Design Session #1

Design Session #1


The Plan Shoppe provides personal consulting which is scheduled and administered on a limited, case-by-case basis, as allowed by my personal production schedule. I am a one-man office and limited in the amount of projects I can personally participate in.  You have to call me to determine my availability and schedule my time and involvement on your project, which is scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis.  However, since I can’t personally assist everyone, I offer some excellent planning tools and reports in this first of three free “Design Sessions”. This valuable information will help you plan, organize, and develop your project. You are invited to download all my free planning documents, checklists, reports, and guides from this website.

There are two parts in the development of custom house plans:  Phase One- Design, and Phase Two- Drafting.  You have to design your new home first, then build it.  Don’t ever try to design it as you are building it because it will inevitably go over budget.  Design is an open-ended process, and since I never know how long it will take people to make up their minds, I charge an hourly fee for the preparation of scaled preliminary drawings of the floor plans and exterior elevations.  It may take several attempts to pin it down, and this part of the design process could take anywhere from just a few hours up to several months, or even longer.  It all depends on the complexity of the job and the decision-making capability of the owners. It goes without saying that the faster people can make up their minds and determine their design, the less it will cost in design fees.  For this reason, the majority of my builder clients try to minimize or eliminate the design phase and costs by interviewing their clients and preparing the design sketches themselves.

Phase One is really a struggle between what people want and what they can afford.  It is a give-and-take situation where people have to not only decide what their priorities are, but compromise on all the different aspects of structure. Often in order to achieve certain design elements, somethings have to be eliminated and this creates a lot of stress.  The hard part of design for most people is letting go of the things that they really had their hearts set upon in order to stay within budget.  People always want more than they can afford, it is human nature, and this truth becomes evident during the design process.  I have witnessed it create so much friction between couples who couldn’t compromise, that it destroyed the project altogether.  The design development phase is not a painless struggle and it is only complete when a scaled floor plan for each level has been established along with the corresponding elevations and possibly a building section.

Once the house design has been finalized, then the preliminary sketches can be converted into final working drawings and Phase Two of the work can be scheduled.  The drafting part of the design process is largely based upon how large the project is in area, and accordingly, I charge a square footage rate for the labor.  Each sheet of the drawings focuses on a particular element of construction, most of which are generally required by the building department.  These are discussed in more detailed later one in this design session.

This Design Session covers a lot of ground and is intended to acquaint you with the basic tasks involved in the sequential development of a custom home design.  These guidelines should help you get started designing your project, to understand the procedures, and speed up the over all process.

Preparation-   There are many things you can do to prepare for designing your new home.  In the beginning, you need to gather ideas and inspiration, so I always advise my clients to start off by visiting home centers and book stores to purchase plan books.  There many available from also, so take a little time and select a few plan books that cover the style of architecture you are interesting in.  Plan books are great for identifying different styles and sizes and they give you a good idea of space relationships in plan view and their corresponding exterior views. Plan books provide a good reference for the use of materials, roof pitches, window and door placements, garages, decks, and most of the major key elements in their home designs.

There are many good web sites on the Internet as well that can help you select a house design.  Here are a few good ones:

Keep in mind that plan book plans are somewhat generic in nature.  If you find a plan that suits your requirements exactly, and you wish to purchase it, be sure to call the plan service to insure that it meets the local building codes and climatic conditions for the area in which you intend to build.  Many plans were designed twenty years ago and come from areas of the country that do not comply with local conditions and building practices, local codes and ordinances,  and if that is the case, you will just be wasting your money.

Most plan book plans have to be adjusted by local drafting or design companies to satisfy building department guidelines for wind loads, snow loads, seismic bracing, soils and drainage information, sewage disposal, and other such details. Many prepared plans have to also be adjusted to comply to the CC&R’s of the housing development in which they will be built.  It is a good idea to call your local building department to inquire if they will accept plan book plans from your selected supplier before you place an order.

