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Design it yourself

see also

a view round the central village green

The Ashley Vale development in Bristol shows a wealth of creative input by the residents

Click the image above for 3D panoramic view with drag and zoom

Self build, although demanding, can be very creative and great fun, especially the design part.

There are several worthwhile advantages if you do your own design work (or at least part of it) –

  • it may be the only way to get what you want.
  • you achieve a kind of creative act that you can do in very few realms of your life.
  • you may save some money.

pre land-purchase design

Before buying a plot of land you need to have an idea of what you want to build in terms of area, volume, cost etc. just to make sure you don’t acquire land which will not accommodate your needs.

Bear in mind that a quirky site might pose challenges but it might also suggest unique design possibilities which will enhance the final design (although probably at extra cost).
You might find that before purchasing the land it is worth doing some outline sketches of what you want to build (either yourself or by employing an architect) and then showing them to the local planners to get their reaction.

See also the page on Checking out Land and its sub pages

Then after buying the site move on to Design basics

design basics

Design is usually about two things. It may include a third:

Basic functions of the fabric……

The shell which basically provides a certain amount of protection from –

  • the weather (sun, wind, rain snow, frost etc. including floods)
  • theft
  • noise
  • vermin
  • fire

it may also act as a collector for –

It will then include a set of rooms and areas based on the functions such as eating, sleeping etc. See below

The design aesthetics……

Style is usually based on a mixture of four main motives –

  • creating delight and a sense of well being for the inhabitants of the house. This is about such things as
    • imaginative spaces, colours, lighting, views etc.
    • feeling inviting, cosy, relaxing, stimulating, secure etc.
  • impressing or informing other people. This often includes
    • conspicuous consumption
    • an impression of wealth
    • an impression of ‘good taste’
  • associations with value systems. This can take many forms such as
    • some kind of historic or traditional appearance where the building resembles some historic period. ‘Tudorbethan’ is often a sad example of this. More complex and contentious is the situation where town planners insist on some kind of mimicking of the past. ( see Christopher Alexander’s Schumacher lecture, covering morphogenesis and this bit about fake traditionalism)
    • modernism with all its myriad forms. This is a vast subject. At its heart are the notions of visual honesty, spaciousness and progress. There is the maxim ‘form follows function’. Modernism may be closely associated with the basic functions of a house (see above) as functionalism often creates its own set of visual references. It may also only be a veneer of whatever appears to be cool or trendy at the time with little relationship to the real needs of people. This is a failure of real functionalism and there are plenty of examples from the last century, particularly the 1970s where ‘form swallows function’. At present, for instance, there is a fashion for white rendered walls with panels of smooth brown boarding dotted around, and virtually no roof overhang. This is what is perceived as modernist but does little in terms of function for protection of timber windows and doors.
    • a spiritual or metaphysical dimension such as New Age, back to the land, or a religious significance
    • a statement about the interests and ideals of the designer / builder. People sometimes incorporate symbols of what they hold dear into the design. For instance the prominent placing of a garage or swimming pool or a stable may indicate what that person’s interests are all about.
    • a statement of individualism, idiosyncrasy, eccentricity, rebellion or whimsy.
  • conforming to norms. This has several aspects to it which overlap and get quite messy.
    • Conforming to what the planners want. Planners want an easy life. In most cases planners work quite democratically but usually to a kind of ‘lowest common denominator’. When neighbours object to what you want to build (and often many of them do) the planners try to get rid of any contentious bits to placate the objectors. These may also be the most interesting bits. It creates institutionalised boredom.
    • What will the neighbours think? Maybe there is that fear of being branded as those weirdos who built that strange looking house.
    • Mortgage providers. Their first question is usually ‘Does it have brick walls and a slate roof?’
    • Building insurers. Ditto.
    • Will it be saleable? Well maybe there is nobody out there who has your strange creative taste.
    • National conservatism (small c). All this can add up to a strange kind of atmosphere where imagination is frowned on and innovation discouraged. Well have a look out there! And then strengthen your resolve to create something you are proud of.

The ‘quality without a name’……

  • If the above two aspects of design (basic function and aesthetics) are the only ones you consider then you are liable to miss the mark. Design aesthetics, when not deeply linked to the context of the building, risk being a fashion fad and the whole idea of the function of a building simply being a set of boxes to eat, wash and sleep in is a shallow approach to design.
  • The quality without a name (to use Christopher Alexander’s phrase in A Pattern Language is what makes a building really feel alive and function at a deep level. See more on A Pattern Language.

design process

be clear about your opportunities and limitations

  • financial limitations
  • cash flow, stage payments etc.
  • time limits
  • special opportunities
  • skills you have or can call on
  • materials – which might vary suddenly in price and any you can get at bargain rates
  • incentives such as grants

see also Why self build? and Reasons not to self build

site analysis

Become as sensitive as you can to the place where you intend to build.

