Fitzpatrick Keller Architecture

How To Design Your Own Home


 Fitzpatrick Keller Studio

Architecture, Home Design

Sandpoint, Idaho


How to design your own home


Drawing the plans

Site Selection

Building Placement

Room Placement and Optimal Sizes

Symbolism in Design

Windows and Doors

Ceilings and Roofs


Designing for your budget


Designing a very small house

Designing a large house

Drawing the final plan set



This is a quick guide to help you get the most from what you build. Architecture is about making the most out of the opportunities at hand, it’s a constant search for a better layout. Even the most experienced designer must search through the logic of what might work better. Architecture is about thinking –and re-thinking. When the building starts, you won’t even have time to decide between a medium or a large coffee in the morning. You can use this guide to stimulate ideas or as a checklist, to make sure you haven’t missed an important point. As this is the age of quick information, I’ve tried to use as few words as possible.

Drawing the plans

You can draft the plans yourself by hand or with a computer, or you can hire a draftsman. The planning department will be looking for code compliance. A clear planset is important but as long as the compliance is clearly stated they can do their jobs. If you leave out an important detail they’ll call and ask for it. Before you start drawing, drop by your planning department and ask what drawings they’ll require. They should have a handout to give you. For code compliance order a UBC (Unified Building Code) handbook (check on –or get a good relationship going with your local planning official! They know everything, and that’s backed by law. Drafting is a large job however and your time might be more important than a draftsman’s wages. Towards the end of this guide there is a section with drawing tips and standards.

Take out only scratch paper at this point, not the good stuff. Do a lot of scribbling but drafting is still a long ways off.

Process note: If you’ve got a parcel and building site already skip down to Room Placement or maybe read through so that the issues are fresh in your mind at the beginning of the design process. Also, start looking carefully at existing houses! Collect photographs from magazines! Fine Homebuilding is an excellent source for general notions and also specific ideas. If you’re a first time owner-builder you might want to get a subscription.


Site Selection

No decision in building a home is as important as site selection. A Winnebago in Yosemite is better architecture than a Victorian by the freeway. Keep a close eye out for site issues that aren’t obvious. Often the time of day affects the site significantly and you should visit the site a few times before buying. Winter is often a good season to buy because the lack of foliage often allows for a better sense of the land. Use a checklist such as the following even if you know all this anyway! Mistakes here are not allowed!

Neighborhood –it’s not well recognized in America how much our neighborhoods define our lives. Most real estate decisions acknowledge the school quality and crime rate but many aspects of neighborhood culture are important. In general I think it’s better to buy a mediocre lot in a good area than a good lot in a mediocre area. Don’t get fooled by price. Lots are sold at a ‘perceived value’ not the ‘real value.’ Areas where people care either too much or too little about appearances (to your standards) might best be avoided. Above all, when loking at a place, believe what your eyes tell you. Check out any home association with reasonable care.

Noise and Smells –please pay close attention to both and know that they cannot be mitigated. If they drive you inside or keep you from opening windows then your home cannot function correctly. Keep an eye out for problems around the corner and upwind–busy roads, fast food restaurants, etc.

Lowlands –watch out for areas where water pools. Lowlands often bring fog in the winter and mosquitoes in the summer. If you can find a site on a knoll you will reduce both the damp and the bugs.

Tall Trees –check for dangerous trees.

Erosion –check the stability of the building site, keep heavy rains in mind. There are many erosion control methods but they add cost.

Utilities –make sure all are available at a price you can afford. An expensive well can take the wind out of a project’s sails. Some rural sites don’t have phone lines, satellite connectivity, or a nearby cell tower. In the age of the internet it’s best to have at least one!

Access –during winter storms!

Privacy –There are many architectural tricks that can provide privacy inside a house while keeping the light and view. Outside the house can be more difficult. A private backyard patio is a luxury worth searching for.

Views –A good view can turn a miner’s shack into a palace. Don’t try to chase a view with a tall building, I can tell you it hardly ever works. Watch out for trees on neighbor’s properties that might grow. Personally I like to have many windows at the back of the house, towards the south, towards the view so I buy parcels that allow this.

Sunlight –“Architecture is the struggle for light.” I’m sure I’ll repeat this quote, by the famous or possibly infamous modernist architect Le Corbusier, once or twice before this guide is done. Access to sunlight is a health issue in the north because of vitamin D production. In the south the sunlight needs to be carefully controlled, and there are many architectural filters, from tinted glass to screen-mesh to grape vines, to bring the heat under control. Watch out for tall conifers! Also be carefull to check where the sun will rise and set, at both equinoxes and both solstices, for morning and evening sunlight should be emphasized.

Building Placement

Don’t cover up the best part of the site with the house! If possible, use the structure to control site issues. Use the building to create a good yard –to reflect sunlight, block wind, and keep out street noise. Often the basic placement and shape of the building is your best landscaping tool.

Take a very careful look at water drainage. Large projects often require a drainage engineer. Try not to build on the lowest part of the ground.

Use existing trees to their best advantage for shade and winter sun. Also trees near the house can often make the upstairs seem like tree-house living, and an upstairs deck in among chestnut branches is sacred architecture to this beatnik designer’s soul. If the deck is large enough then trees can come right through.

Most homes are oriented to the compass points. I find that a 15-20 degree turn counterclockwise, taking the south wall towards the east, brings in heat on winter mornings and keeps summer afternoons cooler (I always build a well-insulated north wall). Too much of a rotation will take away from summer evenings.

Front porches are very important, they should be easily recognizable to guests to guide them in from the driveway, and they should be covered enough so that visitors don’t wait in the rain. Much of the ‘friendliness’ apparent in a house comes from the welcoming feel of the front porch. Tying the porch into the roof-line of the main house makes a house seem more unified and pleasant. I like to have two house walls edging the porch, to make it seem more cozy and secure (and also more out of the wind).

Corners are expensive. If you are on a tight budget then build a rectangular house with a simple roof. You can build a stikingly beautiful home even with this simplicity.

If the house is long and narrow then the front door (and inside stairs) are best off near the middle of the long side. This cuts down the area needed to travel within the house.

Two-story homes are more efficient to build because same the foundation and roof are used for both floors.

Process note: At this point your scribbles should acknowledge the landscape and the issues listed above. Change the basic massing around until the building flows well with the landscape. I like to do this on-site, with coffee and 3 cigarettes. Keep in mind the options for roof-lines, this is a powerful line and will determine the aesthetics of the home more than any other. Ridges can run both the long way or the short way without trouble. Set the gable ends to collect light if you can.

Room Placement and optimal sizes

There are two types of spaces, rooms to live in and the areas that serve them. Great-rooms,dining roooms, kitchens, bedrooms, dens and often bathrooms are spaces to be lived in and enjoyed. Not to discard their importance or potentials, but laundry rooms, closets, hallways, pantries, entryways and stairwells are there to serve the other spaces. It is usually best to keep the service areas collected together. I try to keep service spaces to the north and living spaces to the south in small homes. In large homes I put the service areas towards the center, bedrooms usually take up the north side.

The Romans built summer dining rooms and winter dining rooms. We don’t all have the luxury of seasonal rooms so it’s best to double check that the space will work well all year round. Know where your sunrises and sunsets are. West sides often have trouble with overheating. North light is steady and dim, good for art studios.

