Home Improvement: Advice on building a dream home

Addison County resident and columnist Gregory Dennis recently completed construction on a new home. We asked him to comment on the process and share with our readers some of the lessons he learned through the process. Here is his response:
The biggest thing I learned was the value of working with an architect. It will save you money and he/she can take care of many of the details you would otherwise have to handle yourself. I was amazed to find out how much a good architect could do beyond just coming up with a good design.
Spend a lot of time with your architect talking through what you want to see in the house. And once you get to preliminary or even near-final plans, spend even more time with the architect. Otherwise you will get things you regret. It’s worth the investment in time upfront.
Be very clear with the architect and builder about fees and fee structure. See if you can get some kind of clear understanding of price from the builder. But to do that you will need to have very carefully defined architectural plans. The “time and materials” approach is good for builders and will get you the very best house. But it can be a set-up for large budget overruns if you’re not careful.
Recognize that unless you are wealthy, you will have to make many compromises between the dreams in your head and what you will end up with as a house. That’s not all bad, as the discipline of cost controls forces you to make more precise and hopefully better design decisions.
Look around carefully first to see if there is an existing house that you can purchase and remodel to your tastes. It’s almost inevitably going to be more expensive to build your own house.
It was a great advantage to me to build in an area where there was an existing infrastructure. The cost of bringing in power, creating septic from scratch and other pieces of infrastructure would have put the project out of reach. Fortunately, that was all largely in place where I chose to build.
Emphasize energy savings, even if it costs you more upfront. It will be worth it even in the near-term. Energy is getting more expensive all the time, and that will only get worse. Especially important is getting solar hot water. The payoff is very quick.
Work with an architect who understands passive solar design to take advantage of natural heating and cooling if the house is oriented correctly.  If you can’t afford to put in photovoltaic (solar for electricity) right away, plan ahead so you could do it in the future. Prices for PV are dropping rapidly.
Think about light bulbs. I’m paying extra upfront for LED lighting in some places but expect to get the money back soon in electricity savings.
Another energy factor is where the house is located. If you build something in a nice setting but one that is far from town and/or your workplace, you will be adding significant financial and environmental cost over time, especially as gas prices go up and we feel the effect of climate change that is created in part by more people driving more cars greater distances.

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