Designing the Perfect Floor Plan

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Almost-final floor plan for our new house. Some slight modifications were made after this version, but the room layout is the same.

Designing a floor plan from scratch can be a difficult process. If you live on a city lot, chances are you have several constraints in terms of the length, width, and height of the building. If you live in a subdivision or strata situation, you may even have limitations on the style or design elements. On the other hand, like us, you may live on acreage and have many choices in terms of the location of the building site and the orientation, size, and dimensions of the house. The challenge with this situation is figuring out where to start, because the possibilities are almost endless but the budget usually is not.

I worked on the floor plan for our new house over many years, and the final result is the product of a great deal of thought and research (and endless revisions). Here are the steps I took to create our floor plan, and which I would recommend to anybody embarking on a similar exercise.

Step 1: determine the site and orientation of the house.

If you live on a city lot, you may have little to decide in this regard, but on a bigger property there are some considerations. In terms of our building site, I knew from the beginning where I wanted the house. Our property slopes gently to the southeast, with a pretty view of woods and mountains beyond. The obvious site was at the top of that hill. That was also a good choice due to its proximity to the well head, incoming electrical supply, and septic field. In addition, water coming in from outside the property (a neighbouring forest at a higher elevation) enters at a spot downhill from the site, thus alleviating any concerns of water pooling around the foundation. In terms of orientation, we wanted to incorporate passive solar design, which means the long side of the house is oriented east-west and the south face contains lots of windows. Luckily, our property faces south, and the views are also in that direction.

Before we owned the property, part of the hill had been dug out to make room for the mobile home and detached garage. This left only about 50 feet from the western property line to the 10-foot drop-off where the hill had been dug into. We decided to tear down the garage (which was shoddily built in the first place), have the house extend over the drop, and use the resulting space underneath for a walkout basement. Not only do I have an intense dislike of basements and didn’t want one, but I also wanted my house to be on grade, a single-level home. We solved this by keeping the walkout basement as an uninsulated space that is physically and thermally separate from the house. We will also have the excavators build up the ground on either side of the entrance to the walkout, so that from either the front or back of the house, virtually the entire house will sit at ground level, like this:

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Step 2: carefully plan the location of exterior doors

Once the site and orientation of the house is chosen, the next step is to determine where the exterior doors will be located (front door, back door, side entries, patio doors, etc). One of my biggest pet peeves is houses designed such that the doors are not used properly. How many people do you know have homes where everybody enters through the side door, back door, or sliding patio doors rather than the front door, because the front door is not located close to the spot where people arrive at the house, and another door is more handy? Or how many parents complain that their children come traipsing in and out of the house with muddy boots and wet play clothes through a living room door rather than the mud room door, because the latter is not located close to where the children play outside?

I was determined to make sure that wasn’t the case in my new home. I considered where we go when we head outside to do “dirty work”, such as gardening or heading off for a run on the muddy trails, and I placed the door to the mud room (which is also the laundry room, so that sweaty, drenched, or dirty clothes can go straight into the wash) in a place that makes it the easiest option for coming and going from such activities. It’s also where I would head out when walking the dog, so it’s a logical place to put pet supplies such as leashes, towels for drying off, and pet food. I can even put up a dog gate to keep her in the laundry room if she is really wet and needs time to dry off before entering the rest of the house.

The main entry door is located right where guests would naturally park their cars when visiting, and is the closest approach if you are coming on foot from the street. It is the only obvious entryway from the approach, making it the first and only place guests will be drawn to, and nobody will have to wander around scratching their head wondering where the front door is (I’ve actually been to houses where that is the case).

Another entry door is located next to the carport, and is where the family will leave and enter when departing or arriving home by car. Instead of passing through an unattractive and cluttered space, as back doors often do, I wanted a pleasant and welcoming entry. After all, we’ll be using it every day. Why not make it a nice experience? (I learnt this from reading Sarah Susanka’s books , which I highly recommend, even if you are not wanting a “not so big house”). So the family entry leads into the cheery family room, where parents returning from errands will be greeted by the kids, with a suitable launch pad and plenty of room to hang coats and place shoes so as to keep things tidy and organized. It’s also not far from the kitchen, so as to limit the lugging of groceries through the house (note: the door is missing in the floor plan at the top of this post).

Step 3: group rooms based on the desired light and views

After making a list of all the rooms I wanted in my new house, I grouped them according to the the need for views and natural light and what side of the house that would put them on.

