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We Design Our House April 13, 2013

Posted by ficial in house building.
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We’ve been living in our house for about 2 1/4 years now (same age as our son) and have been very happy with the way it turned out. The design process was long and intensive, but in the end seems to have worked. We pretty much made up our process as we went along, though it was a bit less haphazard than that sounds. We’re both fairly analytically inclined, and have read a number of design books on a wide range of realms (pottery, urban planning, architecture, landscaping, forestry, woodworking,…). From our background and reading and discussions we concluded that good design processes at their core do two essential things. First, they determine the intersection of values, goals/features, functionality, and complexity (where complexity encompasses cost, resources, and difficulty of implementation). Second, they provide a relative metric for prioritizing development – that is, for any two aspects of the project there is away of determining which one is more important. We created our design process based on those two points.

In brief summary, the process we used boils down to:

  1. Articulate – brainstorm; clearly list values (abstract ideals), features (specific elements, often measurable/concrete), and functions (things that need to be done supported)
  2. Analyze – determine how the above relate to each other; use numbers; trim and/or add items as needed
  3. Arrange – group functions, then relate the function groups to each other; use that as the basis for layouts
  4. Adjust – starting with the basis as representing rooms/areas, push, pull, split, and join based on the values and features
  5. Appraise – determine whether a given design is ultimately acceptable; re-consider the numbers assigned to values and features; if a design does not work, either adjust it further or start again with the layout basis
  6. Accept – decide that a given design is good enough; make sure it’s actually doable (i.e. check that it won’t fall down and can be built within budget)

(okay, so I’m a sucker for alliteration)

In rather more detail….

Our first step was to create a list of the values we cared about. These are the intangibles, subjectives, and other fuzzy goals. We did this with an initial brainstorming session of about an hour plus additional ideas and refinements over the next week (though in a sense we did it in various conversations and day dreams over 5+ years, or in our heads over our lifetimes). A value would be a single word or short phrase, with 1-3 sentences detailing/expanding the idea. After a week we revisited our ideas and trimmed and combined to create set of 15 values:

  • Beauty: It’s important that things be pretty; aesthetics counts, not for everything, but for something.
  • Being Outside: We like being outside, for reasons both physical and spiritual/mental.
  • Choice/Freedom: Within limits, do what we want. Not unduly tied down/constrained by our home/yard.
  • Comfort: Most physical comfort. Good food, comfy temperature, no bugs, etc.
  • Community: Family, friends, neighbors, fellow residents of the town, county, state, nation, world, watershed, and bioregions.
  • DIY: We derive joy and satisfaction from doing things ourselves, even when it’s not necessarily the most efficient/effictive approach.
  • Eco-integration: The house and grounds and residents are a part of the local eco-system.
  • Environmental Stewardship: Taking care of the local and larger environment, making it better/healthier, preserving it for the future
  • Fun: Having fun is not being happy, but it IS a PART of being happy.
  • Health: Mental and physical health: exercise, nutrition, safety, peace of mind, anti-stress
  • Learning: We like both learnign and knowing stuff.
  • Positive Legacy: For future generations and residents.
  • Preparedness: Future-aware, mindful of what will and may come. Preparing for possible and unavoidable life changes.
  • Privacy: Both from locals and from family/friends.
  • Self Sufficiency: But not to the point of cutting off the rest of the world.

We waited a bit to let our heads clear, then did a similar sort of brainstorming session for goals/features. These are specific aspects / elements we would like to be present in the finished house. Our features list ran to 52 items:

