Building a New House – Initial Steps in Developing Plans in Florida and Other Areas

Building in Miami or any area of South Florida is completely different from building in any other area of the country. While most of the eastern seaboard of the United States, and much of the rest of the country, builds houses with wood framing and a finish of brick or wood siding, South Florida builds with concrete block and concrete.

Quality vs. price

Because of hurricane winds the structures in this area must be very strong. Where the rest of the country looks down on us because they only use concrete block in their basements, for my money, I really like concrete and block construction. Concrete blocks do not get termites and will not rot. Therefore, a concrete block structure will last for 100 years or more with almost no maintenance. Unfortunately, the vast majority of houses in Miami have wood trusses with plywood sheathing for the roof, then roofing paper and either shingles or concrete tiles on top. This type of construction is not particularly good at resisting hurricane wind conditions. Although the Florida Building Code has tried its best at improving the requirements for installing the roof sheathing and the roof finish, it cannot begin to compare to the strength that the roof would have if a concrete slab were used for the roof structure.

So why, if we know this, don’t we build with concrete slab roofs? Cost – the only reason is cost. It is much more expensive both to design and to install a concrete slab roof, especially on a slope to take a concrete tile finish.

So one of the first things the homeowner needs to establish at the beginning of the design process for a new house is how much the owner wants to spend on the construction. There is the cheap way to build a home and the expensive way. This is an issue that will come up many times during the design and construction process.

The program

But in order to determine a budget, the homeowner first needs to establish the square footage of the new house. To establish the total square footage, he will have to generate a program for the house. The program is a list of rooms with their corresponding sizes.

See the sample list as follows:


Living Room 240 square feet
Dining Room 120 square feet
Kitchen 170 square feet
Family Room 240 square feet
Master Bedroom 240 square feet
Master Bath 64 square feet
Bedroom No. 2 216 square feet
Bedroom No. 3 192 square feet
Bath No. 2 36 square feet
Laundry Room 100 square feet
Linen closet 9 square feet
A/C Closet 9 square feet

Total square feet = 1,636

Circulation and walls at 20% = 1,634 square feet = 327 square feet

Total = 1,634 + 327 = 1,961 square feet

So now we have a basic idea of the major spaces of the house and approximately how many square feet total homeowner will need for the house.

Also, this is a good time to decide whether there will be any outdoor spaces, such as covered terraces or pergolas. In Florida these are particularly good additions to the interior spaces. With wonderful temperatures during the winter there is no reason to spend all the time in air-conditioned interior spaces.

The budget

So what will a house that is just under 2000 square feet cost in South Florida? There is no magic formula to determine this. The cost of the house depends on many things that have to do with the design, such as: the type of roof, the ceiling height(s), the complexity of the design, the finishes, whether it is going to be on a septic tank or sewer, and the type of foundations. Then, there are those costs that have nothing to do with the design, like the location of the house, how busy are the contractors in the area, how well-known and reliable the contractor is, etc. Although the price of a house can vary wildly because of all the items discussed above, at this time a range of $150 to $250 per square foot could be used for a house that is not too elaborate with standard construction. So if we go back to the example. A 2,000 square foot house would cost between $300,000 and $500,000 excluding the land.

The design team

The Miami-Dade County Building Department does not require plans for a single-family residence to be signed and sealed by an architect or engineer. This is not true for all municipalities in the area. For example, Coral Gables does require all plans to be signed and sealed by an architect. But for all practical purposes the volume of information that has to be included in a set of plans in any municipality within Miami-Dade County, most of the time, there is a need to hire several professionals: an architect, an MEP engineer, and a structural engineer. MEP stands for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing. The mechanical engineer designs the air-conditioning, the electrical engineer designs the electrical, including the lighting, and the plumbing engineer designs the plumbing. The structural engineer designs the structure and provides the required structural calculations for the building envelope. The architect designs the entire house and coordinates everybody’s work. The coordination of all the disciplines is probably the architect’s most important role as without coordination there could be real conflicts in the construction phase. Although it is legal to produce plans on his own in some parts of the county, it will be an insurmountable task to produce construction drawings for permitting (unless the homeowner has a background in construction with actual experience and the knowledge of the Florida Building Code and the local zoning codes).

What do these design services cost the homeowner? They also vary greatly but there is also a range among good, established professionals. This range would be from 6% to 10% of construction cost for the permit plans for all the disciplines. The services during the construction phase are usually charged separately on an hourly basis or in a separate package.

Style of the house

Another important decision to be made early on is the style of the house. There are basically three styles popular for home design in South Florida – modern, Mediterranean, and Key West.

Once the homeowner decides what styles he wants, it is important to convey the style and the details to the architect. The best way to explain to an architect what he wants is through either images from magazines or actual photographs of other houses.

Choosing an architect

Now that you have the basic items together, the next step is to pick your architect. This is very important as this is the person with whom you will work very closely during the next year.

Take the survey from the existing land from the time you closed on your mortgage. If you have lost it or it’s too old or inaccurate, the architect will arrange for you to get it updated or have a new one done.

Ask to see photos of his/her work. Ask for references. Ask questions. Ask him/her how he would approach the project. Start to sense if this is someone you could work with. Do you like the predominant style of the architect’s work? Does his/her work appeal to you? Ask about the process. Ask what you should expect in the way of his/her services. Ask him to show you the plans for a similar project.

People are individuals and everyone is unique. I remember how many people have hired me because they liked my “Mediterranean” or “Spanish” style or my modern or post-modern style. One person told me that she hired me because I returned her phone calls promptly. Chemistry between people is meaningful. Do not discount your initial impressions.

The construction documents

Normally, construction documents entail several parts: the drawings, the specifications, the instructions to bidders, and the addenda. Normally, when the architect handles the construction bid phase for the owner, he selects the type of contract the owner will have with the contractor. This document is also part of the construction documents.

The drawings are the major part of the work, which along the specifications act as a step-by-step guide for the contractor to use during the construction. Sometimes on large jobs, the specifications are placed in a separate book and called the Project Manual. On most residential projects, the specifications are normally covered as notes right in the drawings. For elaborate interiors a separate package is done by the architect and charged separately.

The construction documents are generated in phases from the general to the detailed. I like to divide my projects into 4 phases: Preliminary design, design development, 50% construction documents, and 100% construction documents. Each phase builds on the previous phase until the architect feels that the drawings are all coordinated among the different disciplines and are ready to submit for permitting.

With careful planning and communication with your architect, his good drawings and coordination and the careful selection of a reputable contractor, your new house project should flow without major problems. Although there are often change orders due to unforeseen conditions or changes the owner wants to implement, most issues should be resolved prior to construction.

For more information on the role of the architect during construction, see my other article on the role of the architect during the construction process posted here.

Source by Maria Luisa Castellanos

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