Are you planning to build a project home? There’s an important thing to know first before you choose which one you want – and it will help make your choice much simpler.
What’s a project home?
A project home is a home built to a set design by a volume home-builder. These builders build a significant number of homes per year, and have a catalogue of ready-designed homes (project homes) that customers can choose from. They are seen by many as an economical way to build a home with security and confidence that you’ll get what you pay for.
Economical because they are delivered on a scale that allows systems, bulk buying and delivery methods to reduce overall prices (they’re not necessarily the least expensive way to build a home though).
Security because there’s a perception that builders generating that many homes per year, with an infrastructure of display homes, multiple teams and corporate structures, are sufficiently shored up to prevent bankruptcy and subsequent non-delivery.
Confidence because, as a customer, you can usually walk through an-already-constructed version of your home, or one that’s similar, in a display village – where you can see the planning, the volumes, the finishes and fixtures, and understand (to an extent) what you’ll get in your version.
Unlike a lot of architects, I have no issue with project homes themselves. There are some great ones, and terrible ones. Just as there are great architect-designed and bespoke homes, and some terrible ones. And I’m not talking about aesthetics here as a measure of ‘terrible’ – that’s far too subjective a basis to judge on. I’m talking about design that’s functional, ergonomic, offers delight and is durable.
Build it and they will come
In the next year (2015), it’s predicted that over 180,000 dwellings will be built in Australia – with almost 110,000 of these being houses.
And so that’s 110,000 people, couples, families, building brand new homes, and moving into them … all bundled up with their hopes and dreams for the future they hope to build in them. The happy memories they hope to create. Even the money they hope to make if they’re an investor. Lots of ambition, potential and promise resides in those bricks, concrete, glass and timber.
Sit online for a little while and explore the world of project homes and the homeowners who build them, and you’ll find mountains and mountains of information. Communities of people sharing their journey of building their own home. Blog after blog, created by excited homeowners, tracking the progress of their home’s construction with photographs and stories. And forum after forum of people warning of the pitfalls, advising what they did to avoid them, or what they learn if they didn’t. I was amazed by how much time and energy had been invested by what seemed like thousands of people taking to the internet to talk about building their project home. Looking for others who had built the same design – calling out to their tribe … that really surprised me – that you would seek out others who chose the same home as you. However, I think a certain security comes for some in the social proof that others have chosen like you, therefore your choice is a good one.
And a lot of this conversation was geared towards questioning performance of the home plan and the building company against those first three factors I mentioned: economical, security and confidence.
So what’s missing?
I could find very little (if any) conversation about design. About getting the orientation right, and positioning the home on the land well, and how these homeowners went about matching their house design to their land to make sure it would be a low-cost home to run, and a great place to live.
It is my firm belief that it is the design that makes the home … that makes the difference to how you get to live IN the home. Design is what unlocks what is possible in making your home great. And it isn’t more expensive – when you’re looking at a catalogue of house designs, you will find lots of different house plan versions for around the same price.
This is about choosing the design that:
- makes the most of your site
- has well-sized spaces and rooms appropriate to their use, well-connected and logically arranged, and
- creates spaciousness through use of volume and light, indoor-outdoor connections and great storage and functionality.
It is also my firm belief that you can have the most beautifully constructed home, the smoothest running project, with no stress, no budget overruns, on budget and on time … but if the design doesn’t tick those 3 boxes, it won’t be a great home to live in, or one that works to support you living your best life. Functional, ergonomic, durable design that offers delight.
So how does it go so wrong?
It does, doesn’t it? Homes that don’t maximise or respond to their site, or their neighbourhood or street. Is it just that so many people choose their project home with priorities other than design? Or that they’re not educated or informed to really know what to look for and how to make their choice? Is it that they’re on tight budgets – really tight budgets – and so they’re just trying to get the maximum amount of house their budget can afford – and in doing so, judge on size and not on function? Do they think there’s no way they could afford maximum home AND great design?
Or is it that they trust that someone’s sorted it for them? That these big corporate, volume-building, companies have already done the work for them, and that there’s no way they’d offer up something for sale that didn’t work?
Is that what it is? That there’s a trust and belief that these companies (particularly the larger ones – with their staff, infrastructure, systems and reputations) only put home designs together that work? That are tested, tried, and known to be a great solution?
The thing is that, in a lot of these companies, design isn’t a driving priority at the point the homes are designed/drawn up and included in their catalogue for sale. What is driving them? That they can be built economically, using systems already in place. In some, homes don’t go through any design review process. A draftsperson in the company draws up the home and if it meets the company criteria in terms of their delivery systems, material use, profit margins, etc – it gets added to the catalogue. In some companies, at no point is the house interrogated from a design point of view. It works economically and constructionally, but no one has actually tested if it works as a home to live in, and to live well.
Stretching the budget
Those generally on the tightest budget are the first-home buyers. ABS data shows their average home-loan to be just over $300,000. One website I saw then determined, based on loan-to-value rates of 90% that that makes the average first-home-purchase almost $340,000. At the same time, the median house price in Australia is $664,330. That’s a big gap.