I once discovered that homes I designed in winter had more windows than homes I designed in the summer –I’ve learned to compensate but it takes some conscious effort!

Sunrooms are very hard to thermally control and are often underused. It is best to put in an exterior grade wall and door to separate them from the main house. A narrow (less than 12′) room with bright paint and a long wall of big windows, so that there is a lot of reflected sunlight, makes for a sunroom with less extreme temerature changes than an all glass room.

Room size is very important and houses can look bigger on paper than they do when built. This is a place to be careful that your drawing doesn’t fool you. The measurements given here are from finished-wall to finished-wall. In the bathroom especially frame the walls at least 1″ further out –to account for a 1/2″ sheet of drywall on both walls. Areas of through-traffic should not be counted in with the room sizes. If a room requires through-traffic (to a stairway, an exterior door or to a laundry room) add 3′ and use one side of the room as an ‘open hallway.’

Living Room –15’x15′ up to 16’x16′. This size and shape seems to best allow for a sofa-set, coffee-table, and tv or hearth. (make sure to plan 2′-3′ extra for the depth of a fireplace behind the wall). If you plan a room that is larger than this then it will have aisles behind the sofas or a double-focus. I’ve heard reports of 14′-wide living rooms being quite comfortable. 12’x12′ might be the minimum here, and only with no through-traffic to contend with. If you have big elbows and a loud voice, then you might want up to 18’x18′. Don’t stray too far from square for a living room, and make sure the room is distinct enough to suggest a separateness from the traffic and bustle and flow. Be wary about a door to the back porch if it can only be accessed by disrupting sofa dwellers, better to design a clear path. Living rooms are often 16’x19′ because of this. I give the living room all the south light I can conjour through the trees.

Kitchen –10’x13′ up to about 18’x18′. Home Depot display kitchens are 10’x10′ but remember to include a pathway for traffic. Keep the sink, stove, and refrigerator reasonably close together. Kitchen aisles should be a minimum of 4′ and no more than 7′. Make sure there is open counter space near the sink, stove, and fridge. Kitchens succeed by having clear workspace and plenty of cabinets.

Dining Area –An 8’x8′ area is minimal but I try to provide 10’x12′. If this is a separate room then 12’x12′ is about the minimum.

Common Baths –70% of all bathrooms seem to be the minimum size of 5’x8′. This allows for the standard tub, toilet, sink with no room left to spare. I like to design bathrooms at 6’x9′ to make them feel less utilitarian. Tubs are usually 5’x30″. Toilets need 4’x30″ minimum. Sinks are often 20″ deep and should be at least 24″ wide. Put the door to the bath in a service area, such as a hallway or the entry, not in a living space.

Bedrooms –7’x9′ is a very small bedroom but it does work. Remember to allow for closet space. 12’x14′ is a very nice bedroom size. All bedrooms need an escape window and a closet.

Entryway –5’x5′ minimum. Make sure there is enough room to open the door and step out of the way. Remember to put a coat closet nearby and a place for a bench and shoes. I do not like to put the front door into the living room because takes away from the relaxed nook nature that a living area should have.

Stairs –3’x14′. Add about 10 inches in length per foot of ceiling height over 8′. Landings should be 3’x3′. I like to have a landing mid-flight for safety reasons, so my stair flights are 17′ total length. Remember not to allow doors to swing into the landings.

Master Bedroom –10’x12′ allows a narrow aisle around a king-sized bed. 14’x14′ seems comfortably big. A skylight over the bed to see stars at night is a luxury to be considered.

Master Bath 5’x8′ is still the minimum but especially in the master bath I like to make it a bit bigger. I like having a separated tub so that bathing has more stlye to it than washing your car. Many people these days like to have a shower stall as well as a tub. The counter in the master bath should be about 6′ long rather than the usual 2′ minimum. I always enjoy a skylight over the tub.

Hallways –3′ wide minimum. Make hallways as short as possible. I try to not use hallways at all.

Front Porch –4’x4′ is a good minimum. Often porches are made long and narrow to the point where they don’t function well. Make them as square as possible. A large front porch will make the house seem more welcoming.

Back Porch –10’x10′ will fit a small table and a barbeque.

Closets –2’x20″ is a good minimum but closet space is always useful. Make sure you account for an Entry closet, vacuum closet, and linen closet but add more if you can!

Garage –24’x24′ for two cars is minimal. 28’x28′ is quite comfortable.

Process note: With an idea of room size and positioning it’s now time to scribble in earnest. Make your drawings small! Most of my preliminary drawings are about 2″x2″, almost a ‘thumbnail’ drawing. This allows me to explore design ideas quickly and easily. I make sure I start from scratch at least twice –I don’t want to get too far down one trail without an idea of what I might be missing. I use graph paper but most designers use rolls of trace paper.

Take great care to get the relationships between the rooms correct!

Don’t put a bathroom off the kitchen. Don’t make people walk in front of the TV.

Process note: I design with traffic-flow diagrams. I use circles for seating/working areas and colored lines for traffic paths. Acknowledge all doors, even closet doors. Lines through circles mean a mistake has happened. Traffic paths should curve gently or jog at intervals. Too straight of a path makes for a utilitarian ambiance. Too curved a path leads to frustrated travelers.

I try to place the kitchen/dining/living in a loose triangle so that all three relate to each other. I use a kitchen bar as a centerpiece of the open room for this seems to be where casual conversations happen most often.

Designers try to create a gradient of public to private space. This starts at the top of the driveway (public) and continues to the master bath (private).

Please remember that a finished room is defined by much more than the placement of walls. You are trying to design a complete space so keep in mind how a person would experience the environment you create. It’s easy to lose the plan behind the drawings. Designing takes a talent for lifting the drawings off the page and into a 3 dimensional imagination. Imagine the light, the paint color, the windows, and the ceiling height. Imagine the room with twenty people in it and with just one. Imagine the traffic flow. Imagine the room in summer, winter, morning, afternoon, and night. Ask yourself how much you’d enjoy a cup of tea while sitting on this chair or that bench.

Test as many dimensions as possible by measuring distances in existing rooms.


Symbolism in Design

This section is not about the function of a house but of its form. This is what puts the art in architecture.

One of my favorite architectural philosophers is a French writer from the early 20th century, a Misseur Bachalard. “Where there are no symbols there is no discourse, without discourse there is no art.”

My buddy Bachalard and I both believe that art is a communication. Not facts, of course, or how’s the weather. Art communicates emotions, attitudes, and states of mind. Check out the Mona Lisa once again, she tells it to you straight.

Architecture is restricted in what it can say. Architecture needs to be polite. You can put a painting in the attic when it starts seeming too gloomy. You can’t do that with the whole living room.

I firmly believe that architecture, above all else, should be a communication of joy. Every instance where the design recognizes human joy becomes a bit of poetry. A swinging bench on the front porch, a stained glass window, a sunny reading nook, an outdoor dining space –if you can recognize a joy and pass the thought of that joy on to guests of the house, then you will receive compliments for you will have created art.

Symbols of joy will create joy, think of christmas trees for example, but overt symbolism gets old quick, so use symbols that won’t dry up in January. Greek columns, French cornices, fixed window shutters, faux-Tudor beams –it’s better to put plastic flamingoes on your lawn than to design with affectations such as these, because you can remove the flamingoes.

