Small Residential Projects

December 5, 2011 — 19 Comments

Not every residential¬†project I work on as an architect is large with an even larger budget – that just happens to be the case lately and where I find my role in the office. Since smaller projects with smaller budgets tend to be less complicated, let’s just say they don’t always need me to work on them and the client becomes the beneficiary of assigning someone with a lower billing rate than me shoulder much of the load. However – since my office is an “all hands on deck” sort of office, everyone contributes whenever and however they are needed. Such was the case with me at the end of last week.


Hand Sketch on Instagram by Dallas Architect Bob Borson

I found myself working out some design ideas for a small addition with a respectable yet modest budget. The clients are a young husband and wife who had just bought this house and have bigger visions and better taste than their budget can really accommodate. The project is moving really quickly (for reasons I won’t go into here) and my task for the day was to develop elevation design studies to present the clients that reflected the floor plan addition that had already been roughly worked out and previously approved.


Existing Front Elevation

This is a picture of the front of the house – great neighborhood, large site, fantastic trees and … not so great curb appeal. This house has had (from my estimation) at least three additions that have been scabbed on to the original house over the years. By “scabbed” I mean the additions are obvious and stuck on in the cheapest, most direct manner, without any consideration of the whole. On the left you see a detached garage, and on the right, I am going to say it was the second additions garage that the third addition turned into a sunken playroom. If you want to walk up to the front door, you have to shoot the 5′ wide gap between the garage and playroom structures for approximately 50 feet.

Perfect for an ambush, not so great for welcoming people to your home.

So on last Thursday, I sketched up a series of exterior elevations – real quick studies (12 in all) and presented them to the clients that afternoon … except they had a hard time reading the 2 dimensional drawings. Since communication is really the name of the game, I told them that on Friday I would generate a 3-dimensional model of the house in SketchUp.

I thought it would be interesting to see the difference between the sketches I drew using nothing more than trace paper, sharpie pens and a straight edge – and the dimensionally accurate ones I generated using SketchUp.


Hand sketch Partial East Elevation

SketchUp Partial East Elevation


This is a look at the main house – this is the passageway up to the front door (with the garage taken out-of-the-way for clarity).


Hand sketch North Elevation

SketchUp Partial North Elevation

This is the front elevation – same as the photo shown up above (but with the Volvo taken out-of-the-way for clarity). This 2 dimensional look is a little misleading because I have removed the pitched roof on the garage and replaced it with a flat roof. It doesn’t appear that way in this view because you are looking at the pitched roof of the main house well behind the garage. (Good thing the clients get to see the actual 3D version).


Hand sketch South Elevation

SketchUp South Elevation


Hand sketch West Elevation

SketchUp West Elevation


These sorts of projects are always a lot of fun and I am excited to see it develop. Trying to find a way to marry the clients budget with their modern aesthetic and budgetary goals is a rewarding way to design a project. I have always enjoyed the challenge to designing with common materials and reasonable budgets – its part of the reason I started the Low Cost Modern House Challenge (despite not being able to find the time to develop it properly). The major design consideration here is the budget – there are 100 things I would do differently if I had 25% more money to work with … but I don’t. Being clever and finding a way to solve the clients problem without spending money they don’t have is part of the puzzle and part of the solution.

Have a great day!





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  • Bilal

    Bob, you ever need anyone for 3D let me know, since I am not that good but not that bad the images you shared :p Great article though and I’ll do it free since I am big fan of yours ! Regards ūüôā

    • Thanks – very generous to offer. Since I wrote this post, my new firm is 100% Revit and it’s possible that my SketchUp days are behind me. 3D Studio Max seems to be my future!

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  • Ted

    Like the elevations with shadows. Curious, though, why the 3d if SketchUp ir other software isn’t being used. Trying to get a handle on why or why not folks use one tool or another for sharing with clients.

    • I hand sketched the first drawings as part of the initial design process. We did go back and build a 3d model in SketchUp that we used in our presentations to the clients, I just didn’t focus on that in this post.

