Custom Home Design in NYC requires planning, collaboration, time, money, and a good team working with the home owner starting with the architect and a general contractor.
Custom Home Design NYC
21 Things You Should Know Before Starting a Custom Home Design in NYC
- Hiring an Architect
- Architectural Survey
- Zoning Analysis
- Site Analysis
- Write a Program
- Precedent Research
- Design Options
- Sustainable Design
- Construction Materials
- Product and Finish Selection
- Landscape Design
- Filing With DOB
- Project Coordination
- Punch List
- Certificate Of Occupancy
- Move In and Enjoy
1. Hiring an Architect
The first step in designing a custom home is to hire an architect. As an architect I know that many people find this to be a difficult process. I try to explain everything to my clients as best as possible, but make sure that you ask questions when interviewing architects. You will work very closely with your architect therefore this should be someone who you trust and can have a rapport with. Trust your gut and don’t hire the cheapest architect in town.
The manner in which architects bill is a bit complicated, as different architects follow different systems. Below are some of the different methods architects use to establish architectural fees for a new home:
- Flat Rate
- Percentage Of Construction
- Cost Per Square Foot
- Hybrid Fee Structure
At my firm we typically use a Flat Rate also referred to as a Fixed Fee method. You can read another post I wrote if you are interested in a more detailed explanation of architectural fees. You should also know that different architects include different things in their proposals so the prices may be all over the place. Make sure to understand what is included in their proposals and more importantly make sure you know what is not included.
2. Architectural Survey
You will need a property survey before you begin designing your house. This is not done by an architect. The survey is done by a Land Surveyor. You will need what we, in the industry, call an “architectural survey”. This is a drawing of the property showing: topography, trees, utilities, the street, neighboring properties, etc… The survey has a great deal of information that we would need before starting to design a house. A complete architectural survey must be filed with the Department of Buildings to get a permit for a new house.
3. Zoning Analysis
There is no way that I can explain how complicated New York City Zoning actually is. The NYC Zoning Resolution is well over 4,000 pages long. The starting point of your design will be to first understand the zoning. Zoning will give restrictions on many issues but here are just a few examples:
- Size and shape of the house
- Floor Area (buildable square footage)
- Lot Coverage
- Yard Dimensions
- Height of the house
- Distance from neighbors house
- How many families can be on a given property
- Parking Requirements
- Planting Requirements
These are just a few of the issues zoning will affect. If you want to learn more about Zoning you can read about getting a Zoning Analysis for a property. As an architect we always start our projects with a zoning analysis.
4. Site Analysis
Site analysis is a very important part of your new home design. There are many aspects of site analysis, some technical, some design oriented. Below is a list of some issues to be analyzed during a site analysis:
- Architectural Context
- Does the area have any overriding architectural vernacular?
- Soil borings will be necessary to build a house in NYC.
- Natural Features
- Topography / slope of the land
- Water Drainage
- Solar Orientation
- Special Site Requirements
- Flood Zone
- Coastal Erosion Zone
- Natural Area Districts
- Landmark District
You need to understand your budget. Building a house in New York City is more expensive than most places. We generally see a new construction budget for a house starting at around 275 to 300 dollars per square foot and a high end house at 500 dollars per square foot or more. A luxurious house can go up to 1,000 dollars per square foot. Discuss your budget with your architect, at our Architecture Firm I always start by asking people what their budget is.
6. Write a Program
Architects use a term Program for a list of the things you want to go into the house. You should sit down and write a list of everything you want in the house and review it with your architect. Here is a list of things you might consider:
- Number of bedrooms
- Number of bathrooms
- How many parking spaces
- Do you want a mud room
- Home Office
- Laundry Room
- Homework Room
- Game Room
- Storage Requirements
Lots of people will have special requirements at the time I am writing this post I am designing a house where the client wants a home dance studio for his daughters. You want to figure out all your special considerations as early as possible to make the design process go more smoothly.
7. Precedent Research
You should spend some time doing precedent research. This means looking at houses and getting ideas. Go online and look at houses. Take pictures of any houses you see in your day to day life that you like. Some of our clients share their Pinterest Boards with us. This is very helpful when we are working on their design to get a sense of what they like. Of course we only do custom house design but it is good to get ideas from existing houses.
8. Design Options
I would be very concerned about an architect who only presents you with one option. We usually do multiple options and several rounds of design revision on our custom home designs. At the same time you cannot have the architect making changes every week for for 6 months unless you are willing to pay a little extra in architectural fees. Typically we include 3 design options and 3 rounds of revisions in our base price when we design a house. The design process is complicated and some of my clients visualize better than others. Some understand plans better than others. As an architect it is important for me to empathize with that and we do everything we can to help you understand every step of the way.
We often have clients come to our office for design sessions where they stay for a couple hours and we work on the design with them in our office. We put the 3D Revit model on a big screen in our office and have clients sit on the couch and work on the design together. I call this real time design. Our clients love it, because it is a great way for them to see our and their ideas and evaluate if it is really what they want. The owner is normally an integral part of the design team in our office.
9. Sustainable Design
Sustainable design is necessary for every home. We now have energy codes that set minimum standards for energy efficiency. We always want to design the most sustainable houses possible within your budget. If you want to read more about sustainability we have another post 21 Ideas for Sustainable Home Design. Additionally passive house design principles should always be incorporated into your home design. There are 5 key points in passive house design:
- Continuous Insulation / High Quality Insulation
- Air Tight Construction
- High Performance Windows
- Energy Recovery
- Solar Heat and Solar Shading
If you want to learn more about you can read another article I wrote on Passive House Design.
