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[Note: this is a guest blog from Larry Gilland, the founder of LGA Studios, an architectural firm in Colorado Springs. We’ve collaborated with Larry’s team on many homes over the years, and today, we’ve shared with him some of the questions we frequently hear about home design, and we’ve asked him to respond from his perspective, having been in the architectural industry for over 30 years. We hope you find it helpful! -Ron Stauffer]

Question #1: Many people want to build a “Rancher” these days. What is a “Rancher” exactly?

Ranchers are, very simply, homes built with a relatively simple floor plan and a focus on main-level living. A bit of history: ranch style homes came into popularity after WWII, when soldiers started returning home and our country saw a huge population boom and building started expanding all over the country. At the time, land was cheap, and there was plenty of room to build, so the popular floor plan of the day was a ranch style home; it was generally a one-story story home, it was simple to build. On a side note: “ranchers” are more accurately called “Ranch Style” homes.

Question #2: Another commonly requested home feature is a “walk-out basement.” Why are these so desirable in our region?

In Colorado, the concept of a walk-out basement is brought about by our topography. Historically, basements in the past were commonplace in the eastern and central parts of the USA where the land is flat, and you’d have what’s essentially a big, unattractive hole in the ground under your house, used for something like a tornado shelter (provided you didn’t have a high water table).

However, homes with basements started becoming part of a big trend here in Colorado, and since a lot of times, the land we’re building on slopes and has a gradient, we can build a two-story home with a walk-out basement, which in reality gives you three floors of living space. It’s a very effective use of space, and the alternative is having a crawl space, which is a huge waste of space. So it can be quite economical to build a walk-out basement on land with a slope, because the extra concrete and excavation needed to convert that crawl space into a basement is very little. You already have to excavate 4-6 feet down anyway, so you might as well make that area into livable space.

Question #3: There are websites on the Internet where people can buy a floor plan for a home online. Is this a good idea?

We get this question from time to time, and here’s my stance: it can be a good idea. However, you have to consider the following:

  1. What are your local building conditions?
  2. What are your local trades used to doing?
  3. What are your local building codes?
  4. Are your needs “generic” enough that you’ll be happy with a completely “stock” plan?

Sometimes, an online floor plan company will design a home for a particular region, such as Florida, or the Midwest, so it may not take into account the unique conditions we have here in Colorado. For example, some online floor plans are drawn with a concrete block foundation, which we can’t build on in Colorado. Sometimes, the home designed for another region won’t meet the requirements for snow loads, which can be a big problem. Some plan companies design a home with a big screened-in porch, which we don’t usually build here in Colorado because we don’t have the hot, humid, buggy weather that calls for a large porch with a bug screen.

Most floor plan companies have a disclaimer that says something like “Warning: have this floor plan verified by a local architect before building.” We can, and have worked with online plans before, and it can save some time if you’re looking at a set of plans and saying to yourself: “This is absolutely the plan I want—I don’t need to make a single change to it.” Otherwise, if you want to start making any changes, the initial investment you make on those plans (often in the range of several thousands of dollars) can vanish and all the cost savings are eliminated.

When planning on having a home built, a better way to start than buying a set of stock plans online is to come in and talk to a design/build construction company or an architectural firm. At my firm, for example, we have a comprehensive checklist we run through and we conduct a thorough interview where we ask you a lot of questions and really get to know you and learn what you want in a home. By asking these questions and learning about what you want, we find that we can quickly get an idea of the kind of design you’re looking for. That is much a better way to start down the path of getting your home designed cost effectively.

Question #4: Aside from drawing a set of blueprints, what can an architect or design firm bring to the table?

Creativity. We find that sometimes times, builders, developers, and engineers think in a linear, square, and cost-conscious fashion. …and they should! But architects and designers can help people think outside the box. (It is great, though, to have a builder than can then say “Hey, let’s bring this back to reality” and start to reel the ideas back in to make sure the project is feasible).

