Guiding Principles


Once we had decided to build a custom-designed house, we started a document to gather all the details, large and small, of construction. It began with these guiding principles:

  • As small as comfortable
    • Put $$ into quality, not quantity
    • 1,700 − 2,000 sq ft ?
  • Low-maintenance
    • Durable, solid construction
  • Universal design
    • For ages 10–90
  • Green
    • Energy-efficient, recyclable, not wasteful

“As small as comfortable” isn’t “as small as possible”—rather, the idea is that the house should be as small as possible while still being comfortable to live in. No wasted space, no palatial foyers. I was hoping to keep it around 2,000 square feet; it’s actually 2,356 ft2. That’s below the average for new homes in 2013 [Note], and less than half of a typical McMansion, so I feel we came pretty close to our target.

“Low-maintenance” likely needs no explanation. Thirteen years of upkeep for 1930s-era homes took its toll.

“Universal design” might not have occurred to everyone. The basic thought was that if we’re going to spend this much effort building a custom home, we are never moving out. That means the house has to be capable of supporting 90-year-olds. (Two of my great-grandmothers lived to around 100, and all 4 of my grandparents died in their nineties.) I do a lot of work to ensure that government websites are accessible to all, and universal design is just a more physical manifestation of accessibility.

The Washington Post ran an article about universal design shortly after we started working with our chosen architect, Alan Abrams. The article highlighted the work of a local expert, John Salmen. He graciously consented to meet with me and discuss universal design considerations, and during the meeting I discovered that Alan had remodeled John’s kitchen! It was both a “small world” moment, and a validation of our choice of architect.

Our final principle was energy-efficiency, which is in fact how we came across Alan Abrams. We did a lot of online research and interviewed three different architects, but from the moment we saw Alan’s portfolio and read his posts explicating his philosophy of design and dedication to green building, we pretty much knew he was the right choice. Sitting now in our beautiful finished house, I’m even more convinced. Finding an architect and a builder were the two scariest prospects of this whole process, because a wrong choice for either would have meant disaster. (We were spared the stress of finding a builder on our own when Alan connected us with longtime collaborators Jos. Klockner & Co.)

If you follow this series to the end, you’ll see how the energy-efficiency and universal design played out in real life. But first, let’s look at the design process…


  1. America’s homes are bigger than ever, CNN Money; 2014 Jun 5. Back

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