So U Want 2 Design and Build a House — Survival Tips

tipsNothing in this life is more awe-inspiring or life-altering than the miracle of birth. No other event comes close to creating new life, but building your dream home is similar because it has a profound and life-changing effect on you. Nearly everyone has a budding architect inside them abound with ideas and most of them want to design their dream home. Many people do and they live to tell about it. I’m one of them and these are a few of my survival tips.

My tumultuous and rewarding home building experience documented throughout this blog is realistic and typical. Despite the obvious and sometimes disturbing setbacks, I strongly recommend designing and building your own home or having it done for you. The experience is emotionally and spiritually unique. On a much grander scale, it is like having clothing tailor-made just for you. Your tailor studies your form and fit to exactly match your individual measurements and you are rewarded with a divinely comfortable garment. In similar fashion, your architect studies your form and fit to integrate your lifestyle and preferences into a divinely personalized environment. As expected, when designing and building your home, the headache and reward are magnified.

In the movie First Knight, King Arthur (Sean Connery) justifies his involvement in the crusades when he suggests, there’s another kind of peace on the other side of war [sic]. Building a home is a war because there are countless factors beyond your control and it is an emotionally grueling and physically exhausting endeavor. But, there is a worthwhile payback for those who conquer the ordeal. I can’t promise you a better, worse or similar experience to mine, but I can better prepare you for the home design/build project mystery.

