How to design your own home

How to design your own home...

Developing the design

The design process is a consuming task. The nine steps below will teach you the basics of the process that is followed by design professionals in the building industry. Follow this process and you will have a better chance of designing a home that functions well and works aesthetically.

  1. Client Brief
  2. Performance specification
  3. Schedule of areas
  4. Table of areas
  5. Bubble diagram
  6. Site data
  7. Site analysis
  8. Design diagram
  9. Sketch Design

Tools you will need

  1. Sketch paper: you can purchase purpose made sketch paper from an art supply shop, but grease proof baking paper works just as well and can be purchased from your local supermarket for around $1.50 a roll.
  2. A3 Drafting board: these boards are portable and come with a ruler that attaches horizontally to the board. It can be purchased from an art or drafting supply shop for about $90.00.
  3. Adjustable set square: this item is an adjustable clear plastic triangle that is essential in producing straight, angled, and vertical lines. This can also be purchased at an art supply outlet of drafting supply shop.
  4. Pencil: you can purchase a specialised drafting pencil (clutch pencil) but a standard lead (graphite) pencil will do fine. If you do purchase a clutch pencil bye one with a very thin lead otherwise you will then need to buy a clutch pencil sharpener which is different from a regular pencil sharpener.
  5. Eraser: white Stanley erasers are the easiest to use and you can purchase these from the supermarket.
  6. Ruler: you can use a regular rule for drafting in 1:100 scale but if you want to draw the building at a smaller or larger scale you will need a scale rule from a drafting shop. These typically cost $10.00.

Nine basic steps

1. The brief

The brief is a document that is used as a starting point in designing a home, and is formed first by the client and then refined with the help of a building designer or, in this case, you. The brief will act as a guide throughout the design process and will help form the "foundation" of your home design. The brief should contain all your most fundamental requirements such as: "our home must be open plan and be an extension of the backyard", "the house must be clean and airy", or "our holiday home will be a haven from city life". You should collect any pictures, samples (paints, fabrics etc), and any other items that will act as a visual prompt during the design process and give everyone involved a general feel for what you want. It is essential that your wishes and essential requirements are understood as clearly as possible right from the very beginning. Note that a brief does not have to be a lengthy document, often one page will be enough, but your brief should be seriously discussed with the other people in your life who will have a vested interest in the home before design work begins.

2. The performance specification

The Performance Specification is an expanded brief that describes what the various spaces of the building will be expected to provide. The Performance Specification of the building may start off very general in its requirements and may become more detailed as the project develop. For example:

  • Bathroom: should be warm and sunny with good views – a place to retreat to and revive – with 2 basins, separate WC. and shower that opens onto a private outside planted area.
  • Later on the electrical equipment to be accommodated might be identified, as will the number of power points required and other detail items.

3. Schedule of areas

The spaces described in the Performance Specification can be explained and quantified in a Schedule of Areas. This document is simply a table of the named spaces in the Performance Specification and estimates their likely size. To confirm a likely size use a tape measure to gauge the dimensions of spaces within the house you are living presently. What size are these spaces, are they too big or too small? How many square metres is it? Also see this site's construction cost estimator for suggested space sizes. You will also need to calculate the estimated circulation space required. This item is often forgotten when estimating the size of a home and keeping it to a minimum will reduce the cost of your new home. Circulation space covers all the areas not individually identified in the Performance Specification such as halls, stairs, store rooms/cupboards, plant rooms and lifts etc. In single dwellings for example these areas may range between 10% to 50% of the total floor area. Using 10% for a home is standard but this will need to increase if your wish your home to be truly spacious. See this web site's "How to read plans" page as a guide. Usually a client will have not only a building in mind but also a budget for realising it. The Schedule of Areas is a necessary first step for reconciling the two since approximate budget rates can be applied to different types of floor space to give a first (but very approximate) cost estimate for your new home.

4. Table of areas

You may find it useful to present the Schedule of Areas in a visual format. This gives an immediate confirmation of the balance of spaces in your new home and helps to keep any exploration by the designer (i.e., you) on track and in proportion to their desired uses. A simple site plan with boundary lines and obstacles should also be drawn alongside the table of areas so that the building areas can be seen in relation to the space available on the site and how this may challenge the clients desires and local council requirements. The shape of the rectangles representing the space areas is irrelevant - they are only indicating their comparative size and these spatial areas may contain a few rooms. For example: "a lounge area maybe open with an enclosed bay window area".

5. Bubble diagram

The Performance Specification will tell you what each space must provide, and the Schedule and Table of Areas will state the size of these areas but you will also need to establish the relationships of these spaces to one another. The relationship diagram or "Bubble Diagram" is a very simple drawing that consists of roughly drawn bubbles (representing spaces) connected by solid lines, broken lines or wavy lines to specify what kind of relationship is wanted. For example: A lounge area may need a direct physical connection to the dining room but only a visual connection to the view of the ocean and an acoustic connection to the baby's room down the hall.

