Front elevation
Plan for the main floor

The House Plans

In years past, I always said that I would never build a house that I had not actually already walked through - I was nervous that if I did not first walk through a finished version of a house I would not be able to judge how well it would meet my needs. However, having walked through more than a hundred houses under construction over the past few years, I never found that "perfect" house that included my most important ideas.

As a result, I decided that I would have to start at the drawing board in order to get what I wanted. I am still a bit nervous that my ideas on paper will not turn out well in reality - I can't wait for the day when I can walk through the framed house to see how it works. Of course, if I don't like it at that point, it is... a little late.

The process of getting the plans took longer than I would have expected. I knew that we would be building a rambler, I had a square footage target, I knew that we wanted the house to look a little rustic, etc. But compiling all the ideas we had gathered into one house plan was challenging.

Finding a designer took some time, too. After "shopping around" (primarily on the internet) for a month or so, we decided to hire Jamie Walker from Walker Home Design, located in Salt Lake City. During this process, I learned that there are architects and house designers all around the country who are qualified to do the job. With the internet, it could be very easy to do business with someone even if you are not able to meet face to face. However, I decided that it would be much easier to work with a designer who was in our area for a few of reasons.

First, actually sitting down across the table from the designer made me feel a lot more comfortable with the designer we chose. He and I communicated by email for a couple of weeks initially, and we were able to accomplish more in an hour meeting than we could have accomplished in a week's worth of email. By sitting across his desk, I could see that he was catching our vision of the house, which made the process more successful.

Second, the style of building can vary significantly in different regions of the country. A house designer in New England will likely design a much different house than one in Arizona. Climate, local building techniques, regional styles, local building codes, etc. all make important influences on the design of your house. A local designer is going to have experience that relates to your project and will design your house accordingly.

Last, in the event we run into any problems on the job, it is nice to know that we can call the designer and have him run out to the job site if necessary to give assistance. I hope we don't need to do this - but I will let you know as the project progresses.

Jamie (the house designer) was great to work with. He was flexible, careful to listen to our ideas, and did not try to shove our project into a "box" based on his own ideas. The communication was critical - I would be willing to say that his ability to communicate was as important as his skills in designing.

Home designers tend to be much less expensive than a full blown architect. Our designer is not a certified architect, but I could see from his extensive portfolio and past experience in home design and in the construction industry that he knew what he was doing. After he completed the design, he sent the plans over to an engineer for review and certification (required to obtain a building permit) and the plans were ready to go. I suspect that we saved at least 50% by going with a home designer rather than an architect.

Walker Home Design gave us a per-square-foot price up front for our plans, which included the plans ready to turn into the city, all of our changes, and review, certification & stamps by a licensed engineer. Some designers will sell you a set of drawings, but additional work must be done before the city will accept them (such as engineering), plus they bill you on an hourly basis for your changes, which can add up fast. I found that having everything included made the process much more efficient and easy, and probably cost about the same.

What I Learned

It would have been nice to have a builder involved in the design process. A builder has hands-on experience that would have been useful during the design process. For example, there are a few small things I could have changed that would have saved some money. He also might have been able to suggest some low-cost things that would have added a lot of value to the home.

However, it is a bit of a catch-22 situation. I wanted to use my house plans in order to select my builder, but I wanted my builder to be involved in the design process. Of course, I couldn't have both. I suppose you could hire a builder on an hourly basis to review your plans a give feedback, and also promise him the chance to give you a bid on your project.

I also think that the process goes much quicker if you start with a stock plan (i.e. a plan that the designer or architect already has completed) that resembles your ideas, and then work your changes into the plan. The process might take much longer (and potentially cost much more money) if you start from scratch. If the designer does not have any plans that are even somewhat close to what you are looking for, you might want to find a different designer - one that has a more common approach to yours.

Also, it is always best to express your ideas with illustrations and not just words only. Your designer will understand your ideas much better visually than verbally, which means you will have a lot less "back and forth" to get to your final set of plans. You can scratch your ideas out on a napkin or on your computer - it does not matter. Either way, it will help a lot.

Last, it is very easy to let the size of your house get a bit out of control during the design phase, which can add a tremendous amount to the final cost to build. Pick a target square footage, tell the designer, and work as hard as you can to stick to it. It is easy to add a couple hundred square feet to your plans, but it is not so easy to digest the extra $20,000 or so to build those extra square feet.

It seems to me that the most important part of the design process is to KNOW WHAT YOU WANT. If you do not know what you want, start walking through homes that are under construction, through model homes, through the homes of your friends. Identify the things that you like and don't like about your current house. WRITE DOWN your ideas - I found it hard to remember things later. Also, when I wandered through construction sites looking at houses, I often snapped pictures of things I liked. Those photos were a valuable asset to me during the design phase.

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