House Size - Balancing Wants, Needs and Budget

This post is the second in a series intended to walk you through the process of designing your own home where I guide you from the initial stages of your building project through construction.  Please check out my about page and my portfolio for more about what qualifies me to do this. So, here we are at step two (if you missed step one, be sure to read and watch that section first).  You've determined your building site and diagrammed the assets and liabilities, now it's time to figure out exactly what you'll be trying to fit within your home.  Architect’s call this second phase the ‘programming’ phase.  The ‘program’ is a detailed list of all of the spaces you’ll include in your home along with their sizes.  Think of it as a sort of ingredient list in a recipe you’re following.

A couple of things to keep in mind while developing your wish-list.  First, every square foot will cost you between $250-350+, choose carefully.   Secondly, and more importantly each added square foot is another one you'll have to heat, cool, light, maintain, and clean (!) for many years to come.  Homes use an incredible amount of energy and here in the USA our homes are substantially larger than our European counterparts.  Be ruthless about what you really need and what you can live without.  By consuming fewer resources your self-less act gives to generations that follow us.

Average House Size Comparison
Average House Size Comparison

Program Ingredients

A good place to start is by compiling a wish list of rooms.  Basically anything that will take up space in the home should be on the list.  While you’ve probably already considered many of the spaces listed below, there are undoubtedly some you haven’t accounted for.  Most often people overlook essential spaces like stairs, hallways, mechanical rooms and electrical closets.  These are critical to every successful floor plan, however mundane they may be, and they also account for a large percentage of the actual floor area, and by extension, your budget too.  Be sure not leave these out.

Some common spaces you’ll want to consider:

  • Entry/Mudroom
  • Living
  • Dining
  • Kitchen/Pantry
  • Study
  • Powder-1/2 Bath
  • Bathroom(s)
  • Laundry
  • Bedrooms
  • Porches
  • Decks
  • Mechanical/Electrical
  • Circulation (stairs/hallways)
  • Garage
  • Carport
  • Outdoor Terraces
  • Media Room
  • Game Room
  • Screened Room

Size Matters

Or should I say, matters of size?  Once you've compiled the list, you'll need to assign each room a rough size. A good place to begin thinking about the sizing of these spaces is to measure your current living spaces.  You'll have a sense for the scale of your furniture in those spaces and what works and what doesn't.  If your current bedroom is too small, roughly estimate the extra room it would take to make it more functional and account for that in your spreadsheet.

My worksheet lists basic room areas and sizes, but really it’s a guideline to help you get started.  Try not to take this too seriously to begin with.  It usually makes sense to stay in the general range of the room sizes I list but if your design vision calls for a living room in the shape of a bowling alley by all means, bend the rules.  Make the rules and then break the rules.  Develop a set of operating principles and consciously break them for effect.  Architect’s do this all of the time, when you do this with intent you’re one of us.

It’s important that along with the development of room sizes that you keep in mind ceiling heights.  Not exact ceiling heights, but a more generalized idea of which spaces might be taller than a standard 8’ ceiling.  You’ll note in the worksheet there’s a column labeled ‘factor’.  Ceiling heights are one thing that affects the factor; it’s essentially a multiplier that accounts for the extra materials (sheetrock, framing, paint, etc.) you’ll require when building a non-standard room volume (1.5 for cathedral/vaulted ceilings).  Some of the other factors listed account for unfinished basement spaces (0.1 because it’s significantly less costly than heated living space), as well as covered porches (0.75) and decks (0.5).  Landscape elements aren’t covered here but be sure to include terraces and other hard-scape elements in your program so you can allow for them in your budget.

What's Important?

When thinking about the size of spaces in relation to each other and the overall square footage try to think about them hierarchically.  Each should be relative in size to their importance in the floor plan.

Nothing says hierarchy like, “Check out our roof…we put a giant hole in it to show you how important it is for controlling light, for letting in the things we want and keeping out the things we don’t.”

A mudroom larger than a living room has certain connotations and functional implications.  The Romans were masters at spatial hierarchy.  Have a look at the Pantheon.

