Utter the word “custom” and visions of sprawling floor plans, lavish finishes, and top-of-the-line everything often come to mind. You know—those palatial playgrounds of the rich and famous that make for good television, and make average homeowners feel inadequate.

Some would argue that constructing a castle isn't so hard when space is unlimited and the budget knows no ceiling. A bigger challenge is seeing what sort of custom magic an architect or builder can conjure up with a less-than-perfect lot, a menu of (mostly) off-the-shelf materials, and an interior space limited to less than 3,000 square feet.

As the projects on the following pages show, a one-of-a-kind house doesn't have to be over the top. And custom craftsmanship needn't be a pleasure limited to the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. But when the parameters are tight, it does take a little extra forethought, ingenuity, and elbow grease to make the dream a reality.

Hip To Be Square

Commercial-grade materials find a home outside of Memphis.

Filling in one of the last remaining lots in a New Urbanist enclave of 950 homes wasn't an easy task for the design team at Memphis, Tenn.–based archimania. Sixteen years into the development of Harbor Town, a suburb of Memphis, the community's steady march of wood siding and tidy trim was beginning to feel redundant, although residents were leery of industrial materials and forms. Plus, the site wasn't exactly a no-brainer. The wedge-shaped parcel backed up to a pond and walking trail, meaning a front-loaded garage was inevitable. The reason was, the lot's scant 32 feet of street frontage left little room for anything but a garage out front.

Other homes on the block had downplayed their garages with second-story gables and trellises. Architect Todd Walker's modernist riff on this theme places a cantilevered mass, clad in orange corrugated metal, above a garage of cementitious panels. For contrast, an adjacent secondary volume (which houses a study and shelters a side courtyard from the street) is skinned in redwood. The materials are unorthodox, Walker concedes, but their horizontal orientation respects the rhythm of neighboring homes with clapboard siding. “As that redwood slowly fades to gray over time, it will begin to make a statement of permanence and anchor the house in its location,” he adds.

BD070301103L1.jpgCLICK HERE FOR IMAGE GALLERY© Jeffrey Jacobs Architectural Photography

BD070301103L1.jpgCLICK HERE FOR IMAGE GALLERY© Jeffrey Jacobs Architectural Photography

BD070301103L1.jpgCLICK HERE FOR IMAGE GALLERY© Jeffrey Jacobs Architectural Photography

BD070301103L1.jpgCLICK HERE FOR IMAGE GALLERY© Jeffrey Jacobs Architectural Photography

WINDOW DISPLAY: Custom glazing was this home's big-ticket item. An intimate courtyard facing  south blurs the boundaries between indoors and outdoors with large expanses  of low-E glass.

WINDOW DISPLAY: Custom glazing was this home's big-ticket item. An intimate courtyard facing south blurs the boundaries between indoors and outdoors with large expanses of low-E glass.

Credit: © Jeffrey Jacobs Architectural Photography

TALL ORDER: The home's corrugated metal siding lays horizontal in front, but turns vertical  toward the back, emphasizing the two-story massing of the elevation facing  the pond.

TALL ORDER: The home's corrugated metal siding lays horizontal in front, but turns vertical toward the back, emphasizing the two-story massing of the elevation facing the pond.

Credit: © Jeffrey Jacobs Architectural Photography

INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH: Inside, warm woods are offset by 6-inch, steel pipe columns, open cable railings, and  a muscular fireplace surround of 1-inch ceramic tile. The round  vents of a high-pressure HVAC system (seen in the ceiling fascia) serve as  aesthetic elements in their own right.

INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH: Inside, warm woods are offset by 6-inch, steel pipe columns, open cable railings, and a muscular fireplace surround of 1-inch ceramic tile. The round vents of a high-pressure HVAC system (seen in the ceiling fascia) serve as aesthetic elements in their own right.

Credit: © Jeffrey Jacobs Architectural Photography

The 2,833-square-foot, three-bedroom home maintains a low profile in front, but its persona in back is less reserved. The rear elevation features a striking wall of double-height aluminum commercial storefront windows, topped by an exaggerated overhang that protects the house from the harsh afternoon sun. The overhang provides structural support for a metal-grate balcony off the master bedroom.

The interiors are no less dramatic, and yet they are cost-conscious. Exposed glulam beams, birch plywood cabinetry, a hickory floor, and ceilings of exposed 2x6 tongue-in-groove wood decking lend warmth and texture to the home's open, communal spaces. Neutral compositions of wood and steel are punctuated by vibrant accent walls. Built-in shelving at the top of an open cable-rail staircase is topped by a clerestory glass wall, allowing light to stream into the master bedroom while maintaining privacy.

Total square feet: 2,833

Lot price: $150,000

Construction cost: $285,600

Cost per square foot: $100

Total price tag: $576,000

Project: Orange House, Harbor Town, Tenn.; Size: 2,833 square feet; Builder: Pantik Homebuilders, Memphis, Tenn.; Architect/Interior designer: archimania, Memphis photos: jeffrey jacobs architectural photography