Suffice to say, you’re probably itching to just get started with designing your house. And we’ll get there. But first, you (and your design team) need to gather all the important information you’ll need to make informed decisions about the future design of your home, which comes next in the Design Phase.
This Pre-Design phase is essentially an “information gathering and processing” phase. It involves collecting as much information you can about your site, any existing structures, codes, deed restrictions, the approvals process, septic information, utilities, access, program, budget, and schedule.
If you’re renovating your current home, this phase will be a lot quicker and easier than if you’re building new or adding on. You can skip down to the section on Programming and focus attention on turning your project requirements into a program that defines the exact rooms and spaces you want.
If you’re building a new home, and to a lesser extent if you’re adding on, this step will confirm that your project goals and program requirements can be achieved on the land. By analyzing the site (or the vacant part of your site), reviewing local zoning ordinances/building codes, and understanding your program, budget, and schedule, you’ll have a better idea of what is possible and what is optimal for your property.
Better to know this now than after you’ve already gone through the design phase.
The site itself is a strong generator of ideas and building forms so a good site analysis is key. A site analysis will reveal what is optimal for your site, what shape the house should be, and where on the site it should be built. If you’re building an addition, a site analysis is still important. You’ll want the design of your new addition to be thoughtful and specific to the available land you have. You also have nuances of your existing house to be mindful of.
Site analysis consists of gathering site information and then analyzing it based on your project requirements. You can learn a lot about optimal building placement, building shape, and organizational layout from your site characteristics. Much of what makes a great home is understanding how the light will come in, where the views are, which mature trees would make great shade structures, and so on.
If you’re working with an architect or designer they will probably do most of this work for you. They’ll want to visit your site and take photos to understand it better. They’ll look at climate data, wind patterns, and sun angles. And, then they’ll use all this information, including your site survey and conduct a thorough site analysis of your property.
If you’re doing this step solo, you’ll want to learn as much as you can about your site and the surroundings. Anything that can potentially influence your design is important to know. This is where working with a designer or architect is helpful since they know what’s important to look for and consider. Since you’re doing it yourself, you’ll have to use your best judgment or seek the advice of someone with more knowledge.
Site Survey / Topographical Survey
If you’re building a custom home, one of the first things your design team will request is for you to get a site survey of the property as soon as possible. Site surveys range in cost (usually between a few hundred dollars and a few thousand dollars) depending on your location and size of the lot. You can coordinate this task with a surveyor or have your design team do it for you.
A site survey is a drawing created by a surveyor that shows lot lines, setbacks, utilities, building outlines, trees, and topographical information on your property. It becomes an important reference document for the design team when they begin creating the design for your home. It helps them to fully understand the constraints of the site such as grading and locations of trees and other site features.
The survey helps your architect/designer understand the exact locations of property lines and building setback lines and dictate the maximum size of buildings on your site. Using these constraints, they start to design the house with a keen awareness of all these site features and restrictions. It’s good to know exact locations of all these elements before your design team gets too far along in the design phase so they don’t have to backtrack if this information is discovered later.
Make sure you check with your local planning and building department about whether they require you to submit a site survey with the planning approval or with the permit drawings. Many times they require it because they’re interested in how your new design sits on your property in relation to lot lines, setbacks, and other neighborhood buildings.
If your building department doesn’t require a survey, and neither does your design team, your contractor will still hire a surveyor to stake the lot for property lines and elevations before beginning construction. So either way, you’ll be paying for a surveyor.
Geotechnical Report / Soils Report
If you’re working with an engineer to design the structural framing of your house, they’ll want to know the soil conditions for your area so they can effectively design the foundations. Some data can be found online but for more exact information specific to your site, a soils report is needed. Building departments may also require a soils report on your site so be sure to check.
