How We Designed Our House

Dec 3, 2018

Most of the time, if you want to live on your rural property, you have a few choices – build, remodel, renovate, and other options are available, like a tent, camper or a mobile home. (Of course there’s a chance that you have found your perfect rural property, and that the house is exactly what your family needs, where it needs to be. And if that’s the case, reading beyond this point is unnecessary.)

In our case, we knew we were going to build. We had spent months (years?) walking and flagging our property to come up with our house site and driveway location, and only when we decided on a house site could we get really serious about our house plans. We had sold our too-small house, and were living in a repossessed mobile home, next to our planned house site. We considered moving into town while we built, but by living next to the house site, we could easily work evenings and weekends, as well as be available to meet with any sub-contractors or inspectors, and to generally keep an eye on things. And though we were working with a builder (i.e., somebody who actually knew what they were doing), we were providing most of the labor.

We had both decided that being on-site for the building project was probably the single most important factor that would affect our success, living conditions be damned.

The utilities – phone, power, well and septic – would serve the mobile home, and then we’d switch them over to the new house.

And seriously. Six kids and two dogs in a mobile home. On a construction site. In the middle of a cow pasture. How bad could it be?

If you’re like us, building a new house on “raw land”, you’re constantly analyzing and assessing and defining anything and everything related to new home design and construction. House plan books and websites are an obvious first place to start, but just as important are the discussions with architects, real estate open-house visits, the historic house tours, the informal dinner-guest home walk-throughs, weekends at a bed and breakfast, or vacation rentals. These people, places, events are some of the best sources of ideas and inspiration. (I learned to despise open floor plans at a Gatlinburg vacation rental. And you know who else can easily open doors in an “elder-friendly” house? A two year old, that’s who.)

Add to all the design information, innovations in home construction need to be considered as well. Factory-made elements can speed up the process, largely because they take the weather out of the equation. (We used pre-cast concrete panels in the basement, and SIPs – Structural Insulated Panels – for the walls of our house.)

As far as TV shows (or Pinterest) go, they’re mostly amusing and infuriating and fictional, not functional or inspirational. (Except for Norm. The sun revolves around Norm.)

The goal is to come up with a beautiful, functional, affordable design. Your home design should incorporate the needs of your family, and the physical and visual attributes of your land.

(Developing a budget for a new-home construction is well beyond the realm of this blog, but there are a lot of good resources available for that.)

The parameters of your dream home are constrained by realities of cost, but a realistic budget and knowing your land are probably the two most critical factors contributing to your success and happiness through the house-building project, and beyond.

We had a budget, and we knew the land (heck, we owned it for ten years before we finally built our house). Our house-site had no specific eyesores to hide, no spectacular views to accentuate, and we were far enough away from the road (and any potential neighbors) that we didn’t have to worry too much about noise or privacy.

And after years of talking to friends, builders, and architects, ripping pages out of magazines, notes on paper, and hundreds of sketches, we’d developed a pretty solid list of design criteria, or rather I had a list. Scott had one clarified line item – no hallways.

It had to look like a farm house – We live in an area where there are several early 1900s farm houses. We wanted to complement those houses with out specifically trying to copy them. We wanted our house to look like it had been there all along, which is hard to do when you’re putting your house in the middle of a bean field.

All the stair cases had to have 90 or 180 degree turns. Yeah, that makes moving furniture a challenge, but straight staircases scare me, especially with 9′ ceilings. It’s a long way to the bottom if anyone takes a fall. (Big stuff going upstairs goes into the bucket of the tractor, and onto the porch roof, then through a window.)

The stairs had to be on an interior wall. I wasn’t about to give up a window for the stairs.

It had to be on an English Basement. Slightly different than a walkout basement, with windows on all four sides, and direct access to the back yard.

The laundry room was to be in the basement.  – After considering all the philosophies on laundry room location and function, I opted for pairing the laundry room with the someday-to-exist family room.

It needed a big back porch. Not a deck. A porch. With a roof.

The main floor had to have the mudroom, the kitchen, the bathroom and the office off the back porch, where you can come in, go to the bathroom, eat your lunch, and grab a check out of the office, without having to take your boots off.

It had to have a big ass mud room, not one of those sissy little white ones that are in all the magazines.

The main-floor bathroom had to be on an interior wall.

The house needed a proper dining room and living room. None of this noisy “great room” stuff

A large, friendly, usable front porch 

I had to be able to see out all four sides of the house.

I had to be able to see all the main activity areas from the kitchen – every vehicle coming down the driveway, the riding ring, the barn, the kid’s play area, the machine shop, and the tenant house, where my mom lived. Seeing the heifer field and the pony field would be good as well.

All bedrooms were to be upstairs

The kids were only going to get one bathroom. They were going to have to figure out how to make that all work. At least we were going to let them have two sinks.

Only one sink in the master bath – It’s not that we aren’t adherents of personal grooming, it just really doesn’t take us that long. And there were (and are) a few master bedroom design trends that we rejected outright. No whirlpool tub, no separate shower, no enormous closet.

The attic had to be readily accessible, usable, and preferably livable

No hallways – This was Scott’s main concern. It sounds a bit trite, but it’s shorthand for “No wasted space”, and an acknowledgment that there’s a sweet spot between compactness and expansiveness in terms of efficiency. It’s also a nod to craftsmanship over grandeur, a concept quite counter to a lot of contemporary design trends. 

(We had heard lots of advice about single-level design, but we decided against surrendering thirty years of functionality to gain a couple of year’s worth of potential convenience that may or may not have any eventual impact on our quality of life when we were in our eighties. The biggest thing is that we have another building site on the property, where we can build a single level home later.)

In terms of design, everything was pared down to, what was for our family, the essentials.

With the driveway and house-site selected, standing on the house-site with survey flags in hand, we paced out rooms and living spaces. The site had a natural low rise to it. By placing the house at a 45 degree angle, we could take advantage of that line, making the basement walk out work more efficiently, and our views would be better. We stepped off the kitchen first. If the kitchen is here, and it’s this big, where’s the front door going to end up, the back door. Where do we park? Where do eight bags of groceries come in? Where do guests come in? Where does the dog come in?

With these rough outlines worked out both physically and functionally, we (i.e., I) started laying out the actual design. (We figured out long ago that I’m the designer, he’s project manager. We’ve tried it the other way. It’s usually a disaster.)

And after about a year of working on it on and off, (phrases like “Why can’t you just move this over a bit?” can cause a three-week work shutdown), plus a few false starts (including tearing down an 1850 log cabin, and a 1920 horse barn) we came up with a house plan that conformed to our household population (We were up to six kids by this point, but two of them were “aging out” of the process. How did that happen?).

Going from house plans drawn up in 3D Home Architect, to a set of stamped builder’s blue prints is a major step. (“Stamped” is a thing. Residential building designs, in most US jurisdictions, need to be “stamped” by an engineer. No builder, bank, county inspector or insurance company will fool with you if you don’t have stamped plans.) We had a couple of things working in our favor, probably the biggest being a local company called Design Options. The staff there verified the “buildability” of our design (did things line up?, were measurements correct?), engineered the main support beams in the basement and on the main floor, and ultimately provided us with five stamped, physical, original blue prints.

In the span of a mere ten years (well, not quite that long, but close enough for literary purposes) we had finally come up with our house plans. Certainly the building process would move along a little more quickly. (If “Bear Stearns” and “Countrywide” have any meaning to you, you can guess where this is heading.)

If you’re interested in more of the antics and fiascos we create and endure, check out our social feeds.

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