Designing Your Own Home

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As you begin to plan your home, you should assess yourself to see whether you have the skills needed for developing your own design. If you feel the need, you can always hire a professional designer to assist you or to take over the bulk of the design work. The success of your building project will ultimately rest on the design you follow, so you should do whatever is necessary to assure that you have a design that fulfills the desires you have for your future home.

You should spend plenty of time thinking about the design of your home, even if you decide to hire a professional. Thinking through exactly what you want will facilitate communication between you and the designer, saving you time and money. Of course, you may not need the assistance of a design professional. Just as there is a symphony conductor in each of us, so there is an architect! Our overspecialized society has allowed that architect to fall asleep so that we have forgotten how to design. Our task in this section is to reawaken the latent architect and put him or her to work.

Even the best architects began at a point in life when most of their design skills were latent. Given time, training, and some practice, you could turn out to be the new “Grandma Moses” of American home design! and you don’t have to sign up for a six-year Master of Architecture program to get the proper training. If you check around, you’ll find less time- consuming design courses and programs. A partial list of programs to investigate includes the following:

• Owner-builder schools: Besides learning from the instructors, you will also benefit from meeting novice owner-builders who may have helpful insights into your own questions and concerns.

• Vocational-technical schools: They offer good courses in architectural drafting, cost estimating, building systems, building codes, and computer design.

• Adult education programs of various university schools of architecture: Although the design courses at these schools are intended for architecture students, you can request admission from the instructor, who may need more students to fill his or her quota.

• Other continuing education courses offered by colleges in your area.


Before you get your pencils and drawing paper out to begin sketching ideas for your home, sit down and , with a focused mind, set some goals for the design process. What are you trying to do as an owner-designer? Are you going to learn as much as you can about the design process so you can more effectively define your need for professional design assistance? Do you want to be better equipped to communicate with the design professional? Will you try to design the home without a professional? Do you want your home to be a shining example of an innovative building technique, and as energy efficient as you can possibly make it? Or do you just want to create comfortable, affordable living space for yourself and your family?

Quality of design should always be at the top of any list of design goals. How you achieve high quality depends for the most part on your level of skill in the following steps, which we will discuss in detail:

1. Establishing a sound “design program.”

2. Developing a general “design concept.”

3. Translating the design concept into construction documents.



A design program (also called a building program) is a detailed written outline of the personal needs that you want your home to meet. The style of the program is really up to you, so feel free to be creative about how you organize this document. It usually has two components: a “program of spaces” and a “program of context.”

The program of spaces describes the various spaces in the house and their relationship both to each other and to the exterior environment. Creating this program is a way for you to assess the kinds of spaces you want to have in the house and what functions you need these spaces to perform for you, your family, and guests.

The program of context is an inventory of the physical conditions that must be addressed in order for the finished home to satisfy the wants and needs of the inhabitants. If, for instance, your site is subject to strong winter winds from the west, you would be well advised to minimize the number of windows on the west side of the house, both to reduce the chance of breakage and to reduce heat loss. If there is a lovely view to the west, strategically placed small windows equipped with shutters might be the answer.

While developing these programs, you should gather information about the construction system you plan to use. As you gain familiarity with a particular building system, you will refine your ability to develop a design appropriate to that system.

The Program of Spaces

In your mind, your future house may be composed of conventionally named spaces such as a living room, kitchen, and bedrooms. Or you may not want to “precondition” the design this way, preferring to give the spaces in the house less conventional designations such as a family information center, food preparation alcove, solarium/spa, parents’ retreat, children’s creativity studio, and so forth. The names of spaces can also suggest original combinations of functions such as a sleeping/sitting space, great room (sitting, dining, cooking), bedroom/study, and the like.

After naming each space, give a concise description of the specific characteristics you have in mind for the space, its size (“250 square feet” or “10 feet by 25 feet”), its orientation (“located on the south side of house”), particular qualities (“high, well-lit space”), furniture requirements (“contains Aunt Sue’s hutch—18 inches by 5 feet by 6 feet”), relationships to other spaces (“is adjacent to sitting area with pass-through to kitchen”), geometrical configuration (“long rectangular room”), and so forth. The more specific your design program becomes, the better your chances for creating a design that recognizes all of your needs and dreams.

The program of spaces should never be viewed as fixed in stone, because in the design process that follows, you may discover that certain conditions in the program are physically impossible to accomplish. For example, there may be requirements for too many rooms facing south, resulting in a house that stretches out like a chain of railroad cars with a large surface area and resultant heat loss. So you may find yourself relocating one or two of the spaces to the north.

The program of spaces will guide you in selecting a specific shape and appearance for your home and for each of the rooms in it. As you see the shapes developing in your mind, you may decide to go back and revise the program of spaces so as to arrive at different shapes. This process may recur several times until you are comfortable with the final shapes.

Following is an example program of spaces for a couple who plan to build a passive solar house on rural land in Colorado. They have not had any children together, but the husband has a teenage daughter by a previous marriage; the daughter visits them on weekends and during the summer.

GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The area of the house will be 2,500 to 3,000 square feet, plus an attached garage for two cars and a tractor. The house will consist of three levels: main entry level, upper level, and basement level.

MAIN ENTRY LEVEL: This level will be, except for the library, essentially one large space with subtle subdivisions; exposed beams and structural elements are desirable.

Entry: Air-lock entry with coat closet; located on northeast or east side of house with access to covered breezeway that connects the house to the garage.

Great Room: Has the atmosphere of a Spanish adobe room. Contains the sitting area and dining area. Has direct access to kitchen (one step up) and the solarium (one step down through French doors). Has a wall with built-in bookshelves, display cases for collections, and stereo/TV systems. Between the kitchen and dining area will be a wet bar island (which, without the stools, will serve as a buffet). The dining table will seat eight. The dining area will overlook an adobe fireplace located in the wall between the table and the solarium.

Library: Has a wall with built-in shelves for books. Two desks. Two reading chairs. Direct access through French doors to great room and solarium.

Kitchen: Close to main entry. Access to dining area through wide arched opening in which is located the island wet bar/buffet. Can be located on the north side of the house. Near to separate walk-in pantry.

Half Bath: Near to main entry and library.

Solarium: A high space joining the main and upper levels. Octagonal, hexago nal, or polygonal floor plan with several sets of French doors to adjoining rooms on both levels. At least half of the square footage of the solarium will project forward from the south wall of the house.

UPPER LEVEL: Three bedrooms adjoin the upper space of the solarium.

Master Bedroom: The bedroom and bathroom/dressing area could be subtly subdivided. King-size water bed (verify weight for structural calculations later). Built-in dresser and bench with drawers in the bedroom. There will be a sitting area for two in the bedroom. The room will be on the east side of the house for morning light. There will be small balconies with wrought iron railings overlooking the solarium and the outside of the house.

