Designing the Under-2,500-Square-Foot Home

When it is time to design new product for a community, many builders go in search of the perfect plan — something already out there. They shop the competition, search the Web or ask their marketing consultants to pull a trick from the hat. But, alas, what builders often find is that homes fall into one of two categories: those that have great design features but are way too expensive to ...
By Cheryl O'Brien | August 31, 2004

When it is time to design new product for a community, many builders go in search of the perfect plan — something already out there. They shop the competition, search the Web or ask their marketing consultants to pull a trick from the hat.

But, alas, what builders often find is that homes fall into one of two categories: those that have great design features but are way too expensive to build or those that are cost-effective to build, but risk putting potential buyers to sleep with their lack of creativity.

Great design and practicality seem to exist in separate worlds. Frankly, I cannot understand why, but this is especially true in homes under 2,500 square feet. However, take comfort. There is a formula that allows these two worlds to merge into one, resulting in a great-looking community and bottom-line success.

The focus must be, and continually remain, on design fundamentals such as

  • value design,
  • architectural design, and
  • elevation design.
Value Design

Whenever I talk to builders about designing smaller homes, the discussion revolves around three main topics: cost, cost and cost. Sure, we discuss how to fit 10 pounds of design features and closet space into a 5-pound box, but the conversation always comes back to the bottom line. The bottom line is the beginning, middle and end for most builders, so it makes sense to find the right approach to achieving great design while keeping cost firmly in mind.

We are price-per-square-foot challenged in small homes, but you can deliver more bang for the buck if you know ahead of time where to spend the money. So let's begin by dispelling one of home building's favorite myths — the notion of "Value Engineering." I think the official definition is:

Design creative house. Complete construction documents. Receive bids. Management freaks at cost. Estimating strips all marketable features to save money. Sales people cry for their features back so they can sell the home.

Certainly, this is crazy! Give up the notion of value engineering and adopt the idea of value design. A smaller home must incorporate construction efficiencies right from the beginning. This does not mean sacrificing design; it means just the opposite: consciously planning to spend dollars where they count the most — where the buyer will see and touch it.

The compact 1,600-square-foot, two-story colonial pictured here opens with a lot of drama. Buyers enter into a two-story foyer and immediately see an interesting stair and a large great room. More first views include the fireplace, a through-the-house vista via the rear wall of glass and a glimpse into the dining room. The buyer is immediately immersed in great design!

The walk upstairs offers a little fun with the angle in the stair, and the climb is rewarded with ultimate livability features — great bedroom sizes, no wasted space and a master bath with an oversized tub/shower combination.

From the street, buyers see an appealing traditional elevation and strong curb appeal: brick, detailing around the windows, dentil molding and the coveted front porch. (See "Elevation Design", page 92.)

The key to the success of this house? It is straightforward and cost-effective to build. It is the good old box, turned sideways, with the basic framing only interrupted by the stair. The money was spent only to create a design feature.

Build a better box. Minimize foundation jogs, use standard lumber lengths and a minimum of different window sizes, and spend the saved dollars where they count the most. Don't know where to begin in deciding what counts? Ask your salespeople. They know where to spend your design dollars.

Architectural Design

If you don't believe good design matters, take a look at these two center hall colonials. The rooms are in the same place, but which house do you want to try to sell?

In the first plan, you walk in the front door, see into the living room and dining room, view a traditional basic stair and enjoy light from the foyer window above. Then you squeeze past the coat closet to arrive in the open, light space.

In the second plan, you open the front door and get overwhelmed with a feeling of spaciousness and light. An interesting stair catches your eye, but your eye quickly travels beyond it to the rear wall of glass in the family room. You are surrounded by unobstructed views into open spaces. Light from every window pours into the center of the house.

Design does make a difference, even in a cost-effective box. The key to gaining consistent results is understanding how to achieve that good design. The three fundamentals of architectural design are:

  • views
  • flow
  • light.

Buyers should have a minimum of four to five initial-impact experiences. Creating multiple views delivers a spacious feeling. Make sure there are views into several rooms — to architectural features like stairs, columns or niches — and unobstructed views through the windows to the world beyond.

Have some fun. Turn a trick stair on a 45-degree angle. (A trick stair features an entrance from both the foyer and the rear.) Here you achieve multiple benefits: practicality and a dynamic architectural feature. The stair positioning draws the eye straight to the view of the family room rear glass wall.

Rooms may have distinction, but the spaces should be open and flow together. Define rooms with flooring changes, creative ceiling treatments or decorative columns — not by enclosing them with walls. Traditional buyers want well-defined rooms, while keeping the feeling of open space alive. Spaces should relate well to one another and always share light. A natural flow from room to room will make the home feel larger than it is.