Architects can also offer expertise in building science and knowing what knew kinds of building materials and products are available. For example, there are lots of new energy efficient building products on the market these days, but it’s important to know which ones are worth using and which aren’t. That’s also where an architectural firm can help.

Here’s a great example: a true Adobe-Style home does not work very well in Colorado because of our climate. However, our firm recently designed an Adobe home, and it’s stood up very well, but that’s because there was careful preparation and building science that went into making sure it would actually last in our region.

Question #5: If I hire an architect to draw some plans for me, can I then use those to build my own home?

You can, but you’re going to need a lot of patience! I generally recommend that people hire a general contractor to build their home. There are many reasons to hire a builder:

  1. Relationships: a builder has people he’s worked with over time: he’s established relationships with subcontractors, suppliers, and vendors; and through all these relationships, everyone’s able to perform well together as a team.
  2. Availability of Trades: what I’ve generally seen with someone who wants to build his or her own home without hiring a builder is that the home owner often doesn’t have the availability of tradesmen like a builder does. Even if a homeowner can find someone to pour a concrete foundation, it may be months until he can get a framing crew to come frame the house because they’re just too busy framing for builders that they’re more dedicated to (because builders provide them with a steady stream of work).
  3. Buying Power: a home owner might be frustrated by not being able to buy labor and materials at the same rate that a builder can.
  4. Supervising the Project: is a home owner educated enough to look for problems and issues as they come up, or making sure that he’s covered against liens on his home? Can he make sure the quality of construction is right? Can he manage the timing right to schedule each trade? Some people can, but many can’t. It takes someone with a lot of patience and intuition and knowledge to build their own home.

Question #6: If I want a home built, where should I start first? Do I have to know exactly what I want before contacting a builder or architect?

You don’t have to come up with all the design and style ideas first, but you will need to be thinking of three basic concepts:

  1. What are the basic elements of your home? For example, you’re probably going to want a master bedroom, and you probably going to want a kitchen, main living quarters, and a dining room of some sort. So, before you even get to the design process, you should decide whether you want a very “formal” style of living arrangement with a formal dining room and a large kitchen, or a more informal arrangement where you combine your dining room and great room together, and things like that.
  2. What is your basic budget? Your budget has a significant impact on the final product (clearly). We’ve designed homes in a wide range of budgets: all the way from $100k to $10MM and even higher. You really need to know what your budget is before you can begin, otherwise you can be wasting your time.
  3. Where is your land? Especially if you’re building a custom home, the land you pick plays a huge part in how your home we be designed. Do you want a ranch style home with main level living built into the side of a huge hill? If so, there’s going to be a lot of excavating, and that may not be the best design for that kind of site. So if you can, buy your land first, or at least know what kind of lot you want to build on before we get started on the design.

Question #7: There are so many architectural styles out there—how can I find out which one I want for my home?

The best way for us to do this is to have a conversation with you where we look at a bunch of photos of homes with different styles. It’s a very educational process: we’ll show you an examples of a Spanish Colonial Revival home, then examples of a Craftsman home, and then Contemporary, and so on, and you can then decide to what extent you want to adhere to a particular style, or not. In the Pikes Peak region especially, we have a lot of mixed architectural styles, where people might like certain aspects of, for example, Prairie, and aspects of Craftsman, and the two styles can compliment each other and be carried through from the exterior and interior, if it’s done right.

The website www.houzz.com has been a phenomenal help with this, and it not only helps us learn what a client likes, but we also learn what they don’t like. For example, sometimes we’ll get a client in the office who says “I want a Contemporary style interior,” then we’ll pull up some photos on Houzz that show off that style, and the client will say “Oh, gosh… that’s really not what I was thinking,” so a picture is worth 1,000 words in this case.

Sometimes, a client will walk in the door very prepared, bringing a binder full of images they’ve clipped from Architectural Digest magazine, but even so, we’ll still look at each and every image and ask “What do you like about this one?” …and we’ll start to see patterns of your individual taste pretty quickly, and that’s how we really find out the what and why behind the design decisions a client makes.

