Is it possible to design a home without an architect?
In most places around the world, it is. However, there are 3 main investigations missing in the design process when you don’t use an experienced designer.
Listen to this podcast to learn what they are.
So, let me say upfront to all my architectural colleagues that are ready to lynch me for teaching homeowners how to design a home without an architect … it’s ok. I get it.
The statistics vary on how many homes are designed by architects, with various sources citing anywhere from 3 to 10%.
Other statistics cite that Building Designers design 75% of residential homes. And what I see inside Undercover Architect is just how many homeowners – whether they’re planning on using a professional or not – start their process by drawing up and playing with their own floor plans.
There’s loads of apps to do this now, and I’ve seen some homeowners even train themselves in how to use the various drawing and CAD tools generally used by industry.
So, for architects specialising in residential design, this can all feel very scary.
I’ll be frank … I do believe homeowners are best served by working with a design professional when creating their new home or renovation design. It can be so helpful, and totally expand what’s possible for your home and the lifestyle you’ll have in it, IF you work with someone who is experienced, trained in design, legally liable for the advice they provide, and required to do continued training to maintain their professional status.
However, even as an architect, I understand that architects are not for everyone.
In fact, I see homeowners avoiding working with any type of design professional for many reasons, including these …
+ They feel the designer will only design what they want … be it a particular style, a building to win awards with, or just something they’re personally attached to
+ They feel the designer will force opinions on them about their home
+ They feel the designer won’t listen, and as they homeowner, they’ll lose control of their own dreams and vision for their home
+ Or that the designer will only design an expensive home, and not stick to budget
+ They’ve just seen or heard of too many problems with working
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’ve been designed – people are building and renovating homes that just don’t work. On all budgets, in all locations.
I spend a fair bit of time online, in forums and Facebook groups, seeing how people are creating their homes. Both the process they’re going through, and the types of designs they’re creating.
Some of the designs I see really concern me, because I can see how they’ll create homes that are …
+ uncomfortable to live in,
+ expensive to heat and cool,
+ lack flexibility for family life over the long term, and
+ completely waste the opportunities available for their site and their budget
It can be common for homeowners to get really caught up in worrying about the finishes, the builder, the quality of construction. But one thing I know for sure is this: you can have a home with all the high end finishes, built by the most amazing builder to the highest quality, and still have a terrible design that makes the home horrible to live in on a day-to-day basis.
I firmly believe that those lines on a page, the drawings that you’re creating either by yourself, or in working with someone, will dictate how you get to live, feel and function both in and beyond your home for years and years to come. And I think it can be the most frustrating and slow part of the renovating or building process for homeowners, for a few reasons.
One reason is that, especially if you’re working with a designer, you can find it takes 6 months or more to get through the design phase. This can be before you lodge plans to council, and start construction documentation. And if you struggle to understand drawings, and visualise what those plans might look like and feel like as a finished home, I’ve seen homeowners feel very much out of their comfort zone through that phase – and desperate for it to be over with and things to be moving on.
Unfortunately, that ‘race-ahead’ approach can be a recipe for disaster once you get to site, and see things getting built that you didn’t expect, don’t look like you wanted, and don’t feel or work the way you hoped and dreamed of. That’s when change gets expensive or difficult to accommodate, and chews up loads of money and time – plus causes heaps of stress for all involved.
Sooo … is it possible to design your home without an architect?
Well, in a lot of places around the world, and especially in Australia, it is. In fact, in Australia, the only part of the process you need a professional for is to prepare your approval drawings, because there’s certain benchmarks you need to satisfy to present your plans for council and building approval.
However you’re planning to, or currently creating your design for your new home or renovation … whether you’re working with a professional or not … I did want to share the key ways to approach and work through your design process so that you get it right. So, you can make sure this happens if you’re designing your home yourself OR you can keep your designer accountable to providing this level of service to you as they work with you.
There are 3 main investigations I see missing from the design process when a homeowner does it themselves, or they work with a professional who doesn’t use a holistic design approach.