Continue the experience of views and flow throughout the home. Keep the fireplace off the family room rear wall. Any time you stop the eye with a wall, you immediately end the experience of the space. The mind cannot imagine that the room feels any larger than it is because the wall defines the limit of the space. A wall of glass allows the room to flow into the outside space beyond.

Light, and lots of it, completes the picture. Bombard the spaces with natural light to make them come alive. Most everyone is intrinsically attracted to sunshine, so you need to use that to your advantage. The architecture or merchandising for a given structure may not exactly reflect an individual buyer's style, but the feel of light is everyone's style.

Create the drama and back it up with strong livability features. Tuck in a butler's pantry, provide a kitchen island with an eating bar or make a garden-style tub/shower a standard feature in the master bath, and don't skimp on closet space. Minimize the amount of circulation space by allowing spaces to flow together, freeing up enough space for the convenience features required to make the sale.

Narrow lots create a host of challenges but can be handled creatively by sticking with the fundamentals. One trick is to get past the garage depth creatively and allow the house to open up behind it. In the 40-foot-wide plan pictured here, the foyer is compact and well-defined, but the fundamentals of creating interesting views, room flow and plenty of light still apply.

From the foyer, buyers see the free-floating stair and an interesting drywall niche. The house opens before them with views into the dining room and the round columns that define it. Their eyes continue on through the family room and the rear wall of glass.

All the public spaces flow into one another, with the only hallways being into the private bedrooms. Finally, an abundance of natural light flows into every space. The impact of all these experiences makes the buyer forget that the house is only 40 feet wide.

Elevation Design

Traditional exteriors still are coveted in many parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. Buyers want their homes to resemble the traditional neighborhoods where they grew up. To entice buyers to choose the convenience of new construction, builders need to create the look of old, well-established neighborhoods.

The critical fundamentals to master in elevation design are:

  • scale
  • detail
  • color.

Giving presence to a single-story home can be challenging, but stick with the fundamentals, and you will succeed. Give the elevation more significant scale by varying plate heights and adding reverse gables to break up long stretches of roof. By creating a 12-foot-tall front wall and a long porch with windows above, this 1,400-square-foot model commands attention.

Make elevations shine with details. Window trim should be substantial and add presence to the home. Stucco window heads should be 8 to 12 inches tall and at least 1 inch in depth. Bands around windows should be roughly 6 inches wide. Make sure the frieze boards are kept in the budget! A house without frieze boards is like a woman without her jewelry. They are essential to establishing a refined look.

Spend some money at the entry, the part of the exterior buyers see up close and touch. Front porches are very popular and should be well-detailed. Preformed round columns are reasonably priced and elegant, and that frieze board is critical. If the budget allows, consider using standing seam metal on a porch to add an upscale, finished look.

Borrow ideas from high-end traditional exteriors to give scale to your small, two-story homes. Traditional colonial homes have height above the second-floor windows — so the windows don't feel squashed under the eaves — and beautiful traditional frieze details. Emulate this grand scale by utilizing a raised-heel truss and a molded-millwork dentil frieze board. Now you have allowed room to add headers above the second-floor windows.

Windows of old had molded trim around them, with shutters that could really close. You never saw shutters adjacent to multiple mulled windows. Don't use shutters as trim; the mind just doesn't register them as real. Use trim at window groups and shutters only on single windows.

Other fine details include rake overhangs that give depth and shadow, a rake frieze, and 5 inches of corner trim. Use 10- to 12-inch tall preformed window heads, not the wimpy 6-inch tall pieces. Create raised brick details above both the first and second floor windows. A louver that actually is surrounded by brick, instead of stuck on top, will add the final touch.

Finally, color is critical. By all means hire a professional to help with color selections. Bad color combinations can destroy an otherwise good elevation, whereas good color combinations actually can hide some sins. Use traditional colors in traditional neighborhoods. This is not the place to start experimenting with the latest trends.

Now that you have added all the great details, use color to show them off. A white trim against a rich tan siding or a deep green shutter against a tumbled red brick feels luxurious. Paint the garage door the same color as the siding so that it disappears into the overall look. Save that contrasting color for the front door, where you want to draw the attention. After all, the only way to get buyers to see the exciting interior design features is to get them to come through that door.

Author Information
Cheryl O'Brien is president, owner and lead designer for C.O'Brien Architects Inc, an architectural boutique in the Philadelphia, Pa., area. Check out her Web site at or e-mail her at