Master Bathroom: Walk-in steam shower (two shower heads). Double sink with large mirror over. Tub (6 feet) with a low viewing window (tub could be on raised platform). Water closet in a small space separate from rest of bathroom. Walk-in wardrobe (6 feet by 8 feet) with skylight and full-length mirror.

Bedrooms 2 and 3; Full-size beds. Wall closets. Each bedroom has a separate half bath. Bedroom 2 will be larger than bedroom 3 and will be the daughter’s room. Bedroom 2 will have a small balcony with wrought-iron railing overlooking the solarium.

BASEMENT LEVEL: Full basement. All of this level will be unfinished. Rough in plumbing for future three-quarter bath. Cedar closet for seasonal clothes storage. Future bedroom with walk-out access. Workshop and storage areas to be planned.

This particular program of spaces evolved as a three-level scheme. You should be aware that multilevel designs are more complex, because of the necessity to vertically align the upper levels with the lower levels. (For example, rooms having plumbing fixtures should be aligned to keep plumbing costs under control; windows on various levels should be composed to make the exterior appearance of the home pleasing; and the location of other vertical elements such as stairways and clothes chutes must also be considered.) Also the relationship of various levels to each other will determine whether upper-level rooms are cantilevered or whether lower-level rooms project, thus requiring roofs.

How you decide whether your home should be one level or multileveled relates to the following considerations:

• You may have subjective preferences. Perhaps these will be based on memories of favorite houses from your past, or designs you have seen in magazines or books.

• Energy conservation studies have shown that the most efficient buildings are those with the smallest ratios of surface area to volume. Spreading a house out on one level may result in a large ratio compared to a house that has been organized into several levels. Thus, a two- or three-story home is apt to be more energy efficient than a one-story design.

• There may be a need to separate certain spaces from each other. Often, this can be accomplished only by locating these spaces on separate floors. For example, a teenager’s bedroom may need to be distant from an older couple’s bedroom; a workshop may need to be kept far from a reading/study room; and so forth.

ill. 3-1: Floor plans for the main entry level (a) and upper level (b) of a house designed on the basis of the program of spaces presented in the text.

ill. 3.2: Exterior perspective of the house designed to fulfill the program of spaces.

The Program of Context

The program of context may be organized in a variety of ways. it's essentially an inventory of all the external conditions that can act upon the house. The following summarizes these conditions.

Major Climatic Factors

• Solar orientation: The relationship of the summer and winter sun to the house site. For solar heating, one wall of the house should face south.

• Temperature: The high and low temperature averages for various seasons, night and day. This information will have a direct bearing on how energy efficient you need to make the house.

• Precipitation: Rain and snowfall at the site (depth of snow is especially important for later structural calculations), and the direction from which snow drifting occurs (you don’t want snow blowing in your doors).

• Wind: The average wind speed and direction for various seasons. In the North, you probably need to protect the house from the prevailing winter wind, whereas you may want to keep the house open to cooling summer breezes. In the South, you may need to open the house to mild winter breezes but close the house in summer when outdoor temperatures soar.

Minor Climatic Factors

• Trees: The location of shade trees, both deciduous and coniferous; how shadows of trees pass over the proposed house site and consequently affect the potential for solar heating; whether the existing trees can serve as windbreaks to block unwanted winds.

• Landform: The location of hills or slopes that could block the sun or shield the house from winds.

Physical Site Factors

The importance of spending time on the site to experience its positive and negative features can't be overstated. The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was known to camp at a site for several days during different seasons to get to know it intimately before he began the design process. Two procedures that yield information you’ll need are the soils test and the topographic survey:

• Soils test: The purpose of testing the soil is to get precise data to help in designing the home’s foundation and footings. If you are certain about the kind of soils you are dealing with on your site, you may be able to forgo the soils test. If, however, there is any question, the money you spend here will be well worth it. This test should be performed by a professional soils engineer. Some land grant colleges in the Midwest have soil testing laboratories and , for little or no charge, they will test samples that you bring in. If you want to use this service, consult a structural engineer about the proper way to take the soils sample.

• Site topographic survey: The purpose of the topographic survey is to get accurate information about the change of level on the site—where the high and low points are; how the land slopes; the location of trees, boulders, utilities, roads, and so forth. The drawings produced by the surveyor can be studied to determine the best locations for the house and driveways or roads. A model of the site can also be built from the information on this drawing; we will discuss this later in this section. You can learn how to do the survey yourself by studying textbooks and renting the appropriate surveying equipment. In general, however, surveying is best left to professionals.

Other Physical Site Factors

• Important views: Do you want certain views to be visible through the windows of various rooms in the house?

• Access: How will automobiles enter the site and approach the house?

• Privacy: Is the site hidden from neighbors’ view or does it have potential for privacy with additional features such as hedges or fences?

• Utilities: Can provisions be made for power, sewer, water, well, gas, and other service hookups?

• Special features: Various rock formations, streams or ponds, landforms, vegetation, and other features may be worth preserving to enhance the aesthetics and livability of the site as a whole.


ill. 3-3: Think about the concept from general to specific and from specific to general.

ill. 3-4: Think about the concept from the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top.

After developing your design program, you should proceed to a general concept of the shape and layout of the house, a concept that integrates all the requirements in the design program. Usually, this design concept is presented as a drawing. Here are a few principles that will help with the task. You may not be able to achieve all of these principles in your first attempt, but with repeated attempts, your efforts will be rewarded.

• Think about the concept from both the general to the specific and from the specific to the general. It has been said that when architect John Stark did the first sketches of a design concept, he showed not only the overall building with thumbnail-size plans and perspective sketches, but also several building details such as windowsills and structural components. The objective was to see how all the parts of the design—the largest and the smallest—fit together to form a whole.

For example, you may want to test a concept that has an overall rectangular plan. Experiment with several different width-to-length ratios of the rectangle to find the shape you like best, then try fitting the various spaces from your program into the different rectangles. Each attempt will teach you something, and experimenting with the arrangement of specific rooms will eventually lead you to make a conclusion about the best overall shape for the house. In moving back and forth from general to specific considerations, the original assumption is modified.

• Think about the concept from the inside to the outside and from the outside to the inside. For example, you may decide that a certain kind of window would be good for a bedroom and later discover that the building elevation (side view) where that window appears does not look right, and the window creates a visual tension—it lacks proper relationships to other elements on the elevation. Seeing this will lead you to conclude that another window size or proportion would work better. When you are really engaged in the design process, this switching back and forth between inside and outside begins to happen almost automatically.

• Think about the concept from the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top. Any juxtaposition of shapes is possible in a multilevel home. Some won’t make sense, though. They may involve costly cantilevers, make the building appear too visually busy, or make the surface area of the home too large. On the other hand, some variety between levels can be aesthetically pleasing. Sameness from level to level may result in a deadly boredom. it's also important to consider how the form of the roof will “reflect” the building plan. it's easy to develop a plan that can't be roofed in a visually pleasing way.

