The Dream to Build Step #3 – Designing a Home from Scratch

the dream to build: designing a home from scratch

Around the same time that we started to get our finances in order and started looking for land, it was time to settling on a house plan (or if you're like me, you've been dreaming on this for years!). Early on, I started dreaming about the home we would build. I spent hours pouring over websites that sold floor plans (like and picturing ourselves in each one, noting what I did and did not like about them along the way. At the end of the day, I decided to design our entire home from scratch. I had looked at enough floor plans to know what worked and didn't work, but hadn't found anything that was 'just perfect'. Even though purchasing a ready to go floor plan would have been easier, I couldn't imagine not taking part in this part of the design process.

Again, I had a checklist. I knew I wanted the children's bedrooms on the same level as ours, a studio space for me and a work space for David. We wanted an open floor plan with about 3 times as many windows as any standard plan we looked at (I would live in a greenhouse if I could!). I began sketching out ideas and quickly moved them into Adobe Illustrator (my go-to for everything) so I could play with moving things around. For months I mentally lived in this home and would come back to it nearly every day to tweak the layout. I would widen a hallway, scooch out a wall here and there, move the windows around and more. I loved having the ability to visualize the house this way.

If you'd like to do the same (either with graph paper or a software), I would suggest measuring everything out by the foot. Also take a few minutes to research standard sizing of typical household items like toilets, tubs, counter, laundry machines and more. Being able to visualize how much space each of these items takes, and how much room you'll need to maneuver around them all will help you plan. This is also a great way to utilize ready-to-buy floor plans - you can take a bathroom layout you like and add it to a kitchen you like from an entirely different plan!

Of course, once I settled on the actual floor plan, I knew we needed to turn them in to official house plans. I contacted a few architects (for reference, I was quoted 10% of the cost of the house by one, and $4.50 per square foot by another) and after a bit of research decided to go with a local draftsman for our project (who charged .40 cents per square foot).

I sent him the floor plan as well as some initial houses that I liked and the next morning I had 3D CADS in my inbox. It was incredible to see my vision turned into a house! Over the next few months we met with him twice to tweak the layout and interior before we settled on the finalized plans, which is what I in turn gave the bank and my contractor.

*Update* Since we actually started building, we found that in our case, we got what we paid for. Our contractor found several 'design flaws' after he started building the house (nothing huge - for example a support beam right underneath where the plumbing needed to go, so we had to move a wall back 6 inches). Luckily, our contractor is amazing (more on that coming soon!) and was able to make adjustments on the fly. In hindsight, I wish we could have paid a little more for something that wouldn't have caused any headaches for our builder. Lesson learned!

Speaking of banks - most of them will need your finalized house plans before they approve you for a land/construction loan, so this needs to get hammered out early on. So feel free to start designing way in advance! The longer you have to pour over what you want the better. The bank will typically require signatures from your contractor for the loan, which I'll talk about next in this series.

At the beginning, designing the house from scratch really made me nervous. I mean, if I move into a home that has quirky corners and a weird layout I tend to embrace it. But if I designed it? Then all those quirky corners are my fault. BUT! Since we're nearly ready to move in (see all the progress here!) I'm happy to report that there are no quirky corners - haha! Being involved with every inch of this house has make it incredibly personal and special.

In fact, if I can get mushy for a moment, I feel as though my entire life's work has come to down to this point. If I can build the home where my babies will grow up (they're currently 1 and 3 years old), then I'll have accomplished my biggest life goal. It's the creek that they'll play in, the view out of their bedroom windows, the fireplace they'll remember sitting around.

Can you tell I'm a homebody through and through? :) If you are too, I know you'll love designing your own home from scratch!

Have you designed and build a home before? If so, what tips would you give us? Share them with us in the comments section!

