House Design Overview

For those of you who prefer to cut right to the chase, this is a summary of the evolution of our house design and the process we have engaged in to get there. Most of the other posts on this blog are general musings about architecture, interior design, family life vis a vis a house’s design, and similar subjects. The summary is organized by each step in the design process, including:
  • Architectural Program: Already in our minds for several years but quickly finalized after site purchase; about 2 months—May-July 2008.
  • Site Selection: Pure serendipity! We saw the site almost by accident, made an offer on it the next day, had the offer accepted 2 days later—May 2008
  • Financing: Arranging our loan took a couple of months—plus continued additions to the “kitty” from our paychecks as we go along! June and July 2008.
  • Design Concept: Gradually evolved through living on the site; about 6-9 months—summer 2008 to March 2009.
  • Schematic Design: Overlapped with Design Concept as we tested various site layouts and massing arrangements; about 5 months—March to July 2009.
  • Design Development: Overlapped a little with Schematic Design and took a lot of “fussing” as we addressed detailed site topography issues; about 6 months—June to December 2009.
  • Construction Drawings: After a last minute redesign to cut some square footage, we applied for our building permit on March 1, 2010; drafting the CDs to permit requirements took about 3 months—December to March 2010.
  • Construction: Even after the permit is issued, the design keeps evolving! Thankfully for us, all the big moves are set and the only changes we have made are small ones. We think this is due, in part, to having taken a lot of time upfront in exploring and then refining design. You CAN design a house a lot faster—but it all depends on how clear you are about your needs and wants, how decisive you are, and whether you give your architect free rein or hover and drive him crazy like we did! Sitework started in April 2010, actual house construction (foundation) began in May 2010.
Architectural Program

The design began years ago with the idea of creating a house with an attached cottage for a kind of multigenerational living arrangement; the primary house for us and the cottage for my mother. This, in a nutshell, was the architectural program for the project. This program would be filled out in much greater detail once design got underway, but more on that later.

Site Selection

The next phase of design—and the place where the idea started to become reality—began with finding a site on which to build. We knew that in order for the multigenerational idea to work, we would need a site large enough to provide ample and separate access to both units. A lot on an alley would be ideal. In May 2008 we found just the right site—8100 sf, on an alley, within walking distance to shops (and the Nordic Heritage Museum where Mom volunteers), close to bus lines, and with lovely views to Puget Sound—not a requirement obviously, but what a bonus! It also had a 1910 farmhouse that we figured we could live in while the design was being developed. Not much of a house at 1190 sf with old, old fixtures and finishes, but certainly adequate for a temporary residence.


I think the typical way to approach a project like ours is to work with an architect to get a ballpark estimate of what the project might cost, then go to the bank to secure a loan commitment, and THEN go look for a site. Well, we did it all backwards! We loved the site and, based on not much more than a few scratches on a napkin about design and cost, decided to purchase it and figure out the details later. (Reader, don’t try this at home—very risky.)

Given our previous experience with several remodeling projects and construction of a second home on Whidbey Island, we figured we had the skills to be our own general contractor for the project and plunged ahead. We took a further risk by making an offer on the site without a clause stating that the purchase would be subject to sale of our own house. The market had already softened by May 2008 but was not yet in total freefall. We quickly polished up our old house and put it on the market. Luckily for us, within ten days we had an offer—below our asking price, but worth negotiating over. In the end we sold for $7,500 less than list price. By the time we fixed up our old house it looked great and I was reluctant to move into the “new” old farmhouse on the new site. It was a sad day when we left our old house with its nice kitchen and baths to move into the little pile of sticks that was the farmhouse!

Upon approaching Washington Mutual (now Chase) and Washington Federal banks, we quickly found out that neither bank was interested in giving a construction loan if we were serving as our own general contractor. This was a major glitch in the process and had us stumped for a month or so. We were counting on the savings accrued to us by being general contractor and also by doing a lot of the work ourselves; so much so that if we had to hire someone else, we couldn’t afford to build the project. We solved the dilemma by taking out a mortgage on our Whidbey Island house and using the proceeds as seed money for design and construction. We got good rates (below 5%) on both loans—new site and Whidbey--and were on our way.