On our site the lovely, sweeping view is to the south, which is also where the most daylight is coming from. The east gets the morning light, and in our case provides a view of the street, the driveway, and our two neighbours (albeit off in the distance). The west and north sides receive virtually no direct sunlight due to being bordered by dense forest and a wooded area, respectively.

By considering the desired lighting and views for each room, I was able to draw a crude diagram of rooms in relation to the four directions – N, S, E, W – which helped begin the process of laying out the floor plan.

For example, the living room is a public space so I wanted it to enjoy the best views and be brightly lit, which meant having it on the south side of the house. The dining room will also be used by guests and a nice view adds ambience to a family meal, so it too was placed against the south wall.

The kitchen should also be brightly lit and have some views to entertain the cook and dishwasher. My kitchen is on the north side of the house, but is completely open to the dining room, with its large south-facing windows. A north-east facing window by the kitchen sink provides a view of our driveway and entry to check on the arrival of visitors and guests.

Bedrooms aren’t used much, if at all, during the day, so having a lot of daytime light is not important to me. I chose to put the master bedroom on the east side of the house to get that morning light, and so I can peek out a window to see if an early visitor is arriving, or to check if the garbage truck has come, without having to get out of bed.

The kids’ rooms are placed on the west side of the house, which is up against a wall of very tall trees and a relatively deep forest. Not a lot of natural light, but plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing, especially deer and elk (and rarely bears, who generally don’t come close to the house), which the kids will appreciate more than the morning sun.

Bathrooms don’t need views or bright light, neither does the walk-in closet, so they had lowest priority when it came to the prime light and view locations.

Step 4: separate public and private spaces

Consider your home under conditions where you are entertaining, or when guests are visiting. Guests will generally need access to the living room, a bathroom, and the dining room. As well, modern homes are designed with easy access to the kitchen, so that the cook can interact with the guests while getting the meal together. Placing the main entry near these areas will avoid having guests wandering through hallways, the kitchen, or areas where the kids tend to hang out, like a family room or bedrooms. It can feel invasive for the guests, and it puts pressure on you to keep the whole house guest-ready clean rather than focusing on certain areas.

If you have a guest room, it’s nice to have that placed closer to the public spaces, though this is a matter of preference. For example, in a two-story home where the master and kids’ bedrooms are upstairs, you may wish to put a guest room downstairs so that the family has some “down time” away from company when it is time to retire. And of course, it would be great if the guests don’t have to share a bathroom with the kids, not just for privacy reasons but because kids are messy!

Because our house is all on one level, I created separation between public and private spaces using specific design elements and a carefully planned layout. The house is roughly rectangular, and I ended up placing the public spaces in the middle of the home, with private spaces on either end. My design is a modified version of this floor plan, so I’m able to show you some examples of the layout (my rooms will be smaller, and the design finishes will be different).

The main entry leads into a large living room, which is open to the kitchen and dining room, as illustrated in the photo below.

living and dining

As shown in the next photo, an open hallway separates the foyer from the living room, which provides a transitional space between the entry and the living space, and also helps to define the living room as a separate space despite being quite open (the concept of a transitional entry is another idea gleaned from Sarah Susanka).

The area between the pillars and the wall behind is an open hallway.

The area between the pillars and the foyer, running left to right, is an open hallway.

At one end of the hallway is an entry into the kitchen, defined by a vertical post:

from kitchen

At the other end of the hallway is a similarly framed opening, with an overhead beam and a vertical post that is attached to a wall corresponding to the one shown in the photo above where the TV is. That end of the hallway marks the entry to a transitional space between public and private – a small corridor that contains the door to the guest room, which is across from the door to the guest bathroom, and ends at the door to the master suite. That last door marks the entry to a private space, containing the bedroom, a walk-in closet, and the ensuite bathroom.

At the other end of the house is another private space, with the kids’ bedrooms and bathroom. Between that private space and the public space is a transitional area that leads from the back of the kitchen to the laundry room and family room, where the kids will hang out with their friends. The friends will want to be closer to the kids’ rooms, and they won’t mind using the kids’ bathroom (and the kids won’t mind sharing it with their friends). Adult visitors won’t have to venture into this part of the house, and the kids’ friends won’t mind if their hangout area is less tidy or beautiful than the rest of the house.