Symbolism of Place

Robert Venturi wrote about the “unrecognized symbolism in Modern architecture.” He uses some fighting words and complains that “we are designing dead ducks.” He got some flying slack for the comment back in his day.

Symbols are like the weather, they always exist. Just because you don’t think about the symbolism you express in a design doesn’t mean it’s not there, it just means it’s uncontrolled.

I believe a house should fit in with its neighborhood and this means reflecting the symbols that surround it. There is a natural symbolism that comes from building in the mountains, or by the beach, or in farm country, or on the outskirts of a small town. You can make a statement by using industrial materials and shapes to build a home in a row of old Victorians –this will highlight the beauty of your garden.

WH Auden made statements by wearing carpet-slippers to social gatherings. I’m all for the making of such statements –I think they should be bizarre, poetic, and removeable.

Choose the materials, colors, and styles from the cues given by the surroundings. Set up reflections between the building and its site. A building’s character is derived very much from the responses it makes to its environment. This responsiveness is a much better guide to good design than is either creativity or style.

In many ways a home is like a stage-set, architecture is meant to support the comedies and dramas of our lives, to help us play our chosen roles to best effect. Go ahead and let it. If you buy a house by a good fishing lake, because you like fishing, then let it look like a fisher’s house. I don’t mean string old netting from the eaves, I mean take a good look at the houses around it, and read a few magazines to see what a fisherperson’s house might want to look like. –A big stone fireplace with a stuffed marlin on a plack, and an outside sink. There’s far more details than that to uncover!

Build the character of the house through the use of appropriate details, choose only pragmatic details or the house will seem like a verbose and overloaded poem … sound and fury signifying nothing….

Use styles from the past but don’t let them use you!

Symbols of good living

Good living is the heart of good architecture. If you can express a healthy, friendly, perceptive and joyous attitude through the choice of form and material, then your home will be well received.

Make your house look fully inhabited. Dormers will make the area under the roof seem lived-in. benches and outdoor lighting will seem welcoming. Break up blank walls with a window or two, it doesn’t matter how big the windows are, it matters that there is a clue to an existance beyond the wall.

Bay windows and upstairs porches have the same effect, they pull the ‘habitable space’ out beyond the separating wall.

Chimneys are associated with warmth and coziness, so I often make them prominent.

Pay enough attention to the entrance to make it seem inviting.

Dining areas should be places that bring people together, don’t be over-utilitarian when it comes to spaces like this –show respect to your dinner guests by providing them with a better-than-just-comfortable place to dine.

Baths are also worth some extra effort. I enjoy a true bath-room –one that is meant as a space to enjoy bathing. I try to separate the bath from the toilet/shower/sink and I use windows and skylights to bring some nature into the experience.

Architecture is about the celebration of life. It doesn’t matter what color the ribbons and balloons are, it matters that the joy of living shows through. Architecture paints with experiences more than it does with form and color.

Heavy materials near the entry will make the home look more permanent and secure. Use stonework if you can, but heavy timbers or a heavy front door both help immensely.

Symmetry is read by humans as healthy. Simplistic symmetries get boring to the point of being annoying. Overlapping two or three symmetry-set will add the complexity back in.

Architectural forms should have an apparent motion to them, with one form flowing into another and leading the eye across the building. This can be hard to achieve and shouldn’t be followed to the point of seeming strained. To balance apparent motion with apparent stability is a way to build a sort of music into the design. This is aided by symmetries that suggest stability and symmetries that suggest movement. Be careful not to simply balance forms. Massing and external influences need to be recognized and responded to. Massing (the overall shape of the building) should find a balance much like a child’s hanging mobile finds balance. –One big fish will balance two small turtles, two small dormers will balance one large gable.


Windows and Doors

Strong connections to the outdoors make for a home that won’t isolate people. I think it should be made easy to slip inside and out, just wearing socks. I’ve never been satisfied with rooms that rely on one window for light and air. I believe the best way to make a house seem spacious is not to add square feet but to add windows. Make the entire backyard a part of your living and kitchen areas. Consider creating at least one ‘outdoor room’ where the ‘walls’, even if made of railings or brush, clearly define a space. Outdoor fireplaces are great, an outdoor dining table is nearly a must. Consider suggesting a ceiling made of beams, screen, lattice, or vines. Pay good attention to the floor material, tile seems more home-like than deck-boards or concrete. Keep the deck floor level about 1″ lower than the inside floor level.

Doors take up a lot of room because their swing and their need for access. Still, the connection to the outdoors is much stronger with french doors than with a large window –always make sure a door has easy access, not squeezed behind a table or accessed through the living room seating area.

To my mind architecture is about screening off spaces. These screens can be 0% to 100% transparent and choosing the correct levels makes for good design. Full walls, half walls, walls with open doorways, windows, fogged windows, lattices, railings –all of these provide a certain amount of separation and connection of light and sound. At times I’ll mark a ‘wall’ simply by running a beam across the ceiling and changing the floor material. Sometimes I’ll put heavy, full walls near each other to bring a sense of compression (so I can open the space up again and get a feeling of expansiveness). I’m all for using interior windows, glass blocks, and every other trick to make the connections in the house more interesting and functional.

Notation note: Window and door sizes are often written in a standardized form: width in feet&inches followed by height in feet&inches. A 5030 left-slider will be 5′ 0″ wide x 3′ 0″ tall and will slide towards the left. Door-swings are labeled right-hand or left-hand. If you stand inside the doorframe with your back towards the hinges (“butt to butt, cock to lock” some guys say) then your left arm will swing like a left hand door.

There are a few types of windows, and doors, and each have their own advantages and faults. Most windows do not need to open and fixed windows are much cheaper. Use openable windows in places that are easy to access.

Fixed windows are cheapest and come as trapezoids, triangles and arches! And these unusual shapes can be custom dimensioned and cost little more than rectangular windows do. Use odd shapes carefully though, make sure they make sense to the eye and do not seem randomly placed.

Sliders are the cheapest of the operable windows. They work great in bedrooms, where a 5′ wide, 3′ tall slider window is commonly used as the code-required ‘escape window.’ (An escape window must have 7.5 square feet of OPENABLE area, the sill must be no higher than 44″ from the floor).

Single-Hung windows have a very traditional look and I use them if such aesthetics are important. The downside is that even when the window is open tall people look through glass. The truly traditional double-hung window, where the top panes slides as well seem like a lost luxury. They are still made but not in vynil to my knowledge, and wood windows run 3 times the price. I like to use high single-hung windows in bathrooms with the bottom pane fogged.

Casement windows are not broken by a mullion (the bars between window panes) so aesthetically they match fixed windows and are often used because of this. They swing open like doors. They are the most expensive operable windows. The downside is that you don’t want to leave them open on windy days because they stick out in the wind. Also don’t use them near outdoor paths and trafficways or people will bump into them.

I have a distinct affection for clerestory windows. The word is pronounced ‘clear-story’ and that’s just what it refers to –a level meant not for living but just to bring light in– a row of high windows. Much of the magic of the great Gothic Cathedrals comes from their high clerestories. I use clerestories so I can have high windows in the main living areas and still keep the windows in line with the top of the doors –usually at 6’8″. This keeps a stong line through the facades and it also keeps down the size of the opening windows, which is good for both convenience and cost.