• Think about the concept both in terms of floor plans and in terms of cross sections. Architecture novices often limit themselves by viewing their work too narrowly. They see their ideas emerge purely as floor plans, without a feeling for the volume of the spaces created. Or conversely, they see their ideas emerge as cross sections, with a sense of the vertical dimension, but without a real concept of the horizontal dimension. To be a successful designer, one must think of the vertical and horizontal dimensions at the same time.

• Think about the concept as a system of activity areas (places where people will perform certain activities) connected to each other by circulation spaces (spaces that people will walk through). Thinking about space as though it were a transportation system is one of the hallmarks of design in this century. In the house you are planning, which spaces will be places you travel to in order to perform some activity, and what routes will you take in order to reach those spaces? Look at your house design from an active and passive viewpoint. What happens when you stop, and what happens when you walk? A home with clear routes between various interior spaces is intrinsically more livable.

There should be a strong distinction between spaces to move through and spaces where you stop to perform an activity. For example, if a living room is to be a place for restful sitting or for conversation, there should not be a circulation route through the middle of the room. The living room would be better as a cul-de-sac—a dead-end space that is walked to, not through. The same could be said of kitchens. If you have ever tried to bake in a kitchen that is set up in such a way that people pass through it constantly, you will appreciate this.

• Think about your design as if it were poetry. Architecture as an art form gives each of us the possibility of life filled with meaning. As Winston Churchill once put it, “We shape our buildings and then they shape us.” The houses we design will most likely exist after we are gone, leaving a record of our dreams for coming generations. As with all art forms, we are free to express our deepest emotions through architecture. Like poetry, there is no limit to what we can say or how we can say it. So the process of design should not bring with it a constricted feeling, but rather a sense of release.

ill. 3-5: Think about the concept in both plan and cross section.

ill. 3.6: Circulation patterns: The location of openings between the spaces can result in circulation patterns that interfere with room activities (a) and patterns that don’t interfere (b).

Design Concepts to Explore

One common mistake owner-designers make is to prematurely finish work on a design concept without exploring alternative possibilities. Such an exploration may lead to a design that will be more satisfying to live in—a design that is intrinsically more open and alive. When suddenly we have the freedom to design our own home, two directions are likely. We either become too conservative, thinking only in terms of houses we have been in, or we go totally radical with fantastic ideas that even Walt Disney would have difficulty realizing. The trick is to strike a balance. The following conceptual explorations may prove helpful to you.

ill. 3-7: Status quo (a) versus fantastic (b).

ill. 3-8: Think about the placement of the house on the site to accommodate future house expansion.

Expandable House versus Contractible House

Have you ever moved into a house or apartment that was larger than your previous residence? Have you noticed how quickly the new place seems to get filled up with objects so that eventually it too is cramped? It seems we can never get enough space. So we pull up our roots from one place and move on. But you won’t want to be forced to move from your new owner-built home just because you didn’t foresee how your family’s space requirements would change. When the expected baby becomes triplets, or when Mom becomes ill and you decide to care for her in your home, you may wish you had designed more flexibility into the home.

It is useful to think about your design as a central pod to which new rooms can be added. This should be planned carefully, taking into account that a new room can't be added without affecting the lighting in the existing spaces, or without affecting the circulation patterns of the house. Plan the roof form of the house so that the roofs of additions don’t create roof ponding (areas where rain and snow will collect). Situate the house on the lot so that there is space for additions without interfering with lot lines, setbacks, or easements.

You must also consider that the triplets and the visiting parent will not always live with you. When they are gone, what will you do with so many extra sleeping rooms? Can you conceive of a way that sleeping rooms can take on other functions—such as becoming offices, dens, computer rooms, hobby rooms, or informal sitting spaces? Large homes should be able to “contract” in this way (that is, their spaces should be convertible to other uses) when the size of the family decreases.

One-Use Space versus Multiuse Space

There are fundamental differences between spaces designed for one use and spaces designed for multiple uses. Can you feel the difference between your great-grandmother’s formal parlor, designed for tea on Sunday afternoons, and a contemporary “great room,” designed for sitting, TV watching, eating, cooking, relaxing, reading, and entertaining? Can you imagine a master bedroom that is a space for sleeping, with a writing desk and two reading chairs, and overlooking the solarium below? Contrast that image with a master bedroom that is only for sleeping. Homes with multiuse spaces are more flexible, and often they are more affordable since they can be smaller. A combination living/dining area requires fewer square feet than a living room and dining room.

Space Juxtaposition

Spaces that are next to each other lend character to each other in subtle ways. Imagine a house where a sunspace is adjacent to the master bedroom versus one with the sunspace adjacent to a living/dining room. Imagine an entry space adjacent to the formal dining space, in contrast to an entry space adjacent to the sitting room, in contrast to an en try space adjacent to a stairway hall that leads to living/dining, kitchen, and bedrooms. imagine a two-story house with the sleeping rooms on the upper story versus a house with the sleeping rooms on the lower floor and the living spaces on the upper story, with good natural light and a commanding view.

Spatial Hierarchy

A house can be composed of spaces of varying importance. The importance of a space can be emphasized by increasing its volume (especially by increasing its height), by furnishing it with attention to detail (especially by using objects that have personal meaning), by emphasizing lighting, by accentuating color, or by any other approach that sets the space apart. Imagine a master bedroom/bathroom with a very high ceiling next to a hallway with a low ceiling—the impact would be great when you enter the room. Make sure the effect you create is intentional and appropriate. Imagine a living room that has a 7-foot-high ceiling next to a dining room with a 12-foot-high ceiling. Does that seem appropriate? Imagine a master bedroom that is smaller than the master bathroom/ward robe area.

ill. 3-9: Spaces can be designed for one use or many uses.

ill. 3-10: Grouping all the bedrooms (a) versus separating the master other bedrooms (b) results in different degrees of privacy.

ill. 3-11: Houses can be composed with spaces of varying importance (a). Examples of varying importance placed on the ratio between master bathroom and master bedroom (b).

ill. 3-12: Privacy gradient for an urban residence.

ill. 3-13: Victorian house spaces focus on a central cluster of fireplaces (a). Mediterranean house spaces focus on a central atrium (b). In this contemporary house (c), the spaces arranged as an “L” focus on an exterior-walled courtyard. In this passive solar house (d), the spaces focus on a central solarium.

ill. 3-14: Closed plan (a) versus open plan (b).

Privacy Gradients

Privacy is hard to find in today’s world. Your house can be a retreat from overexposure. Be careful that the spaces meant for peace, quiet, and solitude are removed from the spaces that generate activity and noise. Don’t place bedrooms near spaces that will be used for entertaining. A similar consideration applies to the exterior of the house. Bedrooms on the street side of the house are less peaceful than those farthest from the street.

As people approach your house from the street, the house should tell them that they are leaving the public realm of the community and entering your private realm. An entrance door in a small courtyard visible from your kitchen or from a secondary living room window communicates more about your privacy than a door that is merely punched into the street- side wall of the house. Stepping up from the street level to the yard and up again to the en try door also subtly communicates privacy.

