8 Tips for Designing Your Dream Home

One of the greatest yet most terrifying experiences of many people’s lives is building a dream home. Having some help along the way is crucial to getting off on the right track. Our firm specializes in creating solutions for complex homes and situations on a daily basis but another big part of our firm is offering education to those looking to build. We strive to educate as many folks as possible about the value of design and how architecture can achieve great things. We believe that offering this education to all allows us to influence more of our built environment than what we can through design.

You don’t need to have a pile of money or live downtown to take advantage of great design and architecture. Most of the time folks simply miss design opportunities that don’t result in increased costs. Today we want to help you avoid missing those design opportunities. No matter if you are designing your own home or providing your architect with some great critique, knowing a little about the process will help. In this post, we share our own internal process of designing homes and break it down into some tips to help you along the way.

The architecture process is a standardized process that can be found in any project. Starting a multi-million dollar luxury mansion or designing a small house the process is similar. It all starts with you and your site.

Tip 1 How to Start Designing a House: Gather Information

One of the first steps we take in the firm when starting a new project is to understand the obstacles and challenges that lie ahead. Collecting this data is part of our early “pre-design” phase. We discussed this phase in a previous post, click here to learn more. This information comes in two forms, site information, and program information.

Site information

A large portion of these obstacles is directly related to the site. First, you will need to know the size and shape of the lot and need to understand the regulations your local government has likely placed upon it. This can be collected by getting a survey and researching your local zoning code. Other forms of data related to the site are focused on sustainability. Knowing common wind direction with a wind rose and knowing the sun angle relative to your location will inform passive and active sustainable considerations. Other site factors are what we call design criteria. This is more on the structural engineering side of things but knowing wind forces, snow loads, weathering severity, and seismic zones will eventually inform the strength requirements of the project.

Program information

The other category of information needed comes from you. Doing an evaluation of your lifestyle, likes, and dislikes are all part of your “program.” Collecting images and digging into how your dream home will need to function is critical to the planning stage. What happens to the backpacks when the kids come home from school? How are groceries carried into the house? How does the laundry get from the bathroom to the laundry room and back to the closet? Gathering information about yourself and your lifestyle will help you plan for the future.


Tip 2 How to Design Home: Don’t Focus on Style

If you’re searching for house plans online you’ve probably noticed all the designs organized into styles and categories. Although this way of thinking is very common, you don’t have to pick just one. Style is a bit taboo in architecture because it’s simply not that important. Quality architecture is about creating a place to occupy and experience, not simply an object to admire from afar. Many architects run from using style as a starting point because in most cases it is arbitrary to your site, your goals, and your needs. Architects design places specific to you and not an object from past generations.

All too often I have clients embarrassed to share their Pinterest boards. They say, “it’s not very organized,” or “it’s really messy.” The point is, as architects we are looking for diverse ideas. The more diverse the imagery, the better. This gives us ammunition to solve problems with future design. Don’t focus on picking a style or creating consistency with images. Pinterest away and pin what you like. Let your architect sort through the rest.

Tip 3 How to Design a House: Consider the Context

The beauty of designing a custom home is you can make it truly custom, a dream home made just for you. Most of the time when people buy a plot of land there is something special about it. Perhaps it’s close to family, perhaps it has a view, maybe it’s the neighborhood you like so much. No matter, zoom out from your site and think about the beyond.

Perhaps the home should be oriented in such a way or L-shaped in the plan to create privacy from neighbors. Maybe the home should have fewer windows along the noisy street. Perhaps lots of glass is needed around the back to take advantage of the view. No matter the situation there are lots of missed opportunities when you do not think outside the box, or in this case your lot. With these considerations and the gathered information, you can begin designing a home and start building a floor plan.

Tip 4 Design Your Own House: Think About Your Experience

If there is a tip on this list that stands out as superior, it’s this one. Architecture focused on occupant experience is much more successful in spanning trends and maintaining value over time. This is your dream home, your future home. What experiences do you want to have in it?

Beyond function, our experiences in our homes are the life force that makes a home special. A house is not a home until it’s lived in. Let’s try and change that with great design. What will you hear, see, and feel in the space? What is your experience sitting in the living room reading a book? Do you have a view of a lake from your porch swing? What is it like to have a glass of wine and watch neighbors drive by? Designing for the occupant experience is one of the most important factors in architecture. It’s what separates architecture from buildings. These experiences should inform the shape, material, and layout of your home. Do you want your home to feel cozy and warm? Consider dark colors, natural materials like wood, and smaller spaces to offer a more cozy experience. Perhaps you are more interested in the wow factor and a feeling of grandeur. Large bright spaces with high-sheen materials like tile or glass are a great option.

Walk yourself through the space as it is designed and consider your everyday tasks as well as those special ones. Consider what it would be like to have coffee at the kitchen table, or what it would be like to enjoy a thanksgiving meal with your family. Place yourself in your future shoes and communicate your experiential intent to your architect. Every decision should have a purpose, thinking of your experiences will avoid arbitrary decisions and missed design opportunities. You’ll thank me later.

