Designing a House

This section of the Building A Home In New Zealand centers on creating a design for your house.  Though this may seem like a stand-alone section, this is intended to be read in conjunction with Building Materials.  Some of your options in building materials may impact some of the design features of your home.

The design of the house may be one of the toughest parts of the entire build for you because it should involve forethought of every aspect of your build.  It is also potentially the most rewarding.  This is where you get to put all your ideas forward and see how they can be incorporated into a working building plan.  This is the stage where you can take any plan, customize it into something you love, and nurture that into your forever home.

There are a lot of different aspects of a house out there other than just how many bedrooms and bathrooms you want.  There are other uses for rooms, how one room flows to another, and environmental factors to consider.  After defining requirements for the layout, you then must integrate how the house interacts with the property borders as well as any contours in the land.  After that, there are nearly unlimited decisions on what technologies and features you want to use within the house, and how you plan on ensuring that the house remains comfortable and secure.

One important aspect of the design process is to weigh the size of your house against all of the amenities and options you desire.  Peoples first concern is often for the largest house that they can buy with the maximum money that the bank will allow them to borrow.  This can present pitfalls that will cause you to dislike aspects of your home later. Ensure that you leave enough budget in your planning to accommodate for things that will make you love your home instead of simply living in the largest home you can afford.

An outline of the topics discussed in this section is below:

  • Landscaping, Sun, And Lot Considerations
  • Floor Plan / Arrangement
  • Building Materials

The first thing that we recommend that you do for the design process is create a list of what you absolutely must have, want to have, and don’t want.  This will be a good tool when measuring your desires against your budget.  It is good to discuss these with your family first and have these completed before you ever interview your first builder. As you read further, you may add to portions of that list.  When doing online research, it may also be good to start a folder (virtual or real) of all the designs and pictures that you would like to include in your home. Pinterest is a good option for going virtual.

When designing your home, remember that you plan on this being your last home you build.  Don’t only design it for what you want now but design it for what you will want in your future too.


Landscaping, Sun, And Lot Considerations

The first thing that you may consider when designing a house is where it is how it is going to be arranged on the lot you have planned.  The shape, contour, and size of the lot can influence the overall shape of the house.  It is impossible to have a 1-story 300 m2 house on a 280 m2 city lot. It will be very difficult/expensive to have a long and sprawling ranch house facing north on the side of a hilly section sloping to the east if it requires your favorite design will extend far into the hill or out over a slope.  Regardless of the items that were on your list of must-haves, the shape and contours of your lot may constrict the shape and location of the house.  An experienced builder should be able to help you with the specifics of your lot or they will use a designer that will be able to help decide the best shape and location for your house on your specific lot.

Once you have a general location and shape of your house, now is time to consider any other aspects that will have an influence on your housing design. These will include the direction of the sun, the possibilities of views, or any planned landscaping.  You will typically want your most important rooms (living room, dining room, master bedroom) to face the best views or to face north to gather most of the sun (in the southern hemisphere).  I have seen homes in the Hollywood Hills that were very long and narrow, or tiered two stories, so every room could have a view over the city.  If you have a view of the ocean or something that you cherish, you may want to make that view the center of the design for your house.

If you plan on having significant landscaping, you will need to consider this when designing the house, or at least the location of the house on the lot.  If an extensive orchard is desired, your house may need to be forced more to one corner of the property to give room for your trees. If you have a lifestyle block and plan on raising animals, you will need to plan the location of your house accordingly to give the animals the room that they need.  If you plan on having a pool or large garden now or in the future, you will need to dedicate space for it in the plan.


Floor Plan / Arrangement

Getting this section correct can be one of the hardest and most time-consuming parts of your build.  I know of families that have been working on the design of their house for many months, to the dismay of their builder.  Though it may take you a while to get there, this stage is also a very important stage as it will determine how your house flows and influence how much you will enjoy using your home in the future.  We recommend that you take the time that you need to get this part as near to perfect as possible, but keep in mind that you won’t have forever.  This is why creating the list of must-haves, wants, and don’t wants is vital. It will give you a checklist to measure each design against to help speed your design process along.

The correct plan will have all the rooms that you want or need and have them laid out in an arrangement that is ergonomic and logical. The design should also account for things like angle of the sun, drive access, land contours, views, and arrangements of utilities. Some people like houses that bend, while others see the extra corners as inconvenient or a waste of space.  An appropriate design will also incorporate your lifestyle into the plans. If you like to entertain, you may need a larger kitchen, dining, and living area. If you work from home, you may need an extra office. If you have a special hobby like painting or want a home gym, you need to have that thought incorporated into the plan.

We also recommend that you look at as many house designs as possible.  The more that you look at, and really understand, the more defined your ideas will be for your house and the easier it will be to show a designer exactly what you are looking for.  Some good places to look for house plans are the larger builders’ websites.  Many have stock plans that they rely on. Don’t be limited to only looking at the houses that meet your number of rooms and bathroom requirements. Some smaller homes and many larger homes may have design features that are independent of room count that you will want to include into your design. Once you have found a few, save them to a location that you can easily access. It may even help to print some of them out, cut parts out that you like, and combine the best parts into a possible house plan for you. This is at least a starting point for discussing what you want with a designer.

