I was recently asked this question:
I get asked this question quite a bit, and so, instead of just preparing a direct response, I thought I’d share my advice on this on the UA blog for all of you who may be curious, and have not yet asked!
So, which comes first? The house or the land?
My quick answer is: THE LAND.
I know however, in the world of project homes, or buying a home off the plan – what customarily happens is that potential home owners wander the display villages, find a house plan they love, and then are referred to land estates which have blocks of suitable size.
I believe this approach overlooks some significant factors that will impact how successfully your home will work, and what it will be like to actually live in. My advice is always to choose the land first, and these are my reasons why.
My 5 “O’s” of why you should choose your land first …
Understanding the orientation of your land, and designing, or positioning your home in direct response to it is the single most important thing you can do to create a home that works well.
What do I mean by orientation? It’s about understanding the sun’s movement across your site, and designing a home that directly relates to how the sun moves. In the southern hemisphere, the sun moves through the north.
So, designing a home to respond to orientation? Generally speaking this means putting service areas (garages, bathrooms, storage areas) on the west, as you don’t occupy them for long periods of time (the west side is the hottest part of the house). Put 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. 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.
What this creates is a home that is cool in summer and warm in winter. You don’t need lights on during the day, and your heating and cooling costs are significantly lower – which saves you money on your energy bills. Forty per cent of a home’s energy use is attributed to heating and cooling it – so this is something you can directly impact by orienting your home to optimize its relationship to the sun’s movement. It will also help you achieve your required star rating for your building approval without additional cost items such as upgraded insulation, etc. It’s the fastest ticket to creating a sustainable (and environmentally friendly) home.
More importantly however, when you design, or position a home, to the maximise the orientation of the land, it creates a beautiful living environment. Natural light has been scientifically proven to impact our moods, our health and well-being because it affects the production of Vitamin D and Seratonin (our body’s ingredients in managing depression, anxiety and recovery from illness). Capturing natural light, and managing heat and glare according to the season, makes such a significant difference to how the spaces feel – and how you feel in them.
Until you find the land, you don’t know what its outlook will be. Where are the main views or areas beyond your land that you want to make the most of? What are the main views or areas within your boundaries that are worth optimizing? If the main views are to the front of the property, but north is to the rear of the property, how will a pre-chosen / pre-designed home deal with this?
Part of feeling safe and secure in your home is related to how protected and private it feels, whilst still having a connection with the space and land around and beyond it.
Achieving privacy doesn’t always require the use of walls and opaque glass. The home can be designed so door and window openings are positioned to limit views into the homes from the street and neighbours. The home can also be positioned so it privatises areas from views from neighbours. When you can use the design of the home, or positioning it a certain way, to achieve privacy, you can then manage those external visual connections to work for you. In doing so, your home can maximise its outlook whilst protecting from overlooking. It’s a little tricky to do this when you’ve chosen or designed the home first, not knowing what overlooking it will have to contend with.
When building a home, it’s a careful exercise of managing your budget. You have an overall limit, and so it’s a balance of the cost of the home, the cost of the land, and then any additional costs that might come up between those two.
The cost to build a home, when just viewed as a standalone object, is fairly fixed. What I mean is this – you can create or choose a design, and it will be a certain price based assuming standard construction methodologies and land conditions.
What can impact the cost however are the specific conditions of your land. The land you choose may impact the requirements for the concrete slab, or the overall structural design of the home. It may change the assumption made about services connections costs. It may change the insulation requirements. There may be design covenants that impact material choices. The topography, soil type, wind ratings, services location and existing vegetation may all impact how the home can be designed and/or positioned, and, in turn, impact the cost of the home. These are all variables that can be specific to the land you choose.
When you’re operating on a fixed budget, and have chosen or designed the home first (and allocated budget to all the components) and then start looking for your land – these variable costs can be nasty surprises.
I’ve always felt that finding the right block of land is a lot trickier than finding the right home design.
Land is fixed. This may sound a little strange – but it exists already. It’s there, with its boundaries, its neighbors, its slope, its views, its position, its size, its shape, its location. Generally, you want to live in a specific area, so that will dictate what’s available. Your budget may also determine what the land is like. You may want it to be a certain distance to schools or shops. Finding just the right block of land can be challenging and your choices can be limited based on what you’re seeking.
The home – well I believe that’s another story entirely.