I was recently discussing a project program for a new home on music row. For this couple, it was important to “party in the view.” A space with a bar, a kitchen, and a living area is important for function. The experience of having a large indoor and outdoor entertainment space with a great view of downtown was also a top priority. The architecture needs to be organized and focused on maximizing views for this primary space. Perhaps placing these rooms on the third level and oriented towards downtown makes the most sense. Regardless, the value of the architecture is most often to enhance the experience of the place regardless of aesthetics and style. Communicating these wants early is critical to the design.

Tip 5 Designing a House: Start Broad

Most people don’t realize that the design process is not simply construction drawings. The construction drawings or house plans are a product of the design service and only represent a small fraction of the process. The typical project goes through six phases of design. Each phase adds more and more detail to the one before. Those six phases include pre-design or planning, schematic design, design development, construction documents, bidding and contracts, and construction administration. I recently posted on youtube the “Six Steps of Designing your Home.” You can find that video here. The reason the process is divided this way is to manage the broad-to-detail attitude necessary to achieve project success.


If you’re designing your own home or having an architect help; get ready to start broad. It’s important not to focus on details too soon. Attention to detail is not a good quality to have in this case. Architects are big thinkers and have trained their brains to zoom out and scale up. This broad thinking allows them to see beyond most other design professionals and find solutions most miss. The big decisions like home orientation and plan organization must be solved before laying out the home. The layout of the home must be explored before looking into cabinet positions. Cabinet and appliance positions must be thought through before cabinet selections which are before pulls and other features. Going is order avoids detailed decisions from backing you into a corner.

There was a Kohler commercial several years back where a couple sat down in their architect’s office asking him to design a house around the Kohler faucet they placed on his desk. Although funny it’s also absolutely ridiculous, do not attempt this at home unless you want to find yourself in quite a pickle. Homes are designed from the scale of the neighborhood inward not the other way around.

Over the years, I’ve designed hundreds of homes and have developed a trust in the broad-to-detail process. If you start too detailed too fast you won’t be able to see the forest for the trees. You will find that the bigger decisions suffer because of the attention to detail. Throughout the design process, there will be obstacles. This broad understanding will allow you to see the big picture when an engineer or contractor misinterprets the intent. Every obstacle has multiple solutions, solutions that happen at different levels of detail. For example, let’s say there is a concern about direct sunlight causing a glare on the living room TV. This is a detailed issue and should, most likely, be solved in a detailed way. It’s best not to orient the house to avoid the issue, automated blinds will do just fine. Let’s not put the cart before the horse. Think broad, at least at first.

Tip 6 Designing a Home: Think Long Term

Not too long ago we discussed in our “Aging in Place Post” how ADA code can help you design long-term solutions. As mobility becomes an issue having larger doors, maneuver clearances, and other luxuries will save the day down the road. Similar to the experiences conversation think through now how these experiences change with age. A common topic in our office is placing the main bedroom suite on the street level with the garage and living spaces. This helps avoid stairs. Sometimes cost or a small site doesn’t allow for such a large footprint. Or perhaps you are conflicted with the mobility of the first level but the better views on the top level. Planning early on for an elevator is important. To learn more about designing long-term check out our “Aging in Place” post here.

Tip 7 Visualize Your Home Design: Ask for Visuals

Computer software nowadays has gone far beyond AutoCAD and drafting. Computer-aided drafting was replaced by BIM or Building Information Modeling. The BIM Models are 3D representations of your building and often have 3D rendering and photorealistic capabilities. Add VR to this and it’s about as real as it gets without driving a nail. Ask your architect for as many visuals as possible. Once a model is produced, an endless amount of imagery can be created very quickly. These visuals will only help you understand your project more and able you to make decisions otherwise unseen in a CAD program. Its common practice in our office to walk clients through their projects at each phase of the design. Offering the clearest picture possible only makes sense.

Tip 8 The Team That Will Help You Design Your House: Develop a Great Team

Lastly, I would be lying if I said designing and building a home were easy. Most projects have both a design team and a construction team to help solve problems and answer complex questions. Good architects, engineers, surveyors, interior designers, and home builders are worth their weight in gold. One of the most important factors in any construction project is the relationships you create. Strong relationships will help you solve problems and avoid finger-pointing if things go wrong. During the design process, you will be expected to make thousands of decisions. Having a team that can show you the pros and cons of those decisions is important. During the construction process, you will be putting thousands of dollars on the line. Having a team you can trust to help you select the right products is also important. The last thing you need is dead weight on either side of your team. Good teams are hard to find, do your research and find a team that can help you hit your goals. If you find an architect that doesn’t make an early site visit, forget it, you can’t design a place without knowing the place. If your prospective contractor doesn’t want to provide you with preliminary cost feedback. Move on. Construction cost is critical to feasibility. It’s not uncommon for us to walk our clients through an interview process when selecting contractors. Having a great general contractor leads to having great subcontractors because of the long-standing relationships and dedicated reputations of the past. No matter having a great team will result in a great project. A bad team will cost you far more money and time.

I hope you found these tips helpful. Look out for future posts and youtube videos about the process and how you can create project success.

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