Too big, too little. Too fancy, too plain. With myriad options for house plans available today, it’s hard to know where to begin.
Consider the following issues and ask yourself some telling questions. The answers will help you decide on a design that’s just right for your family as well as your budget and lot.
The real estate agent’s mantra “location, location, location” rings true even when you’re building from scratch. From privacy to orientation, your lot is likely to influence which plan you choose.
“Theoretically, it’s best to start by finding a lot because then you’ll have a clear idea of what square footage will and will not fit on the property,” says Robert Martin, Architecture Editor at Southern Living. “It’s a dangerous proposition to try to gooseneck a house into a lot that’s really not ideal for that plan.”
The property owner can seek a variance to exceed the “building envelope,” the allowable area that a home can occupy on a lot. However, the process is often lengthy and there’s no guarantee that permission will be granted.
Local zoning boards and community organizations often require a house be set back a certain distance from the street. Before purchasing a corner lot, find out if front-yard setback regulations apply to the lot’s front and side-street boundaries. This could substantially reduce the area available for a home’s footprint. Easements as well as natural features, like rock outcroppings and mature trees, may also influence where the house can be located.
“Some communities promote close neighbors, and some communities promote more breathing space,” Martin says. “It’s not wise to use up every square foot of building space because you’ll have less of a yard.”
If the lot is located in a suburban neighborhood, consider the placement of windows – take care that they will not align exactly with neighbors’ views. Driveways should also be taken into account to make sure that there’s plenty of room for parking and turning around.
Streets and topography may be the main determinates of a house’s orientation, but it’s also a good idea to consider sun exposures when possible. A homeowner might reorganize a floor plan to take advantage of morning and afternoon light. Martin says that covered porches that face a southern exposure can help block out heat and sunlight.
Remember that plans are not necessarily “as is.” Builders can use a reverse set of plans (sometimes called a mirror image) to better site a house. It’s also possible to hire an architect or modification service to personalize a plan. Ask if reproducible prints or electronic CADD files are available for the selected plan. Either will make the alteration process quicker and easier.
Complimenting your lifestyle
Before delving into the thousands of plans available today, evaluate your current living situation. Look around and ask what works and what doesn’t.
Consider which features matter most to you and which floor plan best accommodates your family’s lifestyle. “Does the floor plan live the way you live?” Martin asks. Are you an empty nester who’s ready to downsize? A single-level ranch home might be your answer. Is this a house where you expect to raise a family? Check out plans that feature great communal spaces as well as a private master suite. Would you live outside 12 months a year if you could? Pick an airy floor plan with plenty of porches and more windows than wall space.
When you decide on a house plan, you’re also choosing a way of life. Do you host dinner parties often, or do you only step inside the dining room on holidays? Today, many families forego a dedicated formal dining room. Instead, a casual eating nook connected to the kitchen accommodates week-night meals, Little League pizza parties and all their entertaining needs. If you work from home or have school-aged children, an office or study may be a necessity. Think about the rooms and how you and your family will use them.
Marrying the old and the new
Magazines and TV shows often tempt us to start decorating from a blank slate, but few people have the luxury to fill a house with new furniture. Keep your existing furniture and aesthetics in mind. It takes a special talent to make a mid-century modern couch work in a Colonial manor house.
The main thing to keep in mind is how the arrangement of furniture will influence the overall feel, flow and function of a room. How will your prized possessions work and look arranged in the new space? Scale is key. A soaring, two-story ceiling can easily dwarf low, horizontal furniture. To avert the Alice-in-Wonderland effect, make sure the plan has strong, vertical architectural elements like a chimney and tall windows. Similarly, an overstuffed couch, two armchairs and a media cabinet might make a small living room look cluttered.
Tip: To help visualize your current furniture in a new space, make a scale model of each item – simple rectangles, squares and circles cut out of construction paper will do. Slide the stand-ins around the floor plan to see which configurations will work. Make sure there will be enough room to walk and adequate clearance for doors to open.
Know what you’re getting
Be aware of what is and isn’t included in the blueprints before you purchase a plan. Most blueprints suggest electrical plans designed to meet national standards. However, varying interpretations and the fact that codes are subject to change mean that the placement of switches, outlets and light fixtures is ultimately subject to local building codes. Heating and plumbing plans are usually not included, so you will need to consult with subcontractors. A local builder or engineer should review the plan to ensure that it complies with all building codes and subdivision restrictions.
Due to concerns over energy costs, safety and other factors, some cities and states require a licensed architect or engineer to review and seal, or officially approve, a blueprint prior to construction. Do your homework. Contact to a local building official to see if such a review is necessary in your area.
Taking the plan from blueprint to dream house
A builder may provide a ballpark estimate of construction costs from a study plan, but he or she should consult the working drawings to give a more accurate figure. Many variables can affect the bottom line, including the choice and availability of materials, labor costs, choice of finishes and degree of detail. Ask several contractors for competing bids.
If you’ve got the vision but not the bankroll (at least at this time), it may be wise to choose a plan with bonus space that can be built out as finances allow.
Be sure to allot a portion of your budget to landscaping and finish details. Architects and interior designers recommend that you don’t skimp on the seemingly small stuff. Higher-quality trim and building materials may trump extra square footage. “Good, insulated windows may be costly initially,” Martin says, “but over the long run, they’re going to save you money on your power bill.” Crown moulding and custom cabinetry can make a stock plan feel like it was designed specifically for your family. After all, it’s the personal touches that make a house feel like a home.
By Sarah Sheridan