Design services are required when a perspective custom home owner does not know what they want their house to look like, or where the spaces are going to be located, or how large the structure and spaces will be in relation to their overall desired construction budget.  Design services vary in cost depending on the decision-making ability of the customer and the technical complexity of the project. Full design services usually involve preparation of a series of scaled sketches and additional planning meetings.  Since it is unknown how long it will take for a customer to determine an acceptable design, the fee is based upon an hourly rate, and can take as long as necessary to achieve the final design.  Planning meetings, telephone consulting, contacts with the Building and Planning Departments, the Health District, the Highway District, structural engineers, site visits, field measurements, travel time (portal-to-portal), and all other work associated with developing the final design, are charged at the hourly rate, with a one hour minimum, during the design process.  It is not uncommon for the preliminary design process to cost several hundred dollars in addition to the actual drafting fees for the subsequent working drawings.  Planning sketches are drawn to 1/8″=1′-0″ scale and usually include a site plan, floor plans, and four elevations.  Each series of design sketches generally takes about four hours and costs around $120.  The more complex the design, however, the longer it takes to sketch.

     There are four basic technical categories of design projects:  1)  Small Projects, 2) Fair Quality, 3) Good Quality, and 4) Superior Quality.  Each category requires a certain level of detail to describe the construction. The better the quality, the more complex the design and architecture.  For example, homes with complex roof designs, or multiple levels, or lots of detail, or oblique room connections take more time to develop due to their complex nature.



     Before you begin designing your new home, you will need to establish a budget and location for your project.  You should visit several banks and inquire about their pre-qualification requirements, loan conditions, interest rates,  and take-out policies and procedures. They will require credit reports and tax returns and similar background information.  Initially you may secure a construction loan with a range based upon the initial appraisal of your plans, your equity position, and income. After your new home is built, you then take-out a long term mortgage for 15 or 30 years based upon your situation and circumstances.  The first step is to find out how much you can afford to spend on your new home.  The over all cost of your project will include the property, taxes, plans & permits, engineering, builder’s profit, materials, and labor so you will have to determine the appropriate deployment of funds in these budget categories. I suggest you try to contact at least five potential lenders and compare their policies, procedures, and costs.

     Once you have a general budget established, you can then go shopping for property.  Most of this task can be done online, however, you will want to hire a real estate company to present you with different properties and handle your negotiations and closing. You will want to check on local schools, libraries, property taxes, distance to shopping centers, railroads, highways, parks, lumber yards, concrete companies, the crime rate, available law enforcement, and the existing property values of the neighborhood.  Once you do find your property, and assuming it is within your budget, then you need to research the zoning and CC&R’s for building restrictions.  Your real estate salesperson should provide you with all the background information on the property to enable you to make a sound decision such as liens, easements, utility services and locations, fire protection, storm water management, water rights and services, well logs, water quality, sewage disposal system, zoning restrictions, snow loads, flood zone regulations, on-site deaths, soils and erosion control, property taxes,  tax exemptions, timber values, and similar data.  If you live in a rural area, you may have to research a lot of this information yourself, assuming it is even available.


     I always suggest people get started with the design process by buying some plan books at their local home center, or going online to visit home planning web sites that have a search engine to review different design options.  Make a list of the design characteristics you like and try to identify various floor plan scenarios and exterior elevation features that best suit your needs and tastes.  Get familiar with this process and make copies of all the things that appeal to you.  During this phase of the design process, keep all your notes and photocopies in a folder, bag, or small box. Some people start this task early and take several years to sort out their ideas and preferences.  I have actually had some clients bring me a huge paper shopping bag full of magazine clippings and photos and dump it on my desk and ask me to design a house from it.  As awkward as that may seem, at least it was a good start, and since most of design involves visual communication, this was a reasonable point of beginning.  It is so much harder to extract design ideas from someone with vague concepts or from people who do not know what they want or like.

     The most popular house design built in America today, the single story rancher with forward garage, is found in every state.  They come in all different sizes, dimensions, and space configurations, but they all tend to look alike.  Some have brick, some have metal roofing, some have bay windows, some have slab floors, and some have crawl spaces.  Almost every subdivision in every region of our country has some variation on this style of house.  For the following discussion on project planning, I will use this basic design to illustrate various points and procedures on planning a project, and you can apply the knowledge and process to your own individual design.