Question #8: How can I avoid making mistakes when designing my home that I will later regret?

You want to think about the future when designing your home today. There are four major aspects of this:

  1. Think carefully about the size and finish of the home. You may think that you want your living room to be 20 ft x 20 ft. But what if you only have a love seat, a couch and a chair to go in it? They’ll be absolutely dwarfed by the space. So, many times, when we’re designing for people, we try to come up with ways to scale back the size of their house to fit them better, and to fit their budget better. Plus, if we can scale back the overall size of a house, the home owner’s budget can go even further by allowing them to spend more money on nice finishes, and not just spending all their money on a square-footage monster.
  2. Think about your home’s retail value down the road. A home is an investment—a long term investment. So we want to make it work for you long-term, and also make it work for you for resale, if that’s of value to you down the road. If you plan on selling it at any time, you might want to consider things like trying not to overbuild for the neighborhood you live in. Also, from my perspective, I want to design a home that has a style that works over time and is easy to resell. Ask yourself: “Are people going to want to buy this home when I’m ready to sell it?”
  3. Think about “aging in place.” We have a home we’re designing right now for a couple who have decided that they don’t want to sell the home in their lifetimes—they want to live in it for their remaining days. So as part of that, we’ve designed the home with some elevators in it, as well as main-level living, and even an extra bedroom where in-home help can live, if needed. So even though in this case, they’ve definitely overbuilt for the neighborhood they live in, it doesn’t really matter because they won’t need to sell the home, at least until after they’ve passed on. This may or may not might not be the case for you, but you should think about these things before designing your home.
  4. Look into advances in building science and energy savings. Sometimes people think bigger is better, but that’s not necessarily true. Aside from the cost saving benefits of decreasing a home’s size, building a smaller structure that’s tighter and that performs to a higher efficiency can also be much better for you in the long run. Some extra money spent now can save you a lot of money in the long run. Also, think of the automobile industry: cars these days are being made smaller, smarter, and far more efficient, and those are the cars that sell. So as with cars, there have been a lot of advances in home building science as well to help with these things, but you might not know unless you do some research.

Question #9: Are there any factors about home design that are unique to Colorado Springs?

Our region has a harsh freeze/thaw climate that can present some challenges when designing or building a home. We have more “cooling days” than we do “heating days,” so insulation is a very important factor, and there are some building methods that aren’t compatible with this (brick walls with no insulation, homes with a lot of glass, etc). So we need to marry an architectural style with our local building codes, and we need to think of what makes sense from an energy standpoint as well.

One style we really don’t see much of in Colorado Springs is a true Contemporary Style. However, that style is a big trend these days that’s starting to come across the country, (mostly from California), but our market in Colorado Spring is very traditional, and people here don’t necessarily embrace the Contemporary building style. So if you were to build a big, white, International-Style home in a neighborhood where there are a lot of traditional “Colorado Timber” type houses… that home would really stand out. So what we like to do is take some of those Contemporary forms and use certain materials to “warm it up” to fit our region, and that really works better in our community.

Question #10: What is the biggest challenge when designing a new home?

We’ve done a number of award-winning houses over the years, and winning awards always feels great, but my challenge is always this: can I do a project that is timeless? I try to ask myself: can this home’s design stand the test of time? Will it still be desirable 100 years from now? That’s the biggest challenge for me, and it’s one I enjoy. Of all the homes I’ve done through the years, there’s probably about 100 of them that might be considered timeless, and that’s really what I strive for.

About Larry Gilland

Larry Gilland is the Principal at LGA Studios, an Architectural Design Firm based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Larry has worked in the architectural industry for over 35 years and has participated in the design of over 5,000 homes. Larry and Stauffer & Sons Construction have collaborated on dozens of custom homes over the past 15 years. Contact Larry by calling (719) 635-0880 or visiting www.lgastudios.com.