Land: Buying It, Building on It: Planning Your Home

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The Key Ingredient in Home Design is You

A well-designed home, like a well-tailored garment, should fit your taste, needs, and pocketbook. In years gone by, homesteaders achieved this goal by designing and building their own houses. One reason they were successful was that they were guided by traditions handed down over the centuries. Another was that their homesteads evolved over many years, each generation altering and enlarging the original to suit its particular needs so that the house slowly became better and better.

Nowadays, the best way to ensure that the home you build will have the right feel for you and your family is to take an active part in the design process. This is true whether you intend to put up a vacation cabin, a family residence, a retirement home, or a full-fledged homestead. Learn about design, look at as many homes as you can, and if you plan to hire an architect, shop carefully before you choose one.

Choosing a Building Site

The main house—even if it is just a cabin or cottage—is almost always the focal point of any site development plan, and the first step in designing it is to decide where it will be located. To choose a site intelligently, you should have a good idea of how you want to live. Do you favor a secluded home far from the road? Are you interested in a sweeping vista? Do you plan to put up a sprawling one-story structure or a more compact two-story house? (The former is useful if stair climbing presents a problem for anyone in the family; the latter is generally more energy efficient.) Do you foresee the need for future additions and, therefore, a larger site? Do you require a full basement? (If you do, avoid a site that will require expensive blasting of bedrock.)

Next, examine what your property has to offer. Consider the general lay of the land, the bearing strength of the ground (see Preparing the Site, p. the soil’s ability to absorb rainwater and sewage, the frost depth, the availability of drinking water, the height of the water table, the amount of annual sunlight, and the direction of prevailing winds. Pay particular attention to accessibility. How far is a proposed site from existing electric and telephone service lines? How many feet of driveway will have to be installed to provide access to the nearest public road? Of all development costs, road building is often the most extreme. In general, a well-chosen building site should suit the terrain and provide adequate drainage away from the foundation. For this reason, gently sloping ground is usually best but not always necessary, since pole or pier foundations that compensate for uneven ground can often he constructed.

Energy efficiency is becoming a basic element in site selection just as it was in the past. Significant savings in heating can be realized by building on the lee side of a rise or by locating the building site downwind from a stand of trees. A site that takes advantage of the low winter sun—even if the home is not designed for solar heating—can reap major long-term energy savings.

Most sites require some shifting of earth. Because of the labor and expense involved, thorough planning is a must. The goal is to move as little earth as possible. Of the three methods of leveling—cut, fill, and a combination of the two—the last is easiest and most economical.

--- Cut-and-fill leveling technique requires least movement of soil.

--- Log home in the Southeast, suitable fur a couple, is well protected by trees against winter winds. To offset the hot, humid character of the region in summer, the structure is built on piers, allowing air to circulate beneath to cool it.

----- Frame dwelling in the Northeast illustrates energy consciousness. Most windows face south. Low, sloping rear roof with small windows in hack protects against north wind in winter. Chimney runs through center of house, minimizing heat waste

--- Stone residence with large extension has traditional porch as a transition between street and house. Like brick, stone is fireproof and maintenance free. Attic helps retain heat, partially compensating for poor insulating ability of stone.

-----Adobe house in the Southwest has thick walls that offer excellent insulation against incessant heat of the sun Adobe’s structural weakness limits house to one story, its vulnerability to rain rules out use in any hut the most arid regions.


--- Using the Lay of the Land to Advantage

Pond and earthen dam are located at low point on property; rain runoff from field keeps pond full.

A detailed map can be an invaluable planning aid. To make your own map, you will need a plane table (a board mounted on a tripod is best, but a card table will do), straight pins, a ruler, a spirit level, and a 10-foot pole marked in feet and inches. Start by drawing the outline of your property on a large sheet of paper; if you do not have a boundary map, you can get one at the town assessor’s office. The remainder of the job consists of plotting as many distinct features as possible. If your property is relatively open, you can also find the height of each point and sketch in equal-altitude contour lines. When mapping, concentrate on features that will tie the map together, such as a road, a stream, a hedgerow, or an old stone wall. Either pace off the distance to each feature or else take sightings on it from two different locations: the intersection of the two lines of sight will pinpoint the feature.


