How to Design a House: Three Options To Consider
Have you decided to build your dream home or cabin? Here are three ways to translate your vision into a design plan that combines function and style.
You probably didn’t decide to break ground on a new home or cabin overnight. More likely, you’ve been dreaming about building for months (or years), bookmarking eye-catching designs and creating inspiration boards for everything from the kitchen to the kids’ rooms.
Sure, it’s fun to browse images for style inspiration. But eventually you’ll need an actual design plan/blueprint that covers more mundane details, like where the mechanical systems, plumbing fixtures and electrical outlets will go.
There are three main ways you can approach the design of your new home or cabin: hire an architect to draw up custom blueprints; purchase a stock house plan that best suits your building budget and vision; or order a home kit. Each option has pros and cons, ranging from cost considerations to flexibility in design to whether you can make changes during construction.
Here is an overview of these options, to help you decide how to proceed as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.
Hire an Architect
Unsurprisingly, architects like California-based Ward Young‘s Aren Saltiel and Brooklyn-based BOLT Architecture‘s Ibrahim Greenidge favor commissioning plans from an experienced architect. But even home building experts like The Money Pit podcast host Tom Kraeutler recommend this option for a new home build.
“You should really invest time and money in finding the right plan and architect to have your house come out exactly as you envision it and avoid expensive changes down the road,” he says.
- Many architects include obtaining relevant building permits and approvals in their fees, giving you the peace of mind of having all your paperwork before work begins. “Depending on where you live and your local jurisdiction, navigating the permitting process for new construction can be quite complicated,” says Saltiel. Greenidge agrees. “Building codes often change and an architect can guide you through sensible and legal design decisions,” he says.
- A custom plan means the finished home or cabin will be built to your specifications, reflecting your style and the functionality you need. “An architect will not only be able to customize your home to your individual needs, but a good one will also customize the home for the property it sits on and take into consideration things such as access, privacy, views, natural lighting and shading, ventilation, etc,” says Saltiel. “Because every location is unique, it makes sense that every home would be as well.”
- “An architect is a ‘partner’ throughout the building process who can offer advice and help solve problems,” says building and residential general contractor Tim Bakke from The Plan Collection. If this is your first home build, having an expert in your corner may take some of the anxiety out of the construction process. “A licensed professional can guide you through some of the difficult design decisions, providing information upfront that will save you time, money and energy,” Greenidge says.
- Custom plans and logistical support come at a premium price. “Hiring an architect is the most expensive option,” Bakke says. “The national average is around $40,000 for 2,500 sq. ft. home, from a low of about $25,000 to a high of $75,000 or more.”
- Working with an architect to translate your ideas into reality can take time, involving multiple meetings and emails back and forth.
Purchase Stock House Plans
A growing number of companies sell stock house plans online. These off-the-rack blueprints are an excellent option to maximize your budget and avoid a lengthy design process. Keep in mind you’re on your own, without a professional designer to evaluate the suitability of the blueprints to the land, for example.
“I would be wary of purchasing a stock plan for a site with little or no infrastructure (gas, electric, water),” Greenidge says. “Infrastructure costs will likely eat up any money you’ve saved by purchasing a stock plan. In addition, the feasibility of this option often depends on your geographic location and building department/code regulations.”
- Choosing from an online portfolio of stock house plans is significantly less expensive than hiring an architect who will likely make multiple trips to the building location, research local codes and devote hours to design and revisions. “Stock house plans generally cost between $1,000 and $2,000 for a 2,500 sq. ft. home,” says Bakke. If you’re building on a tight budget, stock house plans can keep design costs from breaking the bank.
- Although stock plans are not designed to your specifications, there are endless options to choose from. If you are patient and dedicate some time to browsing stock plan sites, you will likely find one that comes close to your vision. “There are tens of thousands of almost every design and floor plan imaginable,” Bakke says. “And many are customizable for an extra fee of $500 to $1,500, depending on the modification.” Even if you find a plan that is not quite right, you can probably request a modification.
- You will have stock plans in hand much faster than custom plans. “Your plan search can take days or weeks, and then shipping takes one day to two weeks depending on the package you ordered,” Bakke says.
- Most stock plans have been built at least once, so any design issues probably have been caught in the field and worked out. In addition, many stock plan websites feature a rating system like Amazon or other e-commerce sites. You can check which are the most popular and highly-rated based on the features and overall home design.
- Although you can request limited modifications, stock plans will never be personalized like custom blueprints.
- You’re on your own with bureaucracy and logistics. “Stamping (i.e. approval) of the house plan must be done by a local engineer or architect at a small additional fee, and all permits and on-site problem-solving and changes are the responsibility of the homeowner with the contractor,” Bakke says. Some locations require all house plans be stamped by an architect or structural engineer.
- Generally, mechanical, electrical and plumbing system layouts are not included in stock plans, though there may be some basic system information to indicate things like outlet and faucet locations. You’ll have to pay your subcontractors to create a detailed layout based on the stock plan.
Purchase a Home Kit
Like stock house plans, a home kit optimizes your building budget and timeline while sacrificing design flexibility. Greenidge’s warnings to check the infrastructure of the site and verifying local building department and code regulations also apply to home kits.
- The shortest construction time of the three options, due to the panelized construction of all or some parts of the home. Some home shells can be up in a matter of days.
- Extremely cost-effective (see caveat below, however).
- Limited choice of styles, floor plans and sizes. Generally no option for customization, even for an extra fee.
- Lack of a common standard among manufacturers about what a kit includes can make for confusion. “Lockup” home kits generally include a set of walls, insulation, roof, windows and exterior doors, but not a foundation. “Full kits” may not include full interiors and a foundation. In general, “home kits have many exclusions that are your responsibility, including the foundation plan, building permits and plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems,” Bakke says. “There is also typically extra cost for first-floor framing lumber and sheathing.” All these add-ons may significantly increase the final building cost.
Still not sure which of these three options is right for you? There is a compromise. You can hire an architect to give professional guidance and peace of mind, even if you’ve decided on a stock house plan or home kit.
“You can work with an architect early in the design decision process to provide programming even if the architect isn’t providing design services,” Greenidge says. “Architectural programming is the research and decision-making process that helps identify the scope of work, and includes everyone involved in the project.”