Skylights. I have never had trouble with a Velux brand skylight leaking. I haven’t tried other brands. I usually put in a skylight over the master bed and over the master tub, when the choice is mine. A skylight can help a stairwell out immensely. In the entryway a skylight will add a lot to people’s first impression of the house. When possible, I enjoy having skylights in low ceilings, to bring the stars closer.

With all window design, especially with skylights, be careful not to overheat the house with too much summer light from the south and west. East-facing skylights are less apt to cause over-heating. In hot climates face large windows towards a covered porch to mitigate sunlight. Up here in snow-country I usually extend a gable about 10′ out over a southern deck, in order to get winter light but keep summer light away from the house. (A gable is where the house wall rises to a point beneath the roof, it’s the triangle beneath the roof on two sides. –the ‘rake’ is the slanted roof edge to either side of the gable.)

I do not like sliding doors, because of the fixed pane and because of their over-use in suburbia. French doors seem classy and generous –and they cost almost double, or even more, over the price of a slider. I have been slowly convinced over the last few years that fiberglass doors are the best value. Wood-clad doors with metal on the outside –that’s the expensive but nice way to go. I bought all-wood doors for many years but they are hard to seal because even kiln-dried wood moves according to the season.


Ceilings and Roofs

Ceilings are hard to see on plans, so they are often forgotten. However, I think most of the character in houses comes from the combination of window placement and ceiling/roof design. Ceilings are great because they are out of the way but always visible. If you want to add design interest, ceilings are there for the sculpting.

Process note: Most people can design in 2 dimensions. For a really nice house you need to deal with up and down, and this can be tricky. Elevation drawings are important! These are the drawings of the house seen from the side –one for front, back, left and right. Also not to be forgotten are the cross-section drawings, where the house is sliced top to bottom. These are like the elevation drawings with the outer wall missing. I usually split the house at the ridge and I draw a north-south and an east-west cross-section. If there’s anything unusual about the floor or ceiling heights I’ll add x-sections to clarify them.

Notation note: Roof pitches are described in rise over run. A 6/12 roof is 6′ high at 12′ from the outer wall. Slanted ceilings are likewise notated.

The typical American ceiling height is 8′. The most architecturally reknown home on the continent, Wright’s Falling Water, has 8′ ceilings. This makes for a comfortable and cozy, easy to heat space.

The British have always loved their high ceilings, 10-12′. For many centuries the common method of heating homes in the Isles was, or so I’ve read, to stay “well-clothed and well-fed.” These people obviously took global warming much more seriously than the Sierra Club does. High ceilings feel grand and expansive, and they allow for tall windows to catch sunlight on cloudy days.

Pre-cut 2x wall-studs are available for 8′, 9′, and 10′ ceiling heights. Drywall is available most everywhere for 8′ and 9′ heights.

Short ceilings, down even to 6’8″ can be effective if not over-used –mostly to contrast an expansiveness or to create a nook.

I like to base houses on 9′ ceilings. It’s not too much added cost and it means I can place the windows higher. This is important to me for reasons of both light and view. High windows raise people’s attention upward, and like making someone smile, this can raise their spirits.

The slant of a vaulted ceiling will also raise eyes upwards. Steep vaults are more dramatic, more expensive to build, and harder to heat. I tend to vault the great room of a house and leave the other ceilings flat. Vaults at 3/12 or less seem unsatisfying to me. To my eye 6/12 to 10/12 makes for a nice vault. If you want rooms upstairs under the vault you probably don’t want anything less than 8/12. Using a short wall upstairs (a pony wall) is often the best way to provide headroom under a shallow vault. I usually use a 5′ tall pony wall.

Truss options:

Stick-framing a roof is a good option but requires a ridge-beam, usually a glu-lam. Stick-framing (also called hand-stacked) a roof takes much more time than trusses but the material cost will be slightly lower. If the house is very narrow then a hand-stacked shed roof (one roof-plane that spans from wall to wall makes sense. Instead of trusses use 11″ or 14″ I-joists.

Common Trusses –plain old triangles. These are the cheapest and strongest trusses. They create a flat ceiling.

Scissor trusses –this is the cheapest way to vault a ceiling but the outside pitch differs from the inside pitch. When trapezoid windows are placed in the gable wall they’ll match the pitch of the ceiling but not the roof. From outside the house this seems incorrect to my eye but the lower price often makes it tempting.

Parallel trusses –these act like deep beams (2′ to 4′ deep, usually), the top is parallel to the bottom. The ceiling will be the same pitch as the roof. These are my personal favorite trusses for use in great rooms.

Attic trusses –these save time and money by including the upstairs floor structure as the bottom span of the truss.

Straight trusses –these trusses are rectangular, they don’t create triangular gables. They function exactly like narrow, deep beams. they are used to create ‘flat’ roofs (flat roofs are never really flat, they have a roof-pitch of less than 1/12.)

With all forms of trusses, you can buy end-trusses so that you don’t have to frame the gable walls. This only makes sense with common trusses because there is a flat ceiling to carry the insulation.


The eaves of a house a like the brim of a hat and their size is determined the same way –by climate and function. Eave length is an important decision. Standard eaves are 18″ all the way around. This provides adequate protection from sun and rain in most climates.

Eaves are expensive! They require bigger trusses, more roofing, and soffit-boards. Roof work goes slower than other jobs because of the risk.

In hot climates make the eaves big, up to 4′ wide, on the east and west. Bring the south eave out as a covered deck.

In rainy climates wide eaves will protect the siding tremendously. 2′ up to 3′ works well. For very rainy climates, or for clay-plaster siding (for straw-bale homes) I would extend the eaves out close to 4′.

In cold climates make sure the eaves aren’t too big! Eaves will take out a large amount of solar gain. They block a lot of sunlight, and with high windows the top of the view is the underside of the eave (the soffit). Even in cold climates the south eave can be extended, for the winter sun should be low enough to come in underneath.


Fascia boards are the edge of the roof. ‘California-Style’ is no fascia at all, nor any soffit boards –just let the rafter tails run free. This makes good sense in warm, dry climates because it saves a lot of money. Soffits protect the exposed tails against the weather and also help insulate the home. The fascia is the outer edge of this system so it is necessary where climate is an issue.

Wide fascia makes the roof look thick. If you would your home to look especially cozy and solidly built, a roof that appears thick will create this impression. For wide fascia I use 2×10 framing lumber as ‘fascia backer.’ Then I nail a 1×2 strip at the top and a 1×8 cedar board near the bottom of this backer (2″ overlap minimum, I’d try to get 3″ overlap.) I cover the gap between these with 1×8 cedar. This gives a stepped style of fascia. The added shadow line from the step adds perceived substance to the roof.

If you’d rather save the money use pre-painted fascia backer from the lumber-yard and leave it at that.



There’s Plumbing, Electrical, Heating/Cooling, and the new one, Communications.

Plumbing affects the design of the house far more than the others, mostly because of the need to run vent pipes up through the roof and because of the cost of unnecessary plumbing lines. It’s best to keep the bathrooms near each other, and the kitchen and laundry too if possible.

Dryers work best on outside walls so that the hot-air vent can travel directly outside.

