House Design

When it comes to planning a new home, inspiration can come from the most surprising and unexpected sources.


The traditional nuclear family now represents just 20% of all households and with extended families and people living far longer, the homes we own have changed dramatically to reflect the way we live in them.

We have started to demand houses which say something about our own personalities. Housing is as much of a fashion statement as the clothes we wear and the cars we drive.

The problem for most selfbuilders today is that there is just too much choice.

When it comes to designing your dream home should you opt for a comfortingly traditional cottage or go all out with a jaw-dropping avant-garde creation? 

With so many books, magazines, TV programmes and exhibitions aimed at the home builder it’s easy to be swayed by fashion and hype, but finding inspiration for the design should serve to highlight your own preferences and ensure that your new house works efficiently as well as looking beautiful.



house_design_sketch_model.jpgBefore you even find a plot of land you can start to compile ideas. Many people wait until they buy their land before considering plans or room layouts as each plot is individual, and a house should be designed for its site and not vice versa. This makes sense, but it also means that all major decisions will be made in a hurry. Perhaps you don’t know exactly where the kitchen will be placed, but you do know that you hate contemporary units and love granite worktops. Such insight can save hours of time when you come to choosing a kitchen for real. It can also impact heavily on other decisions you make. If you have set your heart on underfloor heating, for example, then this will affect the type of flooring you choose.

Begin ordering brochures and saving images that inspire you as soon as possible. A scrapbook or Pinterest boards make a good starting point. Write down what you like and don’t like and why.

Jot down notes about how you currently use your home – then think ahead: how will your life have changed five or 10 years from now?

Many selfbuilders find themselves building again when their children leave home or they retire but, with careful planning, you can design a flexible house that will suit everyone’s changing needs.

When it comes to designing your new home you will be well prepared and able to convey your ideas to a designer rather than being totally influenced by theirs. Keep an open mind, though. Designing houses is a tricky business, and an architect or other designer will usually have years of experience on which to draw. The secret is to listen to their ideas but be prepared to stick to your guns when necessary.


Even the most inspirational house designs are conceived by adapting existing concepts. Totally new ideas are sadly a rarity, but the ability to see something you like and adapt it can be just as rewarding. Visit self build shows (such as the SelfBuild & Design Shows), read books, browse the internet and learn about architecture in general so that you can make informed decisions.


Picture: New innovations in construction methods such as ICFs, SIPs, and thin joint masonry are just some of the alternatives to the more mainstream timber frame and brick and block. ICFs are particularly suited for basements, and some companies such as Quad-Lock can build the shell, leaving the owner to complete the project. Taster sessions, and full installer training courses are held regularly at the National Self Build and Renovation Centre in Swindon.

Selfbuilders looking for inspiration would do well to thumb through the pages of history, and there are countless books and online resources available which showcase homes from around the world. Some are acknowledged for their role in architectural history, others are iconic for their individual features or structure.

Take care not to get too bogged down in the details but use these early months to enjoy the process of reading about topics which interest and inspire you, rather than feeling duty bound to wade through the dull technicalities.

Have fun playing with 3D modelling software at and check out Contemporist for new products and projects in the world of contemporary design. Core Architect offers architecture and design inspiration, and World Architecture News is a great source of information.

The National Self Build and Renovation Centre in Swindon is a permanent centre for selfbuilders and renovators, and holds regular design and build workshops and where visitors can find more than 240 manufacturers and suppliers in the Trade Village, where the latest products and technologies are displayed.


Cost implications

In the past the simple ‘box’ shape has generally been easier and cheaper to build than, say, a T-shape, L-shape, cruciform or courtyard design. New innovations in building methods and materials, such as SIPs (structural insulated panels) and permanent insulating formwork, steel framing and giant masonry blocks, are now resulting in faster build times and the flexibility to introduce curves, towers and more complex forms in which to live. These, in turn, lead to more complicated internal layouts.


Greater expense is still usually incurred in creating complex shapes, however, due to a combination of increased external walling area, non-standard roof structures, more roof and wall junctions and complicated service runs. There is also that x factor, which causes builders to scratch their heads and add a few noughts to the quote because they haven’t built anything like it before, don’t want to, or assume you must be loaded if you want to build something a bit different.

house_design_CAD-_bewdley.jpgShape is sometimes referred to by architects and planners as ‘bulk’, ‘form’ or ‘mass’, and is the three-dimensional consideration of the building and the volume of space it occupies. Although we are all familiar with two dimensional plans and drawings they rarely convey the drama of a real building which we can imagine living in. Investing in a scale model or a 3D computer design (which many architects now produce as standard) will help the visualisation process.