Spatial Focus

The spaces in most houses were once clustered around fireplaces. But with the advent of modern heating systems, the focus point of the house has become unclear. There is a need to give all houses spatial focus so they don’t seem disorganized. The focus can be a family room that is multifunctional or a sitting space surrounded by less important spaces. It can be any area that is clearly marked as the center of life in the home. Don’t assume, by the way, that installing a fireplace and hearth will automatically create a focal point. Unless you heat primarily with wood, the fireplace is likely to be just one of many objects in the house.

Open Plan versus Closed Plan

An open-plan house is primarily one large space with subtle space dividers (such as screen walls or low walls) defining subspaces used for specific functions. In contrast, a closed-plan house is like a honeycomb—an envelope divided by interior walls into discreet rooms. Both open- and closed-plan designs can be successful, depending on external conditions. For example, a typical English house has a closed plan, because energy prices in Britain are so high that people heat only the room they happen to be occupying at a given time, closing the doors between the heated room and the adjacent rooms. An American passive solar house, on the other hand, usually has an open plan, because the air heated by the sun must be allowed to circulate from the south side of the house through the rest of the house. Although the English example has great privacy, the spaces aren’t very dramatic. In the American example, the space is dramatic, but insuring privacy requires careful planning.

ill. 3-15. These alternative arrangements show how preferences to morning and afternoon sunlight can be reflected in the house plan.

Space and Light

So far in this section we have looked at design primarily from a conceptual view point—functional relationships, form, circulation, and so forth. There is also a more concrete way to look at design—to look at it literally, through the perception of our eyes. If it were not for light, we would not perceive architectural space or form. While a blind person may have an idea about a space thanks to the senses of touch and hearing, it's with the sense of sight that we can comprehend a space completely. The architect or designer, like the sculptor, manipulates light to define space and form.

The source of natural light, the sun, is a dynamic object, and its motion needs to be understood. The direction from which sunlight will strike the house at various times of day and in various seasons should be taken into account. The color and intensity of light at dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, and dusk should be experienced at the site, and the knowledge applied to the design process.

The house you design has eyes—windows—that allow natural light to penetrate the inner spaces. The impact can be large. You may want lots of light in southern rooms for solar heat, or for reading, for kitchen work, and the like. But some areas—bedrooms or conversation areas, for example—may be more comfortable shielded from strong light. The quality of the spaces in the home will depend to a large degree upon your understanding of light and how you translate that understanding into your design.

Natural and artificial (electric) light can be manipulated by the designer to give very specific qualities to space. The best way to develop a sense of how to do this is to spend time looking at spaces that feel inviting to you and noticing how light is used in them. Look for spaces in which you can study the following considerations:

• Should there be a relationship between the location of specific spaces and the motion of the sun? For example, should a breakfast room be on the east, south, west, or north side of the house? Do you like to wake up with the sunlight streaming into the bedroom, or do you prefer to go to bed early watching the fading sunset, or do you want a bedroom with light from both directions?

• What is a space with high windows or clerestory windows like compared to a space with low windows?

• What is the quality of light from a skylight?

• Is there a relationship between light quality and the position of window openings in the wall—for example, a wall with a window in the middle compared to a wall with a window at one end? What is the effect of placing a window in one wall adjacent to an intersecting light-colored wall that bounces the light into the space?

• How does a space that has windows on one wall compare with a space that receives light from windows on opposite or adjacent walls?

• How do the colors used in the space interact with the light from outside? Do they soften or modify the light? Does the effect change at different times of the day, depending on the position of the sun?

ill. 3-16: Low windows (a) versus high windows (b).

ill. 3-17: Skylights provide distinctly different lighting than do wall-mounted windows.

ill. 3-18: Light from a window in the middle of a wall (a) will support activities in the center of the space while leaving all walls relatively unlit. Light from a window near the intersection of two walls (b) will support activities in the center of the space and create pleasant light reflection from the side wall.

ill. 3-19: Windows on opposite sides of a space produce balanced lighting.

ill. 3-20: Thermal buffers can be used for energy conservation.

ill. 3-21: A large south-oriented glass wall with low and high vents (a). A Trombe wall (b). A two-story sunspace (c). Thermal mass is shown as solid black and speckled areas.

Energy Conservation Concepts

The subject of light leads to the topics of energy efficiency and solar heating. We will discuss these topics in a later section, but a brief preview of them is appropriate here. If your design program places an emphasis on energy efficiency or solar heating, you need to consider them when creating your design concept.

In general, unless you will be building in a warm region, the south side of the house should have more window area than any other side, with the smallest window area on the north. But don’t forget that some north light is necessary to balance the southern light in rooms, and windows serving as emergency exits may be needed in north rooms to meet local building codes. If a room’s windows are so small that electric lighting is necessary during the daytime, you may defeat your energy conservation goal. Since late afternoon sunlight pouring through west windows tends to overheat a room, reduce the size of these windows or shade them with trees, shrubs, or a wide overhanging eave.

To avoid loss of heated air, an air-lock entry or double-door foyer should be used at the entrance to the house. A coat closet can be placed in the entry unless your space requirements for the whole house are stringent, in which case the coat closet can be located elsewhere, keeping the space for the air lock minimal. Closets and storage spaces located on the north side of the house in northern states (or on the south side in the Deep South states) act as “thermal buffers,” effectively increasing the insulation value of the wall.

If you are building on a hillside, you can save energy by building insulated walls below grade into the hill—effectively reducing the exposed surface and air infiltration losses of the house. If your site is flat, you can achieve the same conserving effects by “berming” earth around the north, east, and west walls.

Passive Solar Concepts

Elements most commonly used in passive solar homes to make maximum use of the sun’s heat include direct-gain windows, direct-gain glazed solariums, and indirect-gain Trombe walls and mass walls. Each of these elements will influence your design because they have specific requirements.

• “Direct-gain” windows allow sunlight to enter the home directly. Much of the heat from the sunlight should be absorbed by some type of high-density material such as masonry; after sunset, the heat will flow out of this “thermal mass,” helping to keep the house warm. Direct-gain windows should be oriented due south, although the orientation may be varied by as much as 30 degrees without losing much efficiency. Southerly views from the building site become an important criterion in site selection—you don’t want huge southern windows showing you unattractive views. Because many furniture fabrics and carpets are susceptible to fading in sunlight, and because these materials tend to prevent the light from reaching masonry floors where its warmth can be stored, you should keep such fabrics out of direct sunlight.

• The direct-gain solarium (otherwise known as a solar greenhouse or sunspace) is similar in concept to the direct-gain window, and the same orientation rules of thumb apply. The typical early solarium of the 1970s projected out from the house, like an addition, and was glazed on the south, east, and west sides as well as the roof. The south wall was typically sloped. Today’s solarium has been modified for greater efficiency and typically is flush with the south wall of the house, thereby eliminating the loss of energy from the east and west walls. Surrounded by other spaces, the solarium space can be an effective focus for the house, functioning like a solar “hearth.” To minimize the overheating common in the early style solarium, the roof is not glazed and the south wall is vertical rather than sloped. The state-of-the-art solarium is sometimes a two-story space, with French doors opening to rooms on both levels, allowing better circulation of solar-heated air throughout the house.

