Analyzing the First Pre-Design Concepts

On Friday, I went in to Build to look at some initial “pre-design” work. What is pre-design work? Well, it’s mainly an attempt to apply some loose parameters to the project before actual schematic work begins. Things like:

“Should the garage stay where it’s at, or do you feel strongly about moving it?”

“Do you feel strongly about the location and bearing of the master suite?”

“Would you prefer the great room to be completely open or do you envision separator walls dividing the space a bit?”

To help answer these questions, Build drew up this matrix of four such questions and three possible answers to each question:

By seeing this matrix illustrated above, I was able to more clearly form opinions about what I like and what I don’t. Although it doesn’t come close to answering every design question, it doesn’t aim to. It’s designed solely to cast the boat off in the right direction.

As a further exploration of the above drawing, Build produced three rough concepts, each using a different permutation of the options above. The results are below:

I can’t say I want my house to look entirely like any of these three concepts, but seeing them drawn out helped solidify my opinions about the four questions and then some. Particularly, I’ve decided that:

  • The garage should stay where it’s at, on the south end.
  • The master suite should probably be in the middle, or the north.
  • The west facade should use integral columns and be as open as possible.
  • No decision on the horizontal separation of public and private space yet, but leaning towards a vertical separation.

In addition to that, the drawings solidified my opinion that the great room should be double-height and at the southwest side of the house.

All in all, a very useful meeting! So far so good!

19 Responses to “Analyzing the First Pre-Design Concepts”

  1. Chris Says:

    I might have missed where you said this, but are you tearing down the house that stands on the land and building a brand new one or are you using the current building as a starting point for a new design?

  2. Jacob Says:

    I was wondering the exact same thing. I just went through all the posts and couldn’t figure it out.

  3. Hey Mike,

    I’ve always wanted to build my own house, and while that doesn’t seem realistic in for awhile I’ve found this blog fascinating (as well as beautiful to look at).

    I also had the same question as the last couple of guys – I assumed you were building from scratch until I got to the last couple of entries.

  4. pitpawten Says:


    Great site layout and I especially love the running totals, definitely helps bring perspective. Any plans to include all the pricing details (property price…)?

  5. Mike D. Says:

    Good question! Technically it’s going to be a “remodel” so that the permitting is easier, but in reality it’s more like starting from “almost scratch”. I’m going to keep the foundation and the footprint, but everything else (save maybe a piece of a wall if required) will go. This subject alone is probably worth a post.

  6. Darren Says:

    Great site, Mike. I look forward to watching this project develop.

    We’ve started our own home build blog about a year ago for a similar project, but it hasn’t gone as smoothly as we would have liked. We’re currently on hold until next Spring, but check out the blog and my account for some resources.

  7. Mark Says:

    This blog has been very informative. I’m still a bit out from buying my first house, but I’ve been learning a lot from your posts! I look forward to reading about the progress!

  8. Not being familiar with dealing with architects I wondered, did you have to pay for those drafts etc?

  9. Mike D. Says:

    Steven, yes, but it’s part of the flat fee contract I signed.

  10. Ah sorry, I am a slack bugger! I should really read before commenting!

    I think I should point people to these kind of resources when they ask us to design web mock-ups before signing a contract.

  11. Mike,

    I don’t know if your into this stuff, but now is a good time to think about PV, rain harvesting and FOOD.

    It’s fairly easy to make the house off the grid and sustainable. I didn’t see too much of this talk on Build’s site. That kind of worries me. It’s the trend now and they don’t seem to be up to speed. I could be wrong, but They seem to be more attuned to aesthetics than is healthy, pun?

    A great architectural design tool is A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander. It will give you a whole new look at the design process and helps to figure out now the “corners” that you will want to change later. Also Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison will give you an insight to the potential of the property.

    Have you spent the night there yet?

    Good luck

  12. Mike D. Says:

    Allan: Oh don’t worry… I’m looking into all of that stuff. I wouldn’t say it’s “easy” to make a house off the grid, but it’s definitely possible. PV is more or less out of the question because it’s not anywhere close to cost effective yet. To power the whole house off PV, it would require somewhere in the neighborhood of a $100,000 initial investment, and it would essentially never pay itself off. Matters are even worse in the Northwest where we don’t get as much sun as hotter, sunnier locations.

    You can do solar-thermal instead and just heat your hot water tank, and that’s not a bad option at all, but I’m probably going to go a step further and do geothermal to both heat and cool the entire house as well as the hot water. That’s more like $15,000-$20,000 and should pay itself off within 10 years or so. I’m not so much concerned with immediate return on investment, but to pay $100,000 for a technology that is bound to get much much cheaper is not smart, in my opinion.

    As for rain harvesting, I’m just starting to look into that. And with regard to “FOOD”, do you mean growing your own food? If so, yeah, I plan to have some fruits and vegetables growing in the yard. Already have an apple tree and a peach tree.

  13. Sounds like you’re on the right path. Don’t give up on PV. The trick is the envelope first. When you combine all the available techs together like geothermal, etc, it’s not a problem to get off the electrical grid. It certainly won’t cost 100,000 unless you’ve got a monster of a house. Then again it depends on some form of life style change and the area.

    Rain catchment is one of the initial concerns when starting the design phase. “Where’s the cistern go?”

    Here’s a good site in Portland.

    I think it’s the largest Permaculture group in the states. Lots of good resources.

    Here’s what I’m working on in Florida. It is going to be completely off the grid. Water purification, waste management, food, the whole bit.

    Happy building!

  14. I’m not so much concerned with immediate return on investment, but to pay $100,000 for a technology that is bound to get much much cheaper is not smart, in my opinion.

    I looked into that as well for my home, and I have to agree. There is no way in 5 to 10 years it is going to cost $100,000 to do that. Wait it out a couple of years. It isn’t like you can’t add that stuff later.

