Get the classic house style and functionality you want.
Architecture too important to let someone else do
There are many aspects to house design, or architecture to give it the more usual term. Picking a style you like is one aspect, but it's also necessary to come up with something that fits your everyday needs without introducing friction into your life. It is also necessary to negotiate and compromise with other family members so that everyone is happy. It is often said that a big reason to hire an architect is that they act as an independent referee between spouses. Personally I would encourage you to be your own architect because house design is too important to be subcontracted to a third party.
Opinions vary, but I think what works best is to start by picking the house style you want. Think what you want the house to look like when you drive by, or drive up the driveway. Look at lots of pictures of houses by typing "House" into an image web search engine. Initially you will see lots of random styles but as you see styles you like, start to refine your image search by adding various keywords, eg "Plantation House" or "Greek Revival House" or "Palladian" or whatever you want. Here are some pictures that I downloaded as a starting point to give inspiration...
Of course all the house designs I like owe a lot to the Parthenon in Athens Greece.
It is important to follow the style and dimension rules associated with classical architecture. These rules are described here .
Functionality you want
The next step is to figure out what you need and want in terms of your living space.
To a reasonable extent, your square footage is going to be limited by your budget. Obviously it costs more to build a larger house than a smaller house, but also your annual property taxes will go up with the square footage. If you have a large family, then you will need more space. If you don't have kids or your kids have grown up and flown the nest, then 2000 square feet may well be enough. Another factor to consider is whether a grandparent will be coming to live with you and you want to be able to give them their own space. Perhaps you want to have lots of guests coming to stay for weekends, or you want to be able to take in lodgers to help pay for the house. Ecological concerns might make you want to build a small house, although a big house that is well insulated is also eco friendly. Perhaps you want to build a big impressive house because you just fancy doing it.
Figure out the rooms you want
Before trying to do a floor plan, try drawing individual rooms in isolation on squared paper (1 foot to 1 square). A computer drawing package of course is a good alternative to squared paper, and makes it easy to change things, but an important point is to keep things really simple and free flowing at this stage, so use whatever you're comfortable with. When it later comes to doing the proper floor plan you will need a PC drawing package and that is described in the floor plan step here.
What size of living room / family room would you like? A large one will look impressive, but it may feel like being in a grand hall rather than a cozy living space. A large room may mean that your couches are too far away from the TV in the corner. Draw your furniture to scale on the room drawing. Measure distances in your current living room / family room and decide relative to that how much bigger you want to be. Think about what the seating arrangements were when other family members visited last Thanksgiving or Holidays.
Draw out what you want in terms of a kitchen. Do you want a center island? How many sinks do you want? Do you want a walk-in pantry? Do you want 4 different types of garbage bins to handle the different types of recycling?
List the other rooms you want and also draw them on squared paper in isolation. Do you want a study? Do you want a formal area to meet with visitors away from the mess that's in your family living room? I assume you want a utility room. What about a dining room or a media room?
Take your first shot at a main level floor plan
Try assembling your ideas on the different rooms into a main level floor plan. Don't worry about the bedroom level initially, but do remember to allow room for the stairs up to the bedroom level. If you want a basement then you'll want to allow room for some stairs from the basement (although you may be able to fit these under the stairs to the bedroom level).
You can see my main level floor plan here...
Increment many times
Drawing the floor plan is covered in the house building step shown here, so for the moment I'm just talking about the general principle of floor plan design. It will take many incremental changes to get to your perfect floor plan. This is normal, so try not to be discouraged. If you can, try hard to fit everything into a simple rectangle rather than putting bulges in the walls, because a rectangle is the most efficient on building costs and heating costs. Obviously feel free to deviate from a rectangle for some architectural feature you really want such as porticos.
Bedroom level floor plan
Once you are reasonably happy with the main level floor plan and have allocated a position for the stairs, take a shot at the bedroom level.
You can see my bedroom level floor plan here...
Trends and sale-ability
Balance personal preferences with what others like
Getting the floor plan right is important. It sets the feel for the house and can make your life easier or harder depending on how good a job you do with it. You need to find a layout that works best for your lifestyle, but at the same time you need to make sure that it is appealing to future house buyers in case you ever want to sell. Floor plans are a bit like clothing fashions. Clothes that might have looked good in the 70's are shunned today. In house design it's worth keeping up with the trends and here I try to note what some of the current trends are. You don't need to adopt them all in your design, but you should probably try to fit your particular preferences in with those trends.