     I provide free design reports and planning tools to all my customers and subscribers to my newsletter that help custom home owners organize and administer their projects.  These brief reports are full of good advice and function essentially like a tutorial course in how to design and build a dream house from conception to turn-key.  You can download them under the Reports menu above.  Just fill out the form to request access,  provide me with your email address, and I’ll send you the password.


Collecting data is the first step as discussed above.  I advise my customers to create a 3″ wide, three-ring binder with tab dividers to gather and organize all their planning information.  Download the free report: First, Get Organized under the Reports menu.  This explains how to create your project manual.  Make a section for all the major categories of construction and mark a tab divider for each one.  Let me suggest a section for each of the following areas as may apply to your project.

                      • Architecture We Like
                      • Rules and Regulations
                      • Permits
                      • Administration
                      • Bids/Estimates
                      • Contracts
                      • Labor & Suppliers
                      • Site Work/Access
                      • Utilities
                      • Foundation
                      • Masonry
                      • Metals
                      • Lumber
                      • Windows/Doors
                      • Roofing/Moisture Control
                      • Finishes
                      • Kitchen/Appliances
                      • Floor Coverings
                      • Furnishings
                      • Heating/Equipment
                      • Specialties
                      • Mechanical
                      • Electrical
                      • Out Buildings
                      • Yard Improvements

Once this task is complete,  I advise my customers to focus on what I call the “Big 8” choices. These are the eight big ticket items that can effect the cost of the house by thousands of dollars simply based upon the single selection of the materials or equipment used. The Big 8 include: 1) Roofing, 2) Siding, 3) Windows/Doors, 4) Masonry, 5) Cabinetry and Countertops, 6) Appliances, 7) Floor Coverings, and 8) Heating/AC System and Fuel Source.  Just switching from a laminate countertop, for example, to a granite countertop can increase the cost of the house by $2 per square foot.

Use your project manual as a shopping list and start filling in information in each section.  As you shop home improvement centers, lumber yards, hardware stores, glass companies, spa stores, etc. gather brochures, flyers, and any product information you can on all the things that interest you.  Don’t accumulate any information you are not interested in, it will only tend to confuse you later. Shop and compare, and then place your choices in the appropriate sections of your manual. Complete as much of your project manual as you can before you hire a home designer.


One of the best places to get fresh ideas is to attend home shows, window and garden shows at the local fair grounds, and any open houses close to your neighborhood.  New trends in style, colors, and design features change every year. These shows offer you a perfect opportunity to collect current information about popular market features such as bedroom sizes, ceiling heights, plumbing fixtures, trim styles, windows, doors, cabinetry, floor coverings, and landscaping.


Architecture is the pinnacle of the visual arts and must be studied and appreciated through our sense of sight.  Since 90% of human beings are visually oriented, and gather and process most of their information visually, it stands to reason that people care a great deal about what their homes look like.  Homes are, after all, an extension of the people who live in them, and they reflect all sorts of information about their inhabitants…such as style, status, age, family situation, taste, etc.

In my experience in working with perspective home owners, I have discovered that many people have a difficult time visualizing certain design elements in the course of a planning conversation.  It is one thing to talk about a garage forward rancher style, and quite another to actually see a picture of it.  The same holds true of other architectural styles and details…..a picture says a thousand words.  So, one of the first things I always recommend to people is to start their new home planning process by touring neighborhoods similar to the ones they plan on building in and noticing the different styles and materials used on the homes.  I encourage them to take pictures of the things they like and make notes of what interests them.  Next, I suggest they visit a book store or home improvement center and purchase one or several house plan books or house plan catalogs and review the many different architectural styles to determine which ones they favor.  The internet also offers several valuable websites that can help you in the planning process.