• A Trombe wall is a masonry wall with glazing spaced a few inches outside it. Solar heat is trapped between the masonry and the glass; it enters the house by migrating through the masonry. Whereas the direct-gain window and solarium are virtually transparent, creating strong spatial connections between indoors and outdoors, the Trombe wall obstructs views to the outdoors, so it works well on a site where a southern view is not desirable. If you do want a south view, however, you can place windows in a Trombe wall. Variations on the Trombe wall include half-Trombe walls with direct-gain windows above, and Trombe walls with integral fireplaces. A Trombe wall can also be “bent” or shaped to fit the internal requirements of a floor plan.

The design of a multilevel passive solar house should take into account the fact that there will be some degree of heat stratification, with warmer upper-level spaces and cooler lower-level spaces. Thus the spaces on the upper level might include the living, cooking, and family activity areas where most of the waking hours are spent, and the lower-level spaces could be used for sleeping. Although this “upstairs/downstairs” relationship seems unconventional, it offers a better view from the living space and is ideal for a hillside house with entry on the north side of the house and the north walls of the lower level sheltered by the hill.

ill. 3-22: Orientation to true south in a passive solar house may vary by as much as 30 degrees east or west with relatively little loss of overall efficiency.

ill. 3-23: A direct-gain system, such as a sunspace (a), floods a space with light, which may cause fabrics to fade. An indirect-gain system, such as a Thombe wall (b), provides heat while blocking the light.

ill. 3-24: First-generation sunspaces (a) usually protruded from the house. New sunspaces (b) are often two-story designs set into a house’s south wall.

ill. 3-25. Thombe walls can be designed to fit virtually any south-facing wall.

Design Concepts as Real Estate

Owner-designers should think about the design of their houses from a resale point of view. After all, a significant piece of real estate is being created. You may want to sell the house someday, so you should consider how attractive the house might be to potential buyers. There is a fine line between a house that is original, unique, and well designed, and a house that is too idiosyncratic, esoteric, and eccentric. So while on the one hand you want to let your imagination soar with your house design, you may also want to temper your imagination with this sobering truth.

Planning a house with an extra bedroom and bathroom that can be finished before putting the house on the market is often a worthwhile investment. Along the same lines, an unfinished basement with roughed-in plumbing is nearly always a good investment. De signing spaces that can accommodate many different furniture arrangements will also increase the market value of the house—this is especially true of living/dining areas and master bedrooms. Spaces that appear generous and well lit (even if this is a clever illusion) are also popular.

So an important part of the owner-design process is to imagine how others will see your work. In this sense, your design should transcend your personal preferences and become universal.

How to Express a Concept

A “concept” is a thought; it resides in your mind. You must find a way to express this concept in clear, specific terms. This will help you to examine and improve your concept, and it will enable you to express the concept to other people. We will describe several ways to express a design concept.


Architect Jacques Bronson said, “Ideas are a dime a dozen; show me the drawings!” Learning to do architectural drawings, even preliminary concept sketches, may require much study, experimentation, and experience on your part. don't expect to sit down and instantly whip out drawings of your design concept. Realistically, as a beginner, you should expect to spend time to perfect this task—even as much as a year or more. You may have an early “flash of insight” about the form of your design concept, but you will probably work and rework the idea in numerous sketches before something genuinely good emerges.

Design is a patient search; you can't force it, so relax and take your time. You need to take breaks from creative work like this. Doing something completely different periodically gives your psyche time to recuperate and synthesize the emerging design so that new ideas can flow out of you the next time you sit down to work. Indeed, the best time to get the flash of insight is after you have been away from the design work for awhile. Relaxation exercises may be very beneficial—the act of relaxing while withdrawing the senses, after a period of intense concentration on your design work, will release energy that can be put to use when you resume your work.

There is no set formula for selecting the drawing materials that will best suit your needs and skills. The following is a list of materials that you can experiment with:

• Pens, pencils, markers: Don’t be timid; work in black and bold colors with drawing implements that flow smoothly. Your options include felt marker pens in various nib sizes and colors, nylon-pointed marker pens, or soft graphite pencils (use pencils with 2B, B, or HB leads).

• Paper: Use inexpensive onion skin or “bumwad” paper (available in rolls of 12-, 18-, or 24-inch widths). Record one idea and then modify it by laying a piece of tracing paper over it, tracing the portions that will be unchanged, then drawing the modified portions. The end result of a stimulating design session will be a nice stack of drawings, in sequence, which you can review later for further refinements and revisions.

• Sketchbook/Notebook: A three-ring binder with 50 sheets of bond paper is a good place to start. Carry the sketchbook with you wherever you go; design flashes for some of the greatest architecture have been recorded on restaurant napkins because the architect didn’t have any other paper handy. You should even place your sketchbook next to your bed at night, in case inspiration strikes during the small hours.

Having selected your drawing materials, you need to decide what kinds of drawings to do. Here are two productive types:

• Thumbnail sketches: Design ideas occur to us as mental images, then the images travel down one of our arms into the drawing fingers to become a visualized concept. This process of remembering the mental image and then drawing it's very much like waking from a dream and trying to remember it. So it's important to capture these insights with drawing techniques that don't require a lot of time. The thumbnail sketch—a quick, small “rough” drawing—is perhaps the most used preliminary sketching technique, because it's the fastest way to record a design inspiration. As one gains experience, a kind of shorthand develops that is unique to you. You will see much more in your thumbnail sketches than the casual observer. You can do thumbnail plans as well as cross sections, allowing you to deal with the house as a totality.

• Bubble diagrams: The program of spaces can be analyzed using bubble diagrams. Each space in the home is represented by a bubble, which is free to float arbitrarily around in the unstructured, imagined three-dimensional space. You then start to apply the requirements in your program of spaces to the bubbles, in increasingly more specific ways. As you apply the requirements, you will move the bubbles around, making them larger and smaller, in order to meet the requirements. A general requirement might be “the main floor will consist of the following spaces: great room, kitchen, and entry.” A more specific requirement might be “the master bathroom will be to the north of the master bedroom, with a door to the hall to the east.” When you have met all the requirements in the program of spaces, the positions of the bubbles should reflect the layout of your proposed home.

ill. 3-26: Bubble diagrams for an open-plan house (a) and a small cabin (b).

1. Garage

2. Gazebo

3. Bridge

4. Entry

5. Hall

6. Stair

7. Kitchen

8. Dining

9. Sitting

10. Deck

11. Upper solarium

12. Lower solarium

13. Sleeping

14. Master bath

15. Wardrobe

16. Laundry

17. Bedroom

18. Bathroom

19. Trombe wall

20. Great room

21. Master bedroom

22. Entry

23. Bath

24. Laundry

25. Sitting

26. Library

27. Kitchen

28. Dining

29. Wood stove

30. Bedroom

31. Deck

32. Hall


Personal computers can assist in the design process. Just as computer word processing can increase speed and accuracy in preparing written documents, computer-aided design (CAD) systems help you “draw” your design accurately and with imagery that would take years to master by hand.

