Timing it Right to Start Building a Custom Home in the Spring

We often hear from clients who would like to start building a custom home in the spring. Spring is a popular time to start building, however in most states (Colorado included) builders work year-round. Seasonal weather has a definite impact on construction schedules, but due to the unpredictable nature of Colorado weather, there is no definitive way to say when is the best time of year to start construction on your home. Cool, dry weather is ideal for building, regardless of the season.

That being said, timing is still an important question. On a very basic level, building a custom home can be divided into 2 main phases: everything that happens before breaking ground (budgeting, design, permitting, etc.) and everything that happens once construction is underway. Today we are going to be looking at the timing of the first phase, and what all needs to happen before breaking ground on a custom home.

How much time a project will take is influenced by many factors: how complex the project is, the ability of the homeowners to make decisions, availability of subcontractors, how long the permitting process takes, etc. Some factors we can control, and some are out of our hands. Based on our experience, we believe that once you’ve chosen an architect and a builder, a comfortable timeline is 10-11 months until the project is ready to start building.

Going back to our example of starting to build in the spring, if your goal is to break ground next April, you should plan to start the process in May or June of this year. Remember, timing can vary tremendously, so your experience could be different.  If the scope of your project is simple, your decision making is quick, changes are minimal and permitting goes without a hitch, you could be looking at as little as 6-7 months. More complex projects can take a year or longer. To give you a better understanding of where the time goes, let’s take a look at everything that needs to happen before beginning construction of a new custom home.

Decision Making

Before we even start to look at timing, let’s take a moment to talk about decision making. As you go through the process of designing and building your custom home, there will hundreds of decisions you will need to make. With custom design, the possibilities are endless – that is what makes it fun, but can also make it stressful if you have a difficult time making decisions.

Throughout the process, it is important to take the time that you need in order to make decisions you will be happy with. Conversely, taking too much time can sometimes lead to second guessing yourself on decisions that have already been made. This is one reason we recommend putting together a project team from the start. Seasoned design professionals who have been through the process many times can lend you their expertise and experience when making tough decisions. Design pros you trust can be an invaluable resource, if you let them.

Before We Begin

You’ve purchased a lot and are ready to embark on the journey of designing and building your custom home. There are a couple of things that need to happen before you can begin:

  • Establish a budget: determine the total amount you are able and willing to spend. It is important to be realistic and upfront with your team about your budget.
  • Assemble a team: your primary team members include the architect, builder, and interior designer.  These consultants are the heart and soul of your project; thorough research is essential as you will be spending significant amounts of time and money with them. For more information about assembling a team, check out our blog on consultants for custom home building.

Step 1: Discovery (2-4 weeks)

During the discovery phase, your architect will thoroughly research your lot, finding all of the relevant information that will influence the design of your home. This normally includes:

  • Zoning: is the zoning compatible with the proposed use? This will influence you most if you plan to build a duplex (infill).
  • Availability of utilities.
  • Design Review Committee (DRC): if the neighborhood has a DRC, are there any restrictive covenants or other guidelines that must be followed?
  • Setbacks, easements, step backs and bulk plane.
  • Topographical Improvement Survey: the city or county will require a site plan based on a current survey.  The site plan will be created by your architect and is to ensure the design of your home will not encroach on setbacks and easements.  If you already have a survey on file from the purchase of the property, it will allow your architect to get started.  If you don’t have a current survey, you will need to get one. The survey is necessary in order for your architect to determine the best site placement for your home.

Step 2: Programming (2-4 weeks)

Programming is the first part of the architectural design process and is key to setting the project up for success. A program clearly defines the scope, features, purpose, and functionality of the home and is essential in communicating your vision for your new home to your architect. It is a combination of words and pictures describing your needs, wants and wishes for your new home. A great first step is to get set-up on Houzz and Pinterest. Pictures of what you like (or even what you don’t like!) are very helpful for your architect.

During programming it is important to be clear and upfront about budget. The cost of building a custom home can vary greatly, with finishes comprising up to 30% of the budget. Now is the time to make sure everyone’s expectations are realistic and on the same page regarding materials, finishes and budget.