All plumbing fixtures need to be vented through the roof. This is no trouble with one-story buildings. In a two story house, make sure the vents can travel easily through the upstairs walls into the attic. Incoming water lines should not be placed in external walls or they might freeze. Also they get in the way of insulation.

I try to keep all the plumbing near the center of the house, but all in all I’d rather pay the extra money if the design is best served by separated plumbing, especially these days where plastic pipes make the job considerably quicker than in the past.

Hot water heaters should be as centrally located as possible, I think laundry rooms are a good place for them.


The best place for an electrical panel is 1) on an outside wall 2) centrally located 3) near the kitchen. All three places are optional but helpful. Remember that access to the panel is defined by code and requires 3′ clear space in front of the box.

I try to design electrical plans in conjunction with the electrician. We walk around the framed structure and I have him mark the switches and fixtures right on the studs where they will go. The electrician will often tell me a trick or a tip that I hadn’t known or thought of. Make sure the switches aren’t behind the doorswings. 3-way switches are code wherever you aren’t forced to back-track along the same path, such as when there is an external door. Stairwells also need 3-way.

Watch out for unnecessary electrical fixtures! You can easily bust your budget with ornamental lighting.

I like to put heat-lamps in the bathrooms for a bit of immediate heat while bathing.

Heating/Cooling (HVAC)

HVAC stands for Heating-Ventilation-Air Conditioning. This field is changing quickly these days because of the growing necessity to heat and cool homes efficiently.

The choice of how to heat and cool a home is a major driver of how well the home functions.

Up here in North Idaho I use passive cooling techniques quite successfully. Well insulated walls and smaller windows towards the west will almost keep a home comfortable in these northern summers. Also, I make sure there is a clear passage between a door on the north and a door on the south. Air currents occur when there is a difference of temperature between air masses of 3 degrees or more. This happens commonly between the north and south sides of a building. This ability to vent, if done correctly, can replace the need for air conditioning in most climates. If you can heat the air on the south-side by putting a slab down to reflect heat, or if you can cool the air on the north side with shade trees or a water feature, you can increase this effect tremendously. On the south side a window can be used for this venting, but on the north side use a door, so you get the cool air that is low to the ground.

Passive heating is very important her in snow country. Because of the difference in sun angle between winter and summer, a house can be both passively cooled and passively heated.

Passive heating is all about solar gain and thermal mass. In cold climates fill the south side full of windows and make sure the overhang is deep (about 3/4 the height of the eave). This will also provide a dry space on rainy days and it should be made very accessable. Slab floors provide excellent thermal mass. Make sure they’re well insulated beneath.

Reflected light is extremely important for good solar gain. The sun is not usually warm enough to really heat a space but if you get a good reflecting wall it will often fill that discrepancy. To create a really warm living space place the inside wall no further than 16′ from the window wall, make this wall as bright and unbroken as is reasonable, and use windows that are as high as possible. The southwest is the warmest corner of a house and should be reserved for this purpose.

I often build walls around porches even when there is no structure there. Not only can I get more reflected light but these also walls help me mitigate the wind.

Don’t forget to provide easy channels for venting the bathrooms and the kitchen range. It’s much easier to line the vent pipes up parallel to the floor joists (for 2-story houses) so the pipes can run in the bays.

Forced-Air is a very common heating method and produces an even heat throughout the house. It is reasonably efficient. Because heated air has no real reason to hang around it will try its best to escape. Forced-air systems are notorious for heating crawlspaces as the air travels through not-always-airtight vent pipes. These systems heat the home relatively quickly so you can turn the heat down at night and still warm the place quickly the next morning.

Point-source Electrical. Wall heaters and baseboards make for low up-front costs, a ‘Cadet’ wall-heater costs about $200 at Home Depot. You can install an entire system for about $2000. Although this is much less efficient than a forced-air furnace system, the fact that you only need to heat the room you’re using makes this a reasonably efficient system but you have to put a sweater on just to do a load of laundry. In warm climates this system makes the most sense.

Hydronic heating systems heat with pipes filled with hot water that run in the slab or under the floor deck. This system provides the most robust heat and does so more efficiently than any other system. It’s not the air that is getting warmed, it’s the floorboards, the furniture, the carpet, the framing lumber –all the dense material. This means that the heat won’t blow away every time you open a door. Many people install the pipes in a 1-1/2″ slab of ‘lightcrete’ or ‘quickcrete.’ This seems to me the most preferable method, as opposed to pipes in a slab-on-grade or pipes stapled between the floor joists. If you wish to use the lightcrete method make sure to add 1-1/2″ to the room height by running an extra bottom plate beneath every wall. If you really want warmth, this is the way to go.

Fireplaces –It takes very little imagination to see the connection between the heart and the hearth of a home. Where music defines a tempo and works from there, architecture defines a center. The two most powerful centers in a home are the eating area and the hearth. If a home is where people gather, it is the hearth they gather around. I love wood fires and in the midst of the great north woods it makes a lot of sense in my home. I can heat my home for the price of about a gallon of gasoline (and some chainsaw maintenence!). It’s messy, and it’s a lot of work. Woodstoves are cheaper and heat the house more quickly. –Even so, I like the look and feel of a fireplace. Heating with wood takes enough effort to consider it a lifestyle choice.

Gas Fireplaces take out the hassle. I have a ‘woodstove-style’ gas fireplace as back-up heat. It costs about $1200 per year to heat my home with gas, and about $400 for heat if I buy cordwood. I have had very good luck with Quadrafire stoves. Gas fireplaces offer almost all the comfort of a wood fireplace but they are cheaper to buy and install, turn on at the push of a button, and they stay clean.


We are a wired nation now! I hesitate to describe the current technology because it’s changing quickly. Some satelite TV boxes now require two cables. I installed extra phone lines in my house (2 years ago) for internet hook-ups, but I use a cell-modem now so the phone lines don’t matter. Because information technology is still gaining in importance, call a specialist to see what you should plan for,


Designing for your Budget

Know your budget like the USO band knows the Star Spangled Banner! Backwards, one handed and upside down. There is a Budget-Breakdown form HERE. Project creep is difficult to stop once it attacks the flesh. Plan in a 7-8% contingency! If I were a first time owner builder in my area I would plan on at least $120 per square foot.

As with foreign travel, pack light so you can fill your bags with the treasures and souvineers you will collect.

This section is more detailed than most and I almost exiled it to the appendices. But it’s so darn helpful to know the actual costs of the lines you draw. A two story house makes double use of the floor and the foundation so it is very cost effective. Dormers cost about $5000 each. Numbers such as these should affect your drawings throughout the design process.

In this guide I tend to use the ‘Average Builder’s House’ –as I see it– to draw from. The information should be useful to all home designers but if you have an exceptionally small or grand home in mind then you might also benefit from the two sections near the end devoted specifically to these topics.

The plan is too big! I tell this to myself constantly as I design, no matter how large the final product is meant to be. Even Bavarian castles should be designed with this in mind.

A square foot of built space costs about $105 (in these parts), just to a basic level of quality. If I take out the space of a 3’x3′ hallway I will save about $1000. That amount would buy me a very fancy jetted bathtub. If I can shorten a standard-quality 30’x40′ house to 30’x36′, I can save over $20,000 dollars from an expected cost of $120,000.