One thing you can do in your house design is make sure it is flexible and adaptable so you can modify things over the years to try to keep up with whatever is the modern look. My house has a designed for life of 500 years, but it would be hard today to predict what a fashionable look in the 25th century will be. That's where flexibility is needed. Having concrete walls limits flexibility a bit, but there's still plenty of things you can do.
When standing in various places in your house looking in different directions, this refers to what you see and how far you can see. If you find yourself looking at a wall then the house will seem smaller than if you can see over the wall or through a door to another room, and beyond that is a nice window that lets you see the flowers and trees in your yard. That doesn't mean you should go to the extreme of making your whole house open plan with no walls, but you do want to think carefully about where the walls are in order to get nice site lines in strategic places. A good trick with site lines is to give a glimpse of what's beyond without showing everything that's beyond.
You can draw site lines on a copy of your house floor plans. Start by thinking where you are most commonly going to be sitting and standing, and put a dot at those places. Now draw lines from those points in what you think will be the directions that you will most typically be looking. Draw the lines such that they stop when they come to something such as a wall that you cannot see past. Now ask yourself - If I were to move that door over to the right a bit or make it a wide arch instead of a door, would I be able to see further? If the answer is yes, and you can easily make the change, and it will not hurt some other aspect of your enjoyment of the house, then it might be worth making the change. By other enjoyment aspects I mean things like do you really want to be looking at a bunch of undone washing-up in the kitchen while you are watching TV in the living room. Walls are nice in the right places because they provide some privacy and reduce noise from other family members.
Figure out where you will spend most of your time. Ask yourself - What will I see from my couch in the living room? You will want to be able to see the TV, see the fireplace, see the view out to the yard, see the kids playing, and probably even see your spouse. When you are sitting up in bed, what do you want to see? Perhaps it's birds sitting in the trees outside or the TV, but you probably don't want to be looking directly at the toilet in the adjoining bathroom. If someone is in the kitchen cooking - what do they want to be looking at? They may want to look out into the yard, and they probably also want to be able to see through into the family living room to keep an eye on the kids, or to not be left out of the diner party for which they are cooking. You probably also want to be able to see the TV from the kitchen so that you don't miss a critical part of the movie while making a cup of coffee or fixing a snack. If you want to get the family to eat diner in the dining room rather than off their laps in the family living room, do you want them to at least be able to still see the TV from the dining room or do you want to specifically stop this bad anti-social habit?
An excellent tool for evaluation site lines is SketchUp .
A visitor's view
After you have done the site line exercise with the places that you think you will be commonly standing and sitting, do a similar exercise imagining that you are showing someone you are trying to impress round your house. You greet them at the front door and they are standing on the door mat - what do they see? You then invite them into your lobby area - do they still have an impressive view or is it marred by the fact that they can now also see that pile of unwashed saucepans in the kitchen and the piles of dirty washing in your utility room? Is there a suitable place just off from the lobby area where you can offer a formal visitor a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich, and still give them a good view that does not let them see all the mess in your inner sanctum? Once you get to know them better and decide to give them a guided tour of the house, where are all the places you will stop on the tour and what will the visitor see? Is it possible to improve the site lines given to the visitor so they can see further, but see just the things you want them to see? Do the guided tour using the floor plan drawings and put dots where you will pause on the tour, and draw site lines to help figure out what the visitor will see.
Where people look can be influenced by giving them something interesting to look at. A painting hung on the wall at the end of a hallway will attract their attention and they are less likely to notice the piles of unwashed laundry in the utility room. Having deliberate focal points will also generally enhance the impression that people get.
Site lines are primarily concerned with static views. Traffic patterns help you understand how your house will perform dynamically. Traffic lines help you understand how people will move around the house in their daily life. Traffic patterns answer questions such as - How will food get from the kitchen to the dining room? How far does a mother need to walk from the master bedroom to check on the baby in the other bedroom? You need to make common activities as friction-free as possible. If you always have to walk the long way round a kitchen island it may start to really bug you. If the only way to get from the front door lobby area to the formal room for meeting with visitors is via the messy family room then that would be a mistake.
Modern floor plans tend to avoid using hallways and corridors to get from one place to another. This is because they tend to be regarded as wasted space. Nowadays designers tend to use other rooms as ways of getting around, but it's necessary to think carefully about whether this traffic through the connecting rooms is a problem. If your teenage son is entertaining his girlfriend in the room then he is not going to be too happy about the rest of the family walking through to get to the family living room. Using small rooms as connecting rooms does however make those small rooms seem bigger as it opens up site lines. If you are using rooms as passageways, try to put the traffic along one wall rather than making the path diagonal across the room. This design technique is called "horizontal banding". Personally I think hallways do still have a place in today's house plans, but you do need to use them sparingly and not make them too long or narrow.