Visit it often in order to get a real feel of what the place is about. Try to experience it at different times of the day and night and under different weather conditions and at different times of the week (and year if possible). Research possibilities for energy harvesting Passivhaus design and orientation and rain water harvesting

Get a feel of the closeness and relationship with neighbours and surrounding buildings and how noisy it may be. Check what security feels like. See where the sun comes from and where the best and worst views are. Bear in mind that the Building Regulations have quite complex rules about proximity of other buildings and how this affects fire resistance of the structure. Take photographs to help with the design process later.

Find out what the soil is like and what grows there and what kind of local wildlife there is.

Building on steeply sloping sites is always a challenge. If it is a sloping site then take measurements of the levels so that you can plan to make the most of the gradients. See Ground works

more on steeply sloping sites

Given the ecological advantages of denser communities (and the financial pressure to build on increasingly difficult sites) it often happens that sloping building sites need reshaping to make them more useful and to allow for the design of such things as access routes, consistent floor levels and cutting into hill sides. To avoid excessive use of machinery and fuel try to utilize cut-and-fill design as much as possible so that earth needs moving the least distance possible. (Bear in mind though that once earth is disturbed it might be more expensive to place foundations on it)

Retaining walls are usually designed by the structural engineer but you will be free to say what type you want and there are basically three types which avoid using reinforced concrete with its high embodied energy. These are gabions, reclaimed sleepers and crib timber systems.

There are several aspects of below-ground work which may be improved on from a green perspective. Often there is not enough thought put into how to use the natural contours of the site. Rather the temptation is to design in huge amounts of concrete to ‘flatten’ out a sloping site or to construct large concrete retaining walls to hold back land.

There may be several good green reasons for serious earth moving operations and although there is an almost inevitable use of fossil fuel the benefits might far outweigh this problem.

      • it may allow land to be built on that would otherwise be impossible
      • reshaping the site might reduce the amount of retaining walls or foundations necessary
      • it might allow a basement or cellar to be incorporated
      • incorporation of below ground storage tanks for water / thermal storage

There are a couple of reasons that earth moving may be unavoidable

      • exporting contaminated material
      • saving topsoil for use after the building is complete

design tools

There are many ways to go about designing a house and its surroundings and there are various tools that will help. Here is one method:

make a list of all the basic areas and functions that you envisage being in and round the house. Here is a picture of a mind map created in Freemind.

It works as a checklist. You can do your own by downloading Freemind (a free open source program). It’s very intuitive to use: you can build up associated groups of things and then cross reference them.

the main features of the building site

It’s useful to start with possibilities, limitations and inter-relationships. These will be things like –

  • identify the access points for pedestrians, vehicles etc
  • identify potential problems such as existing drains, contaminated land etc
  • how the gradients of the site will help or hinder the design
  • legal restrictions such as limitations the planners put on where you can build on the site
  • the existance of natural features which are worth preserving (e.g. trees)
  • where services can best enter and exit the site (particularly drains need to flow downhill)
  • where are the best and worst views and where are the most private and public parts of the site
  • the microclimate, especially the direction of sunlight through the seasons (this affects not only possibility of energy harvesting but also garden layout)

Mark all the above onto a plan of the site

basic design ideas

Write your own Pattern Language using the approach outlined in the book and on the web site. A Pattern Language is an excellent approach to design. At worst it will help you avoid some of the major design pitfalls. At best it will help you create a beautiful, living, harmonious building.

Put together a set of bubble diagrams and sketches which combine the rooms and areas in the house with the site plan you have made. It is the starting point for drawing house plans. It might look roughly like this kind of thing:

sticks and stones

Another remarkably effective way of getting to grips with how a building might fit on a site is to go and mark it out on the site with poles or canes and lengths of string, preferably to the height it might finally be and then place large stones or whatever to mark out areas around the building. This is a flexible creative way of envisioning the scale and modeling of a house which takes into account its surroundings: a method greatly favoured by the ‘Pattern Language‘ approach.

on line design software

As your design develops you may want to try software on the net. Google SketchUp which is an amazing free 3D design and modeling tool which interfaces with Google Earth so that as your design progresses you can see how it looks on the building site. See also SketchupBIM which is a development of Sketchup specially for designing buildings. You can also create models from scratch or from CAD drawings in .DXF or .DWG file types or from photographs. There are plenty of tutorials on Youtube. It can be particularly useful for working out how complex roof shapes interrelate.

Another useful free program is Floorplanner which is quite easy to use and allows 3D visualization. With the free version you can go up to 3 storeys and work in metric or imperial.

