Before Seeing a Designer
So you've decided to build a custom home! Maybe it's been a lifelong dream, or maybe it's been brought on by recent circumstances… but you've decided to brave all the horror stories you've heard about how building a home strains marriages and breaks budgets. You've had it with houses that were designed with some one else's needs in mind - or maybe nobody's if truth be told. You want a home designed for you and the way you live.
So start with a wish list. Actually, this process should be a matter of cascading wish lists - what starts out as a general wish list will eventually evolve to a series of wish lists: one for the kitchen, one for the master bath, one for the living room, etc. You could make matters simple by starting with the details, but my mind doesn't work that way. So I'll describe the process I used, and you can adapt it to suit yourself.
My husband and I started by buying a lot. We lived in a town home on a lake. The town home had lived well when it was a second home but felt cramped once we moved in full time, so we knew it was a temporary solution. We heard about a lot that sounded great - lakefront, facing south (for maximum solar efficiency; see hyperlink). It didn't have trees, other than a few at the waterline - that was a negative, because we love trees. But we rationalized that it would be easy enough to plant trees after we build, and the lack of trees would make building easier. The new subdivision already had water and electricity running under the streets; we'd need to put in a septic tank, but the lot was 1.5 acres and allowed plenty of room. It sloped easily from the cul-de-sac to the water - great for a home with a basement facing the lake. We loved the view. The price was outrageous - but it would only get more outrageous, and living on the lake was high on our priority list.
Another alternative would have been to look for a less-perfect lot with a less-outrageous price. That would have created more challenges in building (if we picked a really steep lot, for example), and probably increased building and/or lot preparation costs - but not as much as the premium we paid for our lot. The lot we picked was the right choice for us, but wouldn't be for everyone.
Now that we had a lot, we could start visualizing a house on it. Wait - I could start visualizing a house on it. My husband is wonderful, but spatial envisioning isn't one of his talents. We have evolved a way to deal with that - he voices any wishes he has about the house (they're few) and I make sure we include those. Other than that, it's up to me. I keep checking in with him, showing him pictures of the sorts of choices I'm leaning towards, and he lets me know if there's anything he doesn't like. I'm lucky - he's pretty agreeable about this sort of thing.
We'd been boating around the lake for years, critiquing the houses we saw being built. We knew what we thought didn't look good on the lake - brick. I like brick - but it just doesn't fit on the lake, at least not to us. Lake living is pretty informal, and we're pretty informal, so we knew we wanted something informal. But now it was time to narrow it down.
We ran through some mega-choices: did we want a log home? At one time we were attracted to log homes, but decided that it wouldn't wear well for us. We've never been attracted to "period homes:" Greek Revival, Colonial, etc. But we also didn't want to build an overtly contemporary home. So we'd narrowed things down a little.
I'm compulsive, so I scavenged 4-5 years of back issues of Southern Living and Better Homes and Gardens from my Mother and went through them all, tearing out pictures of interiors and exteriors and plans that I liked. I sorted them, using an accordion file with slots numbered 1-31. My categories included:
o my current plan, lot drawings, etc.
o other house plans we could work from
o porches and decks
o yards and flowers
By looking through the pictures I'd filed under "exteriors," I realized what style home we wanted - what I call a "cottage" style. The label isn't important - it allowed me to select a few photos and sketches to share with the designer to convey the look we wanted.
I bought several books on home design. The ones I like best are published by Taunton Press, which also publishes the magazine "Fine Homebuilding." I read them avidly, marking ideas I'd like to include in our home with small post-it's. One of the best is Home By Design, which incorporates the ideas of architect Christopher Alexander about patterns in the home and how they work for us. Some of the patterns he identified that help create welcoming living spaces include: the importance of welcoming entries, the importance of rooms getting natural light from at least two sides, private edges around a common core, the progression of public to semi-public to private space, the sheltering roof, ceiling height variety, and (most importantly) suiting any building to the lot on which it's built.