Consider where people will naturally hang out the most. As the song says "You'll always find me in the kitchen at parties". Kitchens are often the hub of a modern house. This contrasts with houses from 100 years ago were the kitchen was small and hidden out back somewhere. A modern kitchen should be large and in the center of the house, and it should have lots of entry doors so that it's easy to get (and see) from the kitchen to any other room.
If your house is 2 story then you need to have stairs up to the bedroom level. If you have a basement then you need to have stairs from the basement. Stairs take up lots of space, so if you have a basement then you probably will need to put the basement stairs under the bedroom stairs to save space. Some people like to make a feature of the stairs and make them look grand, and some people like to make them as small as possible and hide them. Personally I prefer the featuring them approach. I like them to come from the lobby area as they help with the grandeur of the lobby and make the lobby area less closed in. You can see upwards from the lobby as your eye follows the line of the stairs. When designing a layout, it is important to reference all the building code requirements of stairs (see here ).
Balancing togetherness with privacy
Most humans are naturally social beings and we like to be surrounded by other people, particularly other family members. From time to time though we all need a bit of space. Getting this balance right is an important function of a well designed floor plan. (The big other factor here is having walls with good sound proofing characteristics. Concrete walls with concrete floors definitely help here.)
Hub rooms and private rooms
The best idea is to designate some rooms as hub rooms and some as private rooms. There will naturally be more hub rooms on the main floor compared with the bedroom floor. The kitchen is a good social gathering place and so is a natural hub room. A children's communal play room or landing area upstairs is another good hub, but bedrooms need to be private rooms. If things are designed right, people should feel awkward about going into someone else bedroom, but not think twice about going into a hub room. Everyone living in a house should feel that they have their own designated space where they can occasionally retreat to without being bothered by others.
Accommodating territorial family members
Even within a room that is primarily a hub room such as the family living room, there may be some unwritten rules about who owns what territory within the room. I tend to always sit on the same sofa and I have carefully arranged my stuff such as PCs, other gadgets, and papers etc around me. Other family members know that they should in preference sit in a different chair. Some people are more territorial than others. Obviously if everyone in the household is territorial in the family living room then that is going to mean you need a bigger family living room. Even assuming you can afford a bigger family living room, it's actually quite hard to do because then you run into the problem of everyone being too far away from the TV for comfortable viewing. As with everything else in house floor plan design, it comes down to making the right compromises.
Window placement can be a tricky. It doesn't take a lot of windows to make an impact on the character of a home. Knowing where to place them is key to creating the look and feel most desired in your home. This is where sight lines are useful. Look for areas in the home that are blocked off and dark, and use windows to open up the view and make the space appear larger.
Many people think that if they have an long wall in the family room that it must be filled with two-story windows to bring in the beauty of the outdoors. Actually, the same effect can be created with a strategically placed set of smaller height windows. This arrangement will offer the same impact, cost less, and also avoid excessive heat loss. Personally though, I still like tall windows because I like to see lots of sky.
Internal windows between rooms can be a good way to open up site lines without the full sound transmission between rooms that you get by making a full hole in the internal wall. Sometimes when sound transmission is not a concern, you can just make a rectangular hole in the internal wall or make it a half height wall and save the cost of a window.
One idea some people like is to place small windows under cabinets in the kitchen. They can have a significant influence on the look and feel of a kitchen. Personally I'm not a big fan of this. Another example that some people like would be a bow bay window in a small dining area, as it will make the room seem larger.
You should always pay attention to the direction that a window faces. What view will the window give and will it give morning or afternoon light? Windows on the western side let in the evening sun, but you probably need blinds or curtains on them if you are trying to avoid glare on a PC screen.
Personally I like a symmetrical house, so that has a big influence on external window placement on the north and south sides of the house.
It is worth drawing example furniture in the various rooms to make sure everything will fit comfortably. You should be as accurate as possible with the furniture dimensions. Here for example are the standard bed sizes...
The best thing to do is to look at lots of photos of house rooms in magazines and on web sites and collect a scrapbook of the looks you like. Try to also think about how you will implement. Try to arrive at a look that is visually striking, but at the same time is low cost and simple to implement. The pictures I collected to help inspire the interior look can be found here .