Design Concept

We interviewed a few architects and decided to work with Peter Sandall of Sandall Norrie Architects because of his experience with a broad range of house styles, his willingness to have us be very involved in the design process, and how easy he was to communicate with. It also didn’t hurt that he lives in the Sunset Hill neighborhood and in fact had designed a house on the block behind us that we thought was a good fit with the street and other houses.

By the time we engaged Peter, we had lived in the old farmhouse for about three months and had formed some initial ideas about potential house location and layout as well as an organizing “theme” to the design. Proximity to Puget Sound (we can hear seagulls, seals, and boat horns, and smell saltwater from the site) suggested the Shingle style right away, and yet the vegetable and fruit gardens of our neighbors gave a kind of “small farm” feel to the property too which made us think about farmsteads where successive generations add onto or build a new house next to the original farmhouse. This idea fit nicely with our desire for a multigenerational, family compound. We also knew that we wanted the open spaces on the site to be just as well considered as the built portion, and thus was born the idea of an L or U-shaped complex.

We presented all these ideas to Peter along with a more detailed program of needs. Right away he cautioned us that while the L or U-shaped complex had some compelling features, it would be by far the most expensive way to build. Including a separate unit for my mother would be much more affordable if it was contained within the main house, and not beside it. He was right, of course, but our hearts were set on the courtyard idea by then—and to be fair, my mother also wasn’t that crazy about living in a basement or above the garage which are the more typical configurations for a mother-in-law unit. The design concept consisted of a more formal Shingle-style attitude toward the street with the rest of the structure designed to appear as though they were a series of “add-ons” to a farmstead over the years featuring a west-facing interior courtyard for our use and alley access and “front yard” for the cottage.

Schematic Design

After we got the concept down, schematic design progressed smoothly. The only reason it took as long as it did is because we “tested” all the floor plans by making small perspective and fa├žade sketches to ensure that the flow between rooms, the sightlines, and the character of the spaces were what we wanted, and make changes as needed. This we did on our own given my own design background and ability to do at least some rudimentary drawing. Some of the elements that emerged during schematic design include the:

  • classic center hall floor plan and general formality of the main house opposed to a more casual open floor plan for the cottage;
  • axial relationships and long sightlines between windows in various rooms;
  • two bedroom suites in the main house (master bed/bath/closet and child’s bed/bath/closet) vs. a master suite and two smaller bedrooms and a bath; and
  • the choice of attic space(to finish later) in lieu of a basement.

 During this phase I had also begun to gather ideas about specific materials, colors, and detailing, and create “design boards” on posters and on the computer. I tacked the boards up on the walls so we could stare at them and “live with” the ideas, which I found very helpful. Right around Christmas 2009, we had a design that worked, but really felt too big (and too expensive) for us. We asked Peter to wait while we rethought things. Over one weekend I took the drawings and shaved almost 400 sf from the main house. Although it may not seem like much, at approximately $150/sf with sweat equity (or $200/sf without) that amounted to a potential savings of $60,000. We gave the slimmed down drawings to Peter and went forward.

Design Development and Construction Drawings

This is where Peter’s expertise really came into play and where we would have been lost without him. The site slopes 14 feet from the northeast corner to the southwest corner, and using this slope to advantage in placing the cottage over the garage became a game of inches and degrees. Peter wrestled with the floor levels, the slope of the driveway, and the proposed grade until all the pieces fit just right within the allotted setbacks. At this point the design felt inevitable; like it was the only possible solution! Of course, it isn’t the only solution—there are always at least two or more ways to address a site—but this feeling of inevitability was very reassuring and gave us confidence that we had achieved the right design for us.


The design changes that are occurring at this point are quite minor—adjustment of a doorway here and there, fine-tuning of light switches and outlets, some drainage revisions, a change to the kitchen wing roof to accommodate a closet, and a few other items. The central design concept and its key elements are holding firm and taking shape each day.