I also bought an inexpensive software program for home design, Home Designer 6.0, which cost less than $100. After spending a couple of days learning how it worked, I produced hundreds of versions of possible plans. The software is fun, in that you can put in a picture of your lot to show as the background in its 3D views. You can select your exterior and interior finishes, and put in furniture, and select colors. The software does have limitations - you can't draw the sunken living room that I wanted; you either go down a whole floor or not at all. And I've always loved house plans, so this wasn't drudgery for me, it was fun.
Drawing the plans allowed me understand what I wanted in our house - which rooms needed to be lakefront, for instance, and which could be on the front of the house. A couple of assumptions I started with - that we'd finish the basement, for example - fell away as I worked with plans. We wanted a lot of unfinished space in the basement, for storage (I have an extensive collection of decorations, as well as just being a general packrat), for my glass fusing work space, for yard and boat implements, for extra outdoor furniture, for my husband's weights and bench, and for the possibility of building a mother-in-law suite sometime in the future. By the time I allowed for all that, it started to make more sense to just leave the basement unfinished.
Architect Christopher Alexander (mentioned earlier) wrote a book called "The Timeless Way of Building," published in 1979. In it, he developed his ideas of "a pattern language" that describes characteristics of homes, buildings and towns that we find welcoming and sheltering. To find these patterns, Alexander says, we have to pay attention to our feelings, not our opinions. We have to pay attention to how things are, he says, not how things ought to be. "Yet it is hard to give up preconceptions of what things 'ought to be,' and recognize things as they really are."
For example, a new need emerged as I paid attention to how we were living and spent imaginary days in the houses I was designing. I realized that my husband had taken over a (usually unused) dining table for his office. I asked if he intended to spend that much time working at home when we were in our new house. "I hope so," he said. Ah - better add an office for him to the plans, close to the back door (because he's going to dump whatever's in his hands when he comes in the door). I realized I needed an office, too, because he frequently asks me to print something, to find something for him, etc. - and I'm the bookkeeper and file clerk for our business. For some couples, one shared office would make sense. But his piles of paper will take over every available space, and so to keep my blood pressure under control, I opted for two smaller offices, both lakefront, rather than one larger one. Lakefront, because if the office were on the front of the house I knew I'd put off going there and keeping up with work and filing.
If I had stayed focused on how things "ought to be," I might have insisted that he "ought" to be keeping all these papers at his office. Or, accepting the necessity or desirability of an office at home, I might have said that my husband and I "ought" to share one office - two being excessive. But instead I focused on how things really are… and so we'll have two offices.
Using the plans I'd found in home magazines that I liked, I drew variations including our priorities, like lakefront living room and master bedroom, two offices, etc. After several months and hundreds of plans, no matter what idea I started with (central hall, this plan or that) . all the plans started looking pretty much alike. Then I knew that I had our wants pretty well understood, and it was time to turn the project over to a professional.
"Why" it was time for a professional may be self-evident to most, but just in case you're wondering why I didn't just get a draftsman to turn my plans into blueprints, I'll spell it out: I'm not a trained home designer. I know what I like, and the software took care of adding wall thicknesses, etc. (which my pencil on graph paper never did!). But even if I'd had the professional version of the software which would accommodate changes in levels, etc., I knew I didn't know how to harmonize the inside and outside. And I don't have the well of experience to draw on (no matter how many wonderful home design books I've read and reread). And I certainly don't know things like which windows or which doors will work best in what situation. Or how thick the foundation walls need to be. Or any one of hundreds more "details" that are important to the structural integrity of the house.
Finding a Designer or Architect
Ask friends and acquaintances - especially if you know anyone who's built a custom home recently. Your local banker may be a resource. You can look on the internet; although all designers do not have an internet presence, many do. So you've found an architect or home designer you are interested in. You set up an initial appointment to meet with him or her and find out how the "chemistry" feels. You'll learn a lot from this first meeting. Is it rushed or relaxed? Is s/he curious and personable or "down to business"?