Step 5: consider how your family uses the space

Each family has their own daily rhythm and lifestyle, and the way rooms are used (or unused) differs from one family to the next. I found it very helpful to spend some time mapping my family’s movements at various times of the day, throughout the homes we have lived in, to consider how we use the various rooms in our home throughout the day. What tasks are being performed? Are we together or seeking quiet private spaces apart? Is there space for the kids to be creative, to play, to study, or read quietly? Is there a quiet, kid-free space where adults can retreat? (Sarah Susanka calls this the “away room”, and it’s a must-have for any family home)

Our kids enjoy playing computer games and video games. These activities can be noisy, especially when playing together or with friends. Having a family room that is separate from the living room gives the kids a place to hang out with their friends without the adults being banished to their bedroom. It also means that if the older one and her friends don’t want the younger one around (a situation that has recently become an issue in our household), they can retreat to her room and he still has somewhere to play. And the kids have a place to hang out while the adults are entertaining guests in the living room.

The family room has a built-in, wrap-around sofa for TV viewing and console gaming that also provides a reading nook by the window. There is also a workspace for projects and ample room to display artwork and the kids’ creations, a desktop computer, and plenty of shelving and cupboards for books, board games, and art supplies.

The family room is placed near the kids’ bedrooms for when they need some down time in between games, and near their bathroom for easy access during playtime. It’s also close to the laundry room with an exit to the yard if they want to go outside and play, and they can do so without having to traipse through the kitchen or living room.

The close proximity of the family room to the kitchen is handy for the kids and their friends – I even designed the layout of the kitchen so that they can come in and grab a drink or snack without getting in the way of meal prep and cooking. And it’s close enough that I can keep an ear open for sibling battles while I’m working away in the kitchen, but separated enough that I’m not right in the middle of the noise.

My husband often works from home and enjoys doing so on the sofa with his laptop. The living room will provide a place during the day where he can do so in relative peace, away from the noise of the family room. It is a more formal space for entertaining or visiting with friends and family. We can also make phone calls in peace. The living room is our “away room”.

Like many stay-home parents, I spend most of my time at home in the kitchen. I’m often on my computer while things are heating up, cooking, or baking, so having a desk in the kitchen is a must. There is an eating bar at the large kitchen island so that the kids can keep me company while they eat a snack, or guests can keep me company while I prep a meal. Because the dining area is part of the kitchen, I’ve designed the layout so that diners aren’t facing an open pantry, my cluttered desktop, or a pile of dirty dishes when they sit down to eat. I’ve also placed the kitchen close to the laundry room, so that I can easily tend to the laundry in between kitchen tasks.

I’m a crafter: I love to quilt, sew, and knit, and these hobbies come with a good deal of supplies and a requirement for ample work space on a flat surface. I’ve dreamed of having a proper crafting room, and this new house has one. It was important to me that the room be readily accessible from the main living space and not feel like a remote room to which I was being banished. Out of sight is out of mind, and projects have a way of languishing if they are not readily visible and accessible. If I have to go out of my way to retrieve and work on a project, it just doesn’t happen much. This is similar to the garden zone principle of permaculture: keep the kitchen garden closest to the house, because a garden that is far away is not visited and tended to as much. It sounds simplistic, but I have found this to be very true for me. Accordingly, the sewing room (which is also the guest room) is connected to the living room by a set of french doors (not shown in the floor plan above), which will usually be open (unless guests are staying the night). This will make it easy for me to attend to my projects while staying in sight of my husband (and thus feel like we are keeping each other company), who is likely to be on the sofa using his laptop, watching a movie, or playing on the gaming console. I can also easily bring my handwork into the living room to watch with him, and easily return it when done rather than leaving it out there to clutter up the space. The room can also function as an extension of the public space, for example it could be used to lay out a substantial buffet should we end up having a really large party.

Step 6: consider your pet peeves

Does it drive you crazy when everybody crowds into a kitchen that was not designed to accommodate guests while a large, cold, and uninviting living room space lies empty elsewhere in the house? Have you ever visited a home with your kids only to find them banished to a floor above or below where you have no idea what is going on and can’t monitor their interactions? Does it feel intrusive to enter a home and have to walk through narrow corridors past open bedroom doors or through a busy kitchen on your way to the living room? Does having to descend into a dark, unfinished basement have you avoiding laundry duty? Having a fireplace in the kitchen may look cozy, but can make cooking over a hot stove miserable. Similarly, a fireplace in the dining room can make a hot meal unappealing to overheated guests. Make a list of things that drive you crazy, and avoid these pitfalls with proper design.