  • Annuals gardens
  • We have sufficient and appropriate space for our hobbies
  • We grow/raise/forage much of our own food
  • Long term timber planting
  • Fungiculture
  • We perform horticultural/fungicultural experiments and research
  • Design around solar more than other local energy sources
  • Maple syrup (harvesting sap, boiling to syrup)
  • Others’ waste is our resource
  • Local materials used preferentially
  • Wood lot large enough to provide all heating needs, with a buffer.
  • Both private and public inviting areas
  • We have a variety of decorative plants and hardscape
  • Divisions of wild and civilized – clear what is ours
  • Fun/silly (fantasy nature trail, art (eg giant chair)
  • Our land has a style/flavor that we enjoy
  • Streams are good
  • Aesthetically and practically not car dominated
  • Yard/land has large and small art
  • Expose infrastructure, hide services
  • Good views (peaceful, inspiring, alive)
  • We like outbuildings
  • We have comfortable outdoor space
  • A place to be outside while it’s raining but remain dry
  • market gardening an option
  • Injury and old age friendly
  • Consider garden/yard maintenance: total time (more than a little, but not too much), total fussing (some for a few plants), consider peak times and other fluctuating time demands, what kinds of garden work do we prefer?dislike?
  • We can travel/go on vacations (a week or more, but less than a month)
  • Possible rental potential
  • Our land/home is adaptable and/or planned for changes in our life
  • Debt free
  • Non-wage income sources/options
  • Kid friendly (fun, educational, safe, not poisonous)
  • Variety of fruits and nuts for fresh eating and preserving
  • Varmint control (micro, macro and mega)
  • Comfortable year round (house and land/yard)
  • We have leisure time.
  • We want people to visit, but not for too long
  • Guests (short and long term) like visiting us
  • Potential for long term guests and relatives
  • Compatible with the camp up the road
  • Compatible with area population growth
  • Minimize waste output
  • Much diverse habitat
  • We use water wisely
  • Bats/bat habitat
  • Bird houses (fowl & wild birds)
  • Hedging bets on climate (drought, flood, fire, heat, cold)
  • Durable – build for the long term (stable design, the essential parts will work indefinitely with reasonable maintenance)
  • Diversity is very important, plant wise and other
  • Minimal imported energy needs/use
  • SCIENCE! Observe & record, plots, labels, sensors, place to do analysis

We then put our values and features in a big matrix in a spreadsheet – values as the column heading and features as the row headings. For each feature we read across and put a 1 in the column if that feature contributed significantly to that value. Sums across then indicate the breadth of support the feature has for our values and thus gives a rough metric for comparing importance of features, and sums down indicate a depth of support for a given value and thus gives a rough metric for comparing importance of values. After that we took another couple of weeks break to mull things over and tweak numbers and weightings a bit.

The last major brainstorming step was coming up with the set of functions. We kicked this off with an hour or so of jotting down ideas on note cards, and kept adding to the pile over the course of a week or so. These are very short descriptions of things that we wanted or needed to do. E.g. cook and bake at the same time and with multiple people working at once, store the trash between trips to the transfer station, support recycling, have a place for the cat litter, host a food-oriented gathering of 15+ people, store and present our library of 2000+ books, and so on. We came up with MANY functions, from necessary to frivilous. Then we spent a long eveing doing a big sort. The functions got put into 3 piles. The first pile was the essential functions and included things like sleeping space, cooking, etc. The second pile was things that we cared about a lot but weren’t REALLY a necessity for having a house (e.g. a place to start seeds in the spring, a place for guests to sleep, etc.). The third pile was things that would be nice to have but we wouldn’t be too disappointed if they didn’t make it. Technically there was also a fourth pile of things we decided we didn’t care about, but we just tossed those in the recycling. Some functions were easy to place, but many were part-way between two piles. To decide which pile to put the liminal functions in we referred to our value-feature matrix to see the relative importance of the various values and features to which that function related.

The next step, a couple of nights later, was to collect the functions into related groupings – e.g. ‘a place to get dressed’ and ‘a place to store clothes’ would go together. First we did the groupings for the essential functions. Then we tried to fit the desired functions into those groupings (and did some reorganizing as we went). Then we went through our nice-to-have functions into those groups, with minimal additional reorganizing. At the end of this we had our functional clusters, which began to give us a picture of what rooms / areas our house would have.

The next session we did a quick re-check of the groupings, did a little reorganizing, and created cluster cards. A cluster card had a title (e.g. ‘master bedroom’, ‘group C’, ‘laundry’, etc.) and a list of the functions – at this point we stopped working with the individual function cards. We then explored relationships among the clusters. E.g. the laundry is linked to the bedrooms (where the undressing functions reside) and the outdoors (where the air-drying function resides). Some links were based on the functions in the clusters, while others were informed by our features and values. We did this by laying out all the cluster cards and moving them around, using distance to indicate degree of linkage (farther apart meant less linked). We took snapshots and notes about our results, then put the cluster cards away for the night. We repeated the cluster relations exercise a few times before we settled on an arrangement that satisfied us. Once the clusters were arranged it was a straightforward step to drawing lines between nearest neighbors, which indicated how the rooms in our house would be arranged/connected, or at least what the arrangement priorities would be when placing the rooms.