The designer should explain his/her fees. Don't be hesitant to ask about anything you don't understand. Fees are frequently calculated as a percentage of the cost of building the home. Make sure you know what the fee includes, and what it doesn't include. Typically, it would include:
o inspection of your lot for topography and gradient, to establish any particular challenges in building,
and any features you want to maximize (like a view)
o quizzing you about what you want in your home, how you use it, etc., as input for the design process. These may sound like silly questions, but they are not. We do not all live in our homes in the same way… and given a custom-designed home, the differences will probably be exacerbated, not ameliorated.
o drawing preliminary plans and exterior elevations and projecting a cost to build based on standard assumptions and the input you've provided about how you want the house built
o adjusting the preliminary plans until you're happy with them
o producing a secondary set of plans for your builder to use to project building costs (this is a double-check against reality)
o producing 7 sets of final building blueprints
When you've selected the designer you want to work with, be prepared to pay a retainer - usually 50% of the anticipated fee for services, with the other half due upon completion.
Working with a Designer
In either your initial interview with the designer or your first appointment after engaging him or her, you'll need to provide the designer with as much detail as you can about what it is you want. It's your job to help the designer understand which features are to be dominant in the design of your home, and which are secondary.
Be specific about what you do know, and about what you don't know. If you don't know what style house you want, say so. If you want a main level master bedroom, say so. Be as specific as you can. "Ample closet space" may mean one thing to one person, and something else entirely to a pack rat like myself. Much better to indicate something like "My current closet has 12 linear feet of hanging space, and I need 3 times that."
Be prepared to spend time in this conversation. Depending on how much pre-work you've done, it may need to be 2-3 conversations. Share plans you've found that appeal to you… and explain why they're not exactly what you want. Share pictures of exteriors and interiors that you like, and explain why. The "explain why" part is important. You and I might tear the same kitchen picture out of a magazine, but I might be attracted to it because of the wood and style of cabinets, and you might be drawn to the big windows and all the light coming in, and a third person might be entranced by the baking center with marble countertop. Scribble a note on the picture when you tear it out, explaining what attracted you.
What are your hobbies, and how do they need to be accommodated in the house? Do you need a sewing room or other craft space? A workshop? A place for meditation or yoga or a treadmill? A place for crates for the dogs, a place to give them a bath, a place to store and dispense their food? A game room for a pool table, foosball table, poker table? A place to store boat toys and other outdoor supplies? A potting shed?
What about other special purpose areas? A mud room and mail sorting place? A home office? A screened porch?
How interested are you in making your home energy-efficient? Your designer can offer you a range of possibilities.
When meeting with your designer, don't hold back. Don't be embarrassed about asking any question or expressing your deepest inner desires for your home, even if you think they might be silly. The more of these you reveal to your designer, the easier it is for him/her to design the home of your dreams. If you hold back, you will not be satisfied with your plan, because your designer will not fully understand what you want. Your designer is a professional, and should be able to frankly discuss even the most unusual of ideas for your home. If you find it difficult to put them into words, your designer should be able to help you.
I took my plans to the designer, along with three pages of notes explaining what was important to us (See Notes on Floor Plan below). We talked, and then left him to turn our ideas into a coherent design. Two weeks stretched into four… but eventually we got some initial plans.
I really liked the initial plans we got from Richard MacCrea, our designer. I liked the way that Richard had interpreted and tweaked my design ideas to create a house that was small enough to be feasible (mine had kept getting bigger and bigger) and he'd included everything I thought was important. He'd also done a lot of design work that I hadn't even attempted, like arranging the layout so that the two fireplace/stoves on the main level and the two on the upper level were adjacent and slightly offset from each other.
Once we got the first set of plans, I really went into high gear. I made some notes on the plans - questions and requests - and then made an appointment, and Richard and I spent two hours going through my questions and suggestions, with him making changes as we went. Then he printed me out a revised set of plans. I spent the next day thumbing through all of my home design books, looking at the plans, and peppering Richard with emails with requests like: Can you move the windows to the right of the sink instead of the left? That will put a solid wall where I want to put a tv cabinet on the porch. And: Can we add a window seat in the living room? Is there anyway to have my Tower Room be two steps up from the hall, and give it a ceiling following the roofline?