Computer programs such as HBXL can estimate your build costs but are not cheap and more appropriate for professionals and small developers. For one-off designs, therefore, it is vital that you trust your designer and consider investing in a quantity surveyor or project manager.

Balancing your desire for an interesting and unusual house with an affordable budget could mean compromising with a slightly smaller property for your money or the quality of building materials that you choose, but be careful not to end up with a poorly constructed novelty.


Expert tip

Whilst building is not an absolute, a good design delivered with integrity will save both time and money. What you specify is critical to costing and delivering. If you keep changing your mind along the way then expect additional costs.
Ian Watson, Project Co-ordinator, D&M Homes

Employing a designer

Anyone can call themselves a designer so it’s important to research the options carefully. When it comes to house designers most people think of architects, who must have completed seven years of training and be a member of the Architect’s Registration Board, as well as holding professional indemnity insurance, to legally use the title. Some architects will charge a total project cost, others a fixed price lump sum or on a time charge basis.


Architects undergo seven years of training so are well qualified to advise on design.

Local practices can be found on the Royal Institute of British Architects’ website, which publishes useful online guides such as Working With an Architect For Your Home, that states: “An architect will guide you through the regulatory process, helping to secure all necessary planning and listed building consents, and respecting Building Control. They can also help you select your builder and supervise the build through to completion, assuring the quality of workmanship and ensuring your money is well spent.”

An architectural technologist is another option when it comes to choosing a designer. These professionals specialise in design, underpinned by building science, engineering and technology. See Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists’ website for further information.

If you are going down the package house route then most will offer a design option using either in-house architects and designers or a practice with which they’re associated. To use their design you will usually need to sign up to their package, which can be a simple option, especially for first-time selfbuilders.

Expert tip

Selfbuilders wanting low energy homes often forget to make allowance for plant equipment. Around 6sqm of space is required to house plant such as MVHR. Putting these in the loft isn’t always a viable option if building for retirement as easy access is needed to change filters and drain condensation traps.
Sue Dewhurst, Evolved Design


Go local

As with anyone involved with your project, make sure you appoint a designer with whom you have a rapport and who shows enthusiasm for the job. Ask to see some recently completed properties of a similar scale to your own and talk to former clients to hear their impressions.

Local designers will have experience of the planning authority, are on hand to oversee the project and can recommend trades they may have worked with before. 


When visiting a designer take along your ideas, and have a firm budget and timescale in mind. See how they respond – but always be prepared to keep an open mind as the most outstanding, workable designs tend to result from collaborative discussions. Conversely, never allow your designer to take over the project and dissuade you from features you have set your heart on and can afford.

Be prepared to say if you don’t like the preliminary sketches and to change designer altogether if you feel unhappy in the early stages. By initially employing a designer on a limited basis you will be able to monitor progress and your relationship without committing yourself to a full service.

Picture: Location can be a creative force in house design, as illustrated by Carl Turner’s Slip House, a cutting-edge, translucent glass house in Brixton. It won the 2013 Manser Medal for the best newly designed private house. Built on a small patch of land amid a street of Victorian terraced houses, the structure is made up of three ‘boxes’ which sit on top of one another, creating a studio work space, with living quarters above, and a walled roof garden covering the entire footprint of the building at the top.



You are unlikely to come up with a satisfactory building design without first considering where it is to be built and the site’s surroundings. The new building should be in keeping with neighbouring properties to impress the planners though this doesn’t mean that it should ape the vernacular but merely relate to it in some way. It should also maximise views and sunlight without overshadowing its neighbours. One way of achieving what you want is to take an idea with an historic or local precedent and adapt it to the surroundings. Some very unusual and futuristic designs have been permitted using this ploy. 


Picture: Leaf Architecture's design for this new home in Broughton has its roof shaped to accommodate views of the local church.

Houses will continue to adapt to our growing demands, and modern homes can be organic and beautiful, angular or shocking. They can also make reference to the past. Volume house builders usually lack the courage to give us innovative designs which differ from the accepted vernacular style. It is up to selfbuilders to determine the home of their dreams – and then go ahead and build it.

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