CAD systems produce two types of drawings—schematic and scaled—both of which can help you design your home. Schematic drawings use symbols or icons to represent objects or processes in the real world. Although signifying the object, the icon may be of different scale, shape, orientation, or color. Bubble diagrams can be effectively rendered using schematic drawings. Scaled drawings are employed when an object’s true geometrical size, shape, form, and color must be represented. In a scaled drawing, the ratio of one object to another indicates that in the real world, the corresponding objects have the same ratio.

Computers that have great potential for owner-designers include the Apple and Windows. The software you select will depend on the computer you own, since software generally can't be used on more than one type of computer. MacIntosh is in many ways the premier graphics computer. Software packages available for it include MacDraw, a black-and-white interactive scaled drawing and graphics program; MacPerspective, which permits you to construct wire- frame perspective drawings of buildings composed primarily of straight lines; and Mac3D, a 3-D modeling program that hides any lines that would be blocked from view in real life. Many other software packages are also available.


Once you have established your basic concept through two-dimensional sketches or drawings, models can be a useful way to “test” your ideas in the third dimension. This testing process may lead you to modify your design concept. Models can be built to clarify your ideas about interior spaces in the home. and by using solid blocks of material, you can show the exterior “massing” of your concept—how the combined forms of the spaces will appear from the outside of the house.

As your design concept becomes more refined, a structural model (one that shows all the main rafters, joists, and other framing members) can facilitate discussions with a structural engineer. If you have a topographic survey of your site, you can quickly build a 3-D site model by making a separate layer for each grade line shown on the survey. This will help you plan the house in relation to its site.

A house model is usually constructed at a scale of 1/8 inch = 1 foot (1/8 inch in the model equals 1 foot in the finished house), but there is no hard-and-fast rule. Smaller scales will take less time and material and can be constructed in a small work area. A larger scale will permit more detail and , in the case of a structural model, will allow you to test your ideas in depth. Materials for models can be found in art supply stores, model supply stores, and hobby stores. They include:

• Chip board: A gray/brown paper board in 32-inch by 40-inch sheets, thicknesses of 1/32 inch, 1/16 inch, and 1/8 inch. This material can be cut with a utility knife, is easy to work with, and is useful for both rough and refined models.

• Illustration board: A gray-core paper board with white surfaces on both sides available in 32-inch by 40-inch or 28-inch by 44-inch sheets, thicknesses of 1/32 inch, 1/16 inch, and 1/8 inch. It can be cut with a utility knife, although not as easily as chip board.

• Foam-core board: A white beadboard core sandwiched between white paper in sheets up to 48 inches by 96 inches, thicknesses of 1/8 inch, 3/16 inch, and 1/8 inch. it's extremely easy to cut with a utility knife.

• Wood: Look for basswood before you buy balsa wood, because it's denser and takes a better utility-knife cut. Both woods are available in various sheet sizes in thicknesses from 1/32 inch to 1/4 inch, and there is a large variety of precut pieces useful for simulating structural members or windows.

ill. 3-27: Computer-generated graphics using an Apple Mac computer.


After you have established your design program and developed your design concept, you are probably ready to begin preparing the construction documents- If you have never done mechanical or architectural drafting before, you will find formal training useful. The best place to get this training is a vocational-technical school or an owner-builder school. it's not likely that university architecture programs will offer drafting courses, even in adult education programs—such courses are not offered even for architecture majors. Students in those programs are expected to learn drafting while working in architects’ offices during their apprenticeship training.

A complete set of final construction drawings will take several sheets (as many as 12 or more), which must be coordinated to thoroughly communicate the design of the whole house. To accomplish this task accurately will require real concentration—definitely not a job to do while watching TV or babysitting! Even a registered architect may take more than two months to prepare a set of drawings.

A piece of advice: Don’t begin the drawings and then, for whatever reason, stop work n the project for any length of time. You will find that after a month or two away, you will have forgotten so much about it that you might as well start over. it's for this reason that an architect will insist in his agreement with a client that the project be allowed to proceed without any unreasonable delay. The degree of concentration, mental focus, and memory required for making a set of drawings requires continuous progress in the work.

As the construction drawings progress, you will be taking your concept through its final design development, during which many decisions are made about the various materials and systems to be used in the house.

Required Drafting Equipment

The drafting equipment and materials necessary for making your drawings include the following:

• Mechanical pencils: Several for holding 2.0-millimeter and 0.5-millimeter graphite leads. The leads should be H, 2H, and 3H (these are measures of hardness), and you should also get non-print leads (blue leads are good for making notes and lines that won’t reproduce when the drawings are printed).

• Pencil sharpener: A manual sharpener is fine, but an electric sharpener saves time.

• Drawing board with a linoleum or plastic cover: A good size is 3 feet by 4 feet. If you don’t have a desk or table to set it on, you might look for a used drafting table.

• Straightedge or parallel straightedge (costs more, but preferred): For drawing straight lines.

• Assorted triangles for drawing angles: Two 12-inch triangles (one for 30-degree and 60-degree angles, one for 45-degree angles), two 6-inch triangles (same angles as the 12-inch triangles), and one 12-inch adjustable triangle (for all other angles).

• Scales: A 12-inch engineering scale, a measuring ruler, and 6-inch and 12-inch architectural scales. You will use these to measure the construction drawings.

• Erasers: For various drawing papers and films—ask at the store. Electric erasers are also available and do save a lot of time.

• Erasing shield (thin metal shield with apertures): You place the shield over your paper and erase through an aperture, so the paper is not smeared while you erase.

• Circle template, in inch fractions (a plastic sheet with circles of various sizes punched out): Use it to draw small circles and arcs.

• Drafting compass: For drawing large circles and arcs.

• Bathroom fixture template (a plastic sheet with cutouts in the shape of bathroom fixtures): Use it to draw these fixtures.

• Drawing paper or film: Prices vary, but the safest non-tear material is “3-mil Mylar matt both sides,” available in cut sheets and in rolls.

• Bumwad tracing paper: In 12-inch and 24-inch rolls for making quick studies for later transfer to final sheets.

Typical Set of Drawings

A set of house drawings usually consists of the following. We have indicated the information that should be included on each sheet.

• Sheet 1: Plot plan at engineering scale (1 inch = 20 feet), showing the location of house on the property; magnetic north and true north; legal description of the property; contour lines from a topographic survey at 1-foot intervals; planned grading modifications with existing grade contours shown as dotted lines; finish floor levels of the house relative to existing grade; location of utilities and connecting lines; septic field; setbacks and easements.