Not only does each square-foot cost a bill, but unused spaces make a house seem colder. It allows ghosts to collect in the corners. Houses should be built like fine desks, with places for everything and no space badly used. The closer the desired fit, though, the more chance of mistakes. If you really aren’t sure if you need the space, add it.

Site and Prep Costs

Add in the estimated site costs before signing for the land!

In town, check the hook-up rates (Get to know your planning/building department! If you don’t like the people who work there, bring them donuts). Also check on home-association fees.

In the country check on the well. The cost of the last well I dug still smarts and I’m just not going to tell you how much I paid, it was almost $20,000. –The guy said he could ‘witch’ water with the best of them.

Last I heard there was a $100,000 prize, unclaimed, for anybody who could prove they could witch water. It is reported that of all the phenomena investigated, it’s the witchers who most sincerely believe they’ll get the prize. However, if you know how the land lays, if you know where the groundwater should go, then you might be able to place a well correctly. If a forked twig doesn’t seem to work for witching, then try thick-guage wire in 20″ lengths bent 90 degrees at 6″ from one end. Hold a wire in each hand and the wires (coat-hangers work) will cross when there’s water beneath you.

Rural properties often require a large expense to run electrical wire from the lot-line to the house. Running the line is simple but costs about $6 per foot (just to buy the cable).

Septic systems cost about $5000 in standard cases. Sites near water might need systems that cost $30,000 (and require a yearly maintenence contract).

If there is danger from forest fires, check what it will cost to clear a safety barrier.

If the driveway needs clearing/grading you can rent a tractor for about $250/day $1000/week. It takes awhile before the bucket controls seem natural so plan in a lot of extra time if you’re a beginner. Gravel will run about $15/yard and $100/delivery –check this for your area.

Phone lines are cheap and easy –but plan in all costs!

Check what the permit costs will be.


Bank Costs –if you go through a bank you need to add in the costs of doing so, perhaps 7-8% of the loan amount. If you don’t meet schedule they hit you again.


Building Costs

I use a figure a building cost of $120/sf (per square foot) for estimating my own projects. This can be vastly different in other locations. If you hire a contractor this figure will go up to $150/sf. This is for a very basic style of building, though I do allow myself tile bathrooms and some wood flooring. A very basic house could be built for $100/ft. In this example project I added a few extras –as always happens– and ended up at $105/sf.

By the time the landscaping and customizing gets done expect to pay another $10,000-$30,000. I’ve set the prices below to add up to about $100,000 for a basic house, so you can use these prices as percentages if you choose the cheapest options– $2000=2% of building cost, $4000=4%.

1000 sf x $100/sf = $100,000 total building cost


Excavation …………………………………………………..1000

Foundation materials are $120/cubic yard. Foundation labor is usually about $110/cubic yard. 10 feet of stemwall&footer is usually about 1 yard. Let’s make our example project be 25’x40′ (to equal 1000 sf) so there is 130 feet of stemwall. This means we need about 13 yards of concrete and it will cost 13x$230 = about $3000.


Slabs are a bit cheaper than floor decks and are great to use with radiant floor heat because of the thermal mass. Floor decks bounce a bit when you walk on them, many people with bad knees don’t like to stand on slab floors. Floor decks are also easier to plumb, and much easier to remodel. Use sand fill to bring a slab up to the correct level. Make sure you pack the sand well, you can rent a machine to do this.

The framing package includes all the lumber needed –mostly 2x studs, decking and sheathing. OSB is usually a lot cheaper than plywood. I still trust plywood more, but OSB has come a long ways because of better glues. I use OSB whenver I’m on a tight budget. Buy studs already cut to length to save labor costs –this is called ‘stud-length’ and is about 4″ shorter than full lengths. Make sure to use ‘hurricane ties’ to tie the trusses (or rafters) to the top-plates.

Framing Package………………………………………….12000

Framing labor………………………………………………12000

Truss package:

(common, scissor, parallel)……………………………..2500, 3500, 4500

At this point the building is ‘topped-out’ and tradition calls for a fir branch to be tied to the peak, and the crew boss should bring out a six-pack at the end of the day.

Roofing is usually 3-tab asphalt shingles or metal. Asphalt costs about 60% the cost of metal but is not as durable. Heavy snows will rip out asphalt, high winds can blow them off. I have 3-tab here in the snowy northern mountains and it works just fine. Roofing is dangerous work and even the thought of accidents costs money. I usually hire the job out. Roofs are measured in squares, which is a 100sf area. It takes 3 or 4 bundles of 3-tab to cover 1 square

Roofing –Asphalt, Metal………………………………..4000, 6000

I like having a lot of windows in my home. I use almost double the average. Give me a choice between sunlight and gold and I’ll take the sunlight. I set my houses up so that the separation between inside and out strengthens and fades as a way to balance the two human yearnings: for places of safe refuge and for places of wide prospects. I buy vinyl windows to keep the costs down. I’d use wood-clad if money were no issue. The estimate here is for a well-windowed house. If you truly hang with the Goths you can take this number down about 30-50%

Windows –vinyl, wood-clad, wood…………………..5000, 10,000, 20,000

I also like a lot of doors, with lots of glass. Fiberglass is a great option. Front doors can be extremely expensive. I pay about $700 for a single (exterior) door and $1400 for a double. Interior doors are $70 for the cheap ones and $200 for the nice ones off the shelf. Closet doors are expensive because doors are priced by panels, bi-folds tend to have four. Doorknobs are about $16 for interior, $32 for exterior plus $16 for a deadbolt.



Wrap the house with house-wrap (you can use tar paper but it takes much more time). Now the place is ‘dried-in’ and its time for the second 6pack for the crew. My selections would add up to $43,500 so far (Boy I like those parallel trusses!).

Siding can empty a wallet.

Siding is measured in square feet. Give our example house 9′ walls, it has a 130′ perimeter so there’s 1170 square feet of wall, minus window/door openings. If you cut a corner out of a building (a great way to protect a porch from the wind!) then you will reduce the square footage of the house –but you do not reduce the perimeter, or the square footage, of the walls. So cut-outs cost extra. So do pop-outs.

The least expensive, least fuss option is concrete lapboard. It looks clean-cut and it wears well. It looks to me a little too clean-cut.

My favorite wood siding is cedar shiplap which appears as flat boards separated by a groove. It’s more expensive than normal lap, where each board lifts up over the one beneath it. Cedar shingles look great but are also expensive. My second and third houses were all cedar-shingle. Then I started worrying about the fire-hazard. If you ever need good kindling, cedar will do the trick. Take a lot of care choosing the stain. Use a bright stain for shady parcels. The cheapest way to do wood siding is wood panels, to which you can add battens for a board-and-batten look. To save even more money, if you use wood panels (rough-cut T1-11) it’s possible to drop the OSB sheathing beneath. Wood siding runs about $8-12 per sf.

Stucco is great but is also expensive at $8-15 per sf of wall space. Cement-board with a thin coat of stucco is a good cheap alternative but you’ll want to caulk the joints, or cover them with a batten.

Stone can capture anybody’s heart, and bank account. Fortunately stone looks best when mixed with other sidings. It can be used to make the house seem heavy at the bottom. $20/sf is a very round guess at cost.

