Designing from Scratch
While it doesn’t rank in the top five of stressful life events, designing a house from scratch is chock full of trying and wearisome decisions that can have even the calmest and most design-savvy homeowners overwhelmed in no time. From small but persistent details like choosing outlets and light plates to bigger and more challenging decisions like choosing the footprint of your kitchen, designing a home from scratch is no easy feat. To do it right—and without long-term regrets—it’s a good idea to work with a designer.
“I think it’s an interesting phenomenon that whenever we try to plan something that we have some familiarity with, we feel we should be capable of executing a plan as if it’s our profession,” says Allison Valtri of Allison Valtri Interiors in Avalon. “I think when it comes to building a home or a large renovation, some clients put this pressure on themselves, thinking that because they own a home and are stylish, they should be able to achieve this.”
Rather, Valtri’s first recommendation when it comes to a large-scale design, especially one that accommodates a new build, is to put together a team of experts. And buckle in for a long working relationship.
“I recommend assembling a team based upon who you feel comfortable working with rather than using the bid process,” says Valtri. “My perfect scenario is that the team is put together during the drawing process rather than working with the architect on the drawing and then sending it out to bid. You’re leaving really valuable information on the table that way.”
While it may seem counterintuitive to hire a designer before an architect has even drawn up plans, a plan from a cohesive team is usually fully flushed and requires the least number of changes.
“I have plans right now. The client is fully finished with the architect, and then they went through the bid process to get a builder. The time has been spent to lock it in and get approvals. They’ve now hired me and included a wish list for how they want the house,” says Valtri. “Unfortunately, their goals are not being met the way the doors and windows are in there right now…It’s my obligation to point out any discrepancies before we start to build, but now there will be additional changes to the floor plan.”
Once the builder begins physically erecting the home, clients have lost their one and only chance to get things exactly how they want them—it’s crucial to approach the planning stage with a team to avoid any unnecessary changes and expenses. However, having a team—architect, builder, and designer—working together doesn’t mean a homeowner has no voice. In fact, Valtri recommends choosing a team that works for you.
“Although you’re assembling a personal team, just like with your personal finance or your health or your kid’s education, you are the leader of the team and are responsible for the leadership role,” says Valtri. “Arming the team with information is critical. Setting parameters on budget, on timeline, on amenities that are important to you, is your goal.”
Not only does the team approach help prevent unnecessary last-minute changes, but it helps flush out the best possible living scenario for you and your family. Each member of the team will bring their own professional expertise, leaving the final decisions up to the homeowner.
“When you assemble a team, part of the process of the team is to interview you from each person’s perspective, and through that process, questions are going to surface,” says Valtri. “My questions will be a bit different from the architect’s, whose will be different from the builder. When this conversation is happening and overlapping, you get a complete picture.”
Above all, select a team that you can work with. A build from start to finish means a working relationship that spans the seasons.
“It’s a minimum of 18 months,” says Valtri. “My common joke to new customers is we are temporarily getting married. There will be no dress, but we are one team for this project.”
While starting a project with a team is Valtri’s first recommendation, her second comes down to broad strokes.
Valtri dives deep with her clients to get the details of their lives—the stories and hopes and dreams for their future homes—down to a single word or two. Valtri likens this to the title of your family book.
“The first time I did this, I was under my mother’s tutelage. She was working on a large community development, and she asked the developer for one word describing his hopes for the project, and he said ‘Fun.’ We just kept that word ‘fun’ in bold print at the top of the conference table,” says Valtri. “That was our compass for the project.”
The word itself obviously varies. For some, it might be ‘coastal’ while for others it may be ‘unity.’ Regardless of the word, the process is the same.
“It provides an overall direction so when you have a crossroad, you can revisit the word,” says Valtri. “At the end of it, you have a lot more integrity and a consistent definition because you had one beacon of light ahead of you. It takes a lot of work on the front end to describe what this book is, and really get clarity on the title of the book. But when you tell the team about it and you’re done, you feel like everybody has an equal idea of what’s going on.”
No detail is too small for Valtri. She works with clients to learn about their families—who lives here? Do you like your sister-in-law? What are the dogs like? —to make suggestions and build layering. “In order to personalize a space, I need to understand the persona of those using the space,” says Valtri.
An example of this occurred at a recent meeting between a client, Valtri, and the builder, where a conversation about the outdoor space touched on the multiple dogs that will live at or visit the space.
“Quickly, we get to brass tacks, which is, although we’re paying attention to all these magnificent details in the home, a real basic question is, how do you separate the dogs, or how do the dogs get along or not get along, when all of a sudden, the married daughter is coming with a dog that isn’t your three dogs. How is that managed, and how is that managed in a level of craftsmanship that represents what we want to do with the whole project,” says Valtri.
While the client joked about utilizing baby gates, Valtri and the builder got to work. The new additions to the plans for the house include dog gates that are pocket doors, a Dutch door on the side of the house so that the dogs can see everyone but be contained, and the incorporation of pull-out cabinets for dog bowls and dog food storage.
“All of a sudden, the conversation about the backyard became a very specific conversation about construction and craftsmanship,” says Valtri. “I can’t add a pocket door after you sheetrock. It has to be incorporated into the planning. So, taking out that time translates into a house without frustration.”
Because the end goal isn’t just a pretty house. It’s a frustration-free space that adds to the quality of your life.
“Let’s be clear, getting the beautiful part right is the easy part. That’s what we do,” says Valtri. “The doctor is going to be able to tell you what your temperature is accurately. That’s just assumed. What we are trying to do is celebrate the culture of the family and bring grace and civility to the way that family lives.” ■