Common Home Design Mistakes

There are plenty of things that can go wrong at the design stage of a project, but as long as you know what to look out for, it’s fairly easy to avoid them, says Julian Owen
by Julian Owen
18th May 2016

Designing an addition to a property or making plans to build a new home is a process full of decisions, all of which need to marry up in order for the scheme to be successful. So there’s a lot to consider – both in terms of the features you want and what to avoid.

In this article I’m revealing some of the most common slip-ups and design mistakes self-builders and renovators face, in the hope you don’t fall into the same traps and create issues that can be difficult to rectify later on.

Working to an ill-considered brief

An early step in the design process is preparing a brief for the architect. The excitement of starting a project can lead to this stage being rushed, which wastes time later as the designer finds out what you need by trial and error. The worst case scenario is when important aspects of the scheme are left out of the brief altogether.

For example, an elegant table inherited from your grandparents may not fit in your new dining room unless someone remembered to measure it and include space for this at the start. Occasionally, large pieces of antique furniture may not even fit through the doors of the house, because unlike modern flat packs, they were made to fit grand homes with wide entrances and staircases. This is one reason why using a spiral staircase as the only access to the upper floors can be unwise.

Another easily-resolved problem that occasionally rears its head is when certain members of the family are not involved in early discussions and miss the opportunity to make their views known. The architect only finds out about them after spending many wasted hours refining the design based on only one person’s input. The best way to avoid issues like this is to take time to prepare the brief, involving all the family.

Misunderstanding the drawings

Most architectural drawings are diagrams that describe the scheme to other professionals, such as planners and builders. Many homeowners find these drawings difficult to read and are unable to visualise how the building will look when it is finished. Because the experts are so used to working with this type of illustration – called orthographic projections in the trade – they may not notice when a client is having difficulty with them.

Unpleasant surprises may therefore result after construction is complete, such as window or door openings that are symmetrical outside but off centre from the inside, and rooms being much smaller than expected. It can be helpful if card models, three dimensional drawings or computer visuals are prepared, which will bring the design to life, especially if colours and textures are added.

The tyranny of symmetry

We all like things to be even because this provides an easy, ordered way of setting out a design. There is nothing wrong with this in principle. But unless it is a key objective of a scheme, as with the Georgian style, an unnecessary use of symmetry can make a house predictable and uninspiring.

It can work well if the main rooms are very large. But with more modest projects this can mean windows have to be put in locations that aren’t ideal for illuminating the rooms behind them, and the plan has to be distorted to fit the facade. Equally, making a design almost symmetrical can look terrible.

coastal eco homeCreating Build It readers Vivienne and Stephen Brayzier’s new home took teamwork and vision. In conjunction with Innes Architects the couple have managed to deliver a characterful eco home that sits comfortably in the serene landscape by sinking the house into its slope and using sympathetic materials, such as a green roof and timber cladding. But they do have one regret. “We wish that we had chosen to have a wider sun space – ours is a little too narrow so you can’t have too many people in there at the same time,” says Vivienne.

A Characterful Eco Home

Clinging to an early idea

It has been said that you can identify a great designer by looking in their waste bin, because it will be full of good ideas that have been rejected in the search for an outstanding concept.

Sometimes inspiration strikes at the beginning of the design process – but more often getting it right takes a lot of trial and error and it is important to keep an open mind whilst this is going on. For example, it may seem a good idea to orientate a new house to prevent privacy being lost due to a busy street along one boundary.

There then follows a period of intense work as the architect attempts to arrange the whole design around this idea, compromising everything else to suit. When so much effort has been put in it can be hard to abandon the original concept; but the result is a house that is unsatisfactory in every way except for having the main windows facing away from the road.

Forgetting about the detail

Once planning permission has been granted you could be forgiven for thinking that the design work is over. But typically the approved drawings only describe the design at 1:100 scale and give a very general idea of how the finished building will look. It is a common mistake to proceed to the building stage without ensuring that the details are consistent with the overall concept for the design.

For example, there are probably a dozen different ways to create the eaves (where the top of a wall meets the roof) but it would be difficult to tell which should be specified from the planning drawings.

Getting contemporary style wrong

If you intend your design to look like a modern 21st century house, there are plenty of pitfalls to watch out for. Many people relate to familiar historical styles, so any designs that stray away from these tend to be treated with trepidation – particularly by neighbours and planning committees.

It is hard to appreciate the flaws and benefits of a modern scheme at the initial stages. Without a skilled and creative professional designer there is a much higher risk of ending up with a poorly-imagined contemporary house. The architect needs to be open to new ideas, as well as having a good working knowledge of modern materials and building techniques. Because of the unfamiliar shapes and forms used in contemporary builds, your designer’s ability to visualise and create a structure in 3D is vital.

Poor circulation & layout

If you have prepared your brief well, you will have a pretty good idea of the number and size of rooms that you need. As the layout of the new zones is developed, a classic mistake results from when no calculations are made for how each space will actually be used.

This can cause awkward furniture arrangements and wasted space due to circulation paths across a room. Accurately sized furniture, such as beds and tables, should always be drawn onto plans from the earliest stages and a certain degree of experimentation is needed to visualise how the room will be used, such as measuring up the spaces you already have and comparing them in size and scale to the new ones that are being proposed.

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