6. Site data

So far we have concentrated on the internal requirement but the design will also be shaped greatly by its "siting". To aid you analysis you will need to gain all information you can about the site, its neighbouring properties and its locality. A site plan in A2 size, and drawn to scale is ideal and it will need to show such things as:

  1. Any tree over three metres in height and its exact location
  2. Sewer, storm water, drinking water, electrical, and gas main locations and access points
  3. Various "Australian Height Datum" levels of adjoining properties (floor levels, ridge levels, gutter levels and deck levels.
  4. Neighbouring house "set backs"
  5. Boundary lengths, locations and junctions
  6. Contours at 5 metre intervals are necessary for sloping blocks

This list can be given to a surveyor for quotation. This will cost about $700 for a standard size block (as at Oct-2006). Photograph houses in the locality and research the local history - as patterns in earlier developments may lend itself to influencing your design which may help formulate a design that is sympathetic to the existing architecture in the neighbourhood. Planning controls (local councils and others) will impact on your design. Restrictions such as height limitations, preferred building forms and existing scale of architecture in the locality are all examples of planning controls that will impact your design. Have a look at your local council's web site. They are usually called Local Environmental Plans (LEP) or Development Control Plans (DCP).

It should be noted that if your site looks like it may have issues (e.g. unstable rocks, a very steep gradient, etc.) a geotechnical engineer should be engaged to advise you on the best location for your new home that will reduce building costs. Your site may also have restrictions that will be noted in your Section 149 Certificate, which is a document that forms part of your sales contract when you purchase the property. If you have owned the property for some time it is suggested that you apply to council for an updated certificate - as development requirements change over time. The Section 149 Certificate application form and many others can be found on your council's web sites but you will need to go to council chambers to lodge the application and pay the fee (approx. $120 as of the Oct-2006).

Call your local council and speak with the "on duty" building inspector and planner. Tell them you are designing a new home and ask them if there is anything that will affect the design of our new home.

This may sound like a great deal of work but if you do your research there won't be any surprises later, and your building will work the best it can on your particular site.

7. Site analysis

The Site Analysis diagram displays all the useful information gained during the site data collection phase and is best presented and used as a designing tool in a plan format. Use photographs taken of the site from various angles including distant shots if the site is in a prominent location. A study of the wider context of the locality such as built-up areas and open spaces will be essential and can be added onto the site plan. Where do the summer and winter breezes come from? Think how this may influence the design of your building. Are their views? If so, what is their direction? Use arrows from the site to the views. The building will need to provide a visual connection from living spaces and the main bedroom to this view.

Record personal observations at the site. Where is the shading from trees or other buildings falling? How could this benefit or negatively affect the design. Talk to neighbours about sun, wind and temperatures at different times of the year. Think about how you can use these winds to cool your house in summer and how you may need to protect outside living spaces in winter. Note on your plan the magnetic north point as well as true north (or solar north) which is approximately 13% East of North in most of Australia (you will need a compass). Finding true north on your property will allow you to design living spaces facing north and the quality of living to this orientation is unbelievably better than any other. It will provide warm living spaces in winter and cool bright living ares in summer, as long as you have adequate window shading and ample roof and wall insulation.

You need to spend a lot of time on your site, and your site visits should be longer rather than shorter if you want to properly see how your site works and how it is affected by various factors. Note all these factors down as they will influence the design of your home. Some people even go to the lengths of actually camping on their property before they start designing.

8. Design diagram

This stage of design is creative and brings together all the internal and external requirements and information that has been collected, evolving into a design strategy, which satisfies your requirements. The discovery of an effective Design Diagram that is clear, simple, strong and capable of responding to the peculiarities of your program - without becoming confused and compromised is a crucial moment in the design of a building. You will need to be good at conceptualising in three dimensions as you work simultaneously on sketch plans, elevations and the general form of the building. This phase does not involve any drafting, only rough sketches/drawings, but lots of them. Don't be afraid to throw away an idea if you can't get the form and workings you desire.

9. Sketch design

Now you have finally reached the point where you can start drafting the initial design drawings of your home. Drawing at a scale of 1:100 is the usual practice because it is big enough to understand, and you can use a regular rule (1cm = 1000mm or 1 metre).

The initial design will be a combination of plans, elevations and form drawings or what ever best explains the design and how it works. The plans should be easy to understand and will be the starting point from where the initial design drawings may change before they become the "developed design drawings". Remember to ask for feedback from family and friends, another point of view is often helpful.

In turning the Design Diagram into a Sketch Design, one of the main tasks is to think about is the functions of each area and providing spaces which can accommodate them. This may involve doing separate studies.

For example: Furniture or equipment layouts for individual spaces in order to discover room shapes, door and window positions, and other features which will make spaces have a 'good fit' to the purposes for which they are intended.


This is essentially the design process that is taught to architecture students. If it seems a little "full-on" don't be discouraged, it just takes practice. At the very least we hope we have provided you with enough knowledge of the home design process that your enhanced ability to communicate with a professional building designer or architect will speed up the entire process of constructing your new home.

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