And given that the average age of the first home buyer has climbed to 34 years old, and the average age of first time mums is 30 – you have mortgages, and maternity leave and higher household costs and reduced family incomes all coming together at a similar time … it is SUPER stressful. I remember that time for us was horrible. We’d be saving and saving, and it would all feel just out of reach – and the minute we thought we could do it, another charge or expense, or movement in market growth would occur. We were only buying our first home, so I can just imagine the additional stress that building adds as well to that process of acquiring your first home.
So of course, economic, security and confidence are important and sensible benchmarks with which to choose a project home. And you’re looking for someone to trust, to make it easy and help you deliver the dream [your home] so you can keep building your life.
Let’s just take a breath …
What I ask for here is just a pause. Take a moment, and ask for some advice. Impartial advice from someone who understands design, and what you’re seeking to achieve in your family home. Not the person selling it to you, but someone who is outside of that process, who can give you honest advice without the selling.
Believe it or not … it will actually make your search easier.
When you prioritise design, you immediately filter what won’t work on your site and for your life. It actually makes choosing a home – a project home to build – more straight-forward. When you look for a design that maximises the assets of your land, that arranges the rooms and spaces correctly for their orientation, then you can immediately filter out all those that don’t do this. The overwhelming sea of options is immediately narrowed. It’s not anymore expensive to do this. It’s just about doing it upfront, and staying committed to it – knowing that the long-term payoff is worth it.
When the home isn’t designed to suit the orientation of the land, and to maximise its solar design and natural ventilation, it will require more artificial cooling and heating to be comfortable – which means higher energy bills. That’s like choosing to buy a car even though know you’ll have to refuel every 3 days instead of every 2 weeks.
And when homes are NOT laid out functionally, with spaces well-connected and logically arranged and with intended uses – then you usually get those dark, damp spaces, or strangely shaped rooms that are hard to furnish. They end up being dumping grounds, or rooms that aren’t comfortable to be in. They’ve still cost money to build, but they don’t offer much to your lifestyle in the home. So imagine you buy your groceries at the supermarket, and the minute you pay for them, you go and put 5%, or 10% or 15% into the bin outside the supermarket. That’s what it’s like to build these spaces in your home – and sometimes you don’t know it will be like that until it’s already built, because no one informed you it would be dark, damp, hot, stuffy, too hard to furnish, or just an uncomfortable (and hence, infrequently used) room or space.
So when we’re talking about affordability, and making the most of your money … then building a home that is expensive to run, or that you can’t use all of seems a bit odd doesn’t it?
In my experience, it’s not until you live in a poorly designed home – a home that doesn’t work – that you truly understand how crappy life can be in one, and how much of your life it impacts … and then you make a commitment to never endure that again. It galvanises those people into a level of committed action that I love to see – because they appreciate design as the vehicle to getting a great home, and a great place to live.
So the key? It’s being galvanised into that committed action BEFORE you have to experience living in a home that doesn’t work … let alone investing your money in it too.
Don’t waste time searching for, building and living in a home that doesn’t work – when you CAN have one that does.
You can have economical, security, confidence AND design. Just put design first, and filter the rest through that lens.
Other blogs you may find useful …
Check out the podcast for Season 1 and what matters most when choosing or designing your home.
This is how to design (or choose) a family home that works now, and always.
Head here if you’re building a family home and don’t know where to start.
Loved the article. A house must fit into the landscape around it, so even if it looked good in a catalogue, it must work with its environment.
Thanks for your comment and kind feedback – I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Designing for orientation and making the most of your site will pay dividends every time in a home – both in financial and lifestyle returns!
– Amelia, UA
I really enjoyed this article. Every time I drive through suburbs full of McMansions with black roofs and no yards, I wonder why people settle for this when there is so much better available, and I don’t believe it is that hard to find either.
Perhaps it is because project home companies can be very persuasive and actually do quite a hard sell once they have you.
Thanks for your comment and feedback. Yes, I think that’s part of it. From the conversations I have though, there’s nothing more powerful than being able to walk through a ‘display’ version of your home before you build it yourself. It certainly helps those who find it hard to envisage their home based on floorplans etc. I hope this blog (and the rest of UA) helps those homeowners find confidence to do what suits them, their site and their budgets.
– Amelia, UA x
Great article! We’re renting in the US atm. Huge house, 2 living rooms, formal dining room, master bedroom you could fit a loungesuite in, equally large ensuite and WIR but the toilet’s right next to the bed (gross) and the WC space so small you can barely turn and the close the door. The list goes on… This is our first time in a house that doesn’t work. Its bad, but thankfully not permanent.
Thanks for your feedback. Yes, often we don’t realise how badly a home can impact our lifestyle until we experience it first-hand. Thankfully it’s not permanent for you, but unfortunately it will become someone else’s home! Here’s to everyone creating homes that work,
– Amelia, UA x
Sarah Grenfell says
I love this. Such sensible advice.
Thanks for the kind feedback – I’m so glad you enjoyed it,
– Amelia, UA x