A Plan is a useful thing.
We plan our day, we plan a party, we plan a convention. Some people plan their lives. (Others gave that up a long time ago and have learned to just go where they're going to go, anyway.) How many of us plan a house? I mean, those of us who are not architects or designers? Neither Husband nor I had any idea how to proceed. Did that stop us? It did not.
[future edits will have illustrations -- as soon as I figure out how to do it. Hey, I've figured out ljcuts! I'm getting there!]]
I started with pencil and paper, drawing rooms as rough rectangles, without any thought to perspective, proportion or practicality. Did I mention that my drawing technique lacks a certain amount of ability? Husband started with his computer, of course. He plotted perfect squares and rectangles, with smaller rectangles to represent cabinets and still smaller rectangles to represent furniture. It would have been fine, too, except for two minor problems. 1) He didn't put any door in or out of the house (and left no room for one.) 2) His plan lacked a certain amount of ... well, likeability (from my standpoint, anyway.) In his defense, he was working to those requirements I had been able to express to him, which is to say: none. (It says much for our marriage that so far through this entire project, we have not had even one major blow-up. Pardon me a moment while I knock on my wood desk.)
In a flash of brilliance, Husband started putting our pathetic efforts up on a blank wall in our TV room, where we could eye them and let the back brain play. I improved on this brilliance by mounting a flip chart sideways, adding a pencil on a string and lots of sticky notes. The idea was to put a room name/purpose on each sticky note, and move them around in relation to one another to represent flows through the proposed house.
Moving the sticky notes around clarified my priorities for me: I want lots of light. I want to showcase the setting (we're building in a wood.) I want private areas to be private, and public areas to be public, and I want them both accessible to me without mixing private and public for anyone else. I also want an open floor plan. (When I visited the home showcases to see how architects managed to pair these last two, I found that none of them even acknowledged it as a possibility. "Why would you want to do that?" They also told me it couldn't be done. Another reason to design our own.) When the stickies lined up to these requirements, we knew we had it.
Astonishingly quickly, we had a shape reminiscent of a squared "C" on its side, with the two legs pointing south and the straight body line facing north. As soon as I saw it, I envisioned a courtyard, full of heirloom blooms, visible from window walls along three sides of the house, and open to the forest to the south. I fell in love. I was a bit concerned that it might be too strange a shape for the market, should we ever decide to sell. So I asked a friend for her opinion. She blinked once, twice, then reminded me that she lives in a custom-built house which consists of two circles joined by a hall in the middle -- a dumb-bell shape. After that, I never looked back.
This is as good a place as any to note two things: 1) I owe said friend more karma than I can hope to repay, not only for this sage advice, but for much more sage advice, not to mention her patience and willingness to accompany me on most of my meanderings to house shows and showrooms and lumber yards and kitchen designers. You know who you are, and bless you! 2) Though the plan was to go through many revisions, this basic shape and the concept of the courtyard never changed from this moment. Lesson learned: When it's right, your gut knows it. Trust your gut.
So, we've got a plan, yes? Hah, not even close!
We still had to figure out closets, doorways, halls, roof lines, etc. Again, I was lost, with no idea of how to proceed. My friend suggested I reorient my tactics: start with individual rooms and then put them together to define connective tissue. Thanks to Google (remember life BG? However did we manage?) I found a great room planner here. Not as full-functioned as Husband's packages, but easier to learn and it allowed me to scale furniture icons to match the furniture we have. When I was finished, I printed all the rooms (including closets and doors and windows, oh my!) to the same scale, mounted them on the flip chart paper and off we went to a designer. One revision, four weeks and mere money later, we had ourselves several certified copies of real blueprints, with elevations and stress points and steel support requirements and everything.
What did we end up with? Pictures as soon as I figure out how (yeah, yeah, I know. Husband's got 'em; he's not here.)
Want to plan a house? Here are the lessons we learned.
Start with how you live now. Where do you go,when? Which rooms do you use most often, and which rooms need to be connected (or accessible from) other rooms? What works where you live now, that you don't want to lose? What would you like to do now, but can't because your current house limits you? What rooms can muti-task, and which need to be dedicated to a single purpose?
Next, consider how your life will change over the course of your stay in the new house. Will you need to accommodate a live-in parent or family member? What special needs might you have as you age? Will you retire? How will that change things for you, and what impact will that have for your house design?
Then, consider the land you've chosen. What features do you want to highlight, which do you want to downplay. What kind of house fits best with the look of the place? What weather conditions do you need to accommodate?
Finally, what will happen to the house after you no longer live there? Will it be sold? Will it pass on to heirs? Be donated to some cause? What design implications do these considerations have for your house? You might like the idea of an atrium in the middle of the hall encircling an old oak tree, but will the future owners?
Hire a good builder/contractor. Involve him/her early and often. Listen to him/her. Talk a lot with him/her. The relationship is as close to a marriage as un-coupled people can get. In Southeast Michigan, I highly recommend Eric Jensen (Jensen and Sons). Ask me for the phone number. (He's too busy building my house to put up a website, but his son-in-law is working on it.)
Take time! Of course you're anxious to move. Of course you wanted it two years ago. Turn all the restlessness into creative juice to fuel a million and one "What if?" questions. The programmers among you know that there's never time to do it right, but there's always time to do it over. If you're like us, you don't have that kind of money. Short of choosing someone to share your life until you die, this is the biggest decision with the largest impact you'll ever make.
Figure out your budget, for real. Not "close enough." Not "well, if I get that new job, then we could afford ..." Don't shortchange yourself, but be ruthlessly honest with yourself about how much you really can afford. Then, stick to that budget. There will be lots of things you cannot control to add budget over-runs; don't add to them with things you can control. When you start going to showrooms and building supply stores, tell them your budget and insist that they show you NOTHING that is outside your budget. (Unless you have the willpower of granite or can ignore blandishments as well as a cat.)
Don't skimp on "bones." Facial bones are what influence what we look like when we age; they are permanent and good ones hold up better than bad ones. Same thing for houses. There are just some things that are easier to do upfront than to retrofit. There are some things that are so important to the structure that you have to do them now, and do them well. Figure out what is a bone, what is a Good Thing, what is a Good Thing that can wait, and what is cosmetic. Spend your budget accordingly.
Keep your sense of humor. If you don't have one, beg, borrow, steal or create one FAST. Or, don't build a house.