  • Understand and personalize your program. Know what you’re up against. If you’re trying to blend veggie-lover with meat-lover, country kitchen with sleek chic, or night-walker with early-riser you have to design the house to accommodate seemingly disparate family needs. Regardless how polar personalities or lifestyles seem there is always a common thread and even though the final design masterpiece may not resemble the glossy magazine photo that inspired you, a well-developed program will reveal the right home for you and all family members.
  • Make the home yours and all about you. It’s worth the cost and effort to personalize it. Make sure you include the specialty spaces like library, hobby room, computer room, sewing space, crow’s nest, torture chamber, wine cellar and media room complete with unique features like built-ins, window seats, pre-wiring, electric chair, lighting and finishes that make the home uniquely yours. Design spaces, storage and experiences to reflect your needs and accommodate desires. Prioritize needs and features and make the home about the way you live or want to live.
  • The first plan is never the final plan. Recognize that genius takes time and multiple attempts. Be ready to draw, redraw, scratch-out, throw away, draw again and start over. Inspiration alone does not make a good house. Ideas and plans mature with a well-developed and understood program. Don’t scavenge a plan from the popular plan book and don’t scratch a house you admired on paper and try to force-fit it. A plan werks when you and your architect thoroughly study the life flow and effectively blend your lifestyle, preferences and goals with your budget.
  • Solicit ideas from peers, friends and family, but be prepared for honest and critical feedback. Invite everyone who is interested to comment on your design and expect to receive complementary and critical feedback. Everyone will view the house through their eyes so you’ll have to explain your vision, but they will also ask meaningful questions that evaded you. Consider feedback in the context of your concept. It’s your job to separate the meaningful comments from the distractions. Our design is a veritable question, suggestion and idea collection created by us, family, friends, builders, suppliers and subcontractors to develop the living composition we call home. Some questions our reviewers asked were:
  • Why are your closets so small? To which I responded, “It’s all relative. Are mine small or are yours too big?” How much circulation space or livable square footage does the average homeowner sacrifice because they have over-sized walk-in closets? Clothes and the circulation needed to access clothing takes up a finite amount of space. Anything beyond that (barring a legitimate functional need) is wasted space. I like well-planned reach-in closets co-joined with common circulation paths because they share circulation zones without sacrificing living space.
  • Why are your bedrooms so small? Simple — our bedrooms are right-sized for the function. Our “living light” strategy is about devoting area proportionate with activity. We personalized this home for our living habits and our bedrooms are primarily for sleeping. We don’t require large sleeping spaces so we reserved square footage for active spaces.
  • Why do you only have two bedrooms? At first glance, our house has two bedrooms and two living areas, but our house is designed to morph. The primary morph space is the Guest Den. Normally, the guest den acts like an intimate family gathering space. When needed it converts easily into a guest suite with private entrance and bath. Later in life, it becomes the ideal college student’s summer bedroom for the same reasons and the former childhood bedroom evolves into an exercise room or Den. So we don’t only have two bedrooms. Depending on our mood or occasion, we have three bedrooms or two bedrooms and an extra living area.
  • Why are your bathrooms compartmentalized? Our bathrooms are zoned, not compartmentalized. We designed them according to technical and functional goals. We built our house with SIPs and it’s taboo to run plumbing in exterior walls because carving out the insulation greatly reduces the insulation value. So we designed all our plumbing in interior walls and co-located fixtures in a common wall for material economy which explains the fixture placement on opposite sides of the same wall. Functionally, we designed our bathrooms to allow simultaneous use without sacrificing privacy. So we designed zones for simultaneous bathing, primping and pooping with relative privacy for each.
  • Why are your cabinets green? Guilty, our cabinets are green. It’s not something you see often, but green complements our design concept and color palette. Read the story behind our green cabinets here.
  • Why is your kitchen shoved in the corner? The kitchen is not in the corner, it is part of the living triad – living/dining/kitchen. The triad is integrated because we wanted our kitchen to be a part of our living space, but still have enough separation to hide the inevitable kitchen clutter. Together, these spaces symbolize gathering around the fire in reverence to our many visits to the site spent around a camp fire. The range and candleplace are the triad fulcrum. We used the cabinets and candleplace to conceal clutter, but maintain visual connection via pass thrus. The kitchen is part of a greater whole but uses natural blocks to conceal visual litter.
  • Be ready for Challenge and Discomfort. Building a home is a life-altering ordeal. It involves change and change is a disruptive and sometimes painful event. At times it will seem like the construction and relationship are progressing well. Other times, the progress will stall and the job will experience hiccups, restarts, redos and compromises. When this happens, your builder may become your worst enemy. Throughout the build phase, you will feel overwhelmed, discouraged and cheated. You will also feel triumphant, inspired and rewarded, but you have to get through the war to enjoy the peace.
  • Demand the house you want and don’t accept the house they want you to have. Most likely, you will hire an experienced builder unless you’re building it yourself or hire a trusted and experienced relative to do it for you. Even if your builder exclusively builds custom homes, he will use standard construction details and assumptions that may conflict with your ideas. Your builder wants you to explain your unique desires so he can provide the house you want. Earning half your dream is too great a compromise. Make sure you and your builder discuss the big picture.
  • Be flexible and ready to accept changes. Everyone plans the perfect house, but no one builds the perfect house and even when you try, man or nature interfere with your well-laid plans. Home building involves many physical and schedule challenges. Differing site conditions and uncoordinated trades introduce unpleasant surprises, but you have to keep your cool. Losing your temper will compromise the relationship and once the relationship sours the project soon follows. Listen to your options and be ready to make informed decisions without losing focus of your design intent.
  • Hire someone you trust to oversee the construction. No matter how much oversight the builder promises, he is only as good as his subs and frankly my dear his subs don’t give a damn. When faced with any decision, they will err on the side of convenience that violates good building practices, your principles and often the building code. Expect the builder and subs to diverge from the plans either out of ignorance or bad habits. If you can’t devote the time to oversee the construction, hire a registered professional or experienced layman to represent you. Having an eye-in-the-field on your side makes all the difference in your home and your well-being.
  • Make him correct errors when you discover them. The only way to get a quality product is to make corrections during the process. If you wait until the end, the builder will have to tear elements apart that can easily be repaired at the time of discovery. If you trust him to repair them later you will end up accepting the mistake. Remember you have one shot to get foundations and waterproofing details done right. Spend the time to make sure foundations are the right size and have been inspected (by a professional engineer) before the pour. Water is a home’s worst enemy and your builder is your second worst enemy. Keeping water out means keeping the inside healthy and sustainable. Make it clear to your builder you will be happier if he gets critical details right the first time.
  • Always request pictures and samples of products to confirm you and the builder understand your selections. A picture is worth a thousand words and the actual product is worth ten-fold. Before you select finishes or products make sure you understand what you picked. Color, shade, scale and texture vary wildly from product literature photos. Your builder would be glad to provide mock-ups or request samples so you can make an informed decision. Both of you benefit because he gets experience installing it and you get to touch it, measure it, compare it, smell it and even taste it if you have to. Take samples home for comparison to furniture and other materials. Compare the scale to other belongings and never feel obligated to select from a brochure. We selected door hardware and several fixtures site unseen and were fortunate they complemented our home composition, but it could have easily gone the other way. Above all, when making selections, always ask the cost and be cognizant of your budget. There’s nothing worse than having million dollar taste on a $200k budget.
  • Avoid using money as a carrot or stick, but be ready to withhold money if the builder does not respond. Yes, you are spending a great deal of money designing and building a house and you may be tempted to withhold the carrot to induce responsiveness. But if you make the transaction about money, adversity supersedes cooperation and the builder may withhold favors he normally would have offered. However, if your builder fails to deliver on significant milestones, explain your reasons for withholding payment along with your expectations and be receptive to his explanation and expectations as well.

Sometimes people don’t plan a family but are blessed with a pleasant surprise. Giving birth to your personalized home requires extensive planning and can be loaded with unpleasant surprises. A relative once advised me “Your custom home is like your kids. It may not be perfect, but you’ll love it anyway”. She’s right, designing and building your personalized home is worth it and you can enhance the experience by following a few time-tested survival tips.