When certain investigations don’t happen during the design process, it’s unfortunately more likely to end up with a home that doesn’t work. Because if you don’t include these 3 things, these methods of examination or investigation, then you completely miss crucial information to inform your design with.
So, let me go through those 3 main ones now.
The first thing that is often missing from the design process when a homeowner tackles it themselves, or when I see certain designers or draftspeople also design a new home or renovation is this:
#1 There’s not an investigation of the best design strategy BEFORE starting the design process.
Traditionally when a homeowner, or even some design professionals, start the design process, they’ll get a list of the spaces they want, the rough size of them, and then start arranging rectangles on the page. Be it in an app, or by hand, the design becomes an exercise of fitting all those rectangles and shapes into an orderly pattern, within the building envelope that’s allowed to fit on the site.
However, developing the right strategy first can change the amount your project will cost to build … sometimes by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It’s why your budget is such a key part of those first conversations and thoughts, and why it can be a great indicator of what options are available to you when building or renovating. Design strategy is not about the layout of the floor plan, it’s about what approach, or what method of renovating or building is going to suit your budget and your needs the best way.
For example, if you’re building new, and you have a particular budget, with a list of particular things you want in your future home, it can be quite straight-forward to figure out what the rough, overall size of your future home will be.
A design strategy then looks at that total budget, that total floor area, the specific nature of your site and what it might mean for how costly construction might be, and then work out what type of design and builder you need to work with.
If you barrel forward on a custom designed home approach, and only talk to builders who do a few homes per year, you may find all your design wishes are completely beyond your budget. Or alternatively, if your site has particular constraints, but you were hoping to work with a volume builder, you may find they just want to flatten the site, put in large retaining walls everywhere, in order to build the way they always do.
The same applies for renovating as well. The existing home speaks volumes about what will be the best, most affordable approach to renovating and extending. So many don’t take into account what existing work might need to be done, or whether it makes sense to change roof forms to extend the home. Old homes can be a pandora’s box and if your renovation involves pulling apart the existing home to reshape it, add to it and rework it overall, you can find you experience lots of unexpected surprises and high construction costs overall.
The more one-off, labour intensive and risky the work is, the higher the construction cost.
There are so many ways to skin a cat (as they say) when it comes to building and renovating your home. And there are so many different ways that the spaces and rooms you want can be wrapped up in a finished building. These design strategies are critical, and when established upfront, they are all about risk mitigation, and choosing the right people to work with, the best approach to take, and the most affordable way to deliver that home you’re dreaming of.
Inside “Home Design Masterclass” I’ve created a special lesson on design strategy, because getting started in the right way is so key to saving huge amounts of money in your project – or your project even being possible at all. I share my own methods for establishing the best approach to any project. You can also watch how this advice has applied to different project types and what it can mean for saving time and money in your build.
#2 The second big and missing factor in many design processes is a site investigation.
By this, I don’t mean a survey, or a visit to site to see its physical nature. I mean a site investigation that helps you understand what the site has to offer, what its constraints or limitations are, how its features can be used to add value and experience to your future home, and what you’ll need to manage to create a home that works.
Understanding this means examining your site to identify things such as how the sun moves across it. How cooling breezes move in Summer, or warming breezes move in Winter. Where the big storms come from. Are there any overland flow paths, or things you need to be aware of in how water moves around or across the site. Where the views you want to capture and promote, vs the views you’d like to minimise or cut off altogether.
Some of the best designs I’ve seen create surprise and delight through how they capture views, breezes and light in the most special and beautiful ways. This can only happen through an intimate understanding of the site that is created through investigation and examination.
Of course, making the most of what’s naturally available in light and breezes will help you cool and warm your home with things that you have free access to: sunlight and natural ventilation. This should be a priority for every home design.
It’s not good enough anymore to design your home how you want it, and then manage heating and cooling by installing airconditioning.
It’s possible to naturally heat and cool your home, and it starts with designing for your site’s specific and unique conditions.
