By William Hirsch
Author of Designing Your Perfect House
The fact is that most new homes are not custom built in the sense that they are not built from unique house plans designed just for them. Most newly built houses are built from standard or “stock” plans. These plans come from a book of plans or a website selling plans or they are standard plans that a builder may offer to customers. There are thousands of plans available on-line or through house plan books. There are plans for Small Houses, Luxury Homes, Vacation Homes, “Green” House Plans, and even Apartment Garage Plans.
The sheer number of choices makes choosing just one a daunting task. And even if you are choosing among four or five models and plans in a builder’s development, the choice can still be hard.
There are ways to make the task of choosing a house plan easier and to ensure you make the right choice. Here are a four good tips:
- Write a program for yourself and then evaluate house plans relative to the program.
- Use the process of elimination to winnow down your choices.
- Look for “disqualifying” features.
- Do not compromise on your program requirements.
The first tip is by far the most important. A program is what we architects call a list of needs and wishes for the design. You might call it house planning. To create your program, start with listing out the basic rooms you want. Then try to establish a target sizes for these rooms and spaces. Use your current house or a friend’s house as a benchmark. For example, if your current bedroom is the right size in one direction, but too small in the other direction, consider how much bigger it should be to be ideal. Write down the dimensions in you program. Do this and you will have a pretty good idea of the proper dimensions of rooms for your new house.
Don’t forget to make notes about your building site. If you have a narrow lot or a sloping lot, you will need to only consider house plans that will fit your site size and the slope of the land.
Warning – Make sure your programmed room sizes add up to the overall square footage your budget dictates. Be sure to add in space for hallways, stairs, and closets. Then add a 10% factor for the space consumed by walls and plan inefficiencies to get a realistic overall square footage for your house. You should break this down by floor so you can compare your program more easily to the house plans. The overall size doesn’t help you much if the rooms are on the wrong floors.
Now further refine your program by adding notes about the characteristics of the rooms and how they should interact. Note which rooms should be sunny or secluded. Identify which rooms should be “connected” or near to other rooms. Don’t forget closets, storage, and utility spaces.
Once you have your program, you will have the “yardstick” by which to evaluate house floor plans. Notice I did not say anything about the outside appearance of the house. The floor plan is much more important than the exterior home design when selecting house plans. The outside can be easily altered to change the look and style of the house. But changing a floor plan is not so easy. Moving or enlarging one room will automatically alter other rooms. The chain reaction from one small change can quickly disrupt a floor plan.
As you begin to page through house plans, mark only the ones that fulfill your program and bypass the ones that don’t. There is no sense wasting time on them, even if they have some features you like. Those isolated features only help you if you are designing a custom house and you want to communicate your preferences to your architect or home designer.
After making your long list of possible house plans, look them over again, searching for what I call disqualifying features. This might be an awkward arrangement of rooms that do not flow well. It might be a lack of privacy relative to the bedroom or powder room door locations. It might be a clumsy entry experience. Throw out those inferior plans.
Be ruthless in your evaluation. You may have to compromise on some features or aspects of your program if you are buying in a development and can only choose from a handful of house plans. But if you have the entire universe of stock plans on the internet or in plan books, there is no need to settle for a plan that is less than your program requires. The good news is that there is some amount of customizing of stock plans that can be done economically. To find out what is possible, you will need to contact the owner and seller of the house plan to see what they can do. Sometimes you will find that the house plan seller has already made changes to his stock plan for previous customers that might be the very changes you wanted.
Of course, if you do all of this and still cannot find the perfect house plan, you always have the option of hiring an architect who is skilled at creating custom house plans. That way you will get a truly custom house tailored exactly right for you and your family.
One other piece of this puzzle is the structure or house framing. The house plans you buy may have framing information, but the residential building code can vary from place to place. You may want to have a structural engineer review the plans just to be sure the house framing is sound and meets the building code.
If you go through this programming process, you will find the best plan for you and your family. And you won’t have to settle for a plan that is just okay.