Designing a Custom Home

Virgil Carter Fine Art
5 years ago
last modified: 5 years ago

This thread is an attempt to help those fortunate enough to be in a position to design a new custom home on land that they own. This forum is full of requests to "help me with my plan" and "help me with my new home", and so this is an effort to begin a discussion which may be a helpful reference for everyone who is, or who wishes to be, in the wonderful position of considering a new home, whether it's a first home, a retirement home, or something in between.

I invite my professional colleagues to join in with their ideas and experiences, as well as consumers who have successfully completed and occupied their custom home. A wide range of ideas and experiences will make this thread good reference tool for the future, which is its goal.

There are four primary and influential considerations for the design (and subsequent construction) of a new custom home. The four are: 1) the site; 2) the desired functions; 3) the architectural envelope; and 4) the budget. Of course, there are many and various other considerations to take into account in the design of any custom home, but these are the Big Four.

A word of caution: for success, all four of these considerations must be explored, understood and taken into consideration, together, from the beginning to the end of the design of a custom home. Ignoring, forgetting and just letting the local draftsman take care of one or more of these during the design of a custom home is courting disaster, or at the very least an expensive and time-consuming disappointment.

Let's take a quick look at the Big Four, what each consists of and why each is important.

  1. The Site

Frank Lloyd Wright said a "house is and of its site". Unless one's site is a tight, constricted and minimal urban site where design alternatives are virtually non-existent, almost every strong house design begins with a detailed and creative site analysis, considering a wide range of influences on a design for the specific property. These influences can be very wide-ranging and have very important budget implications! Many books have been written on the subject, but among the many important things to consider at the very outset are: the buildable site envelope (setbacks, easements, flood zones, etc., all impact the buildable area); topography and surface drainage; views to and from the site (both desirable and undesirable views); sun path (particularly important for passive solar design strategies); climatic conditions (particularly seasonal adverse weather); primary access points to the site; public utility locations; existing landscaping and man-made improvements which are to remain; suitable locations for wells and septic systems (if needed); suitable locations for any desired new outdoor/landscape improvements (swimming pool, special recreational areas, indoor-outdoor entertaining, etc.). Because of the strong impact on design of all of these influences, many architects and design professionals begin here. It is a point of beginning generally not understood by consumers!

  1. Desired Functions

The highly influential French architect Le Corbusier said, "...Une maison est une machine-à-habiter..." or "A house is a machine for living in". In other words, Corbusier is saying that houses are tools we use to live and we happen to live inside them. Thus, the desired functions of a house are of great importance. The challenge, in our First-World, 21st Century environment, is to identify and separate our desired "needs" from our desired "wants". If that's not enough of a challenge, we must also identify and establish some sort of priority relationships and adjacencies for our needs and wants. Said differently, we simply cannot have all of our "needs" available to us as soon as we walk through the front door...or any door. Thus, we must begin our design efforts by first establishing primary and secondary adjacencies for our needs (and as many of our wants as we can afford). For example, is it of primary importance that the kitchen and dining space be as close together as possible? Is locating the master bedroom close to the garage of secondary importance? Or is it of any importance at all?

Good architectural design begins by exploring and establishing adjacency diagrams of all needed functional areas. Once it's clear about the important primary and secondary adjacencies (and the functions with few important adjacencies), and the site influences are understood, early architectural design explorations can begin.

The goal of early architectural design is to explore and find a strong and durable design concept which appears to meet the tests of site, function, architectural envelope and budget. Once that concept--the parti--is established, more detailed design studies can productively take place.

  1. Architectural Envelope

The American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase "form follows function", a principle associated with modernist architecture and industrial design in the 20th century. The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose. While this is a rather controversial statement, not necessarily believed by many noted architectural "form makers", the phrase serves to introduce the importance in the design of a custom home (or any building), of the creative exploration of the architectural envelope.

By the envelope, I am talking about both the external form and style, and at the same time, the interior spatial design and sequences. In other words, the form, style, space and massing of both the exterior and interior of a potential custom home.

Most non-architects simply don't understand that successful strong designs must always consider exploration of desired functions and the architectural envelope simultaneously and together, at the same time, until both reach a satisfactory solution point. In other words, what happens on the inside affects the outside; what happens on the outside affects the inside.

The successful design of a custom home must continually look and explore design ideas and directions from both the inside and the outside of the house, if the final design is to be strong and successful. One simply cannot design the interior of a custom home by intensely studying the interior floor plan in isolation, and hope to paste some sort of intelligent design on the exterior when the floor plans are "finished".

So many consumers seem to think, "well I have to have a floor plan to show the architect what I am thinking, and s/he will just tidy everything up after that!".

Unfortunately, strong architectural design doesn't happen that way. Good design isn't simply pasted on at the end! It happens by taking into account all of the first three preceding considerations for design, simulataneously and consistently, plus the following one.

  1. Budget

Perhaps nothing causes greater concern with a custom home than concern about the budget. Or at least that's the way it should be. The purpose of designing a custom home is to have it meet a family's needs and to get it built for the family's budget. Make sense?

Unfortunately, it frequently doesn't work out that way for a wide variety of reasons. There are many, many reasons why this may happen. Consumers, architects, builders, economic changes, materials and labor costs, changes in interest rates, etc., all can contribute to a house more expensive than anyone thought or desired.

One of the most common areas of unexpected costs may be when consumers believe they can and need to save money by limiting architectural services and fees to those necessary for the preparation of only very basic drawings sufficient for building permit approvals. These sorts of drawings often result in a wide range of "allowances" when it comes time for a general contractor to give a construction cost to the owners. The "allowances" are necessary because all of the details and specifications of the project have not been completed, requiring the general contractor to "allow" certain sums for all of the work, fixtures, fittings and equipment needed to complete the project, but as yet unidentified.

There is no greater trap door waiting for owners of a custom home project than this--allowances!

The more allowances, the bigger and deeper the potential trap door for added and unexpected expenses. If there is one mantra for controlling costs, it may probably be eliminate all allowances!

Thus, for most custom home owners, it's worth a serious discussion with your architect or design professional of what it will take to produce a set of construction documents which will fully identify all major work, fixture, fittings and equipment, and which will have zero, or minimal, allowances.


So that's a quick look at the Big Four elements of designing a custom home. Hopefully, this will serve to start a useful discussion and reference for designing a custom home.

What should a consumer begin to do before meeting with their architect or design professional?

Here's my recommendations:

--Have in hand a detail site plan with topographic contours and other applicable information;

--Prepare a written summary of "needs", "wants", and any other pertinent information;

--Collect some exterior and interior photos of appealing residential architecture;

--Agree with you spouse on your construction budget and schedule

--Take all of these to your preferred architect and have an exploratory meeting to see if the personal chemistry and approaches are compatible.

--Check the architect's references and similar past projects

That's really all that's needed. No one really needs to attempt to prepare a floor plan to hand to an architect, any more than one needs to bring a sandwich to a 3-Michelin star restaurant!

Comments and critique are welcome!

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