I try to mix siding styles considerably. Monotypes can seem overwhelming no matter how beautiful the logs or shingles or color of stucco. Use heavier elements down low. Shingles beneath the gables can set off a simple house very nicely. Use a wainscotting of wood or stone and then perhaps switch to a vertical-line board and batten. Do a small pop-out all in stone. The options are endless and should be well explored. Use the siding style to differentiate elements of the home –gables, entries, floor levels. Don’t meet two siding styles at an outside corner, make them meet on an inside corner or at a ‘significant’ place along a wall, such as where one wing meets another.

Mixing siding styles, in deliberate patterns, will make the house seem like it’s more carefully thought-out. Each element gets its own set of clothes to wear, gets to have some identity of its own.

If we use, on our project home, a plank wainscotting (chink the seams!), and then a fake board-and-batten, and then shingles under the gables, I’d hope to keep the cost at about $10/sf.


We’re halfway through the project.

Total cost so far is about $58,000

Insulation is usually cheaper to hire out because they get good deals on the product.


Utilities are very expensive. Get three bids for each job!

Plumbing probably works out to about $1000 per fixture but check you local listings. Plastic pipes make plumbing a lot easier in than in the past but it is still wise to collect the plumbing together when possible. Don’t stack toilets directly above each other, though, because you need room for the vents.



There are three typical heating systems: electrical point heat like baseboards, forced air, and hydronic.

Point-heat, forced-air, hydronic………………..1200, 6000, 8000

Drywall is relatively cheap but it is labor intensive. As a quick rule of thumb it might be $6 per square foot of floorspace for a simple home but vaulted ceilings and extra internal walls add to this). For our project house I’ve put in parallel trusses so I’d better estimate $7/sf. This should include one coat of paint.



Floor coverings should be well shopped, there’s a lot of price variation. I buy cheap carpet and I am quite satisfied by it, but make sure the padding is adequate. Carpet costs me $3/sf.

By the time wood or tile floors are installed I estimate them at $10/sf but a tradesman will charge about $15. Materials usually total to about $7/sf.

If we carpet 70% of our project house we’ll pay $2100+$3000


Cabinets, countertops, and appliances………………………….9000

Total cost……………………………………………………………………………………….105,000

I added hydronic heat, parallel trusses, and extra windows. It’s helpful to keep the ‘luxuries’ separate in the budget –even when you just couldn’t do without them. This helps me keep tighter control over the (always lengthy) list of extras.

There’s still trim to be done, decks and porches to be built, landsaping, custom painting. But it’s a nice house, well heated with tile in the kitchen and baths and a nice vaulted ceiling. By the time all the ‘extras’ are done the cost will be up to $120,000 but I’m used to doing these things over time on my own places.

with all the thousands of dollars flying around a building project it’s easy to loose track of pennies but they add up.



A lot of the sustainable building products out there seem to me like fad diets, we just don’t have the technology to know why these new products are bad as well. Honest sustainability comes from frugality and durability.

Build small, build to last, squander no resource. I believe in the power of technology but when it comes to building materials I am convinced that in order to get –1)locally produced materials to reduce transportation costs 2)toxic-free materials that don’t rely on parts-per-million levels to pass safety standards and 3)extensively field tested materials that builders can rely on– traditional materials are where we will find our answers. People have been living in some darn stylish dwellings since even before the Andy Griffith Show aired, and that was in black and white. Clay, lime, willow branches, bamboo, straw, stone, burlap-cloth, adobe, tile, brick –I think our salvation has always been with us. We just need to figure out the best ways to stack the pieces.

The wall cavities inherent in stick-frame design are not energy efficient, they act as chimneys during house fires, and provide places for mice and mold. I much prefer the block wall systems –Rastrablock, Faswall, and my personal favorite, strawbale. All three systems are good. Rastra and Faswall are both concrete based. Concrete production, so I hear, causes 20% of the greenhouse gases that our society produces. Strawbales covered with clay is as efficient and organic as any building system I’ve ever seen. It is long lasting (if protected from rain), there are strawbales in Europe that are getting through their second century of existence just fine. Both clay and straw have very low production energy costs. Keep in mind that the straw works mostly as insulation, the two inches of clay creates the structural stability, and it does an excellent job of it. To build to code, however, a timber building frame is required.

Sustainability in design calls for natural products, stay away from processed materials as you might stay away from processed food. You can’t avoid them all and still live to 21st century standards. –You wouldn’t even be able to glue the plumbing vents together without Dupont’s help. Don’t get too caught up in the search for the greener product, there’s too much chaos in the marketplace and there are more important ways to spend your efforts towards sustainability.

Make sure all corners, window and door framing, and wall/floor connections are caulked. This gives you more control over the airflow. It might seem like this is insignificant but air currents begin when there’s a temperature difference of three degrees. On a 30 degree night, the forty degree difference between the inside and the outside causes enough draft to set bagpipes singing.

Make sure the house is designed to maximize passive temperature control. Modern windows are excellent at bringing light in and losing very little heat. New tinting technologies are improving windows for hot climates considerably. If you live in a hot climate ask a window dealer about tinting options.

Eaves are extremely important for thermal control. Adjust the eaves according to the latitude of the site. Always consider the reflecting walls when placing windows. Reflected light is as important as direct light, for direct light is not always strong enough on its own. A window pushed into the corner of the room will let light reflect off the adjecent wall. This is good a good set up for east and west facing windows when the reflecting wall faces south.

There are many ways to generate electricity locally –this planet veritably swims in energy. Local power bypasses the need for coal and nuclear plants, massive dams, transmission lines, etc. Solar and wind technologies are growing quickly.

Designing a very small house

Of course, the greenest way to build is to build as little as possible. We will probably never get any greener than a Native-American wigwam.

Luxury is not about floorspace, it’s about comfort. If the outdoor space is properly recognized, and interior space is used efficiently, like in a yacht or a fine desk, then a 600 sf home can be as comfortable as a 2600 sf home.

Windows and exterior doors become very important in a small home because they extend the accessable and apparent space. Open the home to the outside as much as possible.

Tall ceilings also help reduce the claustrophobia of small spaces.

In small homes, spaces need to function in more ways than one. The dining table might double as kitchen workspace. A stack washer/dryer might find its best place in the bathroom. The entryway might serve as a hallway, accessing the bedrooms and the bath.

Although two-story homes are more efficient to build, stairwells take up a lot of floorspace (almost 100sf) so in small house a ‘captain’s ladder’ to the upstairs might be the better choice. There are also pre-built staircases that are double-steep because they have cut-outs on each tread. These stairs don’t meet code in the US and must be imported. The ones I’ve seen have all been Italian-made.

Keep the plan very open so that the kitchen can ‘borrow’ space from the dining and living room, and also the other way around.

Use fold-up beds, fold-down tables, and other types of adjustable furniture. Built-in furniture can also save space, such as the Bavarian-style dining table with benches.

Replace closets with built in shelving so the wall thickness isn’t an issue.

Plan the furniture during the design process, so you know you’ll have a workable arrangement and so you can edit out any unnecessary space.

Use bed-nooks instead of bedrooms. Make sure each nook has a window and a curtain or shutter.

If you can find storage areas in the attic or beneath the floor or on high shelves or in an outside shed, make use of it!

Motor homes and yachts have been finding solutions to small-size issues for a long time. Many of these solutions work extremely well. They make good models to study.

