The architectural canon is filled with great projects that flourished despite limitations. For Roberto de Leon, AIA, LEED AP, and M. Ross Primmer, AIA, principals of De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop in Louisville, Ky., a small budget helped the firm create a light-filled office space with enough room to accommodate living quarters for the principals and an apartment for summer interns.

De Leon and Primmer set out to find commercial office space in an existing building, but they changed course and instead sought a vacant lot to build something new. “It was a very pragmatic decision,” Primmer says. “We looked at a lot of buildings but none seemed to fit.” But even this plan had problems—mainly, a meager $230,000 to spend. As a result, the duo (with the bank’s encouragement) decided that a live/work project was the only way to make the endeavor financially feasible.

A long search yielded three narrow lots in the city’s Gallery District, a downtown neighborhood made up of a diverse mixture of building types. “Positioned mid-block, the project site is located among clapboard shotgun homes, brick mixed-use storefronts, and an early century firehouse complex,” de Leon says. The building had to fit within the framework of the budget, de Leon explains, so it “couldn’t be more straightforward.”

The firm used common pole-barn construction for economy, with pressure-treated wood framing arranged on a standard 12-foot column grid and corrugated metal siding. “It was a way to make the project viable,” de Leon says. The ground floor features an office, wood shop, and a guest suite for summer interns, while the second level houses two one-bedroom condos—one for each partner. Primmer explained that the intern apartment is important for attracting talent. “We may not be able to compete with the bigger cities, but a free room can offset a lower salary,” he says.

To manage the budget, the partners used common off-the-shelf materials and simple finishes that include drywall and white paint. In a stroke of modest detailing, the firm selected circular fluorescent light tubes mounted to contractor-grade porcelain sockets as a nod to flowering trees in the courtyard. To fit within the simple volume, the firm shifted the floor framing in height to interlock spaces volumetrically without increasing framing spans. “Light is the biggest luxury,” Primmer says. “We took a simple barn shape and sculpted apertures to get light.”

The building is located in a vibrant neighborhood with restaurants, art studios, and galleries. As a gesture to this vibe, the firm inserted a side courtyard, large entry shutters, and pedestrian-scaled elements.

Though de Leon and Primmer had no intention of doing a new building, the fortuitous circumstances led to this urban mixed-use building that benefits the neighborhood as well as the inhabitants and the firm. Living where you work is more sustainable and great, de Leon says, but it comes with drawbacks. “It’s a catch-22,” he jokes. “It’s highly recommended, but sometimes it’s hard to remove yourself from work.”