• Sheet 2: Footing and foundation plan at 1/4 inch = 1 foot scale. This sheet shows the conditions beneath the lowest floor level: all structural wall footings, pads, and pier footings; structural cross sections and details of footing and foundation walls (most of the information on this sheet will be traced from your engineer’s “redline drawings”—see sheets 9 and 10, below); footing drain tile; perimeter wall insulation; overall and minor dimensions.

• Sheets 3, 4, and 5: Floor plans for lower, main, and upper floors at scale 1/4 inch = 1 foot. The floor plans are the most important elements in the set of drawings. They are also the most time-consuming to create, containing more information per square inch than the other drawings. Basic decisions about the entire house are made as these drawings are produced. Show all walls, partitions, and openings for doors and windows; all structural supports; kitchen layout with locations for all appliances, cabinets, and counters; bathroom layout with locations of counters and fixtures; overall and minor dimensions; roof over hang; section and detail cuts. Identify all materials for wall, floor, and ceiling construction; all windows and doors (with door swings); all spaces.

• Sheets 6 and 7: North and west elevations (Sheet 6) and south and east elevations (Sheet 7) at scale 1/4 inch = 1 foot. The elevations are scale drawings of the house’s exterior. Identify all building materials, windows, doors, and chimney details. Show existing and new grade lines; below-grade foundation and footing elevations; finish floor lines; metal flashing, gutters, and downspouts.

• Sheet 8: Building section at scale ½ inch 1 foot. Other than the floor plans, this drawing will be the most useful one in the set. The section is a view of a slice through the house. Its primary use is to show the vertical dimensions of the house and the way the structural elements are integrated.

• Sheets 9 and 10: Floor and roof framing plans at scale 1/4 inch = 1 foot. The floor plans, section, and elevations are reproduced and discussed with a structural engineer. The engineer studies the soil test report that you provide and makes calculations to determine the size of structural members needed for the house to support its own weight (dead load), the weight of people and other objects in the house (live load), the weight of snow on the roof (snow load), and the pressure of winds (wind load). He will then make what are called “structural redlines” over your set of building prints (these redline drawings will satisfy the local building code requirements). You will use these as the basis of your floor and roof framing plans. You may transfer the redline information onto your drawings or have the red lines reproduced. Show all beams, joists, lintels, columns, supporting elements, connection notes and connection details; overall and minor dimensions. Note special nailing or fastener information; live-load, dead-load, wind-load, and snow-load assumptions. Specify structural grades and conditions.

• Sheets 11, 12, and 13: Electrical plans for lower, main, and upper floors at a scale of 1/4 inch = 1 foot. These plans don't require the services of an electrical engineer. Specify light fixtures (their wattage and location, and the type of switch for each fixture); electrical appliances in the kitchen, utility room, and laundry room; meter location; electrical panel location. Include a “legend” (an explanatory list) defining the electrical symbols used and a “schedule” (an inventory) of the electrical fixtures you want to install.

• Sheets 14, 15, and 16: Mechanical plans for lower, main, and upper floors at scale 1/4 inch = 1 foot. Consultation with a mechanical subcontractor or local power company will give you enough information to complete these drawings. Show location and size of furnace; duct sizes and supply and return-air grille sizes; location and wattage of radiators or other heating/cooling system elements as applicable.

• Sheet 17: Jamb details at scale 1 1/2 inches = 1 foot. These details are horizontal cross sections showing how the various construction materials are put together at openings, corners, and wall junctures (jambs). Not many notes are required—only enough to indicate materials and some dimensions that are essential to construction. Each detail is given a number, and these numbers are duplicated in circles on the floor plans and elevations to show the locations of the details.

• Sheet 18: Head and sill details at scale 1½ inch = 1 foot. These details are vertical cross sections through the top (head) and bottom (sill) of the windows and doors showing how materials are put together. The material indications, dimensional information, and reference numbering system are similar to those for jamb details.

• Sheet 19: Stairway section at scale ½ inch 1 foot and the cabinet details at scale 1½ inches = 1 foot. The stairway section gives the details for stairway construction. You’ll need to study the local building code to assure the design meets code requirements. If you are planning on getting a government-insured loan, check with your lender to be sure that your stairs meet their specifications as well. Cabinet details show how the pieces of the cabinets are put together, and they specify hardware locations and type.

• Sheet 20: Interior elevations at scale ½ inch = 1 foot. Elevations are usually drawn of each wall of the kitchen, bathrooms, and any other important walls such as shelving walls or fireplace walls. Materials, cabinetry, carpentry, window locations, hardware, and all fixtures are shown.

Needless to say, if you plan to build a one-story house, you will not need all of these drawings, and you may find that your particular design can be shown on far fewer sheets than we have indicated here. The advantage to “isolating” the various systems is that subcontractors can concentrate on their specialty in the project. Separating vertical drawings (sections and head and sill details) from horizontal drawings (plans and jamb details) also increases clarity of communication.

Remember that the main purpose of the drawings is to communicate, and although the conventional method of making construction documents is recommended, you are the boss. If you can understand your own system of drawing and can use it to communicate with your subs, and if the drawings are legible to the building official and acceptable to the lender, then you have accomplished your goal.

From time to time during the production of your drawings, you may need to repro duce them for your records to get preliminary cost estimates from subcontractors or to show them to your lender. Later, when the drawings are complete, you will need to make several sets for the various subcontractors, the lending institution, and the local building department.

Historically, reproductions of drawings were called blueprints because they were created through a costly photographic procedure that produced a negative image of the drawing (white lines on purple background). Today “blueprints” is a misnomer. The most common contemporary reproduction technique creates prints with black, blue, or sepia lines on a white background. This technology is much less costly and easier to read than blueprinting. Ask your printer to put a 20 % background on the prints, as the chemicals used in the paper may fade over time.


If you decide an architect’s services are necessary for the success of your project, how can you select the right architect? The best way is to first find houses or buildings that have qualities that are pleasing to you. Talk with the owners to find out who the architect is and whether the owners found his or her work satisfactory. Ask them if you can use their names as a reference when you contact the architect, since a good professional will usually ask how you were referred. You’ll want to interview two or three architects whose work you admire to get a comparative sense of how they work, how they structure their fees, how soon you can expect to work with them, and when you can plan to start construction. Some architects will charge an hourly fee for the first consultation while others will charge only for services they perform after an agreement is signed.

In general, architects require a written agreement to perform professional services. It may be a signed letter of agreement, but in any event it’s likely to be based upon the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Standard Form of Agreement between Owner and Architect. This form was developed over the past 80 years out of the collective experience of owners and architects. It attempts to protect both parties from undue legal harm by spelling out the responsibilities of each party and the manner of interaction between them.

