The key to creating a gorgeous custom home within the client’s budget and timeline is assembling a stellar team of designers, builders and engineers. While some clients choose each member of their team separately, others opt for an integrated design-build approach. As a full-service residential design firm, the Laura U Design Collective offers the latter. With both architecture and interiors under the same roof, we are able to collaborate with each team member from the outset. Our team of designers involves builders, contractors, landscape architects and other participants early in the process. This way, the client’s vision, budget and timeline are clear to all involved from the very beginning. Any issues with executing this vision within the allotted timeline and budget are identified and resolved quickly. Builders provide much-needed context for our design team. Given this, involving your builder or contractor in the discovery, inspiration and design phases of the custom home building process is vital. After assembling your design team and choosing a builder or contractor, the Collective can draft plans and apply for permits. We can coordinate with vendors and subcontractors to make your dream home a reality. In this post, we offer our tips for building your dream home dream team. We also briefly outline the custom home design process and identify who you might need on your design-build team. Follow below to learn more about how to build a custom home.
A Who’s Who of Your Custom Home Design Team
From pre-construction to furniture installation, there are dozens of steps involved in designing and building a custom home. Whether conducting a gut renovation or building on vacant land, your dream home dream team will include a number of members. These include but are not limited to architects, engineers, designers, builders and others. Here’s who might be part of your custom home building project.
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The first person to join your custom home design team will likely be a residential architect or a residential building designer. Residential architects are licensed professionals who spearhead custom home projects for design-build firms. As we note in our post “9 Questions to Ask a Residential Architect,” architects “offer a guided experience.” This experience “begins with a sketch and results in a dream home.”
Assisted by interior designers, drafters and other members of the custom home design team, residential building designers “plan the size and shape of a home.” In doing so, they reference local building codes, “permitting and zoning requirements.” They identify appropriate building materials, create construction documents and represent the client’s interests when interacting with builders, contractors and engineers.
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Your custom home design team will also include either an interior designer or an interior decorator. While many people use these terms interchangeably, there are key differences between designers and decorators. We explain in our post “Interior Designer vs. Interior Decorator: What’s the Difference?” In short, a decorator is “much like a personal stylist” who determines the “visual aesthetic of a space.”
An interior designer also decorates a space, but they are also involved in construction and renovation. As we note in our post, interior designers have “an eye for design [and] understand interior architecture, renovations and construction processes.” If you are building a new custom home from the ground up, your needs might be best served by an interior designer.
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Your architect and interior designer will likely work with a structural engineer while planning your new custom home. According to S3DA Design – an architectural, structural and MEP engineering firm based in California – structural engineers are “professional civil engineers.” These engineers “specialize in understanding the reactions of structures…when acted upon by both external and internal forces and loads.”
A structural engineer may determine the design of a home is unsafe or inappropriate. If so, “they help to modify the design in order to ensure…the integrity of your [home].” Design-build firms will involve a structural engineer when building a new home. Residential design firms will do so when altering the existing layout of a built home, conducting an extensive remodel or constructing an addition. As structural engineer Aine Brazil noted in an interview for The New York Times, they “make the buildings stand up and stay up.”
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If building on vacant land, your custom home design team might also commission a geotechnical report. Typically, a geotechnical engineer will assess the site and compose this report. According to EnvironmentalScience.org, a geotechnical engineer is another kind of civil engineer.
Geotechnical engineers focus primarily on “the topography of the land and the attributes of rocks and soils in the building process.” A geotechnical engineer will outline “the properties and potential applications of rock types and soils.” He or she will “look at such environmental issues as flood plains and water tables.” They will also assess “how a building or development might sustain itself against the natural order of the landscape.”
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Next, your custom home design team might include either a landscape architect or a landscape designer. In some cases, the project might call for both a landscape architect and a landscape designer. In her article “Landscape Architect vs. Landscape Designer: What’s the Difference? ” for The Spruce, Lisa Hallett Taylor explains. Taylor writes that a landscape architect has “a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in landscape architecture and [is] licensed by the state.”
You might need a landscape architect if your site has drainage issues, a steep slope or other “challenging issues.” Landscape architects are often involved in hardscaping a home’s outdoor space, meaning that they might design retaining walls, pathways, irrigation and more. If your site is located in an environmentally sensitive area or wildland, they can also help ensure your landscaping follows local regulations.
