The Design Process: What to Keep in Mind, and What Not to Forget

by Steve CookAugust 31, 2016

To design the home of your dreams, you have three basic options: hire an architect or designer who will work with you and your general contractor; hire a design and build firm that provides design services as an integrated package, or design the home yourself with the help of a professional expert in local building codes, permitting and mechanical systems.

There are plusses, minuses, and trade-offs involved in each option. Working with an architect will increase your upfront costs, but a professional will diminish your risk of making costly mistakes or ending up with a building that falls short of your vision. If you have experience in home design, you can save a lot by using software programs and websites that offer finished views of prepared plans. A design-build firm can save you money by coordinating design and construction deadlines, but your new home may look like half a dozen others in town.

Image of people planning interior decorating design of new home
No matter how you choose to go about creating blueprints for your new home, you should undertake a step-by-step process to ensure that your design will result in the home you want by creating a pre-plan. Everything starts with the basic design of the house. And the design of the house should always start with some solid pre-planning.

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know when you get there. Pre-planning tells you where you are going. It is the most important step in house design, regardless of whether you’re picking out standard plans or designing everything from scratch. It’s the time when you figure out what your goals are, how you would like your house to live, how big it should be, what your budget is, and many other criteria and goals.

Image of small model house with blueprints showing design of house and floor plans
Good pre-planning is a balancing act. One aspect of the house will always influence other aspects. The trick is to maximize all aspects without letting anything suffer severely at the hands of another. Every good house design needs an organizing concept. The best houses give you the sense that everything is in the right place. And good house design tends to look like it was easy to create, even if it wasn’t. It’s like watching a great athlete. You know what they are doing is hard, but they make it look effortless. If you plan your house out well, analyze the site, work with an organizing concept, and keep referring to your program to be sure you are designing a house that fulfills it, success is a near certainty.

Pre-planning gives you a yardstick by which to measure any design. If you’re picking plans, instead of simply deciding if you like one house design or another, you can evaluate how well each plan fulfills your program. You’ll be more prepared to make a hard choice that requires compromise or an alternative approach. Decisions are easier to make.

Articulate what you want

Image of plans, ruler and pencil
Begin the design process by determining as a family and your priorities for the new home. Start with your lifestyle. Do you want ample public spaces to entertain, with large spaces to mingle, dine and cook? Is privacy for each family member more important? Do you live on a hill with scenic vistas that you suggest picture windows in public places? What about storage space, garage, fireplaces, dad’s den, workshop or hobby center, mom’s study, AV spaces? Do you want an entryway that makes a statement with a vaulted ceiling or something more modest? How many beds and baths? How large should they be? What about special touches like an atrium, skylights, solar heating?

Make a list. Agree on priorities in the likely event that you will have to make compromises to meet your budget, and write them down on paper. Keeping working on your list until you are satisfied that it is complete.

Pick a style and stick to it

Image of interior design models
Avoid a home that looks like a mishmash of different eras and tastes. Settle on a style you like, one that will blend in with the neighborhood, whether modern or traditional. Do you want open, public spaces throughout your home or smaller rooms to facilitate privacy? In addition to expressing your personal tastes, you need to think about your home’s future value. Eclectic designs that don’t fit in with local styles run the risk of being difficult to sell or sell for less than they would otherwise.

Keep to your budget

Is adding that extra room going to stretch your budget too far? Do you really need skylights to brighten a room? Can your guest bedroom double as a home office or study? Can you make design changes that don’t compromise your priorities but save you in labor and materials? Your dream home won’t be much fun if you end up making yourself house poor for thirty years.

Work with your architect or designer and your general contract to rough out a budget for your plan so that you can make informed decisions about “extras” and tradeoffs in your plan. Don’t get too close to the maximum for which your lender has approved you. Be sure to leave a sizable percentage of your to cover unexpected costs. Remember, after you build your home, you’ll want to furnish it.

Image of home design budget

Fit into the environment

There is nothing worse than seeing a house that is inappropriate to a piece of property and was plopped down willy-nilly. Often the best views are ignored, the house does not look as good as it could, the solar orientation is wrong, and the house is less energy efficient than it might have been, the rooms are dark, or a host of other problems.

Many jurisdictions have codes governing the size of the house compared to the lot (the “plot ratio”), distance from the street and access to utilities. Gated communities and historic districts have strict rules governing new construction. Even if you are building in a typical neighborhood, you will find your new neighbors will be friendlier, and your new home will be worth more if it complements rather than contrasts with the overall style and size of surrounding homes.

Green features save money

It’s much less expensive to build green features into your home than to retrofit in future years. Solar heating, an attic fan, double paned windows, geothermal heat, extra insulation, a heat pump—these are just some of the energy-saving decisions you should consider in the design process.

Armed with your pre-plan, you’re ready to find a professional to turn your notes into a blueprint unless you want to create your own design with prepared designs and blueprints. As you work with professionals, be flexible. The condition of your lot, local labor costs and materials, the weather, and other variables beyond your control may force you to change your construction schedule and even your design. Your pre-plan will help you navigate the difficult decisions to come successfully and remain true to your vision.


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About The Author
Steve Cook
Steve Cook is editor and co-publisher of Real Estate Economy Watch. He is a member of the board of the National Association of Real Estate Editors and writes for several leading Web sites, including Inman News. From 1999 to 2007 he was vice president for public affairs at the National Association of Realtors.
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