Also be aware that not all plan book plans can be built on certain lots; even if they are level, they may encroach into easements and setbacks, or restricted flood zones. If you do decide to purchase a plan book plan, make sure the wall thicknesses shown are correct and the dimensions will not change if adjustments are made.  Often you can find a local drafting company in your area to prepare building plans that are similar to plan book plans, which reflect your personal touches and still meet local regulations, for around the same cost.  If you do decide to replicate a plan book plan, you must take precautions not to violate copyright laws.  You cannot copy the exact plan as shown in a plan book, but you can make minor modifications to it and develop your own personalized version of the plan. You must alter some things about the plan such as dimensions, materials, roof pitches, room layouts, windows, doors, and similar features.  You may wish to contact an attorney for a legal opinion on this matter before you engage the services of a drafting company.  Having plans prepared by a drafting company will likely be far less expensive than hiring a licensed architect.  On a national level, the average cost of a custom house design prepared by an architect can run between 5% – 10% of the overall project cost for your new home.  By comparison, a drafting and design company can often prepare your construction plans for around 1% – 2% of the average construction cost of the house in your local market.  I would be interested in giving you a free estimate for designing your new home if you know what you want.

Once you have interviewed and decided who to hire a designer for the preparation of your building plans, be sure to ask for at least three references, ask to see samples of work, and call the local building department and Better Business Bureau to inquire about the company’s previous performance and reputation.  Try to hire a well established firm with a proven track record versus some new start-up company with draftsmen fresh out of school.  Experience is invaluable in the construction industry and you don’t want someone using your project for practice.

One of the best ways to gather ideas for your new home is to drive around in different housing developments that appeal to you.  Try to visit all the open houses and model homes that are available. You can take photos of homes you like which show the materials, and styles you prefer.  Focus on colors, materials, roofing, roof pitches, landscaping, window sizes, and similar features and take lots of photos of the things that impress you.  Visit home centers and cabinet shops, as well, to get ideas about plumbing fixtures, lighting, cabinetry, countertops, floor coverings, and paint colors.  Grab any product brochures and installation manuals available on the items that interest you for sizes, warranties, models, colors, etc.  I’ve provided a gallery of different home designs and styles from notable architects and designers at the end of this Design Session #1, and several additional galleries from Houzz pertaining to specific spaces in Design Session #2.

Getting Organized –  Next, get a 3” wide three-ring binder and at least twenty four divider tabs.  This will be your Project Manual and it will help you to collect all the information you will gather into specific organized sections.  Each section of the manual is labeled and explained below. As you shop for different items, insert product brochures, bids, photos, article clippings, and similar information in each appropriate tab for items you want. Only include information relevant to your new house.  Discard or file elsewhere all other information to avoid confusion.  Additional manila envelopes can be inserted in the back of the manual to hold purchase receipts, brochures, alternate bids, etc.  The Project Manual is intended to collect information that you refer to on a regular basis.  It is helpful to have at least one set of blueprints reduced to 11” x 17” size and kept in this manual for convenient reference.  All other information and expense receipts should be placed in the job file box separate from your household expense records and receipts.



This section contains loan documents, bank records, contingency expenses, bookkeeping, description of materials forms, supplier accounts, and a list of subcontractors and vendors.  Change orders and lien releases are kept here, as well as payment records to subs and suppliers, and credit information, etc. This is a good place to include a directory page of frequently called phone numbers and any employee records.  All the bids you have accepted should be held in this section, as well as information on the sub or supplier, or you may wish to insert them under their appropriate tab.


This section includes the reduced set of your working drawings, specifications, kitchen drawings, cabinetry shop drawings, truss design drawings, and any other special fabrication diagrams or construction drawings.


All contracts with the general contractor and all subcontractors and suppliers are held in this section. Include a copy of your construction agreement that specifies all the items you will get in your new home. You must keep current insurance certificates from all subcontractors and your   own personal general liability or Workers Compensation insurance information here.  Include references and general information on all subs, vehicle license numbers, cell phone numbers, safety information, etc.


This section includes architectural and drafting fees, insurance costs, field expenses, barricades, job phone, overhead, and construction cost estimates.  Include rental equipment, tool purchases, testing services, scaffolding, cold weather protections and fuel, demolition work, and  similar items.

Tab #5-            SITE WORK

This section includes costs related to digging the building pad, fencing, blasting, culverts, installing the road or driveway, fencing, portable sanitation, temporary electrical, excavation, trenching, gravel fill, top soil, cranes, forklifts, dump trucks, backhoes, and other heavy equipment costs. Septic tank installation, water well drilling, tree removal, sewer trunk lines, water lines, underground tanks and utilities, and power pole installation is included.

