Dr Robert Rich
An article from EARTH GARDEN Magazine

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   You can find Earth Garden magazine on the web at www.earthgarden.com.au/

On Designing Your Own House

[From Earth Garden December 1995 - February 1996]

    Often people ring me up or write to me, asking to see my house. This is because they expect it to be some aesthetic marvel which could feature in a trade magazine for architects. This means that it should be large, imposing with odd roof angles and bits and pieces specially put there for looks, have soaring cathedral ceilings and probably a stunning view.

    All this is very far from the truth. My house is a simple rectangle with a gable roof. It was just large enough for two adults and three growing children, with all five involved in many activities (about 16 squares including the attached greenhouse). There is a magnificent view to the west --but not from the house. I have to go for a walk to see it.

    There are two good bits of advice for an inexperienced owner builder:



    Dr Schumacher's advice that "small is beautiful" holds for houses. Cost of materials, labour content, maintenance costs, heating costs and environmental damage are some of the things which rise with size. Another is the stresses on the building family. A large building project is far more likely to lead to divorce than a small one.

    This is one reason it's a good idea to design the building so that it can be built in stages. Stage 1 could be just barely large enough for your needs. Complete it, move in, then reassess the plans for stage 2.

    "K.I.S.S." stands for "Keep it simple, stupid!" It is the motto of the Australian Army Engineers who design everything so a group of people who have never met before can carry out the task even under the worst possible conditions. It applies just as well to the design of anything, especially to a house to be constructed by a first-time builder.

    All the costs which rise with size rise with the square of complexity. Any departure from horizontal, vertical, square or straight will come back to complicate your life at least five times! This is true whether the departure was designed in, or was a mistake. This is not to say that you should live in a box, but that you should be aware of the costs of departing from one.

Principles guiding the design process

    Do you want your house to be a nice place to live? It won't happen by accident. You have to design in convenience. Do you want it to be sturdy, long lasting, low maintenance, solar-efficient, bushfire resistant, easy to construct, cheap to build? Whatever such criteria you have, they have to be designed in.

    To many people, including a great many architects "design" means aesthetics. But if you design a house with only the looks in mind, the other desirable features will almost certainly escape you. (Some might occur by accident. Like the man on the beach who stubbed his toe on a gold nugget.)

    In order to have a house you can build with minimal difficulty, and which will suit your needs once it's complete, follow this recipe:

Gathering information

    The more time you spend on designing the house, the fewer mistakes you'll make. Everywhere you go, there are examples of design features you like, and those which you'd rather avoid. Carry a tape measure, notebook and pen with you, measure everything and jot down your impressions of it. People won't mind if you explain what you are doing and why. Incorporate this into a "survey": ask their opinion of how well their living room functions, what are the good and bad features of the room etc. People love giving their advice -- it may even be useful!

    Build small scale models of preliminary ideas of the house. You'll learn a lot from them.

    To make all this fun, just remember: life is a journey, not a destination. While you are designing, you are a house-designer, not an intending builder. The house plan and eventual house are by-products of your hobby. Later, you can treat the building of the house in the same way. It's the best way to build yet stay sane.

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