How Do We Design a House? First, Set Priorities

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Kongs
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The Small Home, Big Decisions series follows Jennifer and her husband, Tyler, as they build a self-reliant homestead on a piece of country property in northeastern Kansas. The series will delve into questions that arise during their building process and the decisions they make along the way. The posts are a work in progress, written as their home-building adventure unfolds.

One of the most exciting steps in designing our future home is all of the customizing we are able to do. That same step is also one of the most overwhelming. Sometimes,  I am giddy about a great plan we have to put in a sliding barn door as the entrance to our nicely oversized pantry, then come crashing down as I try to figure out which type of wood stained to which hue the shelves within the pantry should be. Oh, the environmental responsibility! But, we’re not quite there yet. And, when we first started thinking about what our perfect home would look like, we were given a good piece of advice by our realtor: Start by setting your priorities.

We made a grid on a piece of paper, dividing the paper into quadrants. The quadrants were titled as “Must Have,” “Would Like to Have,” “Could Live With,” and “Could Not Live With.” Originally, this was an exercise we did when we were working with a realtor to find our ideal country home, before we had decided to build a house. But, it was one of the most valuable (and, later, timesaving) exercises we completed together. Our answers to each of these questions guided our house hunt, and, now, our house-designing process. We could tell at a glance when a house or a piece of property had a feature we absolutely did not want, or when a house or land didn’t have one of our must-have features. Ultimately, it saved us a lot of driving around in the country because we quickly eliminated houses we might have otherwise had to visit, only to then decide the house or location wasn’t right for us. In the end, our specific set of wants and don’t-wants was a major reason we chose to construct a custom house. Now, we’ve used our priorities to select a design that meets our requirements, and we will work with a builder/contractor to create a house based on our priorities.

If you’re looking for a home (or planning to purchase land) and  you plan to homestead, you’ll want to take into consideration these two additional aspects as you start setting priorities: Think about the land, too (how much you want, how close to town you want to be, etc.), and plan for future growth (if you’ll have guests, if you’ll have guests/farm volunteers often, if you need a barn or can build one later, if you need fencing, water for you and your animals/garden). There are many, many, endless questions you could consider, but if you can at least pinpoint your major concerns, it will help you get started. For Tyler and me, this process helped us talk through a few potential sticking points at the outset (I mean, really, we can’t just have one bathroom?) And, obviously, knowing your price range is key.

So, here’s a sampling of some of our answers to the four priority-setting questions:

Must have: basement, pantry, mud room, 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom, at least 15 acres, within a 15-minute drive to town.

Nice to have: more than 15 acres, barn/outbuildings for livestock, fencing, water, on pavement, about 1,000- to 1,500-square-foot house.

Could live with: small kitchen, more than 15 minute-drive from town, gravel road, larger house than we want.

Could not live with: more than 30-minute drive from town, no basement, more than 1,800-square-foot house, less than 15 acres, covenants on property preventing livestock, land surrounded by chemical, conventional, monocrop agriculture.

Photo of priorities grid by Jennifer Kongs.

Next in series: How Do We Get a Septic System Installed?
Previously in series: Could We Build a Kit Home?

Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect directly with Jennifer and Tyler by leaving a comment below!