If You Can Write A Story, You Can Design Your House


Very few people ever have more than one custom home or major remodeling project designed for them.

Very, very few.

Which means that almost every time an Architect works with a homeowner, it’s the first time for at least half of the people in the room.

And as you (that “other half”) head into that first meeting with your Architect, you’re likely a little foggy on what’s supposed to happen next.

  • Should I bring pictures of houses I like?
  • Should I sketch out a floor plan?
  • Should I make a “wish list”?
  • What’s this “design process” all about, anyway?


Are You Smarter Than An Eighth Grader?

A few weeks ago, I was invited to talk with five groups of eighth-graders during “career day”. With just twenty minutes to introduce Architecture as a career to each group, I needed to connect with them quickly.

And so after briefly explaining what Architects do and how you become one, I described to the kids how designing is similar to something they already do every day in school – writing.

Good writing starts with an outline of the story and then continues with filling in facts; fleshing out details; and editing.

Lots and lots of editing.  ‘Cause no one starts with “It was a dark and stormy night” and continues straight through to the end (revealing the identity of the murderer) without a lot of back and forth; a lot of changing, rewriting, deleting –until the story’s just right.

The same is true with designing your home, but you don’t need a degree in Architecture or English to participate fully in the process.

And it is indeed a process – one you take a step at a time, even though you’re probably very excited to get to the end of the design process; to see the completed design, and to get started actually building.

But stick with the process, and you’ll end up with a better home design.  Yeah, you could just turn to the last page of a book and find out whodunit, but it wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling an experience as reading the whole thing (and nobody likes a cheater).

Chapter One – Do Your Research

No consistently successful author sits down with a blank page and just starts writing.  Unless you’re writing a story about say, a fictional boy wizard, you’ll need some facts to work with.  Tom Clancy, for example, employs teams of researchers, because he knows you can’t communicate your story well until you know your subject well.

And in home design, the subject is you and the way you live.  The more thought you’ve given to what you like; what you want; and how your new home might fulfill your dreams, the better the chances you’ll communicate that clearly to your Architect.

Start by collecting pictures or other images of anything that helps you express what you have in mind. (One of my clients calls this a “swipe” file, but I prefer to think of the images as “borrowed”).  I also recommend building a library of ideas using houzz.com.   (Read my take on Houzz here.)

Chapter Two – Create Your Outline

For a work of fiction, an outline might include a brief overview of the plot and short bios of the main characters.

For a home design, the outline is called a program or creative brief, and should include a few paragraphs about every use you want your house to address (notice I said use, not room – uses aren’t always contained within rooms).

Some Architects will ask you to prepare the creative brief yourself; at my firm we lead you through the process, making it an open-ended conversation between Architect and Client.

Your “outline” should also include selections from your swipe file, organized by use or space.  All the bath images in one folder, all the kitchen images in another.

Your Architect will help you take that a step further with “bubble diagrams” or other forms of graphic outlines – then you’re ready to start having some real fun.

Chapter Three – Designing and Editing

A big mistake that homeowners – and home designers – often make is trying to move too quickly from the initial concept to the final design; they make a “wish list”, then try to draw a house to match.

It doesn’t work that way; take your time at this stage or the design you’ll end up with won’t get past the editors without a lot of markups.

Brainstorming is the key at the beginning; getting lots of ideas out there, good and bad.  You’ll evaluate the feasibility of your ideas later; right now it’s way more important just to have ideas.

I’ve often said I’d like to be the guy that sells tracing paper to my firm, ‘cause we go through a lot of it. We try dozens of ideas and arrangements of every part of every house design before we settle on something we (by “we” I mean “you and me”) like.

Good design takes a lot of back and forth; a lot of variations on a theme; a lot of wadded-up sketch paper in the trash can; a lot of editing.

An Author would be writing different versions of the story at this stage; some ideas stick around, others end up in the trash.  That works for home design, too – you might even end up working with several completely different designs at the same time.

Eventually, you’ll have a rough design you like.  The floor plans might not match the elevations perfectly, and the drawings might not be exactly to scale, but you’ve got a solid basic idea that works.

Now it’s time to start working the bugs out of that design.

Chapter Four – Polish it Up

Before a book is published, the editor reviews a galley proof.  It’s the last chance to tweak the story, check references, and look for mistakes and misspellings.

Your “final” preliminary design is when you’ll do a last thorough review of the design before the construction drawings are started.

Make sure everything’s the way you want it now – making significant changes after this stage can be time-consuming and expensive.

When you’re certain the design is exactly what you want (including the estimated construction cost), your Architect will start preparing the construction drawings.  You’ll probably make a few adjustments here, too, but they should be relatively minor.

Chapter Five – Publish!

Books are published in the United States at the rate of almost 800 per day.  That’s 300,000 writers furiously typing away every year, each hoping to write the next Harry Potter.

New homes are built at almost twice that rate; some are good designs and some are not so good. The better home designs –like the more successful books – come from designers who follow a clear design process; who think the design through carefully; and who follow the same steps that good writers use to make compelling stories.

Your Architect knows this “design process” well; the better you understand it, the better you’ll work together, and the better your home design will be.

THE END

P.S. It was the butler.


Need expert Residential Architectural advice for your new home or remodeling project? Contact Richard Taylor, AIA at RTA Studio.

1 Comment
  • You are absolutely right. There is a process that you need to follow in order to write a story, just like there is a process to designing a house. If you don't have the steps in the right order you can't move on or have a great finished document.

    05/30/2012 at 12:26 pm

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