A word of caution on plan book plans…..they are seldom designed to the local code requirements for wind loads, snow loads, seismic bracing requirements, and similar criteria.  Many plan book plans were drawn so long ago that they are dimensioned to reflect 2×4 exterior wall construction, when 2×6 walls have become the standard for the past twenty years, or more.   Many plan book plans originate in the southern region of the United States and are not suited to other parts of the country in their foundation and roof designs.  Many plans do not meet current building code requirements, or local ordinances, and must be modified by local drafting companies to comply with local regulations, climate, and site constraints. Some of the dimensioned lumber specified for structural members in plan book plans is obsolete and does not reflect the newer lumber grading rules and reduced span criteria caused by the depletion of  old growth timber in the forests.  So primarily use the plan books as a reference for styles and room layouts, and only purchase your plans from one of these sources if they truly satisfy all your requirements.  Call the source prior to purchasing the house plan to insure that they will comply to all current codes and regulations for your area.

In my experience, I have found that most plan book house plans do not meet all the individual requirements of most people and must be modified slightly to satisfy their personal needs or those imposed by the building site location. Since I most often work with couples in the planning process, I invite each person to freely express their tastes and  preferences and to discuss their likes and dislikes so that they can reach a common ground in what will satisfy them both.  The more decisions that can be made prior to engaging my services will save a customer both time and money, and a lot of stress, in the planning process.


The first requirement for custom home owners is to identify their needs.  This part of the planning process involves a self assessment called a Needs Analysis to determine all the components of the project and to establish priorities.  The owners are asked to follow a logical process to analyze their property, their budget, and to identify their wants and needs that will influence the design of their new home.

     You next must analyze your basic needs and separate your real requirements, and what your budget constraints allow, from your wants and desires.  This is sometimes a hard thing to do since it’s human nature to want more than you can afford.  Most of the time you will be making evaluations and judgments based upon your current living conditions which may influence you in a negative way.  This planning task primarily involves determining your spatial requirements and all the amenities and features you can afford.


Once you have completed a needs assessment and researched your property along with some of your basic design options, you can begin the schematic design process.  This usually involves creating a table of occupants and listing all their individual needs and the corresponding spaces that will be necessary in the new house to accommodate everyone.  The owners are asked to create some bubble diagrams representing spaces and uses showing proximity to one another.  These bubble diagrams mostly show interior spatial relationships but they are also used to show  exterior decks, porches, and other exterior features.


      At this point in the design process, the owners usually have a good idea about some of the major components and design features they want in their new home.  Before this information can be turned into design drawings, the owners need to determine the budget limitations for their new home.  This involves talking with their banker or some other lender to fully discuss their options.  The owners will need to prepare a financial statement and perhaps get an comparative market analysis (CMA) from two real estate companies to determine the approximate value of their existing property.  While waiting on this information, the owners need to interview several potential builders and ask them what their square foot building costs are.  The building department can also provide a square footage construction valuation figure they use to determine building permit fees.  Once owners know approximately how much equity they will have into their project, the maximum loan amount, and how much they can finance, then a rough budget for the property and new house can be established.  The budget for the house is divided by the average of the square footage building costs from the builders and the building department which yields the approximate size of your new house.  For example, if the budget for the house is $200,000 and the average square footage building cost is $100 per square foot, then 200,000 ÷ 100 = 2,000 sq. ft.  If the house is to be a two story building, then each floor will have 1,000 sq. ft. more or less.  This is the working area that will be used in the design layout.


      The three major constraints influencing  the eventual outcome of a home design are: the budget, the building site, and the owner’s material selections.  As soon as owners form a general idea about their design preferences, the next step is to locate a suitable site to build the dream-home.  Once they know what they need and how much they can spend on land, they can contact a real estate company and shop for property.  Real estate companies can help owners find the best property with proximity to work and good schools, shopping, and the best potential to appreciate in value.  They can also suggest the best placement of the home to take full advantage of all the natural features such as sunrises, sunsets, views and tree preservation, which will reduce costs for water and electrical lines, septic tank locations, driveway construction, and future landscaping or out-buildings.  Real estate companies are a good source of ideas when it comes to planning a new house and can show owners many examples of existing designs that may appeal to them, plus provide actual costs from the Multiple Listing Service (MLS).