Designing a grand house

I have a great appreciation for large houses because the successful ones are built to share. Whether it is shared by a large family or a single person who likes inviting guests, people choose to build large homes when there are a lot of people in their lives.

Don’t build a large house until the one you live in is too often packed with people. If you want to attract guests, put your money into food and finery, not square footage.

Often the temptation of a large house is not room size, but community. Be careful not to mix your dreams. If it’s community you’re after, choose your neighborhood well, build a friendly house, and experiment with wine and hors d’ourves.

A big house is uncomfortable when it’s empty. Design so that the house can always be useful, after the kids are grown. One way to do this is to divide the house so that it contains a separate apartment or two.

In large houses just as much as small ones, make sure all space is well used or the home will seem forgotten like a back alley.

I recommend radiant floor heat for large homes.

Break up large walls so the structure does not look institutional. Bays, overhangs, decks (even when they’re only 6 inches deep, as is often seen in France) and pop-outs can all be used to bring the proportions of the structure down to a more human level. Dormers and broken roof planes help to proportion large roof-lines. Pull the different elements of the building out further by switching materials and/or colors. A large house should not look like a big line-backer, it should look like a family with some adults and some children, each with some individual distinction, a collection of smaller, harmonious units that add to something greater.

Reduce any undue abruptness between materials, planes, and spaces. Soften the edges. Emphasize the progression of spaces, such as yard, coutyard, entry porch, entry, great-room, so that each builds on the last. The music of change-along-a-pathway will make the home more interesting and alive.

Give special attention to the massing of the building in relationship to the landscape, large buildings can easily overwhelm the best characteristics of the empty lot.



Drawing the final plan set

Floor plans



Foundation plan

Floor Framing

Roof Framing


I prefer to draw at 1/4″ = 1′. Extra large or extra small houses might differ. When I draw by hand I use pencil on vellum graph paper, then I put clear vellum over this and trace it with black pens, .01,.03,.05,.07 in tip size. Staedtler sells a good set. Masking tape works just fine to hold everything in place. For a drawing board I use a white melamine board from the lumber store. 18″x24″ is a good plan size for small to medium houses. Sometimes I use 24″x36″ is also common. I usually use a good metal straight-edge, a large triangle, and a small one. Most triangles have a lip to prevent ink smears –turn the triangle over if your lines don’t stay clean.

Mostly I draw on the computer. I use Chief Architect rather than AutoCad, which is much more common.

Floor plans should clearly show whether a wall is 4″ or 6″ wide. Show all door-swings. Windows usually appear as an elongated “H” inside the wall. Dimension both internal and external walls and dimension for window and wall placement. Show all appliances and kitchen cabinets. Show all decks and porches. Label all window and doors by size (3020 = 3′ wide, 2′ tall; most doors are 2668), and by type (SH=single hung, F=fixed, CAS=casement, SL=slider)

To pass code, the floor plan will need to show that the structure has enough ‘shear resistance.’ A ‘shear panel’ is at least 8′ tall, usually 4′ wide (sometimes as narrow as 2’8″), has no windows or other breaks, and is nailed solidly in place. Shear works best at corners but as long as there is one 4′ shear panel for every 20′ along the length of every exterior wall, then there should be enough shear to get the drawings permitted.

Elevations express the vertical dimensions in the building. You’ll need to show wall heights, ridge heights, and the total height from grade to peak. The elevations also show window placement. Draw the gable sides first so you’ll know the correct height of the roof.

Cross-Sections are cut-away views of the house. For simple homes all that is needed is a cross-section of one wall, to show stem wall height, the roof-to-wall connection, and all materials used –drywall, insulation, sheathing, housewrap, siding. Draw a cross section if you have a vaulted ceiling, and draw one for the stairwell if there is one. The minimum head clearance in a stairwell is 6’8″, and this is the dimension the permit officers will look for. Cross-Sections are also valuable for showing the structure because you can see how the load is transferred from the roof to the footers.

Foundation Plan

Draw the footers as dotted lines. Footers need to be 8″ deep and 16″ wide for a typical home. Stem walls are 6″ wide for one story homes but I always use 8″ stem walls to account for a second story in the unplanned future. The foundation plan needs to show the perimeter walls and also footers for all internal bearing walls and posts.

Floor decks and roofs both need to be supported, but I usually design the floor structure first. Floor spans can be 20′-24′, if you by 14″ I-joists and even more if you use floor trusses. However it is cheaper to use 11″ I-joists or 2×12 framing lumber. Because of this I try to keep the distance between the supports to about 12′.

Draw a footer 12′ or so from one of the long perimeter walls, and draw another 12′ or so from this one, until the entire floor-deck can be supported. Draw a framed half-wall (use 2×6 and call for a pressure-treated bottom plate) along the lengths of the footers. Framing is a lot cheaper than concrete stem-walls. If the basement might be prone to flooding use pressure-treated verticals as well.

Trussed roofs almost always bear on the outside walls. Let a truss-company design the trusses and tell you if further bearing is required. Use posts or bearing walls to bring the load to the crawlspace, and make sure you draw in a footer for each.

Foundation plans require a cross-section of the footer and stem wall. For typical houses #4 rebar is used both vertically and horizontally. Space the horizontals 1′ apart, 18″ for the verticals. Make sure this is clearly labeled.

Also draw in a 4″ perforated drainage pipe near the top of the footer outside the wall, and label a gravel fill around it.

Floor Framing

Show the direction the joists run and label all materials. This drawing can be combined with the foundation drawing for slab-on-fill floors. A separate drawing should be done for each floor. Typically, joists are placed 16″ on center (16″ from the center of one to the center of the next. This is abbreviated ‘o.c.’). 12″ and 24″ centers are used now and again.

Choose joist direction to reduce their span, but also to make plumbing and venting easier. Make the joists run parallel to the majority of plumbing lines so the pipes can run between the bays.

Roof Framing

To support second-story floor decks, glu-lam beams are a great option and the supplier will size them correctly for you if you give them a set of plans. Spans over 23′ become difficult quickly. Use posts or bearing walls to keep span lengths to a minimum. 8′-16′ spans are usually best.

Roof Framing

A truss company will supply this for you.

If you are hand-stacking the roof with 2x or I-joists, then you will probably need a ridge beam. again, glu-lam companies can size this for you. I often split the ridge into two beams that run parallel to each other 3 to 4 feet on either side of the ridge. It often change ceiling pitch and material for the area between the two ridges. Place posts carefully to not inhibit flow. Use posts and beams to help define different areas within the home. Ridge beams are expensive, and they’re a hassle, so I use trusses when possible. Complex roofs are sometimes better served with hand-stacking.


List all windows to be used in an easy to read chart. Do this for doors as well. If you’re a very organized person keep going –floor coverings, cabinets, plumbing fixtures, electrical fixtures– and if you number them you can refer to them by number directly on the drawings, and this saves considerable space. Schedules are also useful when it comes to shopping for products.


Age Old Wisdom

“Architecture is frozen music.” –Goethe

“Architecture is a struggle for light.” Le Corbusier

“Without symbolism there is no discourse. Without discourse there is no art.” –Bachalard

“It took me a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child.” –Pablo Picasso

“I’m glad I never learned how to paint.” –Vincent Van Gogh

“You shall not fold your wings that you may walk through doors.” –Kalil Gibhran



tags: sandpoint architecture, sandpoint home design




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