Here are a few tips that we have experienced either directly or through other’s experiences concerning floor plan.


Number of Beds and Baths

Though this should be number one on your list of must haves, it may be good to not only consider your current needs, but also consider future needs of your family.  If you are just starting a family, it would be good to plan on an additional nursery / kids’ room.  Though everyone may be on a budget, planning for this now may mean that you aren’t forced to move when a new family addition comes along.

I know of families that plan on having an extra room for guests and visiting family members. Though this sounds great in principle, this may not be the best long-term use of space.  Very few have family members or friends that stay often enough to warrant a permanent guest bedroom. You may want to measure the cost of a hotel room vs building a spare bedroom and determine how many days per year you will need to have someone stay to make a guest bedroom economical.  A local hotel is often much more economical and provides everyone involved with more privacy.


Bonus Rooms

Most older homes only consisted of bedrooms, bathrooms, and living/dining rooms. Newer homes tend to have more diversified bonus rooms intended for specific intentions. Recent plans often include additional rooms for offices, gyms, sunrooms, playrooms / dens, game rooms / man caves, entertainment rooms / multimedia rooms, meditation / quite rooms, and wine cellars. Though this list isn’t exhaustive, adding an extra room to a floor plan may be prudent planning for existing or future interests.


Open Floor Plans

These are floor plans where there are few or no walls separating many of the home’s living spaces. As an example, the kitchen, dining room, living room, and entertainment room may all be in one large open area without specific boundary walls.  These are great for entertaining and provides a sense ‘closeness’ between people doing different activities as everyone can see everyone else regardless of where they are. A downside of this is that sound will carry constantly.  Having a kitchen in the same room as the TV may mean that those watching TV need to have it very loud if someone is cooking, or the adults can’t have a conversation while the kids are watching TV.


Long Hallways

If you have a very long house, you will have long hallways. If possible, it may be best to limit them though as this space is often wasted. If 15% of your house is hallways, that adds up to 15% to the cost of the house, but nobody lives or entertains there. Instead, can you have a playroom, gym, or conservatory that you walk through?


Bedrooms Facing North

In the wintertime, the sun adds light and heat to your home. Those bedrooms that are facing north will get more incoming sun and therefore need less heating. Plan to have the most commonly used bedrooms facing north and guest bedrooms, rarely used offices, laundry rooms, bathrooms, and other rarely used rooms facing south. You will pay less in heating those rooms over the life of the home.


Curved Houses

There is a trend now in NZ to have houses that bend. In the center of the house, the layout of the house takes a 30-45° bend. Though this design seems new, it has some possible advantages but also some considerations.  The main argument for this design is often that the rooms can follow the sun. Instead of all rooms facing north and getting uniform sunlight through the day, some rooms are directed more east or west and allows certain rooms to have more direct morning or afternoon sun. Though this may be advantageous in the winter, it may cause overheating in the summer when the sun is more overhead and wouldn’t normally come in any north facing windows during the day on houses with northern eaves. Another consideration is that these angles tend to create unusable space and awkward room shapes.  What do you do with a room that has a 45° or 67.5° corner instead of a right angle? Some use this space for closets, but it will limit available space.


Garage Layout and Size

The garage is often an afterthought when planning a house. The default is often a 2-car garage on the side of the house that is closest to the entrance.  However, this may not always be the best option.  Items brought in cars typically go directly to the kitchen. Therefore, it may be good to have the garage entrance into or near the kitchen.  People rarely spend much time in the garage, so this makes the garage an ideal room to go on the south side of the house regardless of where the entrance is unless that is where the best views are.

It may also be helpful to have a garage that is a little larger than you think that you initially need. A little extra space can help prevent door dings as well as making getting items inside of the house easier.  In the US, people also put their washer and dryer in the garage as they don’t need air conditioning, are rarely used, and are often noisy so physical isolation may benefit a quieter house. It may also be advantageous to plan for a 3rd car at some point.  Even if you don’t use it until your children are old enough to drive but not old enough to move out, you still have the space for a possible workshop, gym, small boat, or riding lawnmower. In addition, garages are the least finished portions of a house without carpets and rarely with insulation, so they are the least expensive portions of the house to add.



One of the latest trends with Marie Kondo may mean that you now need less of this, but it is always something that is good to have even if it is underutilized.  Think of the items that you want to store and plan on storage space for them.  Do you have lots of holiday decorations? Do you need storage for bedding, towels, or other linens? Where do you put things like luggage when not in use? It is good to plan on storage space for these.  Spaces often used for storage include the garage, attics, and closets.  It is good to ensure that you plan for these ahead of time so that you have the necessary space and framing (attic space) for them.



Utilities are often things that are neglected when planning a house. Sometimes this can cause problems maintaining your utilities in your home.  Though some of the consequences may be minor, they can be prevented by thinking of logical solutions when planning.



