Many couples want to design and build their own home. We meet with people like that all the time in our line of work. So this should be a fairly simple process for us, right? Oh, how wrong.
I am an Engineer that spent most of my time in design and construction. Dan came up through the construction industry from a Framer to a Builder and then as an Energy Efficiency nerd. With all this knowledge about construction, designing a house should be a piece of cake, right? We both know way too much about construction and energy efficiency, which you would think would be a good thing. However, our experience has given us both very firm beliefs on how certain systems should work inside the perfectly designed house. Beliefs that are, as it turns out, not always held by both of us.
Dan, coming from a Framing background, had very strong opinions about the physical framing of the the house. He wanted to minimize the amount of framing material used in the construction of the house by using advanced framing techniques. This meant that the actual length and width of the house had to be certain sizes to utilize commonly sized lumber. This makes the person drawing the house, me, have to go back and forth through many iterations as flooring joists are turned from one direction to the other to come up with the perfect framing plan. Sizes I had chosen for the rooms based on placement of our furniture, an item that was important to me, got completely lost when floor joists were spun and walls adjusted to make joist spans shorter so that less expensive lumber could be used. I’m all for saving money, but not buying all new furniture saves money too.
Each time we would start on a house plan, we would both go at it tryng to fit in the ideas that were important to each of us. We would get to the endof the plans and realize that what we ended up with met neither of our original ideals. We would scrap that plan and start all over again with each of our lists of what was necessary and what would be nice. We continued along with this process until we had 8 complete sets of plans for very different houses. We despaired of ever coming together on a set of plans that would work for both of us.
Turns out the ninth time was the charm. The process of drawing the other eight houses helped us walk through each of the design elements that we thought were imperative and we were actually able to weed a few ideas out. The ninth set of plans kept in a majority of our wishes, just enough to make it doable, while compromising with the others wishes as well. So when clients come to us apologizing for their inability to come to a consensus, I always share with them that this is nothing compared to what Dan and I went through to find a plan that worked.
Some of our must haves were: keeping the framing lumber to a minimum; keeping all hot water outlets less than 25 feet from the water heater, space
conducive to a heat pump water heater, maximum outdoor living space, 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a design conducive to installing an ERV supply to each bedroom, passive solar design, clearstory windows, perfectly suited design for solar panels, shop for Dan with sink, room for my loom, some cozy place for me to sit and read somewhere, room for office things, super insulation, ambient light in every room, cross breezes in every room, low air leakage, everything I need on the first level, and a small footprint.
As you can see some of the requirements conflicted, like the small footprint and having everything I needed on the top level. Since we were burying the basement halfway underground, at first, the size of the basement determined the size of the top level. We went back and forth with this because expanding the top level made the basement more square footage than I was comforta
ble with. The whole idea of our house design was that you can build smaller spaces and here we were making our
s bigger and bigger! Dan finally came up with the idea of making the living room on the top level cantilevered out with no basement under it meant that I could have a larger top level and keep the basement at the size I wanted it at.
Looking back at the process now, one of the items I am glad we did not compromise on was the need to keep all hot water outlets within 25 feet of the water heater. This has increased my enjoyment of the house as well as paying off with savings on our energy bills. When I turn on the hot water whether in the shower or at the kitchen faucet, I have hot water in just a couple s
conds, usually even before I can get my hand under the faucet. Working on other people’s houses for years I have heard many complaints of recirculation systems not working the way they want them too, or having them use too much energy. This is the best of both worlds, hot water when I want it, almost instantly, and no additional cost to implement it. This is a very green feature that costs nothing to implement and in fact probably reduced the cost of our plumbing installation as all of our piping was shorter than in most houses today. There are many green features that cost nothing to implement.
One item I am sad we were unable to fit
into our design is using gray water from the bathroom sinks to flush the toilets. To make this work the toilets have to be right beside the sinks and there was no layout where we could pull this off without losing some of the other design elements.
The Finished Product
The overall design of our house ended up being 18 feet from front to back. I know this seems small to most, but it works perfectly for us. The house starts with an 8 fo
ot ceiling height on the front of the house and increases to 14 foot at the rear. Before we got the rear deck built, it truly looked like we had built half a house. The 12 foot wide deck (that runs the full length of the main portion of the house) and its roof make the other half of the house.
The top level of the house consists of the master bedroom and bath, with some office space in the bedroom, the laundry closet, kitchen, dining room/great room and a living room off the end of the house. Everything that I need to function on a daily basis is on the top level. The downstairs holds the 2 kids bedrooms,another bath, TV room and Dan’s Shop. The final square footage came in at 972 s.f. for the basement and 1136 s.f. for the upstairs for a total heated space of 2108 s.f. I emphasize heated space because we have a 54 foot by 12 foot deck upstairs and the same sized patio downstairs. We spend a lot of time on the deck and have plans to add an outdoor kitchen on one end of the patio. The other end of the patio is a great covered place for Dan to do his wood working out of the rain while leaving all his sawdust outside. This keeps his shop free from all the sawdust and that is a plus for everyone.
So there are lots of things to take into account when building your dream house. You should notice I did not discuss cabinets or countertops in any of this. Elements like that add to your enjoyment of the space but can be changed out later for something you like better if the money gets tight towards the end of construction. Try adding insulation later! It’s a whole lot harder than changing out countertops or flooring. Pulling all the competing desires into one design is a challenge but can be done. It was a very happy day when we had our approved set of plans back from the county permits office! Time to build!
Need some ideas for your house? I consider Sarah Susanka to be one of my favorite sources for ideas on building small, functional houses. Check out her website here: https://www.notsobighouse.com/author.asp
What are your design must haves? Let us know in the comments below!