Beware of relying too much on software to do the actual design. It tends to limit your thinking but can be useful to envisage ideas you have come up with.

storeys above and below

  • Consider how many storeys you may need. There are pros and cons with going higher:
    • Single storey houses, unless quite small, may tend to be less compact and therefore have a larger surface area to volume ratio, which means they take more heating per square metre. This figures quite strongly with Passivhaus design and form factor. (see the BRE Passivhaus Primer)
    • Single storey may work well for anyone with a mobility disability. Lifts can me obtrusive and expensive.
    • They obviously take up more land than multi storey and this may be a cost issue
    • There may be aesthetic reasons for staying low or going higher. Planning permission may involve fitting in with the surrounding building types, especially in sensitive areas.
    • The task of designing and building single storey is relatively simple: structural aspects are generally simpler and fire protection is very little of an issue. The same goes for scaffolding and working at height.
    • With two storey, fire resistance and means of escape start to become important. A modified half hour fire resistant floor construction is needed for the first floor and there are rules about the escape route down the stairs and to the outside. Habitable rooms at first floor  require an emergency egress window. Fire alarms need to be fitted.
    • With three or more storeys the fire regulations become tougher still with requirements for self closing fire resisting doors around the escape route and consideration of the space around the building and how fire fighting equipment gain access.
    • Basements or semi-basements can add extra space to a house and their design is also affected by fire safety.
    • Galleries, which may include raised bed decks etc. can be attractive and economical features of a house and they also have their showing in the fire regulations.
  • Get an idea how different storeys fit over each other. There are four main things to consider:
    • walls. It’s a bit of a sliding scale with walls. If you are using heavy load bearing masonry then walls must go in a vertical plane from foundations to roof. You can deviate a little if you incorporate structural steelwork. At the opposite end, timber frame can be designed to follow all sorts of irregular shapes and patterns and give a great deal of freedom in the size and shape of rooms, one above another. Jettying can be included. In the middle is SIPs where walls can be supported on structural timber members and can be designed to overhang to some extent.
    • stairs obviously have to line up between floors but you can achieve quite a degree of flexibility by using dog legs and returns and by extending half landings. Spiral stairs can also create interesting vertical alignments. See more at Stairs and Spiral stairs
    • services vary considerably in the extent to which you can wiggle about between floors. See Service ducts
      • chimneys and flues are very restricted. Particularly with chimneys there is usually no way to introduce enough amount of offset within a floor thickness to allow a flue to move to the other side of a wall on a different storey. (see the Building Regulations part J)
      • soil pipes are very restricted (and they will need to connect to drains somewhere on the site)
      • water and gas pipes are very flexible (although solar thermal pipes may need careful consideration)
      • electrics, telecoms, security etc. are very flexible
    • lifts, which may soon be getting commoner in houses (see Lifetime Homes and Disabled Access), need carefully aligning with the areas they serve, usually adjacent to stairs

    consider how all this might affect the design of roofs and where fall pipes can be placed to connect gutters to drains.

    check on the need for high level fire exits. Building Regulations part B

    get an idea how windows will need to be positioned and what kind of views they will afford.

    By now you will probably have done some sketches of elevations to see how walls, roofs and windows line up. Cardboard or balsa wood models are an excellent way of visualising how all the bits come together. They don’t have to be perfect to give you an idea of how different parts of a building relate to each other. When you are getting close to a design you like you can print off drawings of the floors and walls and then glue them to card. Cut out the shapes and glue them together to produce a more accurate model.

    final design

    At this stage you may feel you need professional help to knit all this together accurately. Often the devil is in the detail and it takes considerable experience to make sure everything fits together correctly. See Architects and Architectural Technologists.

    However if you want to continue then you will need to start doing some accurate drawings and although a traditional drawing board and tee square are fine, it is difficult to make changes as you go along. Better is a CAD program, and there are several free ones available for download on the Internet. Probably better to go for a lightweight 2D version than any of the industry leaders like AutoCad, which take a long time to learn. Try A9CAD and who have lots of information on CAD and object oriented design software.
    There is some Sketchup 3D modelling software for designing small (up to 30m² floor area) garden sheds, tiny houses etc. using the Segal self build method.


    Yes of course, that’s where the devil is and it can be very difficult to get hold of good working detail drawings. With the much higher standards of insulation and air tightness required by eco building, most of the traditional books on construction are hopelessly out of date. Even agencies like TRADA are struggling to update their literature. In stark contrast to this is the high standard approach of the Passivhaus Institute which integrates how building products are assessed and then how they physically relate to each other.
    It is often possible to pick up information from manufacturers’ literature as to how their product connects to other parts of the building fabric.
    Occasionally architects are willing to share some of their detail drawings. For instance see the detailing of the Passivhaus retrofit house in Birmingham  “Under the Sun“, by  John Christophers


There is a useful online Wiki called Designing Buildings Wiki which approaches self build from the the building professional’s point of view and contains a section on the government’s policy of supporting self build self build.

See the Lifetime Homes web site for design criteria.

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