Internal Layouts Explained

Self-build architect, Julian Owen reveals how spacial awareness can maximise your home's potential
Build It expert Julian Owen
by Julian Owen
3rd January 2013

Before anyone starts to prepare a plan for your home, a clear brief should have been created and agreed that sets out your requirements, the budget and any important features of the site. The challenge is then to distil this bundle of information into a suitable house design.

The hardest step is usually drafting the first sketch plan. Thankfully, however, it doesn’t matter if the early attempts are wrong – as long as you understand why and can produce alternative ideas and refine them until they work.

Try to avoid designing the outside of the house before you have looked at the internal spaces. Unless you have a very restricted site or are dealing with inflexible planning controls, designing the exterior and then trying to fit the spaces you need into a box rarely produces a decent plan.

How to start

If you have created a bubble diagram, or have a list of the spaces that are to be incorporated into the building (see Build It January 2012 for how to approach this), you can start to plot the best locations for the rooms directly onto a plan of the site. At this stage it’s not essential that anything is to scale, because it’s more about how the rooms will relate to the site and each other.

Case study: Light-filled home

glass staircase for natural light

The glass and stainless steel staircase can be seen from the front of the house through the double-height atrium

bedroom with juliet balcony

A Juliet balcony allows plenty of natural light into the master bedroom

Start with the ground floor, because it is more complex to plan than upper floors due to the variety of different room functions, which can relate to each other in many different ways. There are usually several key spaces that take priority over the others, and every family will cite different rooms. For example, the relationship between the kitchen and family room is often the most crucial. However, if someone works from home it might also be essential for a good-sized home office to be accommodated away from distractions but still close to the front door. The location, size and connections between these three spaces then form the basis of an idea for the plan, with ancillary rooms worked around them.

If you have prepared a thorough brief, you will have an idea of the total size of house that you can afford. You may even have allocated ideal sizes to each of the main rooms – although inevitably when you add these up they will result in the house being too large. So before drawing scaled plans, some decisions need to be taken about which rooms or spaces will have to be trimmed, combined with each other, or lost from the scheme altogether.

When working out the minimum acceptable size for a room, it can help to look in detail at its use and even what furniture would be put in it. At the same time, the relative sizes between rooms have to be taken into account. If the area you can afford is tight, but you find the utility room is large compared to the kitchen, or the cloakroom/WC is bigger than the study, you probably need to revise your priorities.

Floor levels

In the same way, the balance between floor levels has to be monitored. One solution to gaining extra floor area on a restricted site is to use the roof space for extra bedrooms, or even add a whole second floor.

The risk with this is that you end up with significantly more of the floor area dedicated to bedrooms than is available as ground floor living accommodation. This may be workable for a family happy for their teenagers to be squirreled away in their bedrooms all the time, but if it is not recognised and dealt with at the design stage, it can cause unwelcome disruption to the living pattern of a family. Possible solutions are to extend the ground floor footprint, add a basement or plan the house so that some of the first floor spaces can be used for living space.

The reverse problem can arise if you’re designing a chalet-bungalow and find there is plenty of ground floor space but not enough room on the first floor. Rather than create lots of cramped bedrooms upstairs, it is usually better to fit them into the ground floor plan, away from the main living accommodation if possible.


As well as making decisions about the size of the spaces, the proportions also need to be carefully considered. Generally speaking, if the width of a rectangular living room is less than half the length it can feel too narrow, particularly if it is relatively small. Such narrowness also reduces your options for the placing of bulky furniture, such as sofas and armchairs.

Open plan layouts are a popular choice, since they allow flexible use that can also change over time. If you opt for this route, it is still a good idea to break the space up – perhaps by changing floor, wall and ceiling finishes. Although the plan is usually being worked out in two dimensions, floor to ceiling heights also need to be considered. If a large room has a relatively low ceiling, however good it looks in plan, in reality it will feel slightly oppressive to many people. Conversely, a small room with a very high ceiling can feel like a lift shaft.

In a large room there are opportunities to create more interesting spaces by varying the ceiling height or floor levels, particularly if they are implemented in conjunction with creative use of artificial lighting and finishes. Most people do not consciously analyse the three dimensional volume of a room when they enter it, but pleasing proportions will make it feel comfortable and interesting to be in, even if it is not clear why.

Dimensions and circulation

Nearly as important as the actual room dimensions is the way that a room is illuminated. A room that benefits from plenty of natural light will always feel more pleasant than a poorly lit one, whatever its size. With that in mind, the shape and location of windows allowing daylight into a space are an important consideration in room design. A particularly useful feature is to arrange windows to let light into a room from more than one direction, for example by positioning them on adjacent walls or by adding rooflights.

Once you have some ideas for the layout sketched out, with an impression of their size and scale, it is useful to look at how people will move through the building. Circulation space is sometimes the ‘poor cousin’ of the house planning process, being left to the end as a purely functional area that is needed to connect everything together. However, it can be an important aspect of the design.

Badly planned circulation wastes space that could be used to make rooms larger, or can make moving around the house unnecessarily tortuous. Bungalows with dark, narrow corridors are a notable example. But hallways, landings and corridors also offer an opportunity to help make a design individual. Staircases and halls are often provide the first impression of the inside of the house to visitors and are a chance to inject a ‘wow factor’. Architects particularly like staircases because they offer the chance to introduce double or triple height ceilings and can become a major feature of the house.

Whilst a plan is being developed, a good designer will also be looking at the three-dimensional form of the whole building and the massing that will result from the layout as it is developed. This is essential to ensure that the rooms inside the completed house integrate consistently with the outside.

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