The actual layout began with the cluster relations as rooms and the connections between them as doorways and halls. That starting layout was then pushed, pulled, and twisted as we applied constraints and principles of efficient space use, passive solar design, monetary resources, required services, and, for want of a better description/name, human experience design. The first three are fairly straightforward to understand and apply. For efficient space use we looked to minimize pure-transit space and to assess objectively the space actually needed for the functions assigned to each room/realm. This was a bit tricky on the technical side, but mostly just a physical puzzle. Passive solar design basically boils down to 1) good solar orientation, 2) lots of south-facing glazing (at least, for passive solar heating, which we needed) and correspondingly little north-facing glazing, 3) sun-accessible thermal mass to soak up the heat, and 4) good insulation and a tight shell. Monetary resources were simply savings + income + loans. Required services refers to things like making sure sewer, water, electricity, are available where needed, as well as things like a vent for the dryer, a chimney for the woodstove, etc.

Human experience design is bringing intention to the human experience of being in a space/structure. This is what gives a building its character / feeling. In our values and features we had a number of items pertaining to the experience factor – e.g. goth private and public inviting areas, good views – but little initial idea of how to accomplish/realize them. In our readings and research related to this we also came upon a several of other ideas / concepts / design principles which we adopted. Since this post is mostly about the process of design I won’t go into detail on this topic. However, if you’re interested in it, here are some of the books we found especially useful/relevant/inspiring:

We also did an exercise where we listed all the houses and other structures that we’d been in and could clearly picture and discuss, and what about each of those houses felt good to us and in what way, and which elements of those houses contributed to those feelings and how/why. After a while, with the readings and the exercise, we felt we had some decent grasp of some ways to generate / evoke the experience we wanted to have in our home.

We came up with a number of theoretically viable designs before we settled on the one that lead to our current home. Each time we came up with something that looked workable we held it up to our values and goals and double-checked both that it sufficiently met them, and that we felt those goals and values still applied. Some major decisions that lead to new layouts:

  1. Small-to-medium house rather than tiny house – our hobbies require significant infrastructure, we have a good sized collection of books, and we wanted to have kid
  2. No earth roof – after seriously considering one design we decided that the technical challenges of building an earth roof for a hoped-to-be-200+-year-structure were just a little too much. There are certainly ways to do that, but we felt that those ways would too heavily impact other values and features.
  3. No earth berming – we weighed the technical and design challenges of berming and eventually decided that we could get much the same benefit through other means (mainly serious insulation amd serious thermal mass) and ditching the berming offered many benefits (e.g. exit-capable windows in every room, more light, less worry about water infiltration, simpler structural requirements)
  4. Willing to hire someone for some of the construction and to take on significant debt – this was a really tough choice / decision. Being willing to take on lots of debt meant that we could make a lot of capital-intensive investments which we expected to pay off in the long term (e.g. even more insulation, active solar home heating and DHW system, standing seam metal roof), and hiring a contractor meant a lot less stress. We were at a point where we could have quit our jobs and worked on the house full time, or hired someone else to deal with maor parts. After doing the calculations we determined that we’d actually save/make more money by continuing in our current jobs. In retrospect, our calculations have have been off… but we’re still happy with the house we have.

It was very, very useful and important to make quick 3D mock-ups of our designs in SketchUp (http://www.sketchup.com/), a free and easy-to-learn-and-use lightweight CAD program. Having a 3D model both let us get a much better sense of what it would be like in a given space, and highlighted structural issues that weren’t as readily apparent on paper – one initially-promising design was discarded because the 3D mock-up revealed that a major beam would have to cross the stairway at about 4 feet over the steps. We also ran designs by many friends and family to get critical feedback. Having lots of other people looking at designs and raising questions and/or making suggestions was vital – we certainly didn’t incorporate all others ideas, but some made it in after due consideration.

Eventually, we settled on a final design. Final-ish, anyway. At that point we brought in some professionals to do some sanity checks and maybe make additional suggestions. We talked first to a general contractor (whom we eventually hired) for general advice/ideas (a few of which we followed; in retrospect we should have ignored a couple of them (mainly ones related to design / human experience), but others were in fact quite useful (in the technical building realm) – lack of actual experience can be a real hamper in figuring out which professional advice can be safely ignored/discarded), and then to a timber framing company to ensure our house would actually stand up (we hired that company to procure and cut the beams, which our GC then assembled (with both of us working as assistants / peons on his crew)).

From brainstorming values to the truly final design of our home took probably about 18-24 months (my memory is hazy on the timing details). The first part (articulate, analyze, and arrange) took probably 2 months. most of the remaining time was all about looping through the adjust-appraise cycle. The final month or two dealt with incorporating feeback from the professionals (e.g. in our first final design we’d conservatively calculated 10 maximum foot spans, but the timber frame maker was able to extend that to 16, which changed the post locations and thus some of our wall locations).

Overall, it was a great experience in which we learned a lot (e.g. never start your home building project in New England in October), and now we live in the house of which we hadn’t before realized we’d always dreamed.

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