When we'd originally met with Richard, he'd said that if we would measure any current furniture we intend to put in the new house, he'd draw it into the plan, to make sure it would fit. Now that may sound like overkill, but it's really not. I couldn't measure it all, because some of our furniture that we intend to use is in storage and not really accessible. But here are two examples of why you might want to do that:
1. My plan had been to have stock cabinets built in the offices for desks, etc., instead of buying furniture for them. Richard's imaginative design located one office in an octagonal wing, and it was obvious that tall windows were called for. The whole point of having the offices on the lakeside is to be able to look out while at the desk. Hence, installing cabinetry in front of tall windows made no sense. So Richard and I talked it through, and I realized that with cabinetry on the opposite wall (for printer/fax machine/scanner/copier, etc.), I could use a table for a work surface. We'd just need to specify a cable conduit to get cables between my work surface and the cabinets without them snaking across the floor. And I'd have the view out the tall windows.
2. We wanted a porch or sunroom off the master bedroom upstairs. One thought I had was to use it as a sleeping porch for warm weather (my husband and I would rather avoid air conditioning when we can). The glass sunroom Richard drew was eight feet wide, matching one wing of the screened porch downstairs (and providing a waterproof roof for the porch below). Eight feet wide isn't wide enough for a queen-sized bed (the long side of the porch doesn't face the lake). Richard and I discussed various alternatives. We could widen both porches by 2-3 feet, which would make the glass sunroom wide enough for a queen-sized bed. But it would narrow the adjacent deck downstairs so that there wouldn't be room for a grill on the covered portion of the deck. We explored the idea of doing away with the sunroom - but then making sure that the screened porch roof was waterproof would be expensive. Eventually, we came up with the idea of making that portion of the screened porch two-stories tall - and putting a balcony inside it upstairs off the master bedroom. It probably won't have a bed on it … but unless I knew how I wanted it furnished, it wouldn't be possible to make an informed decision about which option is the best one for us.
Plus, if you have an antique china cabinet that you want to showcase, the designer needs to know about it. If your husband has a favorite recliner that had better end up in the living room, the designer needs to know about it. If you'd prefer to put the TV in an alcove with seating for just the two of you, and not let it intrude into the living room, the designer needs to know. On the other hand, if you want the TV and fireplace located close together so that they can both be the focal point in the living room… the designer needs to know.
What kinds of outdoor spaces do you want, and how should they relate to the indoor spaces? Do you want a porch (screened or not?), a deck, a balcony, a terrace? The designer needs to know.
If you can take the preliminary plans and imagine yourself living in them on a typical weekday, a typical weekend day… you may discover several things you want to add or tweak. We planned an upstairs laundry room, near the master bedroom and my "Tower Room" (a combination study/craft space). As I thought through a typical day, I decided to put a mini-frig in the laundry room, so that I locate a coffee pot (and the necessary cream) upstairs as well as down. Hey - sodas and bottled water, too!
And this is where the planning became iterative. I mentioned having torn pages out of magazines and filing them in various categories. At this point, I pulled out the group of pages filed under "interiors" and sorted them into many more categories:
o Tower Room
o Decorations (as long as I was tearing out pages of things I liked, I included decorations)
o Mud Room
o Craft spaces
o Guest houses and outbuildings (even though we're not planning any at this time; I like the idea for the future)
o Bookcases & built-ins
o Color & furniture
o Art display
o Shapes (repeated patterns such as arches and octagons)
o Basement & attic
o Windows and doors
o Hardware, fans, etc.
o Ceilings & floors
These generated other ideas that I want to include as the house specifications get more detailed. Going through the pages was illuminating…. there were lots of pictures of built-in bookcases. I discerned a pattern there… I have lots of books and things to put on shelves, and I want lots of built-in bookcases. This pattern recognition is important to developing a design that reflects your dreams.
In addition to my accordion file, I had a spiral notebook in which I was making notes. Similar to my files, it started out as a general list and grew more specific. By this point, I had pages for each of the items above, and I would make notes of things to make sure we included, or at least questions to address.