One of my pet peeves is guest bathrooms that are located within the public space, such that going to the bathroom becomes a public event. Take the case of a living room with a bathroom whose door faces into the living room. You are visiting with a few other guests and you need to use the bathroom. Everybody sees you enter; everybody see you come out (in such situations, I find myself overly conscious about how much time I take). Everyone can hear the sounds, which may include the toilet being flushed, hands being washed (or not, to the consternation of the audience) and other sounds that don’t need to be mentioned in polite company but which are a fact of life for organisms with complex digestive systems. I was very careful to design our layout so that the guest bathroom was handy in terms of proximity to the living room, dining room, and kitchen, but at the same time out of sight. In addition, people using the bathroom don’t have to walk through other rooms where the kids are hanging out, for example, and drawing attention to themselves. It becomes a private affair, with no audience nearby listening in. It is also very close to the guest room for the convenience of those spending the night.

Step 7: plan for the future

When kids are young, having them close by at night is both reassuring and much easier on everybody. We coslept with our children until they were around 3 or 4 years old (their first beds, when they were about 2, were placed in our room), but eventually they wanted to transition to their own rooms, and having them in a room next door was perfect. It meant that I could clearly hear them at night if somebody had a bad dream or was scared, they could easily come into our bed whenever they needed to, and I wasn’t rushing across the house in the middle of the night to tend to a sick or frightened child.

Our current plan has the guest room next door to the master suite. I will mainly use that space for my sewing and crafting, but if my kids end up raising a family in this house, or if we have grandchildren visiting, that room can be used as a child’s bedroom.

When the kids are older, both kids and parents will appreciate having some separation between bedrooms. In the new house, our kids’ bedrooms are located at the opposite end from the master bedroom. Although I would have been happy with all the rooms together on an upper floor (if I had ended up with a two-storey home), I would have placed a walk-in closet and/or bathroom(s) in between our bedroom and theirs. Let’s be honest, there are things that you don’t want your kids to hear when they get to an age where they recognize such sounds for what they are! Besides, teens have a tendency to keep night-owl hours, and my days of wishing to stay up past midnight doing anything other than reading in bed are long gone. In our current home, the master bedroom is off the living room, on the other side of the wall with the TV. It will be so nice to be able to go to bed in the new house and not be disturbed by the sounds of my husband playing Battlefield or the kids squealing and laughing over a game of prop hunt.

Step 8: pause and evaluate

Taking years to get this project started had one major advantage: I made many, many changes to the plans as I monitored the use of our space, the way we spend our days, the use of inside and outside living spaces, and many other considerations. Over the last year or so, the changes grew smaller and smaller, which is when I knew I’d arrived at the right plan for us.

One thing I loved to do was walk around the space in my mind. I would pick a task, such as making my morning cup of tea, and I would walk through step by step in my mind using the floor plan. What route did I take to get to the kitchen? Where is the kettle, where are the mugs, where are the tea supplies, and where do I fill the kettle? Doing this allowed me to see where it made sense to put things such as drawers, cupboards, the stovetop, and the sink. I imagined taking my dog for a walk – where are my shoes and my coat? Where is the dog leash? Where will we be headed and what exit door will we use? What part of the property will we return through and where is the nearest entry door? What if the dog is soaking wet? What if I am soaking wet?

I would also stop throughout the day and see what everybody was doing. For example, on a typical weekday morning my son is hanging out in his room watching YouTube, my daughter is curled up on the sofa drawing on her tablet, my husband is in bed with his laptop because there is no other place for him to work in peace, and I’m in the kitchen making tea and answering emails at the dining table (which is never used for dining because my laptop and papers are all over it). In the new house, my son may stay in his room, or he may bring his laptop to the family room, where it is brighter, more inviting, and more comfortable and where he can watch YouTube on the Playstation. My daughter may curl up in the corner of the family room where there is a reading nook by the window, use her headphones to listen to music and tune out her brother’s videos. My husband can be in the living room, relaxing on the sofa with his laptop, and keeping me company while I putter around in the kitchen, sitting at my desk while the kettle boils.

These exercises sound simple, but they help you determine what spaces you really need, how they are used, and where they should be located in relation to each other.

Most people don’t want to take years to develop a floor plan, and working with an architect is one way to avoid having to do so. However, the more you know about what you want, the faster the architect can put it all together and the less time it will cost you to have him or her work on the design. Whether you can afford an architect or not, the tips here will help you speed up the process. However, be prepared for it to take more time than you expect. Your builder will likely raise some issues you hadn’t thought of, and you may run into roadblocks when it comes to getting your building permit that require you to modify your design. Be patient – you’ll be living with this plan for years to come, so make sure to get it right!

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