A Beginner's Guide to Good House Design
When it comes to planning a new home, inspiration can come from the most surprising and unexpected sources.
The problem for most selfbuilders today is that there is just too much choice. When it comes to designing your dream home should you opt for a comfortingly traditional cottage or go all out with a jaw-dropping avant-garde creation? With so many books, magazines, TV programmes and exhibitions aimed at the home builder it’s easy to be swayed by fashion and hype, but finding inspiration at the planning stages should serve to highlight your own preferences and ensure that your new house works efficiently as well as looking beautiful.
Before you even find a plot of land you can start to compile ideas. Many people wait until they buy their land before considering plans or room layouts as they believe that each plot is individual and that, consequently, a house should be designed for its site and not vice versa.
This makes sense, but it also means that all major decisions will be made in a hurry. Perhaps you do not know exactly where the kitchen will be, but you do know that you hate contemporary units and love granite worktops. Such insight can save hours of time when you come to choosing a kitchen for real. It can also impact heavily on other decisions you make. If you have set your heart on underfloor heating, for example, this will affect your flooring choices.
Begin ordering brochures and cutting out pictures that inspire you as soon as possible. A scrapbook may make a good starting point but, with the amount of information you’re likely to collect, a cardboard box is probably a more practical solution!
Write down what you like and don’t like and why, and jot down notes about how you currently use your home – then think ahead: how will your life have changed five or 10 years from now? Many selfbuilders find themselves building again when their children leave home or they retire but, with careful planning, you can design a flexible house which will suit everyone’s changing needs. If you are well prepared you will be able to convey your ideas to a designer rather than being totally influenced by theirs. Keep an open mind, though. Designing houses is a tricky business, and an architect or other designer will usually have years of experience on which to draw. The secret is to listen to ideas but be prepared to stick to your guns when necessary.
Even the most inspirational designs are conceived by adapting existing concepts. Totally new ideas are sadly a rarity, but the ability to see something you like and adapt it can be just as rewarding. Visit self build shows, read books and learn about architecture in general so that you can make educated decisions.
Selfbuilders looking for inspiration would do well to thumb through the pages of history, and there are countless books available which showcase homes from around the world. Some are acknowledged for their role in architectural history, others are iconic for their individual features or structure. Take care not to get too bogged down in the details, but use these early months to enjoy the process of reading about topics which interest and inspire you, rather than feeling duty bound to wade through practical tomes filled with dull technicalities.
Have fun designing a mood board or creating a 3D room at www.mydeco.com
and check out Contemporist (www.contemporist.com) for new products and projects in the world of contemporary design. Core Architect (www.corearchitect.co.uk) offers architecture and design inspiration whilst World Architecture News
(www.worldarchitecturenews.com) is a great source of information. BuildStore’s National Self Build & Renovation Centre in Swindon (www.buildstore.co.uk) is a permanent centre for selfbuilders and renovators, where visitors may walk through two permanent houses and view cutaways of details such as foundations, floors and roofs. There are more than 240 suppliers in the Trade Village displaying the latest products from lighting to kitchens.
Architect in the House (www.architectinthehouse.org.uk) is an innovative scheme that matches homeowners with an RIBA chartered architect, who gives up an hour of their time for a design consultation. In exchange, the homeowner makes a suggested minimum donation of £40 to Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity.
In the past the simpler ‘box’ shape has generally been easier and cheaper to build than, say, a T-shape, L-shape, cruciform or courtyard design. New innovations in building methods and materials, such as SIPs (structural insulated panels) and PIF (permanent insulating formwork), steel framing and giant masonry blocks, are now resulting in faster build times and the flexibility to introduce curves, towers and more complex forms in which to live. These, in turn, lead to more complicated internal layouts.
Greater expense is still usually incurred in creating complex shapes, however, due to a combination of increased external walling area, non-standard roof structures, more roof and wall junctions and complex service runs. There is also that X factor which causes builders to scratch their heads and add a few noughts to the quote because they haven’t built anything like it before, don’t want to, or assume you must be loaded if you want to build something a bit different.
Books and computer programmes which offer to help estimate your build costs can only provide guides for a one-off design for which there are no precedents. It is therefore vital that you totally trust your designer and consider investing in a quantity surveyor or project manager.
Balancing your desire for an interesting and unusual house with an affordable budget could mean compromising with a slightly smaller property for your money or the quality of building materials which you choose – but be careful not to end up with a cheap-looking, poorly constructed novelty.
To get what you really want you have to be prepared to be adventurous. Unfortunately innovative houses often take longer to build than standard boxes because the builder and subcontractors will be undertaking something new and challenging. Some builders appreciate the opportunity to show off their skills, while others will simply moan and groan. Make sure you pick the right one!
Good preparation is essential in order to help your project along. Unusual fixtures and finishes will take longer to order than standard items, so make sure you leave enough time and get organised. The shape and size of the house will ultimately be decided in conjunction with the planning department, and it is important to avoid making any major changes if at all possible as delays will occur while the planners review your design.
SHAPES AND SIZES
The traditional ‘nuclear family’ now represents just 20 per cent of all households and, with rising divorce rates, extended families and people living far longer than ever before, the homes we own have changed dramatically to reflect the way we live in them. We have started to demand houses which say something about our own personalities. Housing has become a fashion statement, just like the clothes we wear and the cars we drive.
Shape is sometimes referred to by architects and planners as ‘bulk, ‘form’ or ‘mass’, and is the three-dimensional consideration of the building and the volume of space it occupies. Although we are all familiar with two-dimensional plans and drawings they rarely convey the drama of a real building which we can imagine living in. Investing in a scale model or a 3D computer design (which many architects now produce as standard) will help the visualisation process.
BOOKS AND THE WEB
Do not use package companies, plan books or internet-sourced designs for a free design service – you will technically be in breach of copyright. Even if a design is based on your own ideas the copyright is owned by the individual or company that produced the actual physical plans, although referring to other house designs is a good way to become familiar with floorplans and gather information in order to achieve the best design for you.
Local designers will have experience of the planning authority and are on hand to oversee the project and recommend tradesmen they may have worked with before. As with anyone involved in your self build, make sure you appoint a designer with whom you have a rapport and who shows enthusiasm for the project. Ask to see some recently completed properties of a similar scale to your own and talk to former clients to hear their impressions.
Take along your ideas, know your budget and time scale and see how they respond – but always be prepared to keep an open mind as the most outstanding, workable designs tend to result from collaborative discussions. Conversely, never allow your designer to take over the project and dissuade you from features you have set your heart on and can afford. Be prepared to say if you don’t like the preliminary sketches and to change designer altogether if you feel unhappy in the early stages. By initially employing a designer on a limited basis you will be able to monitor progress and your relationship without committing yourself to a full service.
You are unlikely to come up with a satisfactory building design without first considering where it is to be built and the site’s surroundings. Not only must the new building be seen to be in sympathy with existing properties to impress the planners (and this does not mean that it should ape the vernacular, merely relate to it in some way) but its shape and scale should maximise views and sunlight without overshadowing its neighbours. One way of achieving what you want is to take an idea with an historic or local precedent and adapt it to the surroundings. Some very unusual and futuristic designs have been permitted using this ploy.
Houses will continue to adapt to our growing demands, and modern houses can be organic and beautiful, angular or shocking. They can also make reference to the past. Volume house builders usually lack the courage to give us innovative designs which differ from the accepted vernacular style. It is up to the selfbuilder to determine which type of home he or she dreams of living in – and then go ahead and try to build it.