I spent days going through pictures I'd torn out of magazines (and I went through more magazines), trying to determine what the color scheme for the interior of the house would be. You might not agonize over this at all - maybe you absolutely know what colors you want. Finally I was able to find some pictures of the "look" I wanted (even though not the exact colors). It was a matter of balancing the neutrals and the stronger colors I wanted. I decided that the backgrounds (floors, trim, etc.) would be largely neutral, and I would introduce colors through upholstery and painting some of the walls.
I narrowed down the look I wanted for kitchen cabinets (warm wood, with glass fronts on the few upper cabinet doors). We'd already designed a large pantry in the kitchen to eliminate the need for a lot of cabinetry. The pantry will have open shelves, making food and supplies easier to find - and is a lot less expensive than sufficient cabinetry to hold all that stuff! I had thought of cement countertops - until I found out they're more expensive than granite! (Silly me, I had assumed they'd be relatively inexpensive.) So what kind of countertops? I settled on ceramic tile, which I have had before and found to work well. The one drawback is the grout between the tiles can get dirty - my plan is to have the grout colored so that it's close in tone to the tiles.
And then, in one kitchen magazine, I saw iridescent tiles used in a backsplash, and I knew that's what I wanted. Iridescent tiles. It's not a look for everyone, but we aren't building this house for everyone. Our kitchen will have a large island with the cook top and eating area, and I want it surfaced in iridescent tiles. The other two areas of countertop may be plainer tiles, maybe with some accents of the iridescent tiles (which are expensive). Just the thought of coming into the kitchen and seeing those tiles every morning makes my heart sing!
Richard and I went through the preliminary design again. We added in the window seats he'd made room for on the stair landings. We added a floating shelf wrapping around part of the kitchen, to pull together the refrigerator and two pantry doors that were going to be visible from the living room. We talked about kitchen windows - having them go from countertop to ceiling. We planned ceiling heights to accommodate HVAC ducts, to provide variety, and to open up some spaces (like at the base of the stairs). Now we were ready for Richard to draw up the blueprints.
Pat and Janet McCallen
Notes on Floor Plan
1. Pantry in kitchen, with open shelves, to reduce the need for expensive cabinetry, and allow storage of quantities of stuff.
2. At least some of the upper cabinets in kitchen with glass fronts, to display dinnerware, glassware, etc. Windows along the wall over the sink, so no upper cabinets there (in the plan I drew).
3. Island in kitchen, with seating for the two of us (and maybe one more?). Two sinks (one can be a bar sink) to prevent traffic jams. Built-in oven and microwave combination. Easy-care countertops - concrete? Something heat resistant, water resistant. Large side-by-side refrigerator. We don't cook elaborately but both like to be in the kitchen at the same time - and where we are, the dogs are. So it shouldn't be cramped, but should function efficiently. We'll want a small tv in the kitchen, preferably built-in.
4. Two living areas: the one for cool months (living room) and the one for warm months (screened porch). Both need easy access to the kitchen; preferably you can see both from the kitchen.
5. Living room needs to be large enough for a couple of tv's and 3-4 couples watching football, though primary use will be by the two of us and two dogs. Dogs need a LARGE ottoman they can both share with my legs. We really enjoy our LP gas fireplace with a thermostat. Want a wall of glass so that we can enjoy the lake and mountain view, even in cold weather. Living room needs a grid of electrical outlets on the floor, so that no matter how we arrange the furniture, an outlet is close - our current living space has extension cords snaked everywhere for lamps, computers, decorative lighting, etc.
6. Living room sunken a couple of feet? (I couldn't show it on this plan.) Would give greater ceiling height. Would also allow for low bookshelves where the stairs down aren't. I have a picture from a book that illustrates this. Don't know how to reconcile that with the desire to have a full-sized basement.
7. Screened porch will have table and chairs, tv, and sofa and chair. True great room for the summer. Would love a fireplace here - maybe a real one?
8. Grilling deck needs easy access to kitchen.
9. Halls allow good access and traffic patterns without disrupting room use.
10. Dining room will be used mostly at night and doesn't need a lake view.
11. Mud room entrance from the garage. Must have coat pegs and bench and shoe storage. Must have cupboards for pocketbooks, closet for other coats and hats and scarves and mittens. Need a dog-feeding area with proximity to water source and dog food storage area, towel storage area for wet feet.
