Many people who want to build their new home from scratch run into the exact same problem as Matt Talbert experienced when he began to look through floor plans. Nothing fit. Both the general design of the house and the fact that he had procured an odd-shaped building lot on Possum Kingdom Lake (about 80 miles west of Fort Worth) meant nothing in any of the home builders’ extensive catalogues would work. He didn’t realize it just then, but he was about to begin on a process that would change his life and deliver the home of his dreams.
The Journey: From Novice to Seasoned Amateur
You might think that someone who designs their own home has some type of experience. In Matt’s case, it was a childhood dream. Though he has no experience in architectural or residential design, he explains, “As a child I actually used to draw up house plans and wanted to be an architect.” How long does it take someone with no experience to design their own home? “Six to eight months, working six to eight hours during weekends.” Now, don’t run away just yet. Matt concedes, “Most of that time was spent deciding what we wanted—visiting model homes, reviewing design plan books—after that, the plans were actually not too difficult.” In the end, Matt generated a floor plan that produced his two-story, 2620 sq. ft. lake home.
The Virtual Master: Computer Software
Architectural drafting is quickly becoming a lost art. Professionals and amateurs alike can, do, and should use computer programs to generate their house plans. That said, unless you’re a glutton for punishment, you should stay away from programs designed for professionals that have a litany of options and capabilities that will take several weeks (or months) to learn and incorporate into your growing understanding of house plans. (These programs may also have exorbitant price tags.)
Matt already had some experience working with Microsoft’s Visio, so he decided to stick with that. Looking back, he says, “Visio had some cool templates for furniture, walls, electrical, plumbing, etc. that I liked. It also had easy-to-use layers that you could click on/off to view different things like furniture, dimensions, electrical, plumbing, etc. Visio made it difficult to get walls aligned and dimensioned, but I worked around it.”
If you’re not already familiar with a program, there are dozens and dozens of options out there designed for the average amateur. Some of the top-rated programs include Abracadata Design Your Own Home for Mac, Punch! Home Design Series, Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer, and Broderbund 3D Home Architect. In addition, Google SketchUp and DesignWorkshop Lite are not only highly-rated, they’re free!
Hired Mercenaries: Are Architects a Secret Weapon or a Diversion?
Some people assume they have to hire an architect to design their custom house plans. Even after they take the plunge, most believe they will need the help of an architect at some point along the way. Matt had quite a different experience: “I talked to an architect and he kept changing the plans, trying to design a house that would never fit on the sloped, pie-shaped lot. After about a month, I decided to draw the plans myself.” Of course, one bad experience shouldn’t condemn an entire profession, or even an individual contractor. Many architects are more than willing to work with a homeowner, charge by the hour for consultations, and don’t exhibit any desire to control a project. Other architects are better at taking a vague idea and running with it for you.
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Create Your Army of Workers
You’re likely to discover the real trick is not finding an architect, but rather a home builder and subcontractors who are willing to work with your house plans. Here, Matt had a different experience. “When we got close to building, I found a competent builder and together we worked out what could be built and how with each subcontractor. For example, the concrete foundation slab helped design the retaining walls and slab, and the carpenter helped adjust the roof plan.”
You probably won’t have too much trouble finding one of these builders, who are willing to work with you, but expect setbacks. You’ll soon discover why so many construction projects don’t finish on time. “Several times the subs told me that things I wanted to do could not be done, but we figured out how to do it. Listen to the subs as they know their specialty, but you know the whole plan, so adjust and don’t give up. We had many challenges with the stairs, back windows, roof line, AC unit placement, cabinetry, plumbing, electrical, etc. that needed creative solutions.”
Battle Wounds and Badges of Courage
Whether you choose to design your own home or are forced into by circumstance, there are unique rewards awaiting you. Among other anecdotes, Matt recalls, “My favorite memory is the day we arrived and couldn’t find the painter only to find him 35′ up laying on the back roof and hanging over the edge to paint the soffit—he was even more scared he was going to fall than we were!” Naturally, you’ll create your own memories, and, undoubtedly, there will be plenty of fond ones and at least a few bumps along the road. While any new home is bound to generate memories that will last you a lifetime, there’s a certain vividness and achievement that comes only from designing your own home.