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For many people, myself included, design is the most exciting part of any project — with the on-site construction a close second. During the design phase, you have the greatest influence over your project. By moving a line here or there or adding a window or skylight, you can dramatically influence the living space you’ll later inhabit.

Moving a window or partition at the design phase costs nothing; moving that same window or partition during construction will most likely entail an expensive change order. Also some design problems can’t be fixed. If the garage blocks the winter sun from entering the house, you’ll never enjoy free passive-solar heating and sunshine in the winter.

It’s a shame how many homes are built with serious design problems that could have been remedied with a little extra effort expended at the design phase, and at little or no cost.  Poor energy performance, wasted space, awkward floor plans, cramped kitchens,  poor natural lighting, and badly proportioned elevations could all have been fixed with a pencil. Space planning has become especially easy with today’s  inexpensive design software,  which allows anyone to walk though and view their project in 3-D from any angle or perspective with the click of a mouse.

So take the time to formulate a clear vision of your design goals and take the time to create and hone your design until it meets those goals and feels just right. Then seeing the project take shape on the site will still be very exciting, but have fewer surprises. You’ll know what to expect and will be happy with the results.









  1. Julie Lunt says:

    I was wondering if you mind recommending a good inexpensive 3D design program. It sounds exciting. The last house I designed, I just had to sit back and imagine what it would look like. Luckily I have a great imagination! Would love to see my rooms before the foundation goes in! Thanks y’all, Julie,GA.

    • buildingadvisor says:

      There are many inexpensive design programs, but all programs — cheap or expensive — have a learning curve. I’ve never found a program so intuitive that you can just load it and start designing.

      I’ve tried various shareware (free) programs, but never found one without serious flaws that make them pretty useless to a serious designer. The one exception is Google SketchUp. Many people love the program, but it is unique in its approach and has a steep and long learning curve. It’s uniqueness means that people familiar with more conventional CAD and CAD-like programs need to unlearn what they know and start over. With SketchUp, you work mostly in 3D. There are workarounds to do 2D design such as floorplans and then convert them to 3D if you like. SketchUp has a huge user community, many user forums, and many free downloadable libraries of design elements that users have created. Since it’s free you can download it and play around to see if it suits you. Training online or in an adult ed course is probably a good idea.

      Among other low-cost programs I’ve used, my current preference is Home Designer Suite 2012 (or newer) from Chief Architect, which also makes professional 3D CAD software. There are several versions of this program — I think the “Suite” is a good choice for casual users and small builders who are not professional designers. Most of these programs are loaded with features that you will never use. Also most offer free trial downloads — it’s a good idea to try before you buy.

      Any other suggestions from readers?

  2. We are building a new house in Green Bay, WI and would like to know the size of exterior foundation insulation we should use. 1″, 1 1/2″ or 2″. Our contractor also asked us if we wanted to insulate under the basement for about $1000. Would that be beneficial? Thanks, Shawn

    • buildingadvisor says:

      Hi Shawn,

      There’s never a definitive answer to how much insulation you should use, as it depends on a number of variables including fuel costs, whether the basement space is heated and cooled, and how much of a “payback” period you can tolerate (for example, would you spend $20 extra on an LED light bulb that will only save you about 40 cents per year?)

      However, folks at the International Residential Code (IRC) have done this kind of number crunching and come up with the following recommendations for basement insulation:

      Zone 3: R5
      Zone 4: R10
      Zones 5, 6, 7, 9: R15 (you are in Zone 6). See the ASHRAE Climate Zone Map.

      The insulation will provide roughly the same energy savings whether it goes inside or outside the foundation. If on the inside, it should be tightly sealed to keep inside moisture from reaching the concrete walls.

      If the basement space is conditioned, the US DOE estimates that annual savings will range from basement insulation ranges from $250/year in Washington DC to $450/year in Minneapolis (see table).
      Estimated Energy Savings in Conditioned Basements

      U.S Cities R-10* R-20**
      Buffalo, NY $350 $390
      Denver, CO $310 $360
      Minneapolis, MN $400 $450
      Seattle, WA $280 $320
      St. Louis, MO $250 $290
      Washington, DC $250 $280
      * Such as 2 to 3 inches of exterior foam insulation.
      ** Such as with most insulated concrete forms.
      Source: US DOE Technology Fact Sheet: Basement Insulation

      Insulation below the basement floor is harder to justify based on cost savings since the deep earth temperature below the slab remains pretty mild year round. However, insulating here will help prevent condensation from forming on the concrete, reducing moldy, musty odors. This is especially important if you planning to ever finish the basement.

      Good luck with your project!



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