     This phase of the design process takes the information gathered in the Needs Analysis and Feasibility Study and uses it as the criteria to explore design options. In this stage of planning, in addition to visiting with real estate companies,  a prospective custom home owner is encouraged to explore different plan books, websites, and house magazines to determine home styles and space relationships that match their sketches and bubble diagrams.  They can clip out the pictures or drawings of features that attract them the most, and organize them room-by-room.  Most home designs evolve from these commercially available sources.  Owners can also visit open houses and drive through neighborhoods to get ideas. During this phase, particular attention should be given to design elements such as roof pitches, window types and placement, colors, kitchen layouts and cabinetry, siding, bedroom sizes, garages, basements, bathroom fixtures and arrangements, and overall styling and design details.  If property hasn’t yet been acquired, then the owners need to shop for a lot or acreage for their project and purchase the land.


     Once the owners have selected their site, they need to make sure their proposed plan can be built on the property.  This is the point where the building designer usually steps in to translate all their information into preliminary plans.  Some owners may have selected two or three floor plans from different sources and ask the designer to modify them to meet their needs. This is a very common technique used to begin the design work. The designer prepares scaled sketches of the floor plans, elevations, and site plan to evaluate if the house will fit on the property and meet all the needs of the owners.  Several preliminary plans may need to be prepared before a final design is produced.


     Most customers take a very active part in the design of their home since they will be paying the mortgage. The days of giving free license to the designer are becoming more rare, unless the designer is unusually talented.  Due to the expense of design, most customers try to minimize it as much as possible by researching commercial plan books and websites and plan catalogs in hope that they will find the perfect plan to fit their project.  When a customer or builder knows exactly what they want in the design of a new home, then I can provide just the drafting services necessary to facilitate permit acquisition.  My drafting service is a hybrid system that combines board drafting on a light table to produce the plan drawings with computer generated notes, specifications, and labels to create a very legible, professional set of plans and documents.


     Once the preliminary plan for the custom home has been reviewed for size and accuracy, then the final working drawings are prepared.  If the preliminary design is still within budget, then the buyer authorizes the preparation of the final plans and construction documents. These plans usually contain a site plan, four exterior elevations, floor plans for each level, a foundation plan, a floor framing plan for each level, a roof framing plan, stair and wall sections, building sections, construction details, an electrical plan, a wall bracing plan, and any other drawings necessary to describe the work.    At this point any changes to the plans are strongly discouraged due to the extent of work involved and the expense for the revisions.  Changes can be made, but the changes usually effect numerous drawings, and many sheets may have to be corrected to ensure all the information remains in agreement.  The final drawings are professionally prepared to comply with all the building codes and ordinances, along with specifications, usually within a week to ten days.  If the project requires engineering, then the plans will have to be submitted to a licensed structural engineer who will prepare engineering details and calculations to be either incorporated into the architectural drawings or submitted separately as an addendum.  If the site is steep, then a licensed civil engineer, or landscape architect, may have to prepare a storm water management plan.  If the property lines and corners have not been located, a survey company may have to survey the property and prepare a site plan drawing before permits can be acquired.

     The designer must submit preliminary plans to the floor and roof truss supplier to obtain an engineered set of drawings necessary for permit applications.  Both the engineered truss package and the architectural plans must be in agreement.  The owners have to select their brand of windows with corresponding U-values to enable this information to be used in the preparation of the energy compliance report, called a REScheck. This report is generally prepared by insulation companies or electrical or mechanical contractors at no charge.


      After the owner reviews and approves the final working drawings, and any final adjustments are made to the design and budget, then the final copy is delivered to the owners.  Generally, the owner must make at least three copies, one to the lender and two to the building department.  Some jurisdictions require the plans to be submitted in digital format, which also facilitates the bidding process.  A copy should also be provided to all the various government agencies that will have to sign off on the  building permit such as the highway district, the fire department, the Department of Lands, and the health department.  The permitting phase usually takes about two to three weeks depending on the season and the jurisdiction.  If corrections are identified during the plan check, then the plans will have to be revised and resubmitted before the building permit can be issued.  The state usually issues the electrical and plumbing permits separately.  A separate permit must be acquired from the Department of Lands for boat docks.  A copy of the plans is usually sent to the lender for appraisal and the construction loan, which also takes about a week to ten days.  A construction schedule is usually prepared to identify the duration of the project and many of the long-lead items are ordered. A calendar can be used for this purpose.  A typical 1,200 square foot home, for example, can take from twelve to sixteen weeks to build, depending on the season and schedules of the suppliers and subcontractors.