1. Set up table at a corner of your property line, insert pin at corresponding point in map outline, and adjust table so it is horizontal. Then sight from pin to another known boundary point, align map along line of sight, and insert second pin.

2. Sight from first pin to other distinct features. Have assistant pace off distance to each point. Then have him hold measuring pole while you sight to it. Height of table (A) minus height from base of pole to line of sight (B) equals height of point.

3. Move table to one of the pr you have already mapped, reorient map as in Step 1, and map more points as in Step 2. By setting up table at a number of locations, you can map enough points to sketch in the topography of your land.


Getting Your Ideas Down on a Sheet of Paper

Settling on a design for a home reflects a series of compromises between the ideal and the possible. The most fundamental compromise involves size: the expense of building a home is directly proportional to the number of cubic feet of interior space it contains. In addition, a larger home requires more energy to heat and cool and is more expensive to maintain.

One way to cut down on cubic feet without sacrificing comfort or floor area is to keep the ceilings low. ‘T a traditional two-story farmhouse will have 8-foot ceilings on the ground floor and 7-foot ceilings upstairs where the bedrooms are located. Another energy saver is an attic. The heat that rises to the peak of a cathedral ceiling is almost totally wasted. An attic not only eliminates this waste but also functions as a jumbo-sized insulating space, moderating the temperature both summer and winter.

Space in houses divides three ways: communal (living room, dining room, recreation room), private (bedroom, studio, study), and service (kitchen, bathroom, garage, laundry, closets). The allocation of these spaces into rooms depends on the needs and tastes of the family. When sketching your designs, pay particular attention to the way the different spaces interact. Traffic flow between areas should be smooth, and a private space should never lie in the flow between two communal areas. Service areas generally function as appendages to communal or private areas. The kitchen, for example, must be adjacent to the dining room, and the bathrooms should be convenient to the sleeping quarters. Separation can be important; a noisy family room should be far away from an area used for studying.

Home design should take into account future needs. A growing family will either have to build extra space into the original house or plan on future additions. The escalating cost of building materials argues for the first alternative, but any excess space will mean unnecessary heating bills, property taxes, and mortgage payments until the day that it is put to use. Plan your addition SO that it meets the following criteria: it should not interfere with natural lighting or spoil the view; it should not conflict with local zoning requirements; and, in the case of a second floor addition, the original structure should be strong enough to support it.

Layout of space can begin with a series of informal “bubble” sketches. Each bubble represents a particular use cr1 space. The more of these diagrams you draw, the nearer you are likely to come to sensing the best floor plan. You should also make a point of visiting and examining as many homes as possible.

Clustering of utilities, such as waterlines and drainpipes, in one area of the house is advisable from point of view of economy, ease of installation, and ease of maintenance. In a typical layout the kitchen sink and laundry room are placed back to back with a bathroom located above.

Room size should be suited to function large and spacious for a main for a main communal area, small and cozy for a den or child’s bedroom. Cathedral ceilings are attractive, but they waste heat. A sleeping loft can reduce heat loss in a room with a cathedral ceiling without destroying the ceiling’s dramatic impact.

Sketch of floor plans, with rooms in approximately correct proportion, follows space layout. With such sketches, defects in the location of doorways and patterns of personal movement can be discerned. Bathroom In sketch shown, for example, might be considered too long a walk from kitchen.

Build small and add on later is often preferable to building everything at once, particularly for a growing family. As the years pass, you will know more accurately whether you need that extra bedroom or studio. However, the initial design should take possible additions into account.

Frame construction and post-and-beam construction are the two principal building methods. In the former, house weight is borne by all segments of each wall; in the latter by separate posts. Frame construction costs less and is more widely used post and-beam permits larger spaces, bigger windows.

