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Desire a book to help me be a DIY architect to achieve “Pretty Good Architecture” for my PGH

mikeysp | Posted in General Questions on


I am in Zone 4a Mixed-Humid (Nashville, TN area).
Building an approximately 1250 square foot ranch.

I want to be my own architect.  Is there an architect’s bible, DIY Book, video, article(s), A long list of tips, or website that is practical and understandable to the uninitiated layman with limited intellectual faculties?

I am looking for the “DIY pretty good architecture” for my DIY Pretty Good House.

I have built two houses and put little thought to how the entire site, house, driveway, landscape, rooms, daylighting, shading, lay of land, etc… should and can work together in a harmony for aesthetics, ergonomics, and energy efficiency.

I do not have the money to pay for an architect to design my house; nor, will I be able to wait until I do. I am going to build DIY 100% self performing. If you can point me to a budget resource to get me from an F- in Architecture to a C, I would be most grateful.

Also, if an architect can be hired for an hour of consultation to analyse, discuss, and offer tips about my design, I will do so when I think I am at my best in the design process.

I am on track to answer the efficiency and assembly detail questions through GBA and associated links, Building Science Corporation, Matt Risinger Videos, and others, I estimate it has taken me from a D- to a C+ in only a few hundred articles; and, I think a very modest, but pretty good house is in my grasp in the not to distant future, with a little consultation.

We have already bought property and are living on it in our camper while we build. I have my county water, temp power, driveway, septic. I was about to level a building pad and buy our permit for a design we created,  when I was hit with a fire-hydrant sip of information on this site. We are scrapping the plan and getting some education and redesigning the house from what we are learning.

Since, I made the same mistakes as previous houses of just “putting this here or there” and not considering the relation to the whole, I am having difficulty in designing my way through some of the difficulties I created; but I am glad I caught myself before pouring our slab. I am setting my sights on a PV ready roof for the future, since I dismissed a ground mount array. I want to orient the house very close to south facing if I can in my complicated situation.

Thank you for your help.


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  1. Andrew_C | | #1

    Educating yourself is always a good thing. It’s useful to have some sort of knowledge or frame of reference to understand complex issues. E.g., it’s good to do some research and have a list of questions ready when you go in to speak with your doctor. But reading a book doesn’t make you an experienced doctor, engineer, or architect. And knowing a bit about architecture and engineering doesn’t include legal or code requirements. Basically, building a house is a big, complicated, expensive undertaking, and you can lose your shirt in any number of ways. Amateurs are going to benefit by consulting professionals, even when building the most basic (and perhaps boring and uncomfortable) house.

    And, the most money can be saved in the planning stage, so that’s where I’d spend my money. Sorry for the rant.

    If you’ve built two houses, you’ve probably learned a few things and had some experiences that should be useful in planning the next one. That’s good.

    Back to your question: Sarah Susanka is an architect that has put together a series of books that discuss and illustrate a lot of architectural design issues in an approachable way. I’ve enjoyed all of them. I think she trademarked “The Not So Big House”.

    I commend you for your willingness to work. I’d just be sure to get some professional help in the design stage, and a complete set of professional drawings.

  2. mikeysp | | #2

    Thank you for bringing perspective through the excellent analogy; yet, still answering my question. -Mike

  3. jberks | | #3


    The internet's your friend here. Architecture is lovely, but it's vast. In my personal opinion, as a designer/builder you don't need to know about all styles of homes, you only need to know about the style of home you are building and the optimal assemblies for it. The Resources you mentioned like GBA I believe are as top notch as it gets.

  4. Expert Member
    Peter Engle | | #4

    Much of residential architecture is about floor plans (efficient and comfortable layout) and elevations (nice to look at). There are many websites that sell basic plan sets for houses of all sorts of different styles. Even if you don't buy the plans, you can learn a lot by browsing. Most of all, you can really pin down what is important to you, what you like and don't like, what you need and don't need, etc. If you find a set of plans you like, you can buy them and use them as a guide as you add your own requirements for insulation and air sealing details, etc. The floor plan companies hire the architects and amortize the cost over dozens (hundreds) of houses. Some of them will customize plans for you, but I don't have experience with any of them doing truly efficient and/or "green" building. Either way, it's a good place to start.

  5. BillDietze | | #5

    Mike, I greatly benefitted from the book "A Pattern Language". I'm an engineer and so can over emphasize building details over the magic of a a great floor plan sited perfectly on a piece of land. This book let me defocus and think hard about how I imagined living in my house. I did use an architect to keep me from being stupid and that helped too.


  6. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #6

    I second Bill's suggestion. "A Pattern Language" is broadly worshiped by architects, designers and supporters of good design. Sarah Susanka's "The Not So Big House" series is based loosely, as far as I can tell, on lessons from "A Pattern Language," and is helpful for starting to think about building no larger than necessary.

