Our House Design Process

Quote of the Day

Find out who you are and do it on purpose.

- Dolly Parton


Cabin Today

Figure 1: Cabin Today. (Source: Dawn Biegert)

A number of people have asked questions about the process we used to design and build our cabin in northern Minnesota (Figure 1), a build that I have discussed in other posts (link, link). The questions center on the tools we used, what the build process was like, and things to watch for. The following post examines our design and build process from the standpoint of what went well and not so well.

Overall, I was very happy with how things turned out. We have been in the house now for 3 years and have had no major issues. The minor issues were mainly simple screw pops in the drywall and some drywall seams that separated. We also had some outlets that were in the wrong places and I had to move them. Normally, we would have caught the outlet position issues during construction, but we were not on-site often enough.

While things went well, I don't think we would build another custom home. It was too much work – one was enough.


High-Level Design

We had some basic requirements on the structure:

  • Comply with Local Building Codes
    There were a large number of building codes related to the structure being close to the lake. One of the main constraints was that we could only grow the footprint of the old structure by 50%. To get enough area for our children and grandchildren, we needed to add a second floor. The footprint of the house was also limited by building restrictions on how close the house could be to the lake and a nearby road. The house placement was highly constrained.
  • Handicapped-Accessible First Floor
    We have handicapped friends that we want to be able to use our home comfortably and we wanted to consider our needs when we are old and want to continue living here. We decided on a home with:

    • no basement
    • laundry, kitchen, curbless shower on the first floor
    • stepless entrances/exits
    • made provisions for adding a home elevator for access to the second-floor if that becomes necessary
    • because of the house size restrictions, we decided to add a large garage on another lot that would provide a shop and an entertainment area. Little did we know that handicapped accessibility would be important right away as my wife would suffer a serious injury and would be laid up for the better part of a year (she is fine now).

Concept Development

My wife spent years collecting pictures of homes that she thought would fit our north woods lifestyle. She put together a collection of ~100 home designs that had features that she liked, for instance, lighting ideas like wall lights or pendant lights, carpet colors, what wood the furniture would be, how the kitchen would be set out, everything under the sun she had already gathered ideas for. Eventually, she found a plan for a boathouse that became her inspiration for the overall look of the house.

Detailed Design

Designing this house was a lifetime dream for my wife and she started by drawing some simple hand drawings (she is a skilled hand draftsman). However, she had a large number of alternatives she wanted to evaluate, and hand drawing proved to be just too slow.

Figure M: Chief Architect Home Designer.

Figure 2: Chief Architect Home Designer Package.

To speed her ability to try different options, we decided to move her from hand drawing to a 3D modeling program. This worked really well. For house design, we ended up choosing Home Designer by Chief Architect (Figure 2). It was easy to use, had excellent Youtube training videos, and had an excellent library of house components directly from the manufacturers (e.g. windows) that provided realistic renderings of her house concepts. I think we spent ~$300. I captured the initial draft of the house based on the original boathouse concept. My wife then did everything else.

One thing that we did miss during the design phase was allocating enough space for storing snow while snowplowing. While this issue is not directly about the house, it has become a big issue because the snow plower has to push snow up on the lawn. The plowed snow contains rock and other debris from our driveway, which is then deposited on our lawn every spring when the piles of snow melt. He also damages the lawn during the plowing operating. We are getting ready to buy a large snowblower that we can blow the snow over the whole yard and spread out the problem, but it would have been simpler to have clear areas for the snowplow to push the snow into.

Reality Phase

Builder Selection

Our location deep in the woods limited our builder options. We were fortunate to find Mark Utecht, a builder from the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) who had decided to move to the north woods. He had extensive experience building custom homes similar to ours and we liked his commitment to quality.

Figure M: Pettibone (Source: Pettibone).

Figure 3: Pettibone (Source: Pettibone).

I worked on construction sites as a drywall installer during high school and I saw quite a few carpenters. Utecht may be the best hammer and nail man I have ever seen. While he contracted out the electrical, HVAC/plumbing, concrete, and roofing tasks, he did everything else himself. He was interesting to watch because he was a master of working alone and was a magician with a Pettibone (Figure 3). Every motion was well-practiced and efficient. I love to watch a master in action. When it comes to work that needs doing like plumbing, it's usually best to go for experts in that particular field to do that job as there's too much to mess up and that could go wrong were you to do it yourself. This is why reaching out to the likes of Apollo Plumbing is a popular decision when working on construction and remodeling projects.

To simplify getting cost estimates, Utecht requested that we take our plans to a draftsman who would check what Chief Architect generated for code compliance, generate drawings in a format that Utecht was used to, and creating a part database for cost estimation. This cost $1500 and I think was worth it as we began to iterate on costs.

Like most custom home builds, the initial cost estimates were far over our budget. Utecht was experienced at getting the most value for the dollar and he worked with my wife and the draftsman to hit our cost targets. This activity took a couple of months.

Construction Phase

Building the structure took about six months. Overall, there was relatively little drama during the construction. However, there were some miscommunications that normally would be easy to deal with if my wife could have been on-site every day. However, we live 200 miles from the construction site and daily inspections were out of the question. Also, there is no cellular service nor Internet at the site.

Fortunately, I was able to get a DSL line to the site and I set up cameras for remote monitoring. This helped and we were able to correct some errors from long-distance, but remote monitoring was not adequate. Some painful rework ended up being needed.

Overall Assessment

Table 1 shows a score that represents my feeling about the build and how it went.

Table 1: Cabin Build Scorecard.
Category Quality Conformance to Plan Comments
General Contractor A A- Very easy to work with. My only regret is that he did not put in a sump basket after the HVAC guy advised him to. This has been annoying because the lift pump (for combustion condensate) has been failure-prone.
HVAC/Plumbing A A No issues of any sort.
Sheetrocking B A Lots of screw pops started right away. A number of edges have experienced paper separation. I am able to repair these.
Painting B A Some areas were not smooth, brush strokes visible.
Electrical A B Did not follow the instructions for placing a number of outlets. This has been annoying and I had to move a number of outlets.
Concrete A A The house is built on a heated slab. It has provided us very comfortable heating. We also have some outdoor stamped concrete work that we really like.
3D Design Software B+ N/A The software was critical to getting the home we wanted. The software made no calculation mistakes but did have some annoying bugs. Nothing earth-shattering, but annoying.
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