and a few finishings were purchased new. Approximately 90 percent of the house was built from scraps and salvaged materials.

A second strategy for minimizing cost, resources, and energy for operating the house was to make the house as small as possible—but design it in a way to make it feel big. Not only was the house meticulously designed in order to make it feel larger than it really is; it was also designed to appear larger and thus more dignified from the street. By setting the house back from street, lifting it off the ground, building the house around a large tree, and expanding the roof to cover the house’s outdoor spaces, the house’s perceived size increased dramatically.

We designed the house as small as legally possible for three residents (a mother and two children): 484 S.F. We employed a variety of architectural techniques to make it feel larger, and also added lots of semi-enclosed outdoor space: a covered outdoor dining patio (with washer/dryer), an enclosed outdoor stairwell (with refrigerator underneath), and a large tree-covered deck for lounging or painting. By placing the major heat-producing appliances such as the refrigerator and washer/dryer in these outdoor spaces, we reduced the heat load in the house.

We believe that nature is more beautiful than even the best architecture, and rather than enclose the entire house and cut off nature, we built a house that framed it.

A Cost-Free House? Impossible

It may be impossible to build a house for free, but it is not impossible to build a house which pays for itself in the net savings or value it creates. On the one hand, the MCDhouse cost $12,000 to build, and has a 10-year mortgage which costs $227/month. However, it saves approximately $340/month on energy bills compared to other homes throughout the city by virtue of its energy-efficient design. That’s more than $4,000/year in savings, meaning that in the first three years the home paid for itself. In a way, it is “free.”

We honored the earth by building a small house integrated with nature. And we also saved a lot of money. In reality, the house functions as a 1,200 S.F. house. But for legal purposes, the house is 484 S.F. Instead of being assessed and taxed as a 1,200 S.F. house, it is taxed much lower based on the value of 484 S.F. “comparable” houses.

This might sound like a terrible idea because the amount of tax reflects the sales value. For average houses, this is true. But in the case of the MCDhouse—being extremely unique—the sales price would be determined by what buyers are willing to pay, not the tax-assessed value. Judging from unsolicited offers that have been made (though the home has never been offered for sale), resale value is not a problem.

Building Code Compliance

Despite its radical nature, the MCDhouse meets all standard state and federal residential building codes, including:

International Residential Code (IRC 2003)
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Texas Minimum Construction Standards (TMCS)

In addition, the MCDhouse was built according to strict guidelines for environmental sustainability set forth by the Sustainable Builders’ Guild of Huntsville (SBGH). The SBGH guidelines bear many similarities to LEED guidelines, but preceded LEED for Homes.

As part of the Guild’s agenda, the MCDhouse was built to the minimum square footage allowed by law to show Americans that large homes are not necessary for comfort, functionality, and dignity. The minimum legal size for three residents is 440 S.F. (the size of a standard 2-car garage). The Guild allowed for a 10 percent slippage, or 484 S.F.

For the sake of comparison, the average home in the U.S. is approximately 2,400 S.F., five times the size of the MCDhouse.

Why Can’t We All Have a $12,000 MCDhouse?

People all around the world have asked for their own MCDhouse. Unfortunately, this is not possible.

It is true that the MCDhouse cost $12,000. Depending on whether one counts by legal square footage (484 S.F.), or actual usable square footage (1,214 S.F.), that’s either $24.79/S.F. or $9.88/S.F. respectively. Either way, that’s unheard of in the building industry.

The problem is that this type of house cannot be easily or affordably reproduced. It requires a lot of work to gather enough scrap materials to build an entire house, and it is not easy to find leftover cedar, oak, and all the materials which make the MCDhouse beautiful. Though we obtained all of the materials for free because they were salvaged from dumps, to buy all these materials new would have been expensive.

Even if materials are available, there is a more significant problem: labor. Building with scrap is extremely labor intensive. It takes more time than building with new materials, and also requires a lot of extra talent and knowledge of structures and materials. New, off-the-shelf building materials come with well-known structural values and guidelines for safe installation. Scraps do not. You almost need an engineer on-site constantly, just to approve that each splice and unconventional connection is structurally sound.

Cost and constructability aside, it’s not easy to design an elegant home out of scrap. It requires a lot of design time and a lot of talent. It’s hard enough to design a beautiful, ecological, structurally-sound house from expensive new materials. But imagine if you had to design every construction detail, and invent how each of the thousands of scraps will come together to make that “beautiful” house. It would be analogous to digging through trash cans and scraping old plates to find ingredients from which to make the perfect Thanksgiving dinner. In reality, it requires that the designer be available for constant questioning and design-detailing.

As one can guess, with the exponential increase in design and labor efforts, the cost savings gained by building with scrap quickly dissolve and the proposition loses feasibility. Building with salvaged materials may be good for the environment, but it does not save money. And if it’s not done exceptionally well, the home will have no resale value and may not last very long. Bear in mind that professional builders will not deal with scrap, so if you start and cannot finish, it may be hard to find someone to finish for you.

The only reason the MCDhouse could be built for $12,000 is that it was designed and built as a volunteer effort in order to test ideas and prove a point. Sadly, it cannot be reproduced at a similar price. The adiaHouse is our most recent attempt at an affordable, simplified and reproducible alternative.

Client Testimonial

"....Our home is awesome, and we owe it all to Lukas Petrash!!! He has given his heart, his time, and his intelligence to craft the perfect home for our needs." - M.C.D.

