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Build It for Less: 5 Tips from LA Spec House Designer Leigh Herzig


Build It for Less: 5 Tips from LA Spec House Designer Leigh Herzig

January 15, 2016

LA phenom Leigh Herzig is a self-taught designer-builder who gets things done well and within budget. After masterminding the nicest looking spec house we’ve ever seen—yes, she designed it from the ground up—she teamed up with LA architecture firm Standard to work on two new construction houses. We asked her to fill us in on her discoveries about bang-for-the-buck building materials and finishes.

1. Pave the way with gravel.

My go-to material for driveways and landscaping, gravel is inexpensive, looks great, and is green because it absorbs rainwater back into the soil. On driveways I insert a honeycomb sheet called EZ Roll Gravel Pavers under the gravel and it provides more support—it feels like you’re walking on firm hardscape instead of loose stones.

leigh herzig spec house pool area west hollywood photographed by laure joliet | 17

Above: Herzig paired poured concrete with gravel dividers in the Palladian pool area of her first spec adventure, a 4,000-square-foot West Hollywood house: See Hollywood Tale. Learn all about gravel and edging on Gardenista. Photograph by Laure Joliet.

2. Get the look of steel with wooden windows and doors. 

Old factory-style steel-frame designs are so popular right now—and so expensive. I discovered that you can custom make your wood doors and windows to resemble steel. It’s all about the proportions: You want the mullions that divide the glass and the frame around the door or window as thin as possible. The mullions on the doors shown below, for example, are 5/8-inches thick; they’re also square instead of the more traditional ogee profile, which further helps mimic the look of steel. I eliminated the vertical mullion of each window pane to get the right ratio of glass to wood. And I finished the windows by painting the frames black eggshell.

You can get this look by working with any custom wood window manufacturer; I used a local LA company Kobi Windows. The results give the overall feel of steel doors and windows, but not an identical look—they wouldn’t be mistaken for steel on close inspection, but they can be really effective in the context of a room.

wood framed windows that look like steel in a west hollywood spec house by leig 18

Above: Proportioning and a black finish lend these wood-frame windows and doors in Leigh Herzig’s spec house the look of steel. Photograph by Laure Joliet.

3. Discover brick veneer.

I love glazed brick tiles, such as Fireclay tile and Waterworks’ Grove Brickworks, but they’re costly. An alternative I’ve discovered is to apply inexpensive brick veneer tile and paint it with a high-gloss durable paint. It’s an economical, DIY way to get the look and can be used both indoors and out. Pre-glazed brick tile is about $18 per square foot; unfinished brick tile is about $4 per square foot.

economical black painted brick veneer tiles in a kitchen by leigh herzig | remo 19

Above: Painted brick veneer is an affordable way to get the look of glazed tile for less. Leigh used it here in an LA house that she remodeled and flipped.

4. Consider polished concrete flooring.

Concrete is an inexpensive, incredibly durable choice: You can just polish the poured concrete foundation itself. The results are easy to maintain and they look amazing. I haven’t seen a colored concrete floor I like; I’m into the natural gray, grayish white, and dark gray to black colors. True, concrete isn’t the easiest material to stand on for long stretches, but it pairs well with throw rugs.

tiina laakonen's house in the hampstons, photograph by matthew williams for rem 20

Above: Diamond-polished concrete floors in Tiina Laakonen’s Amagansett, New York, living room. See more of the house in Rhapsody in Blue: A Finnish Stylist at Home in the Hamptons. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.

5. Create wall texture with plaster.

Plaster walls have a luminous, natural quality to them: They appear to move as the sun passes through, allowing the rooms to breathe with light. But as beautiful as they are, they’re costly to install, costly to repair, and tricky to fit into a construction schedule. In my spec house, I splurged on Venetian stucco in the public rooms and used matte paint upstairs to mimic the look of plaster.

A fellow builder, Mark Henkel, recently introduced me to a problem-solving alternative, Silk Plaster by John Kingsmill, that I hope will become my go-to. Technically it’s not a plaster because it’s acrylic based, but like plaster it’s troweled on and it looks and feels almost identical—for about half the cost. It’s spot repairable, so nicks and scratches are easily fixed without having to redo the entire wall. Also there’s flexibility in how it can be applied, which is so important when you’re managing several trades at once and on a tight schedule.

venetian plaster wall in leigh herzig's spec house in west hollywood photograph 21

Above: A Venetian plaster wall in the front hall of Leigh’s spec house. Photograph by Laure Joliet.

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Frequently asked questions

Who is Leigh Herzig?

Leigh Herzig is a Los Angeles-based designer and builder with over twenty years of experience in the industry.

What are some affordable materials and finishes that Leigh Herzig recommends for building?

Leigh Herzig recommends using concrete, plywood, cement board, paint, and laminate as affordable materials and finishes for building.

What are some tips for using concrete in building?

Leigh Herzig recommends using concrete for flooring and countertops, adding color pigment to concrete for a unique look, and using a matte finish sealer.

What are some tips for using plywood in building?

Leigh Herzig recommends using plywood for cabinets and furniture and painting or staining it for a finished look.

What are some tips for using cement board in building?

Leigh Herzig recommends using cement board for bathroom walls and countertops, and using a water-resistant joint sealant.

What are some tips for using paint in building?

Leigh Herzig recommends using high-quality paint, using a primer, sanding in between coats, and using a matte or eggshell finish.

What are some tips for using laminate in building?

Leigh Herzig recommends using laminate for countertops and flooring, and choosing a high-pressure laminate for durability.

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