    Although, and I am no architect, but if I were building a place of my own, I think I would want a recessed roof or something similar so I could add the panels later when they become cheaper, but that they still aren’t visible. Not sure if that would work, but just an idea?

  15. Kyle Says:


    Great site! I’ve always been interested in building construction and remodeling, so this is definitely going into my RSS reader.

    I saw you were looking to have a “green focus” but not necessarily completely off the grid. You might want to look at some of the designs of these guys based in Austin, TX. Barley & Pfeiffer Architects were the architects behind the zero energy home in Dallas, TX and have also been featured on a season of “This Old House”. They did a “green remodel” of a house in Austin and it was really interesting to watch.

    Good luck on your project and I’m looking forward to reading all about it!

  16. Zach Says:

    Hi Mike,

    Cool blog, but I’m wondering if you’re going to put up any photos of the existing house. I think I just looked through everything and didn’t see any. The view is tantalizing. I know you’re tearing down most of the house, but it’d be nice to see where you’re starting from. Also, are you going to include the property price in the final tallies for total cost, or no?

  17. Mike D. Says:

    Andy: Yeah, I’m probably going to have the roof pre-wired for solar, in case I eventually decide to put some panels up. That shouldn’t be very expensive to do.

    Kyle: Thanks for the link. Good stuff.

    Zach: Yep, I’ll put some “before” photos up eventually. As for listing the price of the land, I’d rather not at this time. I’m sure you could find out using tax records and various mapping technologies online, but it’s not something I really want to publicize.

  18. Don Says:

    Well Mike, good luck with your project.

    A friend of mine (former client) has been in the build it yourself market for years. He has written and updated a book many times:

    I know he has worked at various times to have on-line utilities to help his readers but I have not looked at his stuff in a while. He claims he can save you 25% just by reading his book. So if you have 58,000 committed, you’ll owe me half of the $14,000 you are about to save by reading his book. Hah!


  19. Rich Says:

    Mike, I just completed a remodel + addition to my home. I’m sure I went more hands on than you may wish to do as the only subcontractors I hired were for, concrete, plumbing, HVAC, exterior stucco, roofing & drywall finishing. The rest of the trades involved I performed myself.
    Originally I was not going to do as much, actually just the electric because I really like the electric layout to work exactly the way I want with plenty of alternatives; but it took six months to get through plan check which really forced me to take on being my own contractor in order to stay on budget & time.
    I will not belabor the six-month plan check time other than to say it was an attitude problem between both my architect & the assigned plan checker. Any way enough set up.
    Here are a few pieces of info that should be helpful in getting through the process:

    1. Don’t let anyone on-site no matter who they are create an attitude problem when ever there is an inspector present
    2. I know this will sound a bit harsh; but make sure that your architectural plans are very specific right down to the smallest detail so that there can be as little misinterpretation as possible. A question will always arise about “what is meant here.” Also make sure that the architect’s design can be built which I realize you have already indicated. This means that you can keep “Change Orders” to a minimum. A “Change Order can be as simple as changing a paint color or as complex as I want the door here instead of there. The first is cheap the second is usually very expensive during the construction phase & may require resubmittal to plan check.
    3. When you interview contractors make sure that they will build the house that both you & the architect envision. Too many contractors want to fall back on what they are used to doing. So if a contractor says, “can’t we do it this way? Run like hell as fast as you can to the next interview.
    4. You will probably hire a general contractor; but I strongly suggest that you have a good working knowledge of your plans & even though the general contractor is the guy with the overall view keep your eye on things. I’m not advocating that you will tell him how to do his job only what you expect which also means don’t ask any tradesperson hired by the contractor to do anything, go through the contractor.
    5. Above I said, “keep your eye on things.” What I’m getting at is to make sure that when you are at a point in the construction process of calling for an inspection, that everything is ready for that inspection or group of inspections. Normally the building department in their initial fee will allow three inspection visits for the same issue & after that an extra charge is added for each visit concerning the issue. You really want to pass each inspection on the first visit because unless the inspector(s) know that the work of the contractor you pick is always correct they will be very wary until they convince themselves that the work is being properly executed. BTW inspectors usually have what is called “red line” authority which means that in the field they can make a change to the original plans permanent; you just have to present the case well which means, do not ever ask an inspector how to do what you want to do to make the change, instead present the change that you wish to make as a challenge that has been bugging you & include your solution then shut up & let the inspector work it out. My experience has been they say, “do it.”
    6. There can be added inspection fees; but unless you & your architect agree up front that in order to get the finished product you want that you are willing to pay the extra fee(s) there is no reason to have to do this. A couple of examples are: if there is any on-site welding an inspector must be present for as long as it takes to do the jog at the hourly rate set by the building department. If there is a need to use say “Simpson” epoxy to secure bolts into concrete then an inspector at the hourly rate is usually required to observe the work & he’ll be looking to make sure all of the dust is blown out of the hole drilled into the concrete for said bolt.
    7. It helps to do a critical path study of your project, something I’m sure you are familiar with; because there are several trades that can be accomplished at the same time rather than executing the entire process in a linear fashion employ an orchestrated method. Saves time & money.
    8. I haven’t a clue from what I have read on your blog of what you plan for your budget; but it seems that it might be a good chunk of change. You might think of building in a bonus for the contractor to come in on-schedule that also includes a penalty for going over schedule. This really depends more on the complexity of your project & the size of your budget; because otherwise it can have a down side of setting up mistrust between you & your contractor. Sort of like a prenup.

    Mike, I’ve been long winded enough. I started out to add three quick items & got on a roll. If anything I’ve said brings any questions to mind feel free to ask. The construction process is a lot of fun.