Things to consider before you build (geared towards residential, but applicable to most building types in one way or another)….

Building a new home or renovating/adding onto an existing one is no small event.  Likely it represents an important financial decision that you’ve been considering for many months if not years.  For that reason alone, make sure you take the time to think about the many components that go into the process.  Even the smallest addition/renovation can include many more decisions than you would at first think.  The lists below are not exhaustive…there are a multitude of factors that should be considered when embarking on a construction project, but these are some important ones that will help lay the groundwork for your decisions to come.

new construction

the site: You’ve found the perfect property and have determined that the soil is good for construction of foundations and septic systems (if needed).  Now you need to choose the site for the home.  This perfect spot will be different for different people, but there will be some constraints that help define your choices.

  • Legal limits to where you can build on the site related to your property lines.  Most commonly these would be zoning restrictions defined by the town you’re building in.  You can contact your local zoning administrator to find out what restrictions pertain to you.
  • Topography and natural features.
    • Site drainage will be important not only for septic reasons (if you can’t tie into municipal systems), but for the effect it will have on driveways, entry locations and even the structure of the foundation.
    • If you have a sloped site, consider that building on the slope might increase construction cost.  Conversely, the slope may allow some designs to work better than others, and could help shape the overall character in a positive way.  Working with a slope (and any site feature for that matter) instead of against it can help your home fit in more naturally with the landscape, as opposed to feeling randomly placed. 
    • Views often help to define the placement of the home on the site.  Be careful to remember that views should be considered from the exterior as well, and even from the road as you approach your home.  Framing a beautiful view between a house and garage, for example,  as you approach a home’s entry can be a thoughtful move that will likely still allow for the view from the inside as well.
  • Solar orientation.  Maximizing the potential for using the sun as a heating & light source will not only help your pocketbook and the environment, but can add to both the physical and psychological comfort of your home.  Considering passive solar principals when orientating your home is the most cost-effective heating strategy there is since there are no operating costs involved.

the interior layout:

  • Size.  Think long and hard about this one.  Our culture has most often led us to believe we need more space than we actually do.

    • Think about spaces serving multiple functions.  Making spaces function efficiently can typically help carve away square footage.  Added bonus…carving off square footage can either leave more money in the bank, or allow you to add a level of finish to your home that you initially thought you might not be able to afford.

    • Built-ins can be expensive, but when you consider how they often add considerable functionality to a space (not to mention charm), and can reduce square footage, then the cost begins to make sense.

  • Consider the layout of public vs private spaces within your home and how they work together or conflict.  This is typically a discussion for other building types, but it has relevance here as well.  There is a reason why an “away room” is common in homes with open floor plans.  And in those where this space isn’t considered, often times it comes in as and addition down the road.  Placing a bathroom directly off of a dining room is an example of discomfort that comes from not paying attention to this concept.                                                                                                         
  • A clear entrance for visitors.  How many homes have you visited where you weren’t quite sure which door to go to?  It’s awkward.  Good design and planning can make sure your house isn’t one of them.  On this same note….how many homes have you seen where there was a door to no-where, or a formal front door where there really didn’t need to be one?  This is often the result of someone using a stock plan and plopping it down on a site without thinking about this piece of the puzzle.  It’s an important detail to remember.                                                                                           
  • The garage.  Our car is usually an integral part of our lives, but it won’t mind if we don’t put it front and center when designing our home, if we have the option not to.  Careful thought can allow for a more interesting, less car-oriented, face to your home.  Likewise, if you’re building a separate garage, be sure to consider whether it blocks your view of people approaching your home.

additions & renovations

Many of the points noted in the new construction list above are pertinent here as well, but I’ve included a few others….

  • Do you really need to add on/why are you adding on?  This is a question similar to the size discussion above.  It may make more sense to make existing spaces more functional and serve multiple purposes.  Or, perhaps it’s a discussion about paring down the things in your life, clearing out and keeping only what makes sense.                                                                                                                                                                                
  • Think about the flow (or circulation) in your home and consider how placement of an addition will effect that flow either negatively or positively.  This is a question to be considered both inside and out.                                                                                                                                                    
  • How will the addition tie into the existing home aesthetically.  Perhaps it wants to be different on purpose, or maybe you want two similar buildings with a connector between them that is different?  Will the roof lines work?                                                                                                              
  • Consider the effect on your existing heating/cooling, water & septic systems.  Will you need to provide an additional system, or can the current system accommodate the increased demand?

points common to both new construction and additions/renovations

  • What level of energy efficiency will you build to?  Will you build to the minimum standards required by code, go as far as Net Zero, or fall somewhere in between.  This is an important question to answer for both financial and design reasons.                                                                                    
  • A pleasing design, both inside and out.  A thoughtful approach to many of the above points will aid in this goal, but it’s also important to consider such design ideas as proportion, proportion, and proportion.  Yes, that’s how important it is!  It’s often hard for us to put into words why some buildings just “feel right” when others don’t.  Proportion, either good or bad,  is often at play.                                                                                
  • Select a good general contractor.  Word of mouth is often the best way to find one.  Bring the GC on board early in the process so that you can make sure your budget is realistic for what you have in mind.  If a contractor doesn’t have a clear and very specific idea of what you want it will most likely result in a guesstimate for the construction cost, which is not what you’ll want if you’re trying to be as cost effective as possible.

Last but not least…

  • Slow down…don’t rush this process.  You’ve probably been thinking about whether you’ll build or renovating for some time.  Don’t let the fact that you’re mentally ready to be living in the new space eclipse the phase where you think critically about the design you’ll have built.  Good design takes time and effort.  Consider all of the items in the above lists and more.  Selecting products, finishes, appliances, etc. before construction begins is a wise decision as well, but this too takes time.

Hopefully the above lists have gotten you excited about the process rather than overwhelmed you.  Of course I’m biased, but I can assure you that a good architect can make the process a whole lot easier;  help you spend both your time and money more effectively and perhaps even save both with a design that is more efficient and thoughtful than might first have been considered.  Regardless, I wish you well on the process!