Generally, a long house will have more surface area and will be more expensive to heat or cool than a house that is squarer. If you have a 2-story house, remember that heat rises, and the upper floors will be warmer so they may need more ventilation.  Very tall ceilings can also require specific heating and cooling solutions. Since hot air rises, summer months may seem cooler at ground level because the heat is in the higher portion of the room. Alternatively, poor air movement in the winter can require extra heating to ensure that ground level is also warm. It is best to plan for tall spaces by having opening windows or skylights at the top to allow heat to escape in the summer, and ceiling fans to circulate heated air in the winter.



Also give some consideration to location of the hot water supply. It may be convenient to plan the hot water cylinder in the garage to keep it out of the living areas, but this may have drawbacks.  Having a bathroom at one end of the house and the water heater in the garage at the other will use more water and electricity to heat that water over the long run than having bathrooms closer to more central water heater. We had a house that wasted nearly 5 L of hot water every time you wanted hot water from a tap in the master bedroom because of the long distance from the water heater. That was also 5 L of heated water that cooled in the lines every time we stopped using the water.  You pay to heat that water so you might as well use as much as you can by keeping as little of it in the pipes after use as possible.  A more central hot water supply would have saved significant water and heating costs.

You should also consider the lifetime of the plumbing in your house.  In the US, every pre 1970 house needed to have the plumbing upgraded after 30 years to replace the corroded galvanized piping with copper.  In NZ, copper is very expensive, so plastic tubing is used instead. However, the guaranteed lifetime of the plastic tubing is much less than the expected lifetime of the house. Current NZ building code only requires inaccessible items like plumbing to last for 15 years when the house is expected to have a minimum lifetime of 50 years. That means that NZ building code may expect you to replace the plastic piping up to three times in the 50 years expected lifetime of the house. Unfortunately, some contractors and builders only build to minimum code and may not use higher quality materials.  It may be good to plan on ease of access for replacing piping then.

If piping in foundations, it may be useful to lay larger diameter pipe as conduit for replacing water supply pipes.  Alternatively, running pipes in the attic space can leave pipes more accessible throughout the house. There are considerations when choosing between attics or foundations though.  Foundations are considered permanent and are hard to alter and make adding plumbing later very difficult.  Hot water pipes in foundations tend to cool off quickly because of the proximity to the large thermal mass of the cool concrete foundation. All pipes in attics tend to heat during the day. Getting hot water through foundations or cool water through attics may mean flushing the pipes fully before water temperatures stabilize, resulting in lost water and higher hot water bills.  To minimize this, we ran cold water pipes through the foundation and hot water pipes in the attic. This was a little more costly than going only one way or the other, but the convenience of having hot or cold water on demand without flushing out the pipes is worth it to us. In addition, keep in mind that many plumbers like to run pipes through the walls before GIB and tile is laid. If you need to replace the pipes, then you need to tear the GIB and tile off those walls and repair the walls after. Running straight from the attic or direct legs through conduit in the foundation can me more costly during initial installation but may save time and money when / if they need to be replaced.


Kitchen Designs

Kitchens are one of the most expensive parts of the house build, but also result in the highest resale value.  Having a good kitchen design can greatly improve the use of the kitchen, and open kitchens can make cooking a more social opportunity. Again, look at different kitchen designs from multiple house plans to determine the design that would be best for you. Things to consider are ample storage, the addition of a scullery / pantry, a second sink and preparation station, enough space between counters and islands to allow free movement of more than one person, ample counter space and sink space looking out of the kitchen, electrical and plumbing requirements especially for smart appliances.  Even if you don’t utilize them, some kitchen specialists may have designers that you can contract to provide expert advice on layout, appliances, and ergonomics. Another thing to consider is the durability of the cabinet material. Many cabinets are made of MDF, which is compressed sawdust and glue.  This is less expensive, but it expands and becomes brittle when it gets wet. In areas that expect to be wet, like under and around sinks, it may be worth getting cabinetry made of alternative materials or plywood, solid wood, or composite materials which will stand up to water better.


Mark It Out!

Once you have you house plan to scale on paper, go to the site and mark it out to scale at your property using pegs and strings. Make sure that your rooms are large enough that they are comfortable. Mark with paint important items like door openings, large furniture like beds, kitchen and bathroom cabinets, tubs, and showers. Make sure that everything flows properly, that you have enough space in each room to move around in, that doors open in logical directions and don’t collide with anything, and that all your views are what you expect and are really pointing in the right direction.  Also look to see if some rooms are bigger than expected or needed. Things that look fine in the plans can reveal themselves when marking them out in real dimensions at the property.  Often, furniture like beds and dining room tables are smaller than realistic in drawings to make the rooms appear larger. It isn’t always acceptable for nothing but a double bed to fit in a master bedroom that you thought would be big enough by looking at the incorrectly sized bed in the plans.


Next Steps:

This concludes our Designing A House section of Building A Home In New Zealand.  The next section in this series is Building Materials - Introduction.