Designing Your Home – What Comes First?

A client asked me this question recently: “What is the first step in designing a house, the floor plan or the outside of the house?”

Good question – the answer is a little complicated, and subjective, and contradictory…but doing it right can make the difference between good design and mediocre design.

I remember an interview with Elton John a few years ago, the interviewer wanted to know whether Elton wrote the music of his hit songs first, or if Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics first.  Elton said in almost every case, Bernie wrote the lyrics – then Elton put it to music with very little collaboration with Bernie.

Voila – mega hit song.

But that’s a very rare talent – most songwriters go back and forth, fitting the words to the music, and changing the music to fit the words. Some writers do it better than others – you’ve heard songs where the music and lyrics mesh perfectly, and others where the two seem a bit out of sync.

A bad fit is often the result of shoehorning lyrics into a set tune, or forcing music onto lyrics you’re not willing to tweak.

Same goes with house design – when you get stuck on a complete floor plan you’ll likely find yourself struggling to make the outside look the way you want.  And if you fall in love with a front elevation, you might not be able to make the floor plan work the way you want.

first step in designing a house

A better design process is far more flexible – it doesn’t matter whether you start with the “look” or the floor plan, as long as you keep the design loose and allow the floor plan and the elevations to influence each other as you go along.

Sometimes that means some parts of the design will have to make small sacrifices to make other parts of the design work, but that’s part of the design process too. What’s most important in the early stages of the process is to avoid committing to too much that you can’t (or won’t) change.

first step in designing a house

The design process in my office has some structure to it, so I can be sure to address all the issues – but that little bit of structure is also a framework that allows my clients and me to explore lots of options early on, and keep the design creative and loose. Read more about my design process here.

That “back-and-forth” in the design process is essential to good design and essential to making sure my clients are fully involved in the creation of their home design.

The extra time and effort is worth it, even for Elton and Bernie on those few occasions when the song didn’t come as easily: “I sat on the roof and kicked up the moss – Well, a few of the verses, well, they’ve got me quite cross”.

Contact me to learn more about the services I offer and how I can help make your new home or remodeling project exciting, valuable and unique.


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Richard Taylor, AIA
5 years ago

Thanks Art – it might seem counter intuitive to say that a systematic approach allows for more creativity – but you have to know where the lines are before you can color outside them, right? Congrats on what sounds like a very successful project!

Art Em
5 years ago

Thanks much for your always informative articles and shared wisdom.

Art Em
5 years ago

We always enjoy your informative articles and shared wisdom, including this one on a systemic approach. My wife and I followed that path in planning our retirement house. First, we came with five criteria. The house would be prudently planned, energy efficient, accessible to all (also allowing us to age in place), cozy and comfortable, and ecologically responsible. We considered all of these as we made our site selection, adopted a floor plan and exterior elevations, and made construction and materials decisions. We've now been in our 1950 sf Virginia ranch house for over a year. We have no steps, no electric bills (everything is electric), and a versatile, well-appointed floor plan with universal features. Including the lot, the house cost about $180 per sf. A careful, systematic approach worked well for us.