Saturday, September 24, 2011

How to design your own house

Did you know that you could buy software that facilitates creating the blueprint of your house without the help of an architect?  You can.  That's how Mark and I designed the addition to our house in the winter of 2005.

We discussed the pros and cons of a major renovation/expansion project.  Can we take this project on?  Should we tear down the house and start over, or can we work with the existing structure?  How much extra space do we want to add?  Should we use the land on the south side of the house to add square footage without sacrificing our backyard?  What's our budget?  How much of the work can be done ourselves?  How long will it take?

During the Summer of 2005, our next-door neighbors, whose house was the identical twin to ours, put a major addition on their home.  They worked with a local general contractor to design and build the house.  We watched carefully, and Mark asked many questions, as the contractors built a full story upstairs and converted a main level bedroom into their dining room.

We were fortunate that our neighbors took on this project just before ours got underway.  Mark could learn more about the building codes and regulations affecting renovated homes in Minneapolis, and we could borrow ideas from their choices.

Our project would include a 32' by 10' addition on the side of our house for an expansion to our basement, a new kitchen and dining room on our main level, and a master bedroom and living room on the upper level.  The half-story would be dismantled and in its place, a full second story, including the expansion on the side of the house, would be built.

The biggest challenge was the layout of our new kitchen.  We knew we wanted a half-hexagonal breakfast nook off the back of our house and a mud room and pantry where the existing kitchen was.  Apart from that, we were stumped.  A board member of the nonprofit where I worked was an interior designer, and she told me of a special event through which you could have a free 45-minute consultation with a designer.  I signed up right away.

Mark and I met with the designer regarding our kitchen space.  Those 45 minutes were invaluable to us.  She sketched a few options for us, helping us to visualize the space available and see how an island could help us maximize our counter space.  We then took the plans to Home Depot and worked with a designer there to insert our chosen cabinets and countertops into the space.

We discussed many options for the layout of the second level.  We knew we wanted a master bedroom suite, two additional bedrooms and a laundry room on that level.  Planning the space while accommodating the existing staircase and maximizing the use of existing plumbing lines for the laundry and bathrooms upstairs was tricky.  But we worked it out and are happy with our plans.

Once we settled on the plans for our house, we worked with a drafter to ensure that the official house plans that Mark would submit to the City of Minneapolis for approval contained all the necessary documentation.  The drafter was straight out of the 1970s, even resembling Greg Brady from The Brady Bunch.  He chose to draw the plans up by hand, rejecting the advances of technology in his field.  But his final product was accurate, detailed, and exactly what we needed to get our approval from the City.

Mark was pleasantly surprised when he took the plans to the City.  The project was approved on the spot and he could start building that day if desired.  Apparently in Australia, these projects can be delayed for months by the government.

Anyone who's taken on a major project like this knows that no matter how much you try to plan and how many delays to anticipate, there will always be setbacks you didn't predict.  Mark put together a careful timeline for the work to get done and we finalized our budget for materials and labor.  We felt prepared for this major undertaking.  But we learned quickly how timelines and budgets become obsolete!

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