There are many sustainable features you can incorporate from renewable energy to high quality insulation and air sealing. We encourage you to make every effort to incorporate sustainable design into your new home.
10. Construction Materials
The structure of a house can be many different things but lets look at the main few:
- Wood Frame
- Steel Frame
- Unit Masonry
I tend to not be the biggest fan of wood frame homes because I have done a lot of fire repair jobs and I have built houses to replace homes destroyed by fire. In New York City there are many code limitations on building wood frame houses. Many areas restrict the size of wood frame homes in NYC. If the house is attached it cannot be wood frame.
The structural material for the house will affect the price a great deal therefor it is critical you discuss this early on in the process.
11. Product and Finish Selection
Selecting products and finish materials is a huge part of the job. Before signing a contract with an architect make sure you know if the architect is including these services. Some architects will not do this. You can also hire an interior designer separately if you want. When we get involved in finish and fixture selection we take our clients to showrooms in New York City to pick out all the appliances, plumbing, lighting, tiles, cabinets etc… Personally I think the client should be heavily involved in this process but it makes some people’s heads spin.
12. Landscape Design
Landscaping is one aspect of the job that is often overlooked. There are landscape architects that you can hire to help you with this process. You can consider things like roof gardens, vegetable gardens, adding foliage to the yard etc…
You may want 3D digital renderings or even a physical model made of your house design. Both are a lot of work so this typically will cost extra. Discuss it with your architect before you begin the design process. Do not obsess over a rendering. Renderings are just an artistic depiction of what your house could look or feel like. It is meant to give you an idea.
14. Filing With DOB
Yes you need an architect to file with the Department of Buildings when building a new house. This is a big portion of the architect’s work. You must have a little patience during this process. The fastest we ever got a new house approved was three weeks from the day we filed and the longest was 6 months from the day we filed. If you need a variance or special permit it will take longer.
Building a new house in NYC will be filed as a NB application (New Building). Some architecture firms do not do their own filing and will require you to hire a separate consultant to handle the filing. These consultants call themselves “expediters”. We handle this in house I do not work with “expediting firms”. In my personal experience every job we did with expediters took longer than it normally takes us to do it on our own. The more people you involve in your project the lower your efficiency is. We try to do as much in house as possible.
You can see our homepage if you want to learn more about our architecture firm.
Bidding is the process of getting prices to build your house from Builders / General Contractors. Do not hire the cheapest contractor. In my experience there is a direct relationship between how good a contractor is and how expensive a contractor is. Alternatively the cheapest contractors I have worked with have always been the most incompetent and unqualified. Put a good team together. It is worth the money to hire someone who wants to do a good job. Also make sure the contractor really understands the entire scope of work.
Do not try to be the general contractor yourself that would be a terrible idea. You want one person in charge that you can go to for anything. We do not work with DIY at my firm we only work on projects with qualified General Contractors.
16. Project Coordination
There are a lot of people involved in building your house. Make sure everyone works together, the architect, the contractor, and you should always be on the same page and in communication. Periodic coordination meetings are very helpful. Regular updates from a team are a very good sign. No updates are a bad sign. You do not need to go to the job site every day but it is your house.
17. Punch List
At the end of the construction there will always be a punch list. This is a list of things that need to be finished. A walk through should be done with the architect and contractor to write up a proper punch list for your job for the contractor to wrap up. Do not get stressed out about this, if you have a good contractor they will handle it, but make sure to speak up if there are things you want fixed or revised.
At the end of construction your house will be really dusty. Ask the contractor who is responsible for cleaning the house after construction is finished. This may seem like a small issue but it is important to know. Some contractors do not do a good job of cleaning whereas some will have a cleaning company come in and make the place immaculate.
19. Certificate Of Occupancy
It is illegal to occupy your house until you have a Certificate of Occupancy issued by the DOB. In order to obtain a C of O you must complete construction and pass all of your inspections. There will be a bunch of paperwork needed for signoff as well. At our office we handle all of the filing with DOB in house.
You can hire an interior designer or interior decorator to help you with furnishing. I do recommend incorporating the architect in this process. When our clients are looking into furniture we ask them to send us the specifications so we can get the exact sizes and put them on the plans to assist the client in their decision making process.
21. Move In and Enjoy
Building a new house is a big deal. It is fun and stressful. Try to keep calm when problems arise and communicate with your team and with your family. It is a long process but you will be happy you did it when you move in and enjoy your new custom home. Good Luck.
Custom Home Design NYC
As an architect I study the process of home building closely, but these are complicated and quite involved issues. In this article we reviewed some of the basic concepts with regards to Custom Home Design in NYC. This post does not assume to cover every possible issue or condition, but provide a general overview of the topic.
Thank you for reading our blog post on Custom Home Design in NYC.
I hope this was helpful. Please leave questions and comments below. If you would like to speak with an architect you can Contact Fontan Architecture directly.
This post was written by Jorge Fontan AIA a Registered Architect and owner of New York City architecture firm Fontan Architecture. Jorge Fontan has earned 3 degrees in the study of architecture including two degrees from the City University of New York and a Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. Jorge has a background in construction and has been practicing architecture for 15 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.