Recently a friend asked me to help him figure out the proper size for a family room addition he was designing. He was looking for some "rules of thumb" that would guarantee a comfortable, "architecturally-correct" space – a short cut to a good design, because lot of money was at stake and he didn't want to do it wrong.
You might be surprised to hear (from me, anyway) that much of what you need to get good design is something you (the non-architect!) already have – the ability to do a little research; plenty of patience; knowledge of your own personal comfort; and reasonably good taste.
There's no secret formula that guarantees a successful design, but follow my four "rules of thumb" and you'll be well on your way to better design.
Rule #1: Good Research Leads to Good Design
Before any real design work can begin, you need to have a thorough understanding of the "problem".
It starts with researching your building site; locating other buildings on or near the site; mapping out the best and worst views, noting the climate and sun angles throughout the year, measuring the slope, and anything else that might affect your homes' design.
Simply walking your site at different times of the year and in different weather will tell you a great deal about how your house might fit, and how the design should respond to the conditions of the site.
The other part of what you need to do is less tangible – writing down your dreams and desires. But a little research saves the day here, too. Most bookstores have large racks of home design and construction and decorating magazines and they're full of product ads, decorating articles, and project reviews – all stuff you can use to prime your design pump.
Better yet, do some online research - there are plenty of home design websites out there that will help you narrow down your tastes. One of my favorites is Houzz.com.
So get started on this right now - purchase a big stack of magazines; grab the scissors and start clipping everything that remotely appeals to you. Organize your clippings by room and put them in file folders. Now you've got yourself a "swipe file" to help you define your tastes, keep track of your ideas, and communicate your tastes to whoever's going to help you get this project designed and built.
Rule #2: Start Slow
Yeah, I know you're excited – you've been thinking about this for months – planning, dreaming, collecting ideas, visiting other homes and generally gearing up to get started on the design.
But there's danger in arriving at a solution too soon. As designs begin taking shape, they become more "real" and more difficult to change or even discard completely – something you have to be willing to do.
A slow start means keeping the design "loose" and deferring any irrevocable decisions until you've looked at lots of options.
Keep things in the "brainstorming" stage as long as possible…keep your sketches loose…be open to change on a whim.
And stay away from those "home design" computer programs – anything your draw in a program looks far more finished than it really is. This is a time for exploring ideas, not for completing the design.
Rule #3: Design From The Inside Out
Rule #3 is the one my friend with the family room addition needed the most. There's no perfect size, for his room or for yours.
Too many homes are designed from the outside first, leaving awkwardly sized rooms inside. But that's exactly backwards; good design should fit you, not the other way around – you're a unique individual with unique needs.
Designing from the inside can mean something as small as making sure that your bedroom fits your king-size bed without blocking the window, or as large as deciding whether you really need a dining room, living room, and other "formal" spaces in your house.
But mostly it's about figuring out how you'll use your rooms and getting your furniture placed in them – and then designing the spaces to fit. You can start working that out on paper with scale cutouts of your furniture or even by putting some chairs out in the yard and moving them around (a trick pros use, including me!).
That way you'll be sure everything's been accounted for, and reduce "left over" space.
Rule #4: Simpler is Easier – and Better – and more Affordable
Put that Architectural Dictionary away! Good design is almost always simple design – neat, uncluttered, simple geometry, good proportions, and appropriate details.
The most iconic American house styles are the simplest forms; they're still around after nearly 400 years on this continent.
One of the reasons is that simple forms enclose more space within a smaller perimeter (remember 8th grade geometry?). That makes simpler forms less expensive to build.
Inexperienced home designers often try to make up for their lack of understanding of the subtleties of simpler forms and details by artificially complicating the footprint and elevations of a design, or by making the house bigger (we don't do bigger on this blog!).
And don't be fooled by what you see at the home shows; keep it simple, keep it restrained, and you'll have a better design.
When I ran these ideas past my friend working on the family room, he took them to heart and reconsidered his entire design. In the end, he designed a smaller addition than he'd originally proposed and saved quite a bit of money.
I hope you'll make the same smart design decisions he did – get started with your research today!