Tab #6-            CONCRETE

Anything to do with concrete is usually found in this section.  It includes form-work, reinforcing steel, anchor bolts, seismic anchors, damp-proofing, foundation vents, slab finishing, pump trucks, etc.

Tab #7-            MASONRY

Anything to do with masonry is usually found in this section.  It includes bricks, blocks, cultured stone veneer, mortar, reinforcement, sealers, etc. Include product brochures and a detailed estimate from your mason.

Tab # 8-           METALS

This section includes all costs and descriptions of metal items.  This could include wrought iron fencing, railings, copper hoods, steel posts, steel beams, hangers, gates, brackets, ornamental iron work, joist hangers, and special fasteners.

Tab #9-            WOOD & PLASTICS

All lumber and plastic materials are described here.  This includes wood items like framing lumber, roof trusses, sheathing, nails, joists, glu-lam beams, timbers, millwork, paneling, and trim. This section includes plastic items such as gable vents, deck railings, composite decking, shutters, trim pieces, etc.


This section includes siding, roofing material, insulation, caulking, rigid foam insulation, flashings, and sealers.  Sometimes damp-proofing is also listed here.

Tab #11-          DOORS & WINDOWS

All doors and windows in your house are listed here.  Get a brochure on each one, if possible, so you have a record of the required sizes, styles, and rough openings and make sure your contractor receives a copy as well. List all the accessories, hardware, colors, and finishes that go with each item.  It is a good idea to include a window and door schedule in this tab.  Garage doors, metal insulated doors, special hatch doors, fire rated assemblies, and door openers, locksets, deadbolts, etc. are included here.  Special window features are listed here also such as argon gas, grids, tinting, tempered glass, and installation instructions.

Tab #12-          FINISHES

Items such as cabinetry, painting, drywall, wallpaper, special ceilings, tile work, plastering, window coverings, and carpeting are found in this section.  This is a good place to list all the paint brand numbers and formulas.

Tab #13-          SPECIALTIES

This section lists specialty items such as chalk boards, folding partitions, storage shelving, louvers, special showers, wall and corner guards, prefabricated fireplaces, signs, lockers, mail boxes, canopies, toilet and bath accessories, etc.

Tab #14-          EQUIPMENT

Items such as kitchen appliances, well pumps, sewage grinders, sound equipment, television equipment, computers, satellite dishes, hot tub pumps, built-in barbecues, wood shop tools, hobby tools, a central vacuum system, etc. are listed in this tab.

Tab #15-          FURNISHINGS

This section includes items that are not usually included in your construction agreement with your general contractor, but are never-the-less items that you will acquire for your new home on your own.  These include couches, sofas, chairs, bar stools, lamps, tables, desks, lamps, bedroom furniture, etc. Sometimes window coverings are listed in this tab.


Things like built-in library shelves, saunas, built-in window seats, arches, false beams,  built-in cabinets and hutches, secret storage rooms, special staircases, etc. are listed here. Out buildings, pole buildings, boat docks, outside stairs, barns, and similar structures are also found in this section.

Tab #17-          CONVEYING  SYSTEMS

Residential elevators, stair lifts, and dumbwaiters are listed in this section.

Tab #18-          MECHANICAL (Plumbing & Heating)

All plumbing items are detailed here.  List all fixtures, colors, model numbers, product brochures, installation instructions, etc.  Also, all heating and ventilation and air conditioning items are listed in this section.  Include brochures on furnaces, water heaters, pressure pumps, water softeners, sump pumps, fire sprinkler systems, and similar items.

Tab #19-          ELECTRICAL

This section lists all your electrical equipment and lighting fixtures. Include a brochure on each item if possible. This tab includes lights, switches, dimmers, motion detectors, fire alarms, emergency lights, backup generators, dedicated circuits for computers, security systems, fans, breaker panels, meter panels, pole lights, etc.

Tab #20-          CORRESPONDENCE

This tab contains copies of letters from your general contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers regarding delivery dates, clarification of contract items, future construction included in the work, guaranties, etc.  Get all promises in writing and keep copies in this section.