A soils report is prepared by a licensed geotechnical engineer. It spells out the soil conditions for your site – water table depth, depth of rock, and if there’s expansive or low-strength soil. Your engineer will use this information to design the foundation system for your house. Your architect will use this information to understand more about what’s necessary for underground drainage and waterproofing. And your contractor will use it to determine the best method for construction, especially if you have a high water table. (You may need pumps to pump water out of excavated areas.)
In order for the geotechnical engineer to write the report, a few test sample borings will be drilled on your site. The engineer will drill a hollowed out cylinder into the ground and pull up a sample of the different strata of soil below. These samples dictate the findings in the soils report.
If you’re building an addition, your engineer may not require a soils report. If no cracking or differential settling is noticed with your current house foundation, the engineer may assume that the new foundation can use the same type of foundation since the old foundation system has withstood the test of time.
In addition to analyzing your site, a zoning and code analysis is also important before getting into the design phase. A zoning and code review will tell you what’s possible on your site and what isn’t. Zoning and planning ordinances govern the size, the height, the location, and sometimes the aesthetics of your project, not to mention what you can actually build and who has to sign off on it. Local codes will tell you minimum safety, health, and performance criteria for your house among other things.
If you’re working with an architect for your project, they’ll do all this analysis for you. After they review all the code information, they’ll go over their findings and explain any issues that come up.
Reviewing codes and zoning data isn’t necessarily hard. But, the language in the codes can get confusing. So, if you are tackling this task on your own without an architect, dedicate some time to finding the codes and talking to building officials. If you live in a well-regulated area, chances are, navigating the various zoning and planning ordinances and approval processes may get confusing. Relying on an architect to walk you through the process can be a very worthwhile investment, not to mention could save you time and money in the long run.
Bringing it all together: Combining your findings about local zoning and code constraints (setbacks, max floor areas, height restrictions, size limitations, etc) and the information gathered from your site analysis will create a realistic picture of what’s possible and what’s optimal for your site. One last thing to review during this phase is to confirm your programming requirements with this new pre-design information.
A program is an architect’s way of saying, “what’s included in the project”. Think of it as asking yourself: What will I be programming into my house? If you haven’t created a Project Brief yet, now is the time to get your thoughts down on paper. It’s really important that your design team knows what you want out of your house, the spaces, the look and feel, and the sizes. If you haven’t defined the spaces you want, you need to do this now.
Your design team will review your brief and program in light of all the information learned throughout this pre-design phase about the site characteristics and the local codes. They’ll be able to confirm whether your project (as outlined in your brief and program) can be built on your site and if there are any concerns or red flags.
If you or your design team is unsure how the program might fit on the site (or within your current home for renovators) or if you’re debating between a few different sites, this is a great opportunity for your design team to prepare a feasibility study or do a few test-fits. Simple massing diagrams can be “cartooned” on your site plan to show how your project might fit. These site diagrams can be very useful tools in helping to inform early design decisions.
Also at this time, the design team will review your budget and any schedule constraints. While it’s hard to know the cost of your project this early on, they can at least draw some initial conclusions about whether they think you can build what you want with the budget you have and in the timeframe you’ve set. If not, it may be necessary to rethink part of your program or overall project goals if the budget or schedule doesn’t align.
- Get a site survey.
- Gather property information (surveys, drawings, site photos, deed information).
- Perform code and zoning analysis on your property (or have your design team do it).
- Confirm your program requirements, budget, and timeframe align.
Need more help? Here are additional resources related to this section.
All downloadable resources can be found in our Resource Library. Sign up to gain exclusive access.
- Zoning Analysis Worksheet (New Construction)
- Zoning Analysis Worksheet (Home Addition)
- Zoning Analysis Worksheet (Accessory Structure)
- Sample Script for Conversation with Zoning Official
- Course: Pre-Design Analysis
Over To You…
Hopefully, you’ve realized that all this information gathering and analysis wasn’t for nothing. Understanding what you can and can’t do on your site, and what you should and shouldn’t do are invaluable insights. And they truly can make or break a project.
With all this insight in hand, you’re now prepared to begin the design process! Onward, friend.