There are a massive amount of home designs you can choose from out there on the open market. There are SO many different ways to design, plan and arrange the rooms in a home – yes, even when you’re on a budget. Even if there are certain ways you want to arrange rooms and connect spaces, there are still lots of ways to skin that cat. If you like a home you’ve already seen (as this person who asked this question had), I expect that what you like are components of it. The way the kitchen is arranged, the size of the kitchen, the connection it has with the lounge and dining, where the bedrooms are located, the amount of storage etc. As an architect, I know there are still ways to incorporate all of those elements in a plan that suits your land specifically – in a way that makes the most of the land, AND of the house design.
BUT WHAT IF? Here’s the 6th ‘O’
Timing of ownership can be the challenging element in this house vs land, and what comes first, debate.
Designing a home from scratch takes time. Getting drawings done, quotes done and finding a builder, takes time. Walking the display villages and finding a home design and builder you like takes time. And perhaps, when you’re on the hunt for land, and you find something you want to buy, you may have to settle in 30 days. So, you’ve paid for the land, and it’s sitting there waiting (tying up your cash) whilst you get your home design sorted.
Some land estates will let you delay settlement to get this timing to work. If you know though that this won’t be possible for you, and you want to get going as quickly as possible once you’ve found the land you want, this is my advice:
1. Understand what the land is generally like in the area you want to be living in. Is it generally sloping? Can you find a north or north-east facing block or will you be dealing with another orientation? What is the typical size, and configuration of the blocks? Get a basic understanding of the typical parameters – and a rough guide to costs to buy.
2. Decide whether you’ll buy off the plan, or design something from scratch, and the rough process you’ll follow. Will you work with a design professional, or work directly with a builder? Gather your team, get indications of fees and understand their terms and conditions.
3. Once you’ve decided which route to take, get an understanding of the timeframes involved – and make it specific to the location you’re looking at building in. Local Council rules may require approvals that extend your timeframes.
4. Develop your brief. Get really clear on what you do and don’t want. Do your homework and research so that when you hit the ‘go’ button on designing or choosing, you know exactly what you’re wanting to achieve in your home design. You may even want to do some concept sketches, or put together a scrapbook to illustrate it.
5. Get a rough budget idea for your home. If planning to design from scratch, you can still get a rough idea about this by knowing how big you want your home to be, and speaking to builders or design professionals about rough costs and square meterage rates to use (depending on the standard of home you’re planning). If buying off the plan, have a look at homes that you like, and collect your preferred designs – don’t choose just one.
6. Once you’ve found the land, try to negotiate an extended settlement as part of your contract to buy yourself some time.
7. Organise a survey and a soil test of the land asap. This is information you need for structural design and construction. You can do this prior to settlement. Your survey should show boundaries, topography, significant features (like trees that need to be retained, etc), and service locations.
8. Look at your land – where’s north? What are the main features that you want to optimise? Where do you need to protect from overlooking? Where do the main breezes come from? Are their any specific areas you need to avoid on the site (services etc).
9. Get going with a formal design and documentation (drawing) process, or choosing the actual house design you’ll build. Use the information you built in developing your brief, or collecting your preferred designs, and now align it with what you know of your actual block of land.
You’ll find the process will come together quickly now, because you’ve done the groundwork, and have an actual block of land to work with … there’s no guessing because you’re working inside a real framework.
IS IT A BOY OR A GIRL? CREATING YOUR PERFECT HOME.
Searching for or creating a home design without a block of land is like trying to buy clothing for a baby before you know its gender. You can still go ahead and buy the clothing, but you’ll probably only choose non-gender colours to be safe – and keep your selections broad and general. If you wait until after you know the gender, you can choose much more specifically – and in fact, it actually seems like there’s more to choose from. You know exactly what you’re looking for, and can make your decisions quickly and with confidence. It all just becomes so much more straightforward because you have the framework within which to choose. Once you have your land, your search for your home can become much more tailored and focused in a way that helps it happen with clarity and speed.
Creating a home that is specific to its land, and maximises the assets of that land, will bring value to your life everytime. Bringing financial value in a home that costs less to run and has real, long-term livability. More importantly though – bringing you significant lifestyle value by providing you with a home that is a beautiful living environment.
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Other blogs you may find useful …
We follow the Andersons as they build their new home. Here’s the index of their Project Diary.
I was a secret shopper at a Project Home Display Village. Here’s what I uncovered.
Every project, whatever the budget, whatever your plans, starts best when you begin by answering these 4 questions.