12. Adjacent to the mud room need to be two small offices, one for Pat and one for Janet, both with view of the lake. An opening at countertop level with a sliding door would be nice, but I need to be able to shut out his clutter and phone conversations. LOTS of electrical outlets for computers and peripherals. Would like to be able to share a printer (cable access through the wall).
13. The guest room can be on this level, and does not need a lake view (we don't expect the guests to spend much day time in the room). The guest bath can serve as the powder room for the main floor.
14. Back stairs to my Tower Room also provide easy access to the laundry room.
15. A door to the front to exit the mud room without opening a garage door. However, we do not want to make this a "friends entrance" or otherwise encourage non-family to come to this door.
16. A window seat on the front stair landing will allow the dogs to look out at the lake and yard.
17. Access from the garage to the fenced yard will allow us to use a doggy door in the garage.
18. Finished concrete floors would be ideal, with area rugs where needed.
1. Master bedroom doesn't need to be huge, but does need a gas fireplace and shelves for a TV,
as well as lots of windows for the lake and mountain view.
2. Screened porch will serve a sleeping porch, and also private space for Janet in the summer (for crafts, writing, etc.).
3. The master bathroom doesn't need to be this huge, but it does need a gas fireplace, a separate compartment for the toilet, a large shower, a Jacuzzi tub, and two sinks. I love the idea of direct access to the screened porch from the master bath.
4. We need separate walk-in closets, mine a little larger than Pat's. All clothes storage will be in the closets - shelves, bins, and rods. No "chest of drawers" elsewhere. They need to accommodate all our clothes - no moving clothes from one closet to the other when the seasons change. I would love a "jewelry closet" either in my closet or in the bathroom - using the space between the framing with pegs for necklaces, grid for earrings, bins for pendants, etc.
5. Need access to attic space to store luggage so we don't have to bring it up two flights of stairs from the basement.
6. Laundry room upstairs near the closets. Needs lots of space to hang wet clothes that need to dry. Might also include a small sink and a mini-fridge.
7. Hallway as library. A place to display photos and other mementos that are just for us, as well as our extensive book collection.
8. Janet's Tower Room - my study, craft space, place to be quiet and not be interrupted or distracted. Needs a deck or other outside access. Needs a window seat for the dogs. Needs lots of bookshelves and/or other storage.
9. Back stairs down to the mud room.
1. Finished bath for easy access from the lake.
Also shower for washing dogs, with hook to restrain them during their bath.
2. Area for refrigerator, shelves for ice chests, boxes of cola, beer, towels, beach bag, etc.
3. Area for pool table and foosball table (not finished).
4. Lots of area for my crafts (kiln, grinder, saw, etc.).
5. Area for exercise equipment.
6. Lots of area for storage - extensive Christmas and Santa collection.
7. Lots of area for storage of lawn mower, lake toys, etc.
8. Area for possible future expansion - sauna, mother-in-law suite, rec room, etc.
1. We'll have a dock; would appreciate some design details to tie it to the house.
However, due to TVA regs, it can't include enclosed structures, so it will be simple.
2. We may eventually want to build a pull-through "barn" to house a fifth-wheel trailer, so it would be nice if that were included in the site design from the beginning.
3. I love the cottage style: grey shingles (maybe a composite material), stone work, dormers, interesting window patterns.
4. We want alcoves (for example, window seats, nook for tv).
5. We want ceiling height variations.
6. Lots of built-in shelves for books and other stuff.
7. Art alcoves at the end of halls; shelf, special lighting.
8. Light coves; built-in reflective lighting.
9. There are deed restrictions in Hidden Fields; I'll bring a copy.
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This web site contains information obtained from various sources.
The Mountain Home Show is not liable for the accuracy of this information.
Please contact the source of this information with your questions.
This web site contains information obtained from various sources. The Mountain Home Show is not liable for the accuracy of this information. Please contact the source of this information with your questions.