Also in this series:

Finally Going Home to Roost
Finances + Banks
Looking for Land
Designing a Home
Choosing a Contractor coming soon
Breaking Ground coming soon



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  • Here is a bit of advice from that architect you can’t afford. If you are building a large, complex home with many integrated technologies then that architect’s fee is well worth it. She will be able to work you through the process and help manage all the detials and decisions that need to be made by you, the home owner. If your looking to design a home where a 10% design fee can break the deal because its half your down payment, here is what I would suggest. Do your research, look over floor plans, many floor plans. Plan out individual rooms, list out how you want rooms to function, think outside what a traditional dinning room can be. I highly recommend Creating the Not SO Big House by Sarah Susanka. She has a great way to walk you though your home design and asks great questions to hep you not design spaces that will “never be used”. Square footage costs money to heat/cool and own. Her books get you thinking outside of the traditional home floor plan. Once you understand size, overall look and what you want sketch up you plan in a cheap software or on graph paper, don’t worry about scale, adjacencies and written sizes will do. There are many resources online to help with typical sizes for all the thing you would dream of putting in your home. after you have a sketch/print of your plan I recommend finding your contractor. This relationship will either make or break your dream. I have seen many beautifully envisioned dream homes become disappointments from poor choice in builder. Most residential contractors will have someone they work with to do drawings. He will also have a preference as to whether he will need a full construction document set or just a set for permitting where he fills in the details as he goes. I had a very good contracting friend who I would help when he had a client he needed to compile permit drawings, otherwise he would do the drawings himself. Permitting documents vary by city, county and states, but are typically simple set to pull together and should be pretty cheap. Design and intellectual expertise is what is costly. The contractor will fill in the details on printed copies of the permit drawings. Some cities and towns have historical boards that must approve plans, in this situation having an architect on your team for these types of approvals can save you a lot of time by getting you through the process quickly. Beware that persons offering cadd services for house plans are not trained in architecture or building systems, they are trained in the software. They can generate what appears to be what you need, however, they are not qualified to size that large beam running through the center of your home creating grand open spaces or sizing your furnace. Nor are they typically a licensed installer of any kind. Centering your contractor to coordinate these details with you researching options will help you get your dream house on time and in budget. Also remember when it comes to architecture, changes in research should happen, changes in design and drafting can happen, but changes during construction will happen with a cost.

    • Hi Kari! Thank you so much for your very thoughtful and helpful comment. In fact, it helped me re-approach how I worded our choices. I absolutely see the value and extensive help an architect would provide, and I hope that after hearing about our experience others will turn to an architect to help bring their dream home to reality. I know that if we ever build again, I will definitely consider it! Thanks so much again, I really appreciate your comment!

    • Kari, thank you so much for this comment! We are looking to begin the process of designing our “forever” home, and coming back to this post was just what I needed to see. The information you give here is so helpful!

  • My parents designed and built a house when I was 9, and we built a house 3 years ago. We worked with an existing floor plan that we really liked and made some small changes. We felt really good about a family owned and operated builder, and the fact that they were building a home in the same neighborhood! Overall it was a very positive experience. We did have some confusion on southern building codes though… some things were very different from up north!

  • Hi Bonnie, we built our house about ten years ago now. We took an existing plan that we loved and I then, revised it to make it our own. I redrew the kitchen, moved rooms, added doors and changed design elements such as windows. The result was a house that was uniquely ours that we loved and still love ten years later. I am now getting the urge to do it again! This time it will be on a smaller scale because there are just the two of us now. This time, I will be adding a big studio will lots of light! Enjoy every moment!

  • I am so glad you shared this. I have always wanted to have a house with a lot of land, but where I live, if you want to get a couple of acres you have to be rich so the next best thing is building a house. I never thought I would be able to build a house but this post gives me hope that one day I can get it together and build my dream home.

  • We just closed on our construction loan, and will (hopefully!) be pulling permits next week. One thing we quickly realized (upon finding our Contractor), was that our initial floor plan idea would have cost almost 30% more to build! I too, had scoured all of the floor plan websites, and almost pulled the trigger on a set of plans we loved – thank goodness we didn’t! We had to “reconfigure” our dream house to fit the budget. :) And we actually love our final house plans more than the original plans we found. Can’t wait for your “breaking ground” post!