Designing a new home: where to start. Solar and wind study example. – Board & Vellum

Ask an Architect, Custom Residential

Where Do You Start When Designing a New Home?

By Jeff Pelletier
February 5, 2018

Let’s just get this out there: architects and designers have really weird jobs. As an architect, I will spend part of my day running spreadsheets, crunching numbers, and diving into the complexities of codes. Then, like magic, I go off on a vision quest to start finding inspiration for a new design.

Quite frankly, it is freaking weird.

It is also incredibly exciting. I know of so many architects who work well into their golden years because this work can be so much damn fun! There’s always a new challenge and always a new problem to solve.

The biggest challenge, I find, is figuring out where to start when designing a new home. So what do I look at? Below is a summary of the things that I look for when I’m designing a new home from the ground up. (A remodel is a different beast, although it has many similarities).

Things to Look For When Designing a New Home

  • What are the zoning and building code restrictions? The fun design work doesn’t start until I’ve identified all of the restrictions in place on your lot during the Pre-Design phase. I’ll look at where the zoning will allow the house to be built on the lot, how high it can be, and if there are any environmentally critical areas on the property. We have a project with a bald eagle’s nest nearby (one of several types of environmentally critical areas), and I can’t tell you how complicated that makes things. It’s really important to be aware of these types of challenges from the start. (By the way, you’ll often hear environmentally critical areas referred to by the acronym ECA.)
  • What’s the budget? We maintain an extensive database of past projects and what they cost. We’ll work with the client to identify different scenarios based on size and design complexity to help determine the desired construction budget. While it’s a bit of an educated guess at this point, it helps set the tone for how big and complicated the house should or should not be.
  • Does the client have any particular aesthetic goals? Sometimes, a client will absolutely want a contemporary or a traditional home. Other times they are flexible about style, or unsure. This doesn’t entirely change my thoughts on the initial design but it helps get the gears moving.
  • Where’s the sun? We will do a solar study to determine where the house should sit and where are the shady conditions we have to deal with (or take advantage of, as the case may be). The example below shows which parts of the property will be in sun or shade at different key points of the year, as well as the direction of the prevailing winds, their speed and the typical air temperature. Even if you aren’t designing a super sustainable house, being aware of these types of details about your location (and designing for them) will pay off when you move in and start experiencing what it’s like to live there.
    Designing a new home: where to start. Solar and wind study example. – Board & Vellum
  • What are the sustainability goals? Right now, we are working on a new passive house, another one that has deep sustainability goals, and another one where it isn’t a stated goal but they’re open to ideas. With each one, it helps set initial thinking for siting the house, how thick the walls should be (especially on tight urban lots where this can matter a lot), and what roof forms I should consider if we’re trying to integrate solar panels. (Frustratingly, for instance, shed roofs work best when they are high on the south side to let light into the interior. Unfortunately, this, unfortunately, conflicts with where solar panels want to sit. So, we have to make a call early on about the priorities.)
  • What are the neighbors up to? How private is the lot and where are the adjacent homes? I’ll also look at the style of the adjacent homes and discuss with the clients the value of neighborhood sensitivity. Seattle has a lot of homes with contemporary designs, so this is becoming less of an issue, but we’ll still want to have the discussion about how to make this home blend in, OR how to make it stand out in a special way.
  • What are my goals for this project? Now, this is a bit of a secret. Every architect I know has a collection of ideas rattling around in their head that they’ve thought of or seen over the years. We are just looking for the right site and project to try them out on. Obviously, I can’t force an idea on a site, but it is exciting when I find a match between an idea in my head and a site.

Once this is all collected, then I can start design. We typically start with a meeting with the team to review all of the above parameters and we then start to assess the “rules” of the site. You’d be surprised how often the above parameters can quickly determine where a house should be on the property.

I’ll then take these findings and go off into my office and start sketching and dreaming and tweaking and throwing the ideas out. It is organic and there’s no way to predict how long it will take. Sometimes, an idea comes fast and other times I have to work through a bunch of bad ideas to get to the good ones. It is fun, frustrating, and like nothing else in the world.

When that final plan comes together, I like to say, “it sings.” It is funny — there is ALWAYS a moment when it becomes clear that it just works. That feeling is like nothing else and one of the many reasons I love coming to work every day. That and spreadsheets, because, you know, those are cool too.

Yeah, this is one freaking weird job.

This post is part of the ArchiTalk series originally spearheaded by Bob Borson of Life of an Architect. Historically, he has selected a theme and a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s posts. This year, the themes have been selected by a variety of contributors. This month’s theme was selected by Jon Brown of the Proto-Architecture blog and is: "Starting a Design." To read how others interpreted the theme, please explore the links below.

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Slow Down. Hold Still.

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
where do we start?

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
How to Start a Design

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
Starting a Design: #Architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
On Your Mark, Get Set -- Start a Design!

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
Starting Design

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks #35: Starting a Design

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Where do we begin?

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
do-re-mi- Design

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
First Thing's First

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
5 Tips for Starting an Architecture Project

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
How it all begins...

Steve Mouzon - The Original Green Blog (@stevemouzon)
Starting Wrong - The Amazon Mistake

Would you like to read more from the team?

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