Planning and designing the house

Well, I’m about done with planning and designing. About 3-4 months ago we thought we were close to being done designing the house. Like really really close. However even though it was “close” to being done. It was not feeling right. There was something off about it and we weren’t really sure why or what it was. It was tough to admit that as we had already spent a considerable amount of time and money getting the house to the point that it was in mid-October. We’d done eight designs by that point, which is quite a few to not have it complete or at least feeling good about it. The pressure was also mounting as we were getting close to our first time frame – to have construction drawings started by December. But the fact was we were not feeling good about it and we were a bit discouraged.

In the back of my mind was also the price tag of this place. It was creeping up and up. There were some costs that we had not accounted for when we first put together the budget, such as, septic system ($18,000), well-hook up ($8000), water treatment system ($10,000), kitchen appliances (not sure how that was forgotten – $10,000-$14,000). Also, the footprint of the slab foundation on pilings was also increasing. We really wanted to keep it to less than 2000 sq.ft. But that was just not happening and the rooms that we didn’t care about as much but needed (mechanical room, storage) were really taking up a large chunk of the space – taking away from the spaces we really wanted to be a certain size (living room, kitchen, bedrooms).

My mother is an interior designer and we had been a bit reluctant to ask her to give us feedback on it… Well, Darcie had been a bit reluctant. Understandably, who wants their mother-in-law to design their house? However we thought we better ask her what she thought and what changes she might suggest.

“Be honest.” We told her. Now, the one thing you have to know about my mother is that she is one of the kindest and most caring people in the world. Everyone who has met her agrees (not just me). After awhile of looking at it she said, “I’m sorry to say this, but this is just… bad.”

Ouch. Our hearts sank. We’d spent so much effort on this and, well, it sucked, I guess. Though this was followed shortly by an overwhelming sense of relief. We knew it was not good, but we were too close to it to see the truth.

Over the next few days we spent pretty much every moment that we weren’t either at work or sleeping (there was not much sleeping though) brainstorming, thinking, and redesigning the space. There were some very important things we needed to figure out: 1. How could we make this space smaller? 2. How could we save money? 3. How could we make it more functional? 4. Still keep the views of our land and the river valley focused? 5. And still maximize the Passive House efficiencies and principles of the home?

There were no easy tasks here.

We needed to start to question the things we thought we wanted (an office, 3rd bedroom, vaulted ceiling, several large windows to the east, kitchen separate from the living spaces) and those that we had adamantly refused to consider beforehand (basement, open kitchen).

Initially we had not wanted a basement. Basements are very popular in this part of Canada. It is highly unusual for a house not to be built without one. In a lot of other places, basements are not common due to high water table or rocky land. But that’s not the case here. Still basement can be a problem due to the lack of light compared to spaces above ground and you still have to be careful to grade and landscape properly to make sure that water doesn’t want to find it’s way inside. But really why were we so against it? These problems could be rectified. A basement is more expensive then a slab or a crawl space of the same size, but if we reduced the main floor size and put those things that didn’t need to be upstairs in the basement, we could thereby reduce the overall footprint making the extra cost of a basement justifiable. We started crunching some numbers. The slab with piles and grade beam was going to be ~$37,000 for 2000 sq.ft. I figured if we could reduce the main floor size by 200 sq.ft. at the anticipated cost of $250/sq.ft. then this would balance out the extra cost of doing an ICF (insulated concrete form) basement.

Ok, but how do you make a basement nice, comfortable, bright, and inviting?

Everyone suggested a walk-out basement. I don’t know why, but “walk-out” makes me cringe. I think it’s all of the fancy snobby acreages and suburban houses that have a “walk-out”. Everyone is all like “Oooo a walk-out.” It seems like it’s a pretentious thing that people with a lot of money do. Maybe that’s an unfounded statement (probably) but something about it just felt too… pedestrian. Too upper class. Too suburban. It reminded me of a perfectly manicured lawn, or maybe even an astroturf lawn, on a 1 acre “acreage” and a 7000 sq.ft. house for two people and their chihuahua. Gah.

I had to prove it to myself that a walk-out would be OK. We went on a house tour to some middle aged hippy folks’ acreage across the river from us. They had built an Eco-house about 20 years ago and on their land, with a natural hill, they tucked the house neatly into it. You still entered the house on level ground but then it opened to the south from the other side. The rooms in the basement were bright and airy and there was a nice little courtyard out the basement door. Hmm. Maybe… Maybe we could do this.

Trimming off a mere 200 sq.ft. from the main floor turned out to be super easy – one bedroom and the laundry room. Done. But why stop there? The smaller we made the footprint the more money we would save.

Weirdly enough as we made the main floor smaller it seemed to make the rooms and spaces more functional. Suddenly a lot of our issues with flow and function on the larger basement-less bungalow were being solved by simplifying and making the house tinier.

Finally we got it down to I think as small as we could at 1240 sq.ft. of interior space (including the 16″ thick walls the total was 1440 sq.ft.). Interestingly though that gives 2480 sq.ft. of conditioned floor space with the basement and main floor combined. So, making the house “smaller” and therefore cheaper, actually made it larger overall. That seemed like the best of both worlds! It kind of felt like cheating.

Making the main floor the size we did also allows us the option to leave the basement unfinished. I know that’s pretty lame, but it allows us flexibility now that we didn’t have before with the one level house (which would have all needed to be finished). This way if the budget gets overran in other areas then we can wait to finish the basement until later. The main floor has everything that Darcie and I need. The basement allows room to grow when required.

The sense of relief that came over us was immense. Although it set us back in the process by a month I’m so glad we took the time to analyze this more and really figure out what our needs were and where we want to spend our money.

Now we needed to figure out if this crazy walk-out basement idea was going to work or not (yes, more money is needed. Sigh).

3 thoughts on “Planning and designing the house

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