I don’t want architecture with a capital ‘A’ … but I do want great design

Do you want great design, but don’t want to use an architect? Here’s what to know to get it right – in 3 steps.

This article was first published in the magazine, The Owner Builder, Issue 192 (Dec 2015/Jan 2016). To subscribe and for back issues, head to The Owner Builder magazine website.Each year in Australia, over 150,000 new homes are built. Only 3% of these are designed in a traditional client-architect arrangement. That means over 145,000 homes are created via other means.

What are these other means? Well, the Building Designers Association (the National Coordinating body for Building Designers) estimates that 75-80% of residential work is currently designed by Building Designers.

Australia is quite unusual globally in that you don’t require an architect to design your home.

You don’t actually require any type of design professional.

You can draw up a plan yourself, get it documented in a suitable format by someone with the skills to do so, and get it approved and built. As long as you meet your local planning requirements, and national building legislation and standards, you are good to go.

Are we missing something?

Even as an architect, I understand that architects are not for everyone.

I think that (as with any profession) there are those who are great at what they do, and those who are not … but still get to put up a shingle and charge people money. I have seen architects fail their clients, and homeowners with a really keen understanding of home design do a great job. And everything in between.

However, what I’m seeing is that, time and time again – regardless of how they’re created – people are building homes that just don’t work.

They’re uncomfortable to live in, they cost more than they needed to, or will create ongoing premiums in living expenses. They wear poorly, they’re difficult to maintain.

The saddest thing in this is that the homes we build can outlive us, and impact other families, other generations. The decisions we make in create them are permanent.

Ultimately, we are missing significant opportunities. In doing so, we seriously diminish our homes, our streets, our neighbourhoods and our communities.

How your neighbour creates their home impacts how you get to live – how it relates to you, your street, respects (or ignores) your right to natural light, security and privacy.

We’re all in this. This is where we live our lives.

I don’t want Architecture with a capital “A”

A client once said this to me, and it captures the challenges that homeowners experience with architects.:

  • They only design what they want.
  • They force their opinions about my home on me.
  • They don’t listen.
  • They only design expensive homes.
  • They can’t stick to budgets.
  • They’re arrogant.
  • They only do cutting-edge innovation I’m not interested in.

(You can read the 6 most common reasons I hear why people don’t use architects here)

Great design makes the difference

I’m not passionate about architects.

What I am passionate about is this:

  • great design makes a great home
  • a great home makes your life better
  • this doesn’t cost any more

Great design is about having certain priorities, making different decisions upfront, and embedding design at the point it will make a massive difference to your home, and the life it helps you lead.

I asked a client once if they thought it had been anymore expensive to achieve a great design result for their home. This is what they said:

“It costs the same to build a wall whether it is in the right place to contribute to the design (light, airflow, privacy, proportion) or the wrong place. The better design is not something which degrades or needs maintenance. Its benefits remain, inherent, regardless of age and without the need for any further input. 

It’s a bit like having good health – you don’t think about it until you remember being sick.

The function of architectural design is something you sometimes only reflect on when you have cause to remember that you might not have had the privacy you now enjoy, or the light or the convenience or the comfort or the many things you can now take for granted but you would have spent just as much for a poor design.”

So what is great design?

The best definition of great design I’ve found applies to many other industries as well as your home, and was said by Seth Godin:

I think this is a very apt description for our homes. I’m sure all of us have experienced the inconvenience factor that comes with poor design. The thing that forces us to compromise, create a work-around, or avoid altogether, in order to go about our day.

Great design simply gets out of your way. It supports you living your life.

What might go wrong in designing a home?

When homes are poorly designed, it has massive ramifications on your lifestyle.

Believe it or not, the way your home is designed, actually determines how you lead your life in it. It impacts how comfortable you are, how hot and cold you are (without artificial heating or cooling), the money you spend on maintaining it, and it affects your health and well-being.

In the 18 years since I left the home I grew up in, I’ve lived in 14 different houses (including my current one). When I say ‘live’, I mean for a period of 6 months or more. All were of varying sizes, condition, location and design … and reinforced my professional knowledge of what makes a home an enjoyable place to be.

Certain homes, in hindsight, showed how essential natural light is in indoor environments. One home we rented was dark and cold, even on the brightest of days. I spent more time out of that home, than in it … bundling up the kids to go to the park (because the yard was south-facing too), or running lots of errands.