    You should read the book that Martin Holladay, the GBA senior editor, wrote:

    This book, co-authored by Scott Gibson, another editor on GBA, is ten years old so it's not entirely up-to-date, but still full of great information:

    One other note, please be careful about using the term "architect." Although it's used freely in other industries, for describing a person who designs houses, its use is limited. Architectural training is rigorous and only those who follow an approved path can call themselves architects. I've been designing homes for over ten years but because I did not follow one of the approved pathways, I legally cannot say that I'm an architect, I'm a building designer.

  7. kurtgranroth | | #7

    Mike, I am 100% in the same boat as you -- trying to design a net-zero home by cramming decades of knowledge into just a few months of extensive research. 100s of articles and hours of videos. The amount that you need to know is just staggering!

    Here are two resources that I think will help you out a lot.

    First, the Dept of Energy has a super practical building series based on the zone and climate. You will want this one:

    I have the "hot-dry" variant and while several chapters are directly aimed at production builders, there's also a wealth of practical details and even how-to guides intended for the sub-contractors. I can't stress how fantastic and useful that build series is!

    The second is kind of an index on this very site. How to Do Everything:

    That's undoubtedly a deep deep rabbit hole, but at least having the starting points all in one place has proved to be invaluable to me.

    Moving on... I'm not sure you are wanting an architect as much as an energy consultant. Martin has the new Bulletin Board post up that may help with that, if that's the route you end up going. I've found that I can get all of my questions answered here in the QA section, so far, but that does take up a very long time, when you factor in the many hours of pre-research.

    I did end up hiring an architect on my project but it's not a "full service" one. I know somebody who got one such architect that specified EVERY aspect of the builds, to the level of which specific air handlers and how said air handlers must be installed... but that cost $9 a sq ft, which can get very expensive, very fast. My own architect is a fraction of that, but at the cost that I do need to know a lot more personally, since some of the details would manifest themselves during the build phase (but I need to know now).

  8. PeterGBADemo | | #8

    HI Mike -

    One of the few architecture books that integrates building enclosure science is Designing the Exterior Wall by Lind Brock (Wliey Press: Really great book that includes both prominent commercial and residential wall systems.


  9. rockies63 | | #9

    Another thing you can do is come up with a "pretty good" floor plan and then post it on here for people to critique (Lord knows I love critiquing plans). However, don't wait until the building is halfway built before asking for ideas :)

  10. matlockjeffries | | #10

    From a stylistic perspective (how to design and place windows, trim, etc., so that things "look right"), I think a great, and concise, resource is Get Your House Right by Marianne Cusato.

  11. brendanalbano | | #11

    Others have given book suggestions, so here's a non-book suggestion:

    Spend a lot of time observing, analyzing, and discussing architecture.

    Warn your friends before you spring this on them at a party or something, but talk to everyone you know about what they love and hate about their homes. Every time you're in a home, think about what you like and what you don't like. Carry a notebook everywhere and make notes and sketches. Then talk to anyone who will listen about it. Do they like and dislike the same things as you or different things?

    Do you like the place one of your friends lives more than another? Why? Dig deep into your preferences.

    Try to tease apart your reactions to the floor plan (how big rooms are, what shapes they are, what other rooms they are adjacent to), views, proportions and geometry, color, details, etc.

    When you read the books others have suggested, think about your reactions to the ideas presented. Do you agree? Disagree? Find someone who will listen and tell them all about it!

    A big part of architectural education is spending a lot of time talking about architecture. Trying to do as much of that as you can isn't going to make you an expert, but it will help you understand your own preferences better, and that counts for a lot!

  12. rockies63 | | #12

    One further thought: Make a list of all the furniture you have now and their sizes. Then list all the furniture you want to add and their sizes. Knowing that you'll be able to lay out a space the way you want to use it. Add in appropriate widths for circulation within the room and then between rooms. Then add the walls, doorways and windows.

    There's nothing worse than designing your dream home down to the inch and then finding out that your dining room is cramped or you can't fit in your beautiful new living room set.

    When it comes to the more "functional rooms", like kitchens, baths and laundry, plan for more storage than you think. In the kitchen, imagine making a dinner for 6, or baking a cake. How many steps does it take to get all the ingredients? How much prep space do you have? Where can you put down hot pans? Will people be crashing into each other if someone comes in to use the fridge or get a drink of water?

    For bathrooms and laundry, don't forget the additional "supporting spaces". Where do the cleaning supplies go? The linen storage? Soaps, extra toilet paper, the laundry hamper, etc? These are the spaces that usually get the least consideration, or forgotten completely.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #13


      Great advice. An activity-based approach to rooms makes for much more useful and supportive spaces.

  13. Chris_Duncan | | #14

    I like "The Visual Handbook of Building and Remodeling" by Charlie Wing. It's more of a how to for the complete process but it has sections on site design and building design that leans toward the DIYer. Not so much the artistic aspects but more of the functional ones.

    Architects are a difficult bunch especially towards a DIYer, they are usually looking for the full design job, not piecework. I would shop for a building designer or design technician if you are only looking for minimal consultation on existing plans. That and as already mentioned, post the plans here on GBA for advice.

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