Designing a House

Image of Designing a House: An Illustrated Guide to Planning Your Own Home
Release Date: 
April 26, 2012
Overlook Press
Reviewed by: 

“Lester Walker advises would-be home designers to learn how to look at houses.”

The urge to design and build one’s own home—a trait that might appear to be uniquely human—is really nothing of the sort. It is shared by many living organisms from ants to aardvarks.

Some DIY homes are ornate (bowerbird nests) and elaborate (beaver lodges). What truly distinguishes modern, civilized humankind from other creatures is that (1) we need instructions to design and build our homes or (2) we can at least hire someone else to do it for us.

Lester Walker’s book seeks to satisfy members of the first category.

For those who want to take on the tortuous task of designing their own home, this book has much to recommend it. Author Walker offers advice he has accumulated over a long architectural career and offers insights many builders and do-it-yourselfers would not likely possess.

Lester Walker advises would-be home designers to learn how to look at houses.

First, observe general shapes and forms; enjoy the overall appearance of things and don’t become preoccupied with details too early. Learn to appreciate spaces. How does the space feel and how does it feel to move between spaces?

Before your design decisions are finalized, think about light penetration, ventilation, and shade. Be mindful of prevailing breezes and the position of summer and winter sun. These considerations could save you money and discomfort down the road.

Too frequently, home designers begin by thinking about the appearance of their house without considering the character of the site or the qualities of the surrounding land and neighborhood.

Mr. Walker recommends getting to know the site and thinking about all the site elements: walkways, driveways, landscaping views from the house, as well as different views of the house. Drawing the site, he suggests, is an effective way to accomplish this.

Mr. Walker earns an architectural seal of approval when he recommends drawing. “Sketching or drawing is one of the most important skills to develop because it is the simplest firm of visual communication.”

In light of the current proliferation of digital modeling and the resulting scarcity of hand drawing, this is sage and refreshing advice.

All the same, this book might be approached with a little caution. Remember: Mr. Walker is presenting and certainly simplifying an architectural education and many years of office and field experience into about 10,000 words—many architectural books have longer footnotes than this—plus a few dozen engaging drawings.

Mr. Walker follows the development of a simple house from site analyses through programming and bubble diagrams, right up to finished design drawings. It appears to represent a reasonable sampling of the kinds of problems that a home designer might face.

But in fact, his example is a deceptively straightforward design exercise on a generous, uncomplicated, apparently unregulated (and unsurveyed) rural site that places few restrictions on the design or placement of the buildings.

A would-be designer for a similarly sized home on a tighter urban lot would encounter a host of complications including site access, grading, drainage, mechanical services, building set-backs, excavation restrictions, and soil conditions that would frustrate even the most ardent DIY enthusiast.

Back to drawing again: It’s good to practice drawing, but the rapid mastery of architectural drawing is something that Mr. Walker appears to take for granted. Most amateurs and many professionals would be hard pressed to duplicate the skill and fluency of the freehand plan drawings that Mr. Walker presents in the book.

As many readers will be aware, hand-drawing tools have been all but replaced in architectural offices in the 21st century. Design drawings, construction drawings, and increasingly even study sketches, are all done using computers. So Walker’s designer’s shopping list of drafting boards, T-squares, set squares, and triangular scales represents not merely a quaint throwback but also perhaps a fruitless search.

This is not to be discouraged, since traditional drafting tools provide the easiest and most responsive way to create architectural drawings. Bur unless you live in a large city with well-equipped art stores and flea markets, you may be stymied when you try to find canary paper, a mechanical pencil, a sanding block, or a pencil pointer—though the Internet is certainly a source to consider; however, are now many cheap, user-friendly digital drawing programs that are easier to master.

As a final caveat, assess your own capabilities and patience threshold before you start. Consult a professional designer, engineer, builder or architect early in the process, rather than later, in case you run low on time, patience, ideas, spousal encouragement, knowledge of codes and bylaws, or enthusiasm.

It’s always good to know that while the primal urge to conceive one’s own home is healthy and satisfying, the ability to hire someone else to do it demonstrates the clear benefits of biological evolution.