Alternatively, landscape designers do not require the same level of education, licensing, or environmental and legal knowledge. Instead, Taylor notes that many landscape designers are “self-taught.” Rather than designing a garden’s hardscaping, irrigation or architecture, landscape designers “work with the soft stuff” like plants. Landscape designers impact the aesthetic of the garden and ensure all plants are appropriate for the region.
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At the Laura U Design Collective, we involve builders early on in the design phase of each project. In doing so, we ensure everyone in our custom home design team is on the same page. In “What You Need to Know Before You Hire a Builder for a Custom Home” for Hunker, Chris Deziel defines the builder’s role. According to Deziel, builders “work in conjunction with the designer or architect…to establish the floor plans and other structural details.”
They might also “act as a liaison between the client, the building authorities and the lender” if the client applied for construction financing. Securing permits, managing change orders, arranging inspections and hiring subcontractors, your builder might also take the place of a general contractor.
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If you choose to work with a residential design firm, you might not need to hire a general contractor. However, if you choose to put together a team by yourself, you might need a GC. If you do hire a GC, Stacy Sare Cohen explains what to expect in “Build Your Dream House” for Angi.
Cohen writes that general contractors are licensed professionals who manage building projects. They “organize every aspect of the home build, from materials and labor to timelines and deliverables.”
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In addition to a general contractor, your custom home design team will likely include a number of subcontractors. These include a roofer, electrician, equipment operator, HVAC technician, plumber, carpenter and others.
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Last on our list of custom home design team members is the procurement manager. The procurement manager orders and arranges delivery of all the elements that go into your new custom home. As a full-service firm, we have purchasing agents on staff. Our purchasing agents and managers ensure everything arrives at your home in great condition and on time for the installation phase.
How to Build a Custom Home: Phases of a Custom Home Building Project
Most building projects begin with an initial consultation and end with installation. Design, pre-construction, demolition and construction occur in between. Fairly early on in this process, clients will assemble the team responsible for building their custom home. As Steve and Hans Wydler note in an article for The Washington Post, clients often have the “basic sequencing [of this part] wrong.”
Wydler and Wydler write that many clients think they should start by hiring “an architect to design their dream home.” Next, they think they should “take the architect’s plans to a handful of builders who will eagerly bid out the project.” Finally, clients who choose this method “pick the builder with the lowest bid.” Instead, Wydler and Wydler recommend working with the builder from the beginning.
There are many positives when the builder works alongside the project’s architect and interior designer as they draft plans for the home. Wydler and Wydler note that “the process is usually faster, smoother and less expensive for the buyer.” Clients tend to reject this approach because they “fear by allying with a builder too early in the process, they lose their negotiation leverage.” In reality, “allying with a builder” early on ensures compatibility, prevents miscommunications and limits delays. We explain this in further detail below.
While the phases of a custom home building project are fairly standardized, every residential design firm approaches the process differently. Over the years, our team at the Laura U Design Collective has carefully crafted a tailored design process. This process ensures every project is executed seamlessly. To learn more about how we work, head over to our recently published post “Foundation to Furnishings: Our Holistic Approach to Home Design.”
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Most custom home design projects begin with an initial consultation. It is during this stage that the client should either assemble their design team or choose a residential design firm. To start, clients will need an architect or building designer and an interior designer on their team.
At LUDC, our team includes residential build design and interiors, so clients need not assemble their own team. In our holistic approach to home design, the consultation phase includes the discovery and inspiration stages. As we note in our post “Foundation to Furnishings,” the discovery stage is when we get to know the client.
We pinpoint the client’s needs, understand their lifestyle and define the scope of their project. During the inspiration stage of the consultation phase, we hone in on the client’s personal style. We go through images, materials and mood boards together to figure out which elements mesh with their desired aesthetic.
Our team might also draft a list of brands, vendors, artisans and craftspeople we think would be a good fit. LUDC Creative Director Gina Elkins explains in a video recently posted to our YouTube channel. Gina notes that “personality, timing, aesthetics and economics” all determine which partners the collective will work with to create the perfect home. From here, we head into the design phase.
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In the design stage, we “distill all the information gleaned during the discovery and inspiration phases.” We develop exterior elevations, electrical and plumbing plans, structural blueprints, floor plans, cross-section drawings and interior renderings during this stage. Basically, we put together all the construction documents required by your city’s planning department.
Our team tries to involve builders or contractors during this stage. This way, we can identify and address potential issues before finalizing plans and applying for permits. If you are working with a residential architect on your custom home, they should be able to help you find the right builder.