     Upon approval of the construction drawings and issuance of the building permit, the owners must either select a building contractor, or elect to build the project themselves.  Contracts with the general contractor, subcontractors, and suppliers must be prepared and signed before work can begin.  If the general contractor is bidding the job, and using his team of subcontractors, then he will take responsibility for getting the detailed cost estimate for the lender.  If the owner elects to build the house himself, then he needs to submit plans to various subs and suppliers and wait for their responses before he can make selections to his build team.  Bids should only be made from permitted plans, not from preliminaries.

For rural projects, application and payment is usually made with the electric company to install the temporary power if it is not already on the property. Power installation can take two to three weeks to install, depending on the season and location. If electrical service needs to be extended to the property, application is made with the electric company to perform a site survey to evaluate the procedure and the cost of extending power to the residence. This procedure usually takes about a week and is necessary to identify any market fluctuations in labor or material prices and trench in the supply line and set the transformer. As the bid responses are collected, a construction cost estimate is prepared to insure the final permitted design meets the project budget.


     Once the building permit has been applied for, the building department often sends an inspector to the property to do a site assessment.  The site assessment determines if the house lies in a flood plain, the steepness of the grade, the soil condition, the degree of exposure to wind gusts, the snow load zone, any impacts on surface water bodies and wildlife habitats, access from public roads, and similar issues.  The inspector also determines if a fire truck would be able to turn around on the property and if any trees have to be removed to provide a safety fire zone around the proposed house location.  The health department may require test holes to be dug in the proposed locations for the drain field with onsite inspections.  Sometimes the building jurisdiction will allow the owner/builder to begin excavation of the building pad and install the driveway before the permit is issued. If a well is to be installed on the property, this work can sometimes precede the permit as well.

     Project management is usually provided by the general contractor or owner, but The Plan Shoppe also contracts the service to schedule the work, manage the subs and suppliers, supervise construction, and provide onsite inspections to maintain quality assurance.  Project management services can involve permit acquisition, scheduling, bidding, pay request reviews, change order processing, material delivery verifications,  lien releases, job logs, and coordination with inspection agencies.


    My custom home plan projects have included:

Single Story Homes

Two Story Homes

Duplexes and Triplexes



Craftsman Style



Country House




Feng Shui Homes

Log Homes

Smart Homes

Straw Bale Homes

Timber Frame Homes

Vacation Cabins

Pole Frame Homes

Pyramid Homes

Earth Shelter Homes

Off-Grid Homes

Barrier Free Homes For Disabled and Handicapped Veterans



Under the 2012 International Residential Code, all new homes have to meet the following design criteria in Kootenai County, Idaho.

DESIGN LOADS (psf):                                                             LIVE            DEAD

Roof                                                                                          40                15

Floor  (carpet)                                                                           40                10

Floor (ceramic tile)                                                                    40                25

Deck                                                                                         60                 7

Garage Floors                                                                          50*                15

Attics w/ storage                                                                       20                15

Attics w/out storage                                                                  10                15

Stairs                                                                                       40                25

Guardrails                                                                                200

*  Elevated garage floors must be able to withstand a 720 psi load within a 20 sq. in area.


Rafters > 3/12 slope, no ceiling                                                                 L/180

Interior walls                                                                                            H/180

Floor & plastered ceilings                                                                          L/360

All other structural members                                                                     L/240

Exterior walls with plaster                                                                         H/360

Exterior walls w/ brittle finishes                                                                 L/240

Exterior walls w/ flexible finishes                                                                L/120


     Most cities and counties in the Pacific Northwest have adopted the 2009 International Residential Code to regulate building activities.   Besides the national codes, every city and county has their own codes or ordinances and planning regulations regarding building projects within their jurisdiction, and most subdivisions have additional rules in their covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&R’s) that are screened and enforced by a neighborhood  architectural committee. Obviously you will want to contact the local jurisdiction in your area and verify the building code that applies to your project.  The county will also have a zoning ordinance describing uses of properties, restrictions, and permitted activities such as “accessory living units” (ALU).  The Health District, fire department, and highway district are other agencies that have their own perspective set of rules and regulations and are required to review and sign-off on the building permit.  State agencies for electrical and plumbing service also sell permits for their respective functions and inspect your job site during construction.