For more in depth information about what happens during the different stages of the architectural design process, check out our blog describing how the architectural design process works.

Step 3: Schematic Design (4-6 weeks)

Once programming is complete and everyone has a clear understanding of the scope and requirements of the project, design can begin. Schematic design is an exciting time, it is when you begin to see your vision take shape through drawings. Feedback and clear communication with your architect are key to making sure you are happy with the way your home is taking shape.

There are many decisions to be made during schematic design. While the process is time consuming, it should also be fun! We encourage you to spend plenty of time living with your plans at different times of day and contemplating the design. If you have changes, or are not happy with how the design is coming together, now is the best time to speak up! Schematic design is when the design is most fluid, and therefore easiest to change.

Design is a team effort, and we believe it is important to remember that both client and architect play important roles in project timing.  We want you to take the time you need in order to make decisions you are happy with, while understanding that this time will also impact the over-all schedule of the project.

If a neighborhood or design review board approval is necessary, schematic design drawings are generally sufficient to start the process.

Step 4: Design Development (4-6 weeks)

Design development is the logical continuation of schematic design. Design development will only start once schematic design drawings have been approved. During design development, the architect continues to flesh out the plans for the home, adding more details and demonstrating that the design can be built. Your architect will coordinate with other team members to evaluate systems, materials, preliminary structure, etc.

As you move through the design development phase, it is important to continue having clear and open communication with your architect. At this point, your architect will prepare to scale floor plans and elevations for your review and approval. Again, we encourage you to spend plenty of time with your plans. If you have any final changes, now is the time to make them. Changes after the approval of design development drawings may warrant additional service fees.

Step 5: Pricing (4-8 weeks, though this can overlap with other steps)

If budget is of any consequence to you – which we assume it is – it is best to start preliminary pricing before the design is complete. That being said, many builders do not feel comfortable providing price estimates until the design is final and the working drawings are finished. Some simply will not do it. But, if at all possible, we highly recommend it. Getting preliminary pricing before moving into working drawings is the best way to make sure your design is on track to be within your budget. And, if you discover that it is not on track, it is simpler (and therefore less costly) to make design changes before your architect begins working drawings.

Regardless of when pricing occurs, you may discover that a specific material or design feature is going to put you over budget. At this point, you have 2 choices: move forward as-is and spend the extra money, or do something called value engineering.

Step 6: Value Engineering/Redesign (Optional, 2-4 weeks)

Value engineering is when design changes are suggested by the builder in order to make the construction more cost effective. Architects often jokingly refer to value engineering as “the process of cutting out the cool stuff.”

Value engineering is optional, but most projects go through varying degrees of value engineering at some point. Pricing a custom home is not an exact science, so it is not uncommon to reach a certain point in the design and realize the need to cut back on cost. Value engineering is normally considered an additional service, which means there will be an additional cost involved. As we mentioned above, it is best to go through value engineering before starting working drawings. However, value engineering can be done at any time. Just remember that the cost involved can vary significantly depending on where you are in the design process.

Step 7: Working Drawings (4-6 weeks)

Working drawings are the final stage of the architectural design process. At this point the architect will prepare larger scale drawings that describe in detail all of the components necessary to build your home. Working drawings are submitted for permit and are used by the builder to build your home. Good working drawings require a high level of coordination with all of the consultants who will be working on your home. There is a great degree of detail that goes into working drawings, so changes at this stage in the design process can be very expensive.

Step 8: Permitting (4-8 weeks, varies tremendously based on jurisdiction)

It is difficult to say how long permitting will take, since it can vary tremendously based on what jurisdiction you are in and whether or not the permit is approved after the initial review. According to the Denver CPD website, estimated current initial review times for permits for major residential projects are 4 weeks. The estimates are updated quarterly, check here for the latest timing.

Step 9: Start Construction!

Congratulations, you’ve made it this far! Breaking ground on your custom home is a big deal. Watching your home move from paper to real life is exciting! Moving forward, your architect’s role will be minimal, however they should remain available for any questions that may arise during construction.

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