Why We Invite Builders to Participate in the Design Phase
Chatting with Master Builder Erin Stetzer from Stetzer Builders, LUDC Creative Director Gina Elkins explains why we involve builders early on. Erin notes that “many times the builder will come in at the end.” However, “‘the most important thing [in a custom home design project] is communication.” Early, clear and repeated communication between the internal team, the client and external participants like builders and landscapers is vital. It keeps the project on schedule and within budget.
In her article “How a design-build approach offers advantages for construction projects” for The Charlotte Business Journal, Laurie Garrison elaborates. Quoting Edifice’s Mike Carlisto, Garrison writes that when you involve a builder early on, “‘everyone shares their thoughts and impressions right from the start.'” This approach “‘offers checks and balances.'” According to Garrison, this method also “promotes open lines of communication and is often less adversarial than other approaches.”
Advantages of an Integrated Approach to Custom Home Design
A number of studies have actually examined and demonstrated the effectiveness of an integrated team approach to custom home design. One such study is the 2014 paper “Early Contractor Involvement: Advantages and Disadvantages for Design Team” from Norwegian University of Science and Technology researchers. This paper was presented at the 22nd Annual Conference of the International Group For Lean Construction. For American audiences, one may substitute “builder” for “contractor,” as the main points in this paper apply to both.
The paper’s authors argue that “separation of designers and contractors prevents constructive use of contractor expertise in the development of the design.” Results of delaying or denying builder involvement often include “waste, increased cost and time, and adverse relationships.” An integrated approach, however, has many advantages.
These advantages include “improved constructability, design expertise and construction knowledge, better product information and improved cost estimation.” Other advantages include “better profitability and feasibility analyses, improved risk management, better communication, improved collaboration” and an overall “better plan for construction.”
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The pre-construction phase involves everything from applying for permits and assembling a construction team to preparing the site and ordering initial inspections. If building a new custom home on vacant land, the pre-construction phase might include commissioning a geotechnical report. It might also include evaluating the project’s environmental impact and completing a utility assessment.
It is during pre-construction that clients will apply for financing — if needed. They will also submit construction documents and permit applications to their planning department. During pre-construction, the client, builder and design team will develop a change order plan, create a step-by-step schedule and interview subcontractors.
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As noted in our post “Foundation to Furnishings: Our Holistic Approach to Home Design,” the procurement phase is one of the most straightforward. This is when your design-build team accepts bids from contractors and subcontractors. The procurement stage is also when your design-build team’s procurement manager orders “new furnishings, fixtures, and accessories for your home.” During this phase, the construction manager, general contractor or builder will arrange delivery of all machinery involved in excavation, demolition and construction.
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Excavation, clearing, grading and demolition are four more self-explanatory phases in the construction process. These stages straddle the line between pre-construction and construction. During these phases, the construction crew and other subcontractors will prep the site for foundations, demolish any unwanted structures and grade uneven land. They may also remove debris and vegetation that could get in the way of building or obstruct planned landscaping.
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Both construction and installation are part of our “implementation phase.” Initially, the crew will install footings, pour the foundation, cure the foundation, install plumbing or sewer lines and frame the house. Next, they will install exterior walls, windows, doors and HVAC systems. Finally, the team will mount the roof, insulate the home, hang drywall, install flooring, and add siding to the exterior. In line with local laws, the team will order several inspections throughout the construction phase. Typically, inspections are ordered after laying the foundation and installing electrical or plumbing systems.
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Following construction, your residential design team will have the interior painted, arrange furniture and finalize any landscaping. They will also have cabinets, vanities, light fixtures, countertops and appliances installed. After installation, your builder and design team will conduct a final inspection of their own. They will also arrange a final inspection with your town’s Building and Safety Division.
Once the entire custom home design and build process is complete, our team loves to throw a reveal party for the homeowners. Personal touches like these are incredibly important to our team — and to our clients!
Our Team’s Approach to Custom Home Design
As outlined above, the Laura U Design Collective takes a holistic approach to custom home design. Our holistic approach prioritizes the client at every turn. The first step in ensuring our clients are properly represented is to assemble a custom home design team that best suits their needs.
We engage members of our residential design firm and reach out to external partners like builders and engineers as soon as we can. This way, we reap all the benefits of an integrated approach. From improved communication to efficient use of resources, we make the custom home design process easy and enjoyable for our clients.