Whenever I design a home, it’s the site that tells me how the rooms need to be laid out. If the constraints of the site don’t permit it, then I know how I need to arrange windows, volumes and roof forms to capture light and breezes to compensate for the site itself. If you’re worried about all the options and possibilities available to you when designing your home, understanding and investigating your site is a sure-fire way to narrow down what’s going to be the best layout and design.
Homeowners and design professionals who don’t do site investigations are often designing from the inside out … rather than the outside in. And it means you miss a huge opportunity to make your home truly feel great, as well as be low cost to run, and not put a big energy load on the planet either.
Because understanding this is so important, in “Home Design Masterclass” I provide a pre-course bonus that outlines what you need to know about orientation and the natural assets of your site. And then in Module 1, I take you through mudmapping and masterplanning to help you relate your design ideas to your specific site. Whether you’re building or renovating, this approach will help you design from the outside to the inside, and tailor your home and its design solution, to your specific location and site conditions.
#3 The third big thing that is missing from many design approaches is the way homeowners investigate their own needs and wants … and then investigate how they go about communicating them.
I’d love you to be patient with me as I explain this, because in this, I’m straddling both a practical conversation, and an ethical one too.
An author, Brian Tracey who wrote a book called “Eat that Frog” said this: “Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long. Your “frog” is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it.”
I actually use that “eat the frog” approach a lot in my life and business, and so in that spirit, I’m going to have the most difficult conversation first, and talk about the ethical issues around how homeowners think about their needs and wants.
This is the first podcast I’m recording after the new year of 2020. Meanwhile, Australia continues to go through one of its most challenging times as a nation with the unprecedented fires we’ve been experiencing. My family dealt with it on a small scale in November, as fires were 14km away, and we prepped our house and ourselves for evacuation, which we were very fortunate to not have to do thanks to the efforts of incredible fire-fighters and the weather working in our favour. I still have all our things packed incase anything happens, because as they keep saying, the fire season isn’t over yet.
(If you or anyone you know has been impacted the fires, please get in touch with me on [email protected] as I’d love to hear from you. At the moment I’m working with some super clever people to put together information to help with rebuilding after disasters such as this one, and to also build more resilient homes … and I’m really looking forward to being able to provide help, education and information for you soon.)
So, the ethical conversation I’d like to have about your home design is really to encourage you to think about your needs vs your wants.
I mentioned this idea at the end of the episode Frances and I did on timber flooring. It got snuck in at the end, and some listeners got in touch with me about it, because it really resonated with them.
I’m really fortunate in that the UA Community is a bunch of clever and savvy people who are really seeking to create homes that have meaning for them, and are functional, flexible and great living environments. You care about orientation, and designing well, and I know how much effort you invest in educating yourself about the decisions that matter. Many of you are super keen to create sustainable homes, however that looks for you, your budget and where you live.
And so, further to this, I really encourage you to, when talking about your home, examine your language.
Far too often, we’ll use the word “need” when we actually mean “want”. I find I’m doing this with my kids a lot … it was amped up in the pre-christmas requests for presents especially. You’d hear me say “No, you need oxygen, water, food, a place to sleep and feel safe, some love thrown in … you do not need (insert latest gadget here).”
I notice it in my own language … “I need to go to the shops and grab ‘x’ … or “I need to remember to order that thing online” … or “I need coffee – or wine – NOW!”
I find that if you start playing with this idea of examining your language when talking about your future home, you’ll actually find how it can help you assess and order your priorities for it.
Again, there are loads of options, so many things available, and all the decisions you’ll be presented with and required to make. Questioning needs vs wants can be really powerful in seeing what is really required for your home to work and feel the way you dream, and what is icing on the cake, a potential candidate for budget or space-saving, and you’re able to re-think, re-work, or let go of in the process.
I have said in the past that I don’t believe it’s possible to create the perfect home … only the perfect home for you. And what I’ve seen time and time again is that those things that might feel like compromises or sacrifices in the process of creating your future home, are often signposts to help you determine what you truly value and hold important in the type of environment you want to create and live in.