As an owner-builder, you need to understand that the AIA form does not recognize the possibility that the owner, rather than a professional contractor, would be the builder. The historical reasons for this stem from the idea that the architect loses control during the construction phase of the project—the owner-builder has the final word on what is acceptable, and his or her opinions may differ from the architect’s goals. Working with a professional builder gives the architect greater assurance that the design will be followed in a professional manner, producing a home the architect can take pride in. Architects’ concern about loss of control over their designs is usually the dominant factor in decisions not to work with owner-builders. If in your interview with an architect this turns out to be the case, don’t take it personally—go to the next architect. Any architect is likely to require evidence that you have done your homework about owner-building, can read a set of construction drawings, and have a general understanding of the process of construction management.

It is imperative that you take sufficient time negotiating a mutually acceptable agreement with your architect. Although the AIA does not recognize the owner-builder, most architects will provide professional services to you as long as a written agreement can be established that clearly defines responsibilities, methods of communication, and terms of compensation, as well as allowing the architect a degree of artistic control over the quality of the construction work. Owner-builders working with architects are advised to consult an attorney before signing any agreements.

The Architect’s Scope of Service

You can hire an architect on either a comprehensive or limited basis. We’ll be discussing limited services in more detail below. Comprehensive services, as defined in the standard AIA agreement form, include five phases, from initial discussions to completion of construction. For an owner-builder, these phases would probably be modified somewhat. Here’s a breakdown of the five phases:

• Programming analysis: Based on initial interviews in which you discuss your needs and budget, the architect will develop the program of spaces and the program of context. If you have developed these programs yourself, then the architect’s service in this phase is reduced to a minimum.

• Schematic design: This is usually the first major phase of service, in which the architect creates a design concept based on the programming analysis, visits to the site, and preliminary concept sketches. The design concept is usually expressed as a set of documents including plans and elevations (at scale 1/8 inch = 1 foot), an exterior perspective sketch, and an optional interior perspective sketch or study model (at scale inch = 1 foot).

A statement of probable construction cost is also developed during this phase. Presentation of the architect’s work at the conclusion of this phase is the first indicator of his or her understanding of your needs, so careful study of the proposed design is required at this point.

• Design development: With your written authorization to proceed, the architect develops a set of drawings that become the basis for the complete set of construction documents (see below) and more accurate cost estimates. Consulting engineers, under the architect’s direction, begin to determine the structural, mechanical, and electrical systems of the building, while you, working with the architect, determine the construction materials to be used. Drawings include a site plan (at scale 1 inch = 20 feet), a building section (at scale ½ inch = 1 foot), and floor plans, elevations, preliminary framing plan, electrical plan, and mechanical plan (all at scale 1/4 inch = 1 foot).

The documents produced during this phase can be used to begin the process of obtaining financing and building permits. In the hands of a shrewd owner-builder, these documents can even be used for the construction of the building, assuming you can work out all the fussy details that the architect would ordinarily resolve in the next phase.

• Construction documents: Again with your authorization, the architect completes the set of construction drawings and written specifications from which you will construct the house, and another refined statement of probable construction costs is developed.

• Construction observation/administration: With commencement of construction, the architect makes periodic visits to the site to inspect the work in progress. The architect can be called upon to resolve or clarify unforeseen details, at least some of which crop up in every project. Because the architect will be evaluating the work you do, it's important for you to keep your mind open and your ego under control. Remember, it's all for your own good! Your relationship with the architect during this phase is like that between the orchestra conductor and the composer and can be a very positive experience for both of you. You can also ask your architect to offer an opinion on the subcontractors’ workman ship and code compliance and the appropriateness of their billings.

Fees -- The Bottom Line

There is no established fee schedule for architectural service; in fact, such a schedule would be illegal in most states. However, for comprehensive service, it would not be unusual for an architect to ask from 8 % to 15 % of a proposed building budget. A 10 % stipulated sum fee is fairly common. For example, if you plan to build a house that when complete would have a real estate value of $100,000, the fee would be $10,000. Remember that if the architect wants your work badly enough, the fee is probably negotiable. The fee is usually broken down by phase in the agreement, which helps you plan your cash flow. Here is a possible breakdown:

• Programming analysis phase = 5 %

• Schematic design phase = 20 %

• Design development phase = 25 %

• Construction documents phase = 40 %

• Construction observation/administration phase = 10 %

Usually an initial payment or retainer is paid at the time the agreement is signed. The amount of this fee varies, but could range from 5 % to 20 % of the stipulated sum. The initial payment is credited to your account and applied to the last fee statements of the project.

There are other methods of compensation, including hourly rate with a limit, and you should discuss these during the first conference.

Limited Service

You may have decided that designing your own house and doing the drawings is just the kind of challenge you need in your life. In that case, you may want to hire an architect to provide only limited services. Here are a few possible scenarios:

• You might ask the architect to help you arrive at the design program—or to help you with some preliminary conceptual explorations—before you complete your own de sign and construction drawings. You might also buy some consulting time to get critiques of your work at various phases. In this case, the best way to pay the architect would be by the hour.

• You might bring in a carefully worked out design program and ask the architect to prepare a conceptual sketch from which you could do your own construction drawings. Compensation would be by the hour.

• You might perform the program analysis and bring in preliminary sketches or drawings of the proposed house. The architect would proceed with the design development. You would take the construction drawings from there. Compensation could be either by the hour or as a stipulated sum.

• You might perform the program analysis and schematic design. The architect would proceed with design development through the preparation of construction documents. Compensation would probably be a stipulated sum.

• You might bring in a fairly developed design (this could also be a published house plan that you have modified), and the architect would do the construction documents. Compensation would be by the hour or stipulated sum.

• You might bring in design development drawings and ask the architect to develop the construction documents to the point where you can obtain your building permit. Compensation would be by the hour.

Other Sources of Help

For the owner-builder who has searched for an architect and has failed to find one, there are other avenues of assistance:

• Architectural designers practice architectural design but are not licensed architects. They may have architectural degrees but have not yet taken the licensing exam or have taken it and not passed it. This is not necessarily a mark against the architectural designer—it wasn’t until this century that licensing exams were required of individuals who wanted the title “architect.” Still, it's important to check into the designer’s experience, examining completed homes and talking with past clients to verify that the homes fill the clients’ needs and that the designer met their expectations. The fees for an architectural designer will generally be well below those of a registered architect.

• Architectural drafting services are small groups of draftspersons (some of whom may be registered architects) who specialize in drawing construction documents. It’s possible to have an architect or architectural designer prepare your design drawings and then have a drafting service draw the construction documents. However, you should weigh the fees involved in these kinds of combinations with the extra hassle of coordinating the various personalities. In general, the fee for drafting service is not greatly different from the fee for architectural service.

• Architectural graduate students offer another way to get design and drawing services. You could call the dean of the architectural program at a university near you and ask for the name of the best student in the program. On the plus side, you can expect an enthusiastic effort, since most students know how difficult it's to get a break for independent work. You can also expect a fresh approach to design, since the student is coming out of a state-of-the-art design curriculum. On the minus side, the student may not have had much “real world” construction experience and may therefore lack a sense of practicality. Still, a first-rate student is probably your best bet for saving money on fees and getting reasonably good service.

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