The Pantheon's Oculus
The Pantheon's Oculus

The large central space, flanked by smaller alcoves, with its’ oculus (the penultimate hierarchical move).  Nothing says hierarchy like, “Check out our roof…we put a giant hole in it to show you how important it is for controlling light, for letting in the things we want and keeping out the things we don’t.”

This is powerful and it’s really a marvelous space to stand in.  Look at the entry portico, and note the size of it.  It’s not wart-sized; it’s proportioned to the volume it’s attached to.  Now, have a look at your local convenience store entry (a gabled portico of sorts I’m guessing) and you’ll see the difference.  The convenience store is poorly proportioned, it’s too small and it’s too tall and it looks like the rest of the walls it’s adjacent to, except for the two doors.  While this example is intentionally simple I think it illustrates my point, which is once you’ve seen the difference, you’ll better appreciate the difference.

Pantheon Exterior View
Pantheon Exterior View

The Pantheon, with just a few simple elements and architectural moves allows one to understand immediately upon arrival how one enters and what’s important.  This is the approach you must take when thinking about sizing your spaces.  You’ll have a chance to revise this as you begin your design when you realize that the dining room should be a little larger and the pantry a little smaller, etc.  Many architects rely too heavily on the exact sizing of the spaces in the Program.  I try not to get too hung up on the size of the living room before I get into the design a little deeper.  I prefer to use it as an outline.

Sticker Shock

Develop the list of spaces, assign them rough sizes, total it up and, most importantly, assign a square foot (SF) price range to the total.  This is where the exercise becomes particularly meaningful and dare I say, painful.  At the beginning stages of the design process your program serves as an essential budgeting tool.

I recommend assigning a price range for two reasons:

1)    Early on before you even have a design; this is by far the most accurate means of portraying the variability of the costs involved.  Having a range will hold you accountable as you work toward getting the upper number of the range to be your target number.  I’ll explain more below.

2)    No two contractors will look at your design, drawings and specifications the same way, even when given the exact same information.  Equally, building techniques vary from contractor to contractor as do subcontracts and labor rates.

Having said all of this, I want you to look at the upper end of the range and know that that number is real.  Don’t make the mistake of assuming you can make material or finish decisions (bamboo flooring, plywood walls, cheap toilet fixtures…) and have any real effect on the overall scope and scale of this number.

Way too expensive?

Building costs are always rising.  The addition you worked on 5 years ago, from a pricing perspective, is irrelevant.  To be serious about controlling costs at this stage is to eliminate square footage.  This will be the easiest and best opportunity you have to do so.  Work backwards if need be, determine the maximum you’re willing to spend and fit the program sizes to meet the budget.  This part of the process can be bruising.  Expect it and work through it.  Every client, of every means, that I've ever worked with at this stage agrees to move forward based on the false hope that the actual numbers from the contractor will come back at the lower end of the range.  Believe me, Scout’s honor, it’s never happened.  Not one time.  If you take this part of the process seriously then the bidding and/or negotiation phase will be much, much easier.

"What Square Foot Price Do I Use?"

If you’re not sure what range to use, make a few phone calls to local builders or architects in your area.  They’re usually more than accommodating when it comes to giving out such basic information, and they have the benefit of recent projects to back up their knowledge base.  In my local area, the range I tell people wanting to do custom work is $300-400/SF.  It’s possible to be around $200/SF, however, it requires special concessions not many people are willing to make.

Once you've worked through this process: revising your wish list, revising your budget and you’re comfortable with what you have, you’re ready for the next step.  Get out your markers, pencils and tracing paper, Schematic Design is up next.  Possibly my favorite…


Drop me a line, I'm here to help.  I’d love to hear your thoughts or design conundrums.

If you subscribe you’ll be sure to receive my next post in your inbox, there’s also my YouTube channel with helpful videos.  I’ll also post some links to a few books that will help you through the programming phase and provide some inspiration as to what’s possible when you economize and double up on the functions of your spaces.