Drawing Accurate Floor Plans

After a basic layout has been developed, the next step is to draw carefully scaled floor plans. Try to base room dimensions, ceiling heights, and the widths arid lengths of floors on increments of 4 feet insofar as possible. This is because standard sheets of plywood and other building materials are sold in 4-by 8-foot sheets. In addition, keep in mind the following design criteria:

Closets. Minimum depth for a closet is 2 feet.

Counter space. Allow 2 feet from the wall for kitchen counters, since most kitchen equipment protrudes about hat amount.

Doors. Interior doors are generally 2½ feet wide; the front door should be 3 feet wide.

Hallways. Widths run from 2 feet up to 4 feet and mole. The longer the hallway, the wider it should be.

Kitchen aisles. Small is not necessarily convenient. A minimum aisle width of 4 feet is recommended when equipment is laid out along parallel walls; increase this dimension to 5 feet if the kitchen is U-shaped.

Room dimensions. The ratio of room length to width should be no more than two to one. Overall size varies from 5 feet by 5 feet for a small foyer to 20 feet by 30 feet or larger for a living room. In general, the bigger the room, the higher the ceiling should be.

Walls. Allow a thickness of ½ foot for both interior and exterior walls. If the walls are masonry, allow 1 foot.

When drawing plans for a two-story house, trace the structural elements of the ground floor, then use the outline to draw the rooms on the second floor.

Inexpensive tools can aid in drawing door plans and vertical views. A triangle makes it easy to draw lines at right angles; an architect’s scale lets you choose from 12 different sc ales that automatically convert feet to inches, and a furniture template helps you indicate such items as chairs, sofas, and shelves

Quadrille paper with four or five squares to the inch is handy for sketching floor plans. If the side of each square in set to 1 ft.., the area of each room can be quickly determined by counting the number of squares it encloses.

Model of house can be constructed out of corrugated cardboard. Carefully draw the outlines of floor plans, house sides interior walls and roof on the cardboard, then cut out pieces along outlines, including door-ways and windows, and put the model together with rubber cement or transparent tape. With a little imagination you can place yourself in each room, sense how it feels, and make design adjustments By setting the model out doors on a sunny day (or simulating the sun with a high utensil lamp) you can tell boss much natural lighting can be expected.

Architects and Other Outside Aids

A home is the most expensive possession that a family is ever likely to own, On the average, it takes a healthy, energetic couple a year or more of’ full-time labor to put up a relatively modest house, and even then they will almost surely have to hire workmen for site clearance, grading, and excavation. With so much time, labor, and money invested, it is vital that the house plans be accurate and sound. In most cases this means that outside design aid will have to be enlisted.

The most straightforward way to get help is to hire an architect. A good architect does not come cheaply—a fee of 10 percent of the cost of a home is not unusual. One way to save money is to have the architect make only a basic sketch, then let a contractor work out the practical details. This procedure still gives you the benefit of the architect’s ability to establish lighting, space relation ships, flow patterns, and environ mental harmony.

When choosing an architect or contractor—or for that matter when doing your own designing—there is no substitute for examining actual houses: no floor plan or rendition can replace the real thing. Visit all the homes you can (most homeowners will be happy to show you around if you explain your purpose), and note which homes give you a good feeling and which leave you with a negative impression. Try to spot the features you like or dislike; sometimes the difference between a desirable and undesirable home comes down to nothing more than carpeting, wallpaper, or furniture. Before you pick an architect or contractor, quiz him closely; especially if you are interested in energy efficiency, solar heating, or other special technology. Do not rely on verbal assurances alone. Rather, ask the architect or contractor to show you examples of his work.

An alternative to hiring an architect is to purchase standard plans. Magazines containing floor layouts and artist’s renderings are available at building supply dealers and magazine stores. After choosing a plan, you can order complete blueprints for a few hundred dollars.

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Updated: Tuesday, July 14, 2020 15:42