  • Build up

    Hi Bob, I am a young architect from Chicago and also specialize in Residential design. A weakness of mine is construction cost estimating. Do you mind recommending a book or something that can be useful in learning how to estimate project cost?

    Thank you in advance!

    • if you are just starting out, I recommend that you pick up a copy of the RSMeans Residential Cost Data book – I used it when I was starting although I don’t look at it anymore. I have a pretty good feel for what things will cost except when you get into remodeling older homes because there are typically just too many unknowns.

      I will also get a contractor involved as early as possible whenever I am venturing into areas I don’t feel comfortable in estimating. I can never do as good a job as the contractors will but I can generally get it within 10%.

      • Build Up

        Thank you so much Bob! Have a prosperous New year!

  • Endeavour2828

    Really appreciate this article and how the addition is a modern piece added to the old. As I live in a typical North Texas suburb with stringent ‘design’ guidelines, I am curious as to the process of getting your design approved (assuming you even had to go through such a process).

    Can you give some background on that process?

    • Sorry I missed your comment until just now (5 months later – yikes!)

      We didn’t have to go through any sort of neighborhood review process. Most of the homes we work on aren’t within neighborhoods with HOA type rule – not sure why but that’s just happens to be the way it is.


  • Mikheil

    I just don’t believe you did this roof notching to stucco wall in the first sketch photo.¬†

    • believe it!
      existing house had a roof overhang, the new stucco wall does not … there was only two ways to handle it and this was the one I chose. Seeing it built, I would probably do it the same way again if given the chance.

  • Great post Bob. It’s good to see small architectural projects being given air time. it’s what so many of us do and (more importantly) it’s how the vast majority of people engage with an architect and so of course¬†it really represents how people generally view us as a profession.

    • Mathew,

      I couldn’t agree with you more. My firm does work on quite a few small projects but normally not by me – the bigger, more complicated ones come to me so it’s kinda fun when I do get to work on one of these smaller projects.

      Thanks for commenting

  • Alex Millatiner

    First I would like to say, I love your sketches! In a way, they are more plastic and three-dimensional that the sketchup renderings.
    I use Revit Architecture in my practice, and often show the clients the 3-D as a part of routine meetings and I find it really helps them with the decisions.
    The subject of very different taste (not to mention program) than the budget, is an every day struggle.

    • Thanks Alex,

      I appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment – the more voices the better.

      3D plays a large role in our office but we use Sketchup and generally spend just a day or two generating it during the early DD stage – clients really appreciate that step and it typically provides a nice comfort level as we move forward.


  • Anonymous

    One of the hardest tasks, to me, is figuring what you can do within a clients budget. They have X amount of money and would like it to look like… However and many times those two don’t meet so how to make something they want and will be happy with and can afford. Always challenging and rewarding.

    • That’s the part where communication becomes so important – when the design expectations and vision don’t align with the budget. It’s also why communicating is so important in this field. ¬†

      • Brokenkeys

        Reminds me of one of my favorite teachers (now my least favorite competitor) who taught that architecture, as a business, is about managing expectations. You have to constantly manage client expectations through, of course, communication via talking, writing, drawing, models etc.
        Easier said than done of course but, using the above as an example,¬† maybe you’re on a time crunch (who isn’t) and only email the sketchup images to the client with a brief, “what do you think”. Next thing you know the client thinks their getting trees in their living room (a la the south elevation), a new roofline, some type of stone cladding and the latest composite rain screen system recently featured on HGTV. Whoopie! all within their budget, because that’s what the professional showed them. Then comes the sad faces, then negative comments to their friends and finally lawyers. Which is why we (are supposed to) present the images and explain and discuss them in maddening detail.
        Switching gears; personally I love hand drawings but I fully understand the need for 3D renderings. As a “Design Architect” (I think the bosses want to keep me away from contractors more than they appreciate my design capabilities) at a large firm I’m constantly frustrated by clients inability to understand basic 2d drawings. The ability to present renderings, or even better animations, is the only reason I’m still employed.