This section holds manufacturer’s warranties and installation instructions on equipment and materials.  These product brochures can be rather bulky and you may have to transfer this information to the file box.  This tab is more for carrying specific product data as it is being ordered or installed.

Tab #22-          PERMITS, MAPS, & SURVEYS

This section includes building permits, electrical permits, plumbing permits, road approach permits, septic tank permits, well logs, heat loss calculations, and all legal information or regulations from government agencies, electric companies, or engineering firms.  Site maps, easement documents, survey data, and similar property description information is collected here.


Copies of calendar pages are often used as a construction schedule.  Use one with space enough to write notes on each day or create your own on 8.5”x11” paper.  You can list activities and deadlines for certain work to occur.  A free construction scheduling template using Microsoft Excel is available from the Plan Shoppe upon request.

Tab #24-          JOB LOG

A daily diary of the job activities is essential, even if only a brief sentence is mentioned.  It is invaluable if you ever need to trace the time and dates of certain activities.  If you are unable to keep a daily log, then ask the general contractor to do it and give you a copy.  This is a valuable piece of information for comparing actual progress and weather conditions against projected construction schedules and keeping track of all activity as the work unfolds.  You can use your computer and word processor for this task and then print the weekly entries and store them here.


It is a good idea to keep all your alternate bids in this section in case your  selected bidder fails to deliver or show up.  You may have to rebid certain categories of work and if you have prepared an “Information To Bidders” list with specified materials or brand names, then include it here also.


Every time you make a job-related purchase, get a receipt and put it in this envelope at the end of the day.  You can then pass these receipts to your bookkeeper at the end of the week to be logged into your accounting software or refer to them if doing the task yourself.

This information is provided to you free as a customer of  The Plan Shoppe for your use only.  It is not to be copied, nor reproduced electronically, nor passed to any third party without the expressed written consent of The Plan Shoppe.

Planning-   If you want to build your own custom home, then you have already analyzed the pros and cons of building new versus buying an existing home.  Aside from the obvious benefits of selecting where you want things, how big rooms are, and custom features like materials, colors, finishes, and built-ins; and orientation to views and vistas, sunrises and sunsets, you avoid the uncertainties and problems that often go with buying existing structures. Whatever your motivation, if you are reading this article, you have already decided to build your own new home and now you want to know the correct procedure to follow to accomplish your goal.  If this is the case, then continue on and the advice in this article can help you start planning your project.  When planning a new custom home, there is a lot of work that goes into a project that is not readily apparent in the beginning. There are a lot of decisions that have to be made and a lot of things to consider, and generally under tight time pressures.  To begin, it is important to determine the kind of house you want to build as early as you can in the process.  There are a lot of choices of materials and equipment to be made, and you have to find and decide who or how you are going to build your project.  Above all, you need to allow yourself sufficient time to do some research and make careful decisions before you start any construction.  Don’t wait until the last minute to decide what kind of house you are going to build, because the construction process doesn’t just happen overnight. As a matter of fact, the more time you can give yourself to carefully plan your project, the better will be your final results.  As you may know from experience, things left to the last minute create a lot of stress and anxiety and this is especially true when it comes to building a new home.  Nothing in the construction industry happens on a “next day” basis, so don’t crowd yourself.

There are three primary constraints that will influence your design choices and the eventual structure you end up with:  the site, the budget, and your personal preferences in style, quality of materials, and sizes of the amenities.  So, to get started, you need to set aside ample time and determine your wants and needs and then start gathering information.  Just remember to design your house before you build it, not while you are building it. It will save you a lot of time, money, and headaches later on. The following information will help you to accomplish this task in a logical manner.  This is how you go about it.

Basically, there are three ways to go about acquiring a new site built house……

  1. You find a house plan in a plan book, or on an Internet “home plan” web site, then you shop for a suitable property that it will fit on; or
  2. You find a nice piece of property that you like and design and build a house that will fit on it.  This is the method I prefer and advise my clients to use.
  3. You find an existing house on property you like and remodel it or add additions to it.

