Where Do I Start? Starting the Custom New Jersey Home Design Process

The custom home journey is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The design process is exciting and creative. And there’s nothing quite like seeing your vision come to life right before your eyes as it gets built.

But, all too often we see people jumping right into design sketches and curating pretty pictures. It’s a risky pattern we see —driving blind towards a design without understanding the budget, the land, the goals of the project. These are the things that lead to cost overruns, construction delays, and nightmarish experiences.

Building a custom home is a big investment of time, money, and effort. It requires serious planning and budgeting so you aren’t blind-sided or ill-prepared for the experience.

That’s why we strongly recommend you do your homework before jumping too into design mode.

At PK Architecture, we have our pre-design phase. It’s our discovery period where we perform a handful of tasks to prepare us (and you) for what to expect and how to approach the rest of the process. It’s our way of managing expectations, figuring out the project requirements, learning about what you want and need, and planning for a smooth, fun, and exciting design process together. We nail down the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the project so that we can move forward on the project with intention.

Here are some tips to help you prepare and start the custom home process:

Understand your big picture project goals

Come up with a list of priorities, both quantitative and qualitative that can define your project and help you answer the questions “What is important to me?”, and “What will make this project successful?”

Understand your space requirements

Minimize environmental impact and maximize your investment by building a home that is appropriately sized for your needs and lifestyle. Consider building less space that meets your needs exceptionally well than having wasted or underutilized spaces. At $40,000, is that extra guest bedroom really worth it, or can you combine it with an office? If the kids are going off to college soon, do you really need that many bedrooms and bathrooms?

Understand your site

A great home design fits the landscape perfectly. It is situated at just the right location on the site with windows in just the right places to frame views of the creek. It maintains setbacks, avoids the floodplain, preserves the large oak tree your great-grandfather planted and has just the right amount of daylight which you can trace across the spaces of your home throughout the day. You’ll want to have your site selected before starting the design process.

Understand the timeline

For site-specific designs that respond to the landscape, you aren’t going to just pick a design out of a plan book and go with it. The custom home design process takes time, as does the construction process. These are highly unique homes that have never been built before. For a new custom home it may be 18-20 months before you can move-in. If there’s a long regulatory process it could be more. Will this work for your personal situation?

What’s the regulatory/approval process?

Some sites are governed by regulatory bodies that must approve your project before you build. Do you live in a floodplain? Is there an architectural review board? Do you need a septic system? Learn which agencies need to review and approve your design and what the approval process looks like. This will help you determine your timeline and what paperwork is involved.

Understand your budget

This is a biggie. Figure out how much you can spend on the project. Remember, there are hard costs, soft costs, and contingencies involved in the total project cost. Talk to some architects and builders about typical costs based on the scope, size, style, and level of quality you have in mind for your project. Be prepared to tame your expectations and answer some tough questions about what you really need. You may have to pare down the scope of your project once you realize how much it actually costs to build, landscape, and furnish your home.

Understand the complexity of the project

Part of understanding the budget involves figuring out how complex it is. Are there a lot of site components? Is it a remote site with difficult access? There’s also a big difference between building a spec home and a custom home. Custom homes are one-of-a-kind projects that use interesting materials and methods or have some underlying unique aspects that make it truly yours (and nobody else’s). They also inherently have more complexity. How basic or custom your project will be is a matter of personal preference, budget, site requirements, and design direction as well as the amount of design rigor/refinement you wish to achieve.

Understand that it takes a team

You can’t do it all, nor are you an expert at all the things. Figure out what kinds of people you need to hire or work with. Hire people you trust who will work well with you and others. Every project encounters obstacles; they’ll be a lot easier to remedy if everyone works together as a team and communicates well.