Now, I said there was also a pragmatic conversation when it comes to thinking about your home design, and that’s the simple process of working out what spaces you want, how they are best arranged and connected, and how big or small things can or should be to work well. It can be difficult if you’re going it alone, or working with a less experienced designer, to have this process interrogated well.
When I’ve worked with homeowners, there’s a lot of initial conversation that really questions assumptions, really tests what the deal-breakers or must-haves are, and really tries to pull out the true meaning behind what is being asked for in the list of all the rooms and functions.
It’s really essential that you have a process of questioning around what things you’re wanting in your home, and a way of assessing how you’ll build in flexibility and adaptability to these spaces and rooms so that they can anticipate your needs in the future, and support your life over the long-term.
And getting the dimensions right can be so key in helping the home work well and feel great, even if it’s a compact home. I see homeowners really struggle with this as they’re not sure how to best size things or what they can push and pull to make things work overall.
And I’ve even seen homeowners working with designers who’ve been frustrated that the designer hasn’t facilitated a more thorough process, or really expanded on the ideas or list of things the homeowner is asking for. I’ve heard homeowners say sadly that their designer just drew what they were asked to draw.
Unfortunately, some designers will simply ask you “Ok, what do you want” … and then deliver that in a home that fits on your site. They won’t question you, challenge you, or expand your thinking based on their experience of what they’ve seen work or not work in other homes. And worst of all, they won’t guide you or highlight if the design may be over budget, or constructable on your site.
Inside Home Design Masterclass, I provide several tools to help do this better. There’s my Brief Builder which is a document that asks you a range of questions to help you create your brief, or wishlist, for your future home. I’ve seen homeowners find this fantastic in ordering their priorities, get on the same page as their partner, and get really clear about the big picture goals for their future home.
There’s also my recommended dimensions for each space, both from an overall size and layout, as well detail dimensions within various spaces as well. I take you through each room and space of the home and tell you what to focus on for it to work really well, how to think about its relationship to other spaces in the home, where you want to cut off connections or arrange your floor plan to make things feel great, and mistakes to avoid in their layout and arrangement.
There’s also an incredible bonus of my Plan Books for both new homes and renovations. These are downloadable PDF books full of my own house designs that I’ve done over the past 5 years in Undercover Architect. Thousands and thousands worth of design fees on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property, and you can access it for inspiration and guidance in your own home.
And of course, if you join during the live round and access my 1:1 help, I provide personalised reviews to help improve your floor plan, and answer your questions along the way. Plus there’s lots more help to totally nail it in your floor plan design … that’s what Home Design Masterclass is all about.
OK, so I’ll just remind you about those 3 missing things that, when left out of the design process, will really limit what’s possible in creating a home that works and feels great.
First is not establishing the best design strategy to approach your new home or renovation project with.
Second is not doing a proper site investigation that explores and understands the natural assets of the site such as orientation, breezes, views and site features.
And third is not having a process for assessing your needs and wants, or a decent method for communicating them to those who will be working with you to create your future home.
If you’re designing a home without an architect, or even planning on using one, but wanting to be sure they’re doing their job well, then it’s great to get informed and educated about the process of home design so you can be a super savvy and involved client, and feel confident as your floor plan design takes shape.
Now, if you’re listening to this episode at or near its time of release, be sure to check out the free 5 Day Home Design Challenge I’m running at the moment. It will give you some great tools and info for getting started on your home design, whether you’re working with a professional or not. You can find that at www.undercoverarchitect.com/challenge – and that link will be in the show notes as well.
And if you’re keen to learn my methods for floor plan design, plus get my help and support in creating or honing the design you or someone else has done for your new home or renovation, be sure to check out Home Design Masterclass. The live round is kicking off next week, and there’s limited availability on spots available. Head to www.howtodesignahome.com for more information, to read what other members have thought of the program, and to see the various ways you can join.
RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THIS PODCAST:
Join the free challenge (running 29 Jan – 2 Feb 2020) >>> https://undercoverarchitect.com/challenge
Learn more about ‘Home Design Masterclass’ >>> www.howtodesignahome.com