Insiders Guide on Building Your Own Luxury Home

We frequently see posts about building your own house that focus on features rather than process and costs. The goal of this post is to provide you with a thoughtful framework to build your own home while considering both design and constructability of the house.

Selecting a site:

Picking the land is very much a personal decision. Things to keep in mind:

  1. The denser the population, the more land use controls will exist. If you buy a lot in a highly controlled environment, it may take years and a ton of concessions to get your permits and variances approved. Factor this into your decision.

  2. Perform a zoning review. Find the jurisdiction’s zoning map and code. Spend a couple hours going through this to verify that you will be able to build what you want on it (this can be outsourced to your design team as well; see below) Key parameters include: bulk regulations - lot setbacks and maximum height. Overlay districts with additional restrictions. Flood plains. Wetlands. Maximum impervious area. Planting requirements. Lighting restrictions. Accessory dwelling restrictions. Ask is an architect or engineer stamp required.

  3. Things that are not permitted “by right” may be allowed “by variance”. This process is longer and will necessitate attendance at zoning board meetings with uncertain outcomes. You can contact the zoning board and get a sense of whether or not your proposed variance will be approved but it is no guarantee.

  4. Have a survey performed by a professional land surveyor. They should note lot lines, major trees, easements, utilities, etc. that can be the base drawing for the design team.

  5. If there is an existing house that you want to keep but renovate and/or add onto it, you can have it laser-scanned by someone with a LiDar rig so that can be imported into the design team’s CAD.

Picking a design team:

You’ll want to start with a residential architect or designer. While it is traditional to select an architect, you do not need to work with one to design your house. If fact, there are many advantages to working directly with a designer who has an engineering or construction background. Working with a designer can lead to a more coordinated, affordable process, resulting in a faster and smoother construction process for your home.

If you want to hire an architect, it's important to select one that not only fits your design aesthetic but also has a deep understanding of constructability and process. Many architects have no experience in construction and therefore do not always consider how the parts come together cohesively, ultimately costing you more money when you move into the construction phase. Aim to find an architect with actual field experience - who has an understanding of how the parts and the subcontractors come together and actually build the home on the site.

In addition, ensure that the architect is working in 3D at a minimum. The 3D CAD (BIM) aspect will help you visualize your home come to life. For example, they should be able to run you through a VR walkthrough of your house and develop renders of what it will look like at the end.

The architect may subcontract elements of the design. Often a structural engineer, mechanical/electrical/plumbing (MEP) engineer, and sometimes an interior designer to handle aspects of the interior finishes. For luxury homes, high quality interior design makes a massive difference so request your architect works with one. The designer will primarily determine the furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FFE) as well as materials and finishes. They will make minor amends to the architects design to accommodate interior features like archways, ceiling types, etc.

The design process itself will be iterative and coordinated by the architect or the home designer. As you start out, be sure to develop a budget, a list of features, style references, pictures, and floorplans.

It is the Architects job to coordinate among their design subcontractors. This may not always happen. Don’t accept an uncoordinated design. For example, the design should incorporate a route for ductwork (if there is ductwork). They’ll often overlook this kind of thing and the duct subcontractor will choose their own route in the field, compromising the design intent.

Remember, a house is both a long-term investment and something you live in on a daily basis. You need to balance the design so it’s both curated to your individual needs and marketable to the next owner.

Picking the Design Style:

You can build in a variety of popular styles. Right now farm house plans, ranch houses, cottage-style homes and beach house plans are very popular.

Selecting a Builder:

The general contractor (GC) will oversee construction, subcontract many of the trades and sometimes self perform some of the work. It is possible to save money and be your own GC. I’d advise against this because local, experienced GCs will have deep knowledge about the work quality and reliability of local subcontractors. For example, it can be very costly to bring in a local tile sub and have them do a sub-par job that needs to be torn out and replaced.

The best way to choose a GC is by referral. The high end luxury GCs don’t do high volume so try to make connections where you plan to build to assess who is in the game and has the capabilities.

Other aspects to pay attention to:

1.) Prefabrication/Modularity: Prefab is back and it’s no longer associated with cheap quality construction. Modern 3D CAD tools allow cutting edge designers to quickly develop engineered framing plans for your custom house design. These can be panelized in a factory, including doors/windows/drywall/plumbing/siding and shipped to the site for rapid erection. Prefab allows for tighter tolerances, faster construction and less worrying about the weather but you need an experienced designer who has the capability to panelize your design in CAD.

2.) Landscape architecture: Most people would benefit if they cut 20% off of the cost of their house and put that towards hiring a landscape firm. Proper hardscaping, shade trees, irrigation, water features, retaining walls and gardens can add far more value once your reached a diminishing marginal return on extra bedrooms. You can either hire a standalone landscape architect or a design-build firm. I’d recommend the latter. Again, choose locally since they’ll have the best knowledge of what thrives in the area.

3.) Fire Ratings: Consider that you may value the lives of you and your family higher than the median person. Increasing the fire ratings of your house is marginally cheap and can have a substantial impact on the event of a fire. I’d recommend talking with your design team about a 2-hr fire rating assembly on the ground floor and a 1-hr assembly on upper floors. A hardwired connected alarm system is also a good investment and you may even consider a sprinklers system in select areas.

4.) Construction Quality: Quality is a factor of both the structural/underlayment and material choices. Overbuilding things can be a cheap way to build a better house. For example, the marginal cost of lower floor joist spacing is very small and can lead to a much different feeling home with less noticeable floor deflection.

5.) Mechanical/Electric/Plumbing (MEP): If an MEP engineer is retained to build your home, emphasize the importance of air quality. It’s challenging to understand the base rates of environmental contamination but I believe it to be vastly undervalued. Properly designed exhaust systems should be supplemented with balanced fresh air intakes through energy recovery ventilators and fed into every bedroom, bathroom and kitchen at a minimum.

Ask them about strategies for ensuring hot water supply is instantaneous, drain/waste/vent plumbing is oversized and maintenance free, etc.

6.) Pricing strategies: Like many industries, the prices each subcontractor will quote you won't be grounded in the market rate but rather be intended to match your ability to pay. There’s a few strategies that can help limit over-paying:

  • The architect will generally just charge a percentage of the budgeted cost. This rate is typically negotiable.

  • Try to compartmentalize subcontractors. Only deliver the relevant parts of the plans to them for quotes. Be aware that the GC is both trying to keep you as a client and maintain their long-term relationships with the subs. They may drop pricing hints to the subs depending on their contract structure.

  • A rough rule of thumb is that most things in construction are about 50% material costs and 50% labor. For example, if a sub is charging you $30/sf to put in flooring that retails for $5/sf then you’ve been had.

  • You can pre-purchase materials and have them delivered to the site to avoid the subcontractor marking them up an additional 10-20%. If you’re buying the materials it also allows you to withhold payment until the job is done and you’ve verified that the job was done to a high standard.

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