In most cases, for remodel and addition projects, building departments like to see a before and after view of the project in order to evaluate the impacts of the new construction imposed upon the existing roof system, bearing walls, wall bracing, and foundations.  Due to this requirement, plans for remodels and additions often are more work and are actually composed of two plans in one; the “as-built” existing plans and the plans for the new construction.  Most projects of this type begin by measuring existing conditions and preparing plans to describe the existing structure in plan view, exterior elevations, and wall sections.  The new construction is then designed as an overlay upon the existing plans and consists of all the details and drawings necessary to describe the work.  This option is more restricted by the existing site conditions and building, compared to the other two methods, but it has become a popular way for many homeowners to live on a special property they like and still get a new dwelling, albeit modified, to accommodate their needs.

Building on a level lot will certainly be easier than building on a sloped lot, or on a lot adjacent to a body of water.  So one of the first things you must do is find a building site that meets your needs.  Once you have identified some areas where you might want to live, you can drive through subdivisions or contact a real estate salesman to escort you around the vicinity.  In shopping for property, don’t forget to check out the local school systems, the property taxes and public utilities and services for the area, and climatic conditions.  You may want to visit the local building department, the planning and zoning department, and the health department to gather additional regulations or restrictions regarding building on your selected property. Contact the local police department to see if there are any registered offenders in the neighborhood, a history of burglaries or other crimes that have occurred in the area,  and ask about police patrol frequency, ambulance locations, and emergency response time.  Contact other agencies such as churches, electrical utilities, highway districts or street departments, fire departments, fish and game departments, water quality agencies and similar organizations to inquire about water systems, road improvements projects, public transportation,  sewage and surface water disposal, and other public services and information related to your selected property.  Although it may sound bold, it might even be a good idea to contact a neighbor or two and visit with them about the history of the neighborhood, existing neighbors, traffic, noise, wind direction, and snow plowing operations.  Lastly, you will need to contact the city clerk or county Recorder’s office to determine if there are any CC&R’s and compliance procedures required, the zoning restrictions, delinquent property taxes, flood plain restrictions, or any other clouds on the title, or easements or liens against the property before you finalize a purchase agreement.  Insure that the property is clean and you can acquire title insurance on it.

Building on a sloped lot may require that you have a licensed architect design your home in north Idaho. The International Residential Code requires that a three story building on a sloped lot must have a licensed professional design the structure, however, a non-licensed home plan service or house designer can prepare the plans providing that the building is only a two story building on a daylight basement.  Basically it is a matter of definition for the basement level.  If a daylight basement is 50% or more underground into a hillside, and if the vertical distance from the finished floor above to the finished grade level below (in front of the daylight basement) is not greater than 10’-0”, then the basement is not considered a story.  In other words, if the basement level extends more than 50% above grade, or if the main floor level is more than 10 feet above the grade level in front of the basement level, then you will be required to have an architect design your home.

Preliminary Design-  Before you can develop any kind of geometry for your new custom home, you have to determine your needs and make decisions on how big you want your house to be, as well as all the different spaces in it and how the individual spaces are related and positioned, what each space has in it, and similar information.  Review the Needs Analysis section below.  At this point in the planning, I suggest you get some 1/4″ grid paper from your office supply store and start sketching out your scaled floor plans to this scale.  Use the grid lines to lay out your walls and be sure to draw them to the correct thickness: 6″ for exterior walls and plumbing walls and 4″ for interior walls. Use a straight ruler and you’ll need a big eraser.  Use your photos, clippings, and other references and draw out all your different spaces, openings, fixtures, and appliances.  This exercise will cause you to think in terms of size and situation.  Establish the outside perimeter of your house first to make sure the over all area falls within your maximum affordable size based on your budget.

Site Selection-  This task involves choosing a site for your home and evaluating the constraints and impacts it will have on your house.  You need to determine how it will sit upon the site to take advantage of all the views and vistas, sunrises and sunsets, what kind of landscaping you want.  The site is another prime factor that determines what your new home will look like.  Is it a flat lot, or a hillside lot, or a ten acre parcel out in the country, or a subdivision lot?  Each location has it’s own advantages, limitations and concerns that must be carefully considered in shaping your custom design.