Of course, there are lots of other items in the secret sauce that makes a great home, and often it’s as much about what we leave out, as it is about what we include.

Great design in 3 simple steps

So, you don’t want architecture with a capital “A”. I would, however, venture to guess that you …

  • want a home that works, both now, and into the future
  • is lower in cost to run
  • is thermally comfortable
  • makes the most of every cent and minute you’re investing in creating it
  • and that helps make your life better overall?

This is not architecture with a capital “A”. This is great design, and the key to getting it right at your place is about understanding at the beginning what is required to achieve this.

So here is your crash-course in those big-ticket design items you should seek to include in your home, regardless of how it is being designed, or who is helping you. These are easy wins, and should be non-negotiable when you create your home.

Step 1: Orientation

Many owner-builder projects are motivated by the desire to create a more affordable and sustainable living environment.

Some of this activity can be at the fringe of traditional, domestic building activity, such as alternative material choices, hands-on building methods and remote locations.

However, in my experience, Pareto’s 80-20 law applies to sustainability as it does with most of what we do in life. Do you know the Pareto principle? It states that for many events and activities, 80% of the effects (or output) come from 20% of the causes (or input).

What’s the 20% in designing for sustainability that achieves 80% of the effect? It’s designing for the orientation of your site. So, what does this essentially mean?

“Know where the sun moves … and design for it.”

At a really basic level … (and if you’re in the northern hemisphere, substitute “north” for “south” and “south” for “north”!)

  • put garaging on the south/south-west/west of the site, and living areas to the north/north-east of the site. If you can’t get northern light into your living areas directly through windows, see if you can top-light through skylights or voids in the home.
  • service areas (bathrooms, laundries, storage areas) are good on the west as you don’t occupy them for long periods of time (the west side is the hottest part of the house)
  • locate bedrooms to the east to capture morning sun and for cool rooms at bedtime. Alternatively, put them on the south where light is constant and even, and there isn’t a lot of heat load – this is a good location for studies/offices too.

Then look at breezes, storms, your views and outlooks and be sure to design for those too.

Drawing on the natural qualities of your site to add value to your home is a no-cost design choice, and will create an enjoyable living environment.

Step 2: Connection and flow

Just as rooms can be too small, they can also be too big. Don’t build a big house, just because you can or you think you should.

Bigger is NOT better. Design makes the difference. Quality over quantity will change your everyday life – every time.

Look to instead create spaces that have flexibility, are super functional, and that will be useful now, and as your family grows (in age and or/size!)

How big do you think the rooms in your house need to be? Look at your furniture and how you’d like to have it arranged. What do you want to see when looking from one room to another? What needs to be private and what doesn’t?

Focus instead on having fewer spaces that work REALLY well, rather than just lots of them. Your budget, your vacuum cleaner, your family and your wellbeing will thank you.

Step 3: Create spaciousness

I’m not only talking about spaciousness just in size here – I’m also referring to ‘mental spaciousness’.

And no, not the empty head kind! This is the mental spaciousness where your thinking is freed up for the things that matter – family, your career, your goals, your dreams – your life! Not where you left the keys, or that important document you only need once every 3 months.

These are 3 sure-fire ways to create spaciousness in your design:

1 – Firstly, create a great connection between indoors and outdoors.

Your home sits on land, and the connection you make with it – not just in moving in and out of the house, but in the visual connection also – is fantastic for expanding the experience of your home. It’s also great for functional requirements such as keeping an eye on the kids, and safety and security. Don’t forget your view over the street – having eyes on the street helps with overall community security and connection, and can be achieved without compromising your privacy.

2 – Secondly, think about volume and light.

Volume is the shape of a space, and light animates it. Even if you have small spaces, think about the height of the ceiling, and how big the windows will be. Think about skylights for top-lighting.

Open up a space with views of the sky. Use volume and light to create contrast between openness and intimacy in your home, and to add drama and interest to its experience.

3 – Thirdly, design in great storage.

A place for everything and everything in its place! This reduces clutter (which is a spaciousness killer!) and if you always know where to find everything, then finding things happens a lot more calmly!