We felt the best way to summarize the client's feelings about our services and the house was to provide a letter written by the client in support of Lukas's application to Harvard University. We requested (and were granted) permission from the client to post the full contents of the letter below:


To the Powers that Be at Harvard;

Lukas Petrash is a young man in whom I have a deep and abiding pride and respect. As an architecture student, he has taken many of the textbook ideas and theories of energy-efficient, sustainable housing, and made them a reality in the home he has designed for my family. He has also managed to combine true artistry and craftsmanship in his work. I strongly believe in his problem-solving skills, his dedication to a project, and his ability to pursue scientific investigations involving design.

The house Lukas designed and built at 905 Ave. H is a part of the Federal Government’s Homebuyer’s Assistance Program. Through the ‘Sustainable Builder’s Guild’ and the ‘City of Huntsville’, we became part of a grant assistance program. This allows 1st time homeowners of lower incomes, to build their own homes using recycled materials. The rules are countless. In order to be granted a forgivable loan of $10,000.00 upon completion, the homeowners must pass every inspection and comply with city codes and regulations. Only a small square footage for the house design is allowed- according to the number of family members. Friends and family help build this home, and we have a mentor who tells us what to do, and how to do it. In our case, our mentor was Lukas, and he didn’t just tell us what to do… he did it. Approximately 85% of this house was built with his own hands. He began the project July of 2005, and will finish it by June 31st, 2006.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about our house. It is a post and beam construction, 5 feet off the ground, and sits on a slight hill from the street level. I am a believer in natural light and air, so the house has been built in a loft/lodge design and is designed for maximum energy efficiency. We have a tankless water heater, and in the near future we’ll have a cistern system which collects rainwater to use it later for washing, flushing, and watering plants.

As one looks up toward the house and circular deck, the eye is captivated by the many areas of interest. Our house reads like a fine painting. The eye sees a focal point, and then continues to travel to other areas of interest and back again. Our house is a unique design, with a Japanese feel to it. Floating steps with iron and wood railings lead to a spacious front deck encircling a 60 foot tree. The circle of the deck flows down the side of the house under two bay windows to become a ramp. There is a constant breeze on the deck, as there is in the interior of the house. Natural air flows through the sliding French doors on one side, and an enclosed deck/stairwell area on the other side. There is plenty of flowing air, and the heat rises to leave the house through a vented metal roof. Viola! Our house is a breathing creation!

As a problem-solver, Lukas has shown some real initiative and inventiveness. The program allowed ONLY 487 sq. ft. of floor space/living space for a family of three! We were allowed to use the space under the ceiling to create a half story, and we were allowed to use as much deck space as we wanted. Lukas put our dining area on the patio deck (toward the back) and this space was enclosed under the roof of the house. (This is the same area of the sliding French doors.) He included another deck area outside of the kitchen door which is also under the roof. This area is slatted and lets in the outside air, but also serves as a stairwell to the artist’s loft area. He designed the downstairs with 6 different bay areas which include: bookshelves, study areas, art display cabinets, and a bathroom sink and counter. We now have 1100 sq. ft. of usable space!

As an inventor, Lukas has devised a water filtering system. The bathroom bay has an exposed sink and drain pipe system which shows on the front exterior. Odd? The drain water from the sink flows through pipes with a special filtering system, and waters the plant troughs beneath. It is a “visual clue” to the concept of the entire house design.

In the bathroom, the main focal point is a wall of 12” sq. marble tiles in a grid design. He created a Trombe wall by using a large plate glass, double-paned window on the outside bath wall. Then he used a 3/4” board to cut out 11” squares, in which he then mounted 12” marble tiles, and then grout. This is a grey-veined white marble and it has a translucent, soft glow during the day when the light shines through. It is simply lovely!

Upstairs is an artist loft where there is another large window. He will use the Trombe idea to heat and cool by creating a moveable wall in front of the window. It will be an interchangeable wall mounted with ceramic tiles, to conduct the heat, and will be changed around according to season.

The downstairs shared bedroom is interesting in that it has 2 ladder climb-through accesses to the loft area. Study/sitting areas are arranged between the trusses to maximize usable space. The opposite side of the loft area is for storage/attic space. Every available space has been used EXCEPT for the high ceiling area in the living room. This looks up to a huge, double-paned window that looks out to the sky and treetops.

Our home is awesome, and we owe it all to Lukas Petrash!!! He has given his heart, his time, and his intelligence to craft the perfect home for our needs.

Lukas fulfills ALL of the requirements of a future graduate student. He is a free thinker, courageous in his pursuit of new ideas, and a dedicated worker with strong convictions. He deserves to go to Graduate School, and he will unquestionably bring pride to your great University!




A lot of care and effort from many people went into the creation of this house. We are grateful to all those whose heart and help made this possible, and would like to especially thank the following people:

John and Tina Cornell
Goetz Schierle, PhD, FAIA
Grace Anna Petrash
Jack and Kay Petrash
Daniel and Natalia Droz
Stephen Cornell
Philip Cornell
Jeff Lee
Frank Williams
Steve Kelley
John-Paul Petrash
Terry Yeaman
Jeff Cross
Luis Ospina
Victor Garcia
Mark Corley
Chris Lin

Lukas Petrash Adia Design Company Affordable Design Innovation Architecture International Prefabrication Adia Adia Lukas Petrash Adia Design Company Affordable Design Innovation Architecture International Prefabrication Adia Adia