Needs Analysis–  One of the first things you need to determine is your wants and needs and  your personal requirements in a new home.  You need to determine how long you intend to occupy the house, how many people will live there, what your storage requirements are, and detail information about your lifestyle, furniture, pets, and many other things that will shape the size, configuration, and look of your new home.

Make a list of all the things you like and dislike about the place where you are currently living.  This will help you start thinking about the details of your living environment that often go unnoticed or are taken for granted.  Pay close attention to sizes of rooms, natural and artificial lighting, views, sun angles, the connection of rooms to other spaces, colors, materials, ceiling heights, storage, finishes, sounds, traffic flow patterns, hazards or inconveniences, and the outside yards.  Notice the details and special features that appeal to you.

Next, make another list of the specific rooms and spaces you want in your new home on each level.  Try to determine the minimum sizes of these spaces and make a note of the dimensions beside each one.  Be sure to include space for stairwells, hallways, storage areas, closets, garages, breezeways, mechanical equipment, porches, decks, and patios.  When you have completed this exercise, add up all the square footage of living space to determine the approximate size of your house.  This is your preliminary want list and budget and it will be used later to determine the actual spatial budget of your new home.

At this point you may want to use a tape measure to measure out certain rooms in your existing residence or that of a friend or family member.  Measuring existing spaces and furnishings will help you visualize and determine the desired sizes of each room and if your furniture and traffic areas will be acceptable.

Next, list beside each room any specialty items that may require special consideration such as water beds, over-sized beds, large tables, dressers, hutches, and heavy objects such as large tables, wood stoves or gun safes.  In planning a new home, it is important to allow for structural support for concentrated loads and ample room to get over-sized objects through narrow doorways, around tight corners, or up and down stairwells.

Last of all, consider what yard features you will want, especially any outbuildings such as shops, barns, storage buildings, well houses, and similar items.  Make notes of any details pertaining to these things which will be used later when planning your site use.  Also consider any irrigation systems that will be required for landscaping or special structures for livestock or pets.

Project Budget-    Next, you must determine how much you want to spend on your new home and create a budget for your project.  Most of the cost of a new house is in the actual building, but you also have to determine all the other related administrative costs and taxes and site control expenses such as roads or driveways, sales tax, legal fees, drainage issues, fire protection, landscaping, permits, construction plans, real estate fees, and also the interim loan financing and closing costs.  Try to identify all these extraneous costs and determine the net amount you will have to spend exclusively on the house itself.

To determine the kind and size of a house that will best fit your needs, I recommend you begin by looking through as many plan books as possible to see different examples of residential architecture.  Plan books are an excellent resource for comparing space relationships shown in plan view and the exterior vertical views (elevations) of the house.  There are numerous styles and genres to choose from, but keep in mind that you must try to blend in with the local surrounding community standards if you intend to be a good neighbor.  This applies to size, color choices, material selections, and landscaping as well as the style of architecture.  You can find numerous plan books in grocery store magazine sections, home centers, book stores, and public libraries.  Make copies of all the particular designs you like and note the features that attract you about each one, as well as the things you don’t like.  Visit these web sites for additional information: or or do a Google search for “custom home plans”.

Design Development-  There is generally only one way a custom design can come together to meet all the different requirements that affect a particular home.  Your custom house is uniquely suited to your individual requirements and I help you carefully plan it out, every step of the way. Design development is a logical, linear process to develop the layouts of each floor plan for each level in your house while meeting all structural requirements, your personal preferences,  the budget parameters, the fire and building codes, zoning ordinances,  and the site constraints of your project.  The floor plans shape the exterior elevations and the elevations determine the appearance of your house.  Since there are over one hundred thousand parts to the average house, and every part has a cost,  you must make decisions on most of them….colors, sizes, styles, types, models, kinds, quality, and price, while trying to stay within your budget and satisfy all your needs.  Whew!  That’s a major responsibility….and every time you make a change….you change the bottom line of the project.

Define Your Architectural Style-  I encourage all my customers to explore as many sources of design ideas that they can when starting out.  Since architecture is primarily a visual art and pictures say a thousand words, here is a huge collection of great designs by recognized architects and designers from Houzz. This gallery will help you start the process of identifying what appeals to you and what doesn’t.  Scroll through these photos and make notes of all the designs, styles, and features that you like.




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