Ready, set, go …

Getting set on the best possible path for your newly built or renovated home starts with the design, and getting that framework in place in the best possible way.

If you’re building a new home, or renovating your current one, you’re going to be investing time, money and a lot of heart, soul and effort into the process. It’s inevitable – your time will pass, your money will be spent, your effort and energy will be invested.

This will happen anyway.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if (with that time, money, energy and effort) you actually created the perfect home for you?

I’ve seen homeowners approach the building or renovation of their home like ripping off a band-aid. It’s overwhelming to think about, so let’s just do it quickly, get it over and done with, and then get on with living in it.

Take a breath. Take some time. Get it right.

Whilst it’s lines on a piece of paper, it’s inexpensive. And it’s where the true magic OR the horrible disasters are made.

Don’t let your home be a liability. Make it a legacy.

You deserve to live in a well-designed home, because it makes life better. It may take a little more work and time upfront but it will be worth it – that I can promise.

Get the design right, and it will be work that pays worthwhile and unimaginable dividends – both financially and in the life it helps you lead.


Sun movement:

To see how the sun moves at your site at different times of the year – Sunseeker 3D is a great augmented reality app

Designing for climatic conditions of Australian locations:

Your Home (government website)

Storage and decluttering advice:

Marie Kondo’s book “The life-changing magic of tidying up”. It’s a game-changer!

Design Inspiration

The Design Files | Houzz | My House Idea | Walk Among The Homes | ArchitectureAU | Green Magazine

Digital drawing tools

RoomScan | Floor Planner | MagicPlan

I’d love to hear from you … What do you think about great design? Does it seem out of reach, or complicated to you? Or just something they do in expensive homes? Comment below to share your views.

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  • Sandra
    January 24, 2016, 1:06 pm  Reply

    A lot of the poorly functioning houses here in WA can be put down to 2 major factors, firstly the subdivisions and how the streets are ‘planned’ and secondly the housing industry here. Too many blocks are on streets running E-W giving the garage all the sun and then the house design is plonked on said block regardless of orientation!

    • Amelia
      January 25, 2016, 12:54 pm

      Hi Sandra
      Thank you for your comment.
      It is my dream that every house plan produced, that can be bought ‘off-the-plan’ from a project home builder etc, has a recommended orientation shown on it.
      It’s such a challenge for homeowners to understand the amazing difference it makes when a design is chosen intentionally for a block – be it something already drawn, or a custom design. As you say, it is unfortunate that our cars often occupy the best space on the block (and the most room!)
      – Amelia, UA x

  • sandra
    January 25, 2016, 1:29 pm  Reply

    When we built our first home in WA the building company were very shocked when I asked them to flip the design to place the living area N facing! That was after puzzling the estate developer by dismissing all blocks not on N-S streets as that was not N-facing by my reckoning. Friends thought we were mad too….until they came to visit the completed house

    • Amelia
      January 26, 2016, 8:39 am

      Hi Sandra
      Congrats – I’m so glad you were informed and insisted on that choice. Sometimes that’s all it takes! Unfortunately a lot of people don’t realise how great a well-oriented home is until they’ve seen and lived in one (and then they never go back!) When I did my Secret Shopping experience, I asked each salesperson their recommendation for what type of block I should buy, and only one mentioned orientation. It’s just really absent from our conversation about housing design in Australia. Hopefully homeowners like you, and Undercover Architect, can change that.
      – Amelia, UA x

  • Lyn Ahlefeldt
    May 7, 2016, 6:15 pm  Reply

    In buying a house, I think allhomes.com.au is a good site as it provides a link to google aerial view and you can see the true orientation of the house. Plans provided by real estate sometimes include orientation but these can often be carelessly done, different to google, as if north-facing living areas is just one of many fashion ideas rather than being intrinsic to value.

    • Amelia
      May 9, 2016, 3:17 pm

      Hi Lyn,
      Thanks for the tip. Yes, the real estate plans can be a little unreliable – they are produced in a very affordable format, and very quickly.
      Like you, I like to always check the aerial map on Google because then you can also look at what’s around the house, proximity of infrastructure (shops, schools, etc) or busy roads. They’re definitely the better option for confirming where north is (readers – in google maps, north is always at 12 o’clock).
      Thanks for your comment Lyn,
      – Amelia, UA x

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