MOUNT PLEASANT -- Architect Tom Baker eyes the dozen simple but spacious Habitat for Humanity homes on McAdams Court and hesitates to describe his contribution here as "architecture."

"It's almost more packaging than architecture," he says, "so many bedrooms and bathrooms at the least possible cost."

Baker retired as a U.S. Navy architect in 1995, but he hasn't slowed down much since then.

He spends between 20 and 40 hours a week helping design affordable homes across the Lowcountry. He has worked on almost 50 of them, mostly Habitat for Humanity homes like the ones here in the Phillips Community.

Along the way, he has become an expert at the art of the possible: how to design a safe, solid and functional home for the fewest dollars -- and in such a fashion that can be built by unskilled volunteers rather than professional carpenters and tradesmen.

"You don't want a volunteer on a steep roof," he says. "The real challenge is to balance the cost of construction and the usefulness for the folks who are going to live in it. It's a real struggle."

Greg Thomas, executive director for Sea Island Habitat for Humanity, says Baker contacted him with a volunteer offer out of the blue years ago several years ago when Thomas worked for East Cooper Habitat. Together, they have worked on dozens of homes and three major design evolutions to improve energy efficiency and livability.

"A Habitat home is only 1,200 square feet," Thomas says. "Tom looks for all of the efficiencies because he knows in a small house, you can't take any space for granted. He makes the maximum use of the space."

The dozen McAdams Court bungalows represent the culmination of what he's learned so far. The rectangular homes have at least three bedrooms and two baths, but they also have subtle differences like homes in more expensive neighborhoods. Their colors, porch detailing and other trim varies from home to home, avoiding a cookie-cutter look.

Baker also has volunteered with Rural Missions on Johns Island, the Charleston Area Community Development Corporation, Charleston's Redevelopment and Preservation Commission and the Lowcountry Housing Trust.

Not that everything has been a big success. His design for a home on Charleston's Reid Street was scuttled when the Board of Architectural Review started suggesting details that the nonprofit group figured would blow up the budget. It was never built.

And Baker worries that many of the Habitat homes he has worked on are in rural areas where residents must have a car.

But he also takes pride in a few simple design moves that create a comfier home, whether it's a push to add a vaulted ceiling in the living space or placing double windows near a corner so the dining area is bathed in natural light.

Along York Street in Mount Pleasant, one of his homes is stepped back so its side doesn't interfere with branches from a large existing oak in the backyard.

His work was recognized earlier this year when the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina gave him its Malcolm DeHaven award, recognizing his volunteer contributions.

The shy, soft-spoken Baker says he's grateful for those who wanted to recognize him but almost embarrassed by the attention. He admits he froze and was unable to say much of anything when presented with the award.

He sums up his volunteer work this way: "It was just doing what I like to do."

Robert Behre may be reached at 937-5771 or by fax at 937-5579. His e-mail address is rbehre@postandcourier.com, and his mailing address is 134 Columbus St., Charleston, SC 29403.