Undercover Architect

How to design the perfect home (when everything feels like you’re compromising)


Tradeoffs are inevitable – but they don’t have to be compromises. So how do you create the perfect home?

Surely Richard Branson doesn’t have any hurdles to creating his perfect home?

Richard Branson has decided to build a home on his own island.

Money is no object. He owns the island, so he pretty much calls the shots on planning rules. So budget isn’t going to worry him, and building laws and requirements probably won’t either.

You’d think he could have the perfect home don’t you? Most people complain that they a) can’t afford what they want and b) council won’t allow them to do what they want. So remove those two limitations, and the sky’s the limit isn’t it?

Well, no.

The home is built on land. Land that has topography, and vegetation, and soil conditions … all of which play a part in dictating what’s possible in the design, layout, size, shape and construction of the home.

The home is built in a climatic environment. An environment which has specific weather patterns, sun movement and temperature conditions that will dictate how the home should be designed to respond to it. This is to ultimately benefit the experience Richard has whilst living in it.

The home is built from materials that have to get to site. So transport will pose challenges. Local availability (or how they can be put on a ship or plane) play a role in what he can choose from, regardless of what he can afford. And the climate will impact what he can choose for durability and maintenance requirement. And then there’s the environmental sustainability overlay informing his choices too.

The home has other inhabitants. Don’t forget his wife. She’ll definitely have a say in how the home is designed, and what it’s like to live in overall. His kids might even weigh in.

So can he have the perfect home? Well, maybe not. Maybe the 100% perfect home will end up looking very different by the time it’s jumped through all these ‘hurdles’.

And at the outset, these hurdles may appear as compromises. Total tradeoffs that chip away, bit by bit, at his 100% vision of his home. That make it less than perfect.


I don’t think so.

Tradeoffs are inevitable – but they don’t have to be compromises

I think homeowners sometimes imagine that there is one solution for their perfect home. The one design that will tick all the boxes. And that they’ll then work backwards from there as they find they can’t afford things.

However, in my experience, the process of designing and building your home, is not an all-or-nothing process.

What I find instead, is that as the design process develops, what you want, and what you thought you want, aren’t always the same thing.

As ideas get tested, and drawn and explored … as the jigsaw puzzle of your dreams, wishes and needs gets put together … as the rooms and spaces and volumes get shaped and connected … things change and develop.

You start to make choices. Choices based on what you value. On choosing one priority over another. Of weighing up what’s more important, and letting go of what’s not.

And so ‘perfect’ shifts. It may sound strange, but this static idea, or fixed image you may have had in your head becomes a dance, an exchange, between you and the home that’s slowly evolving. And what I see (when this design ‘dance’ is done well) is that homeowners don’t actually feel like they’re giving up on things, or compromising during this process. They’re actually developing the design, and their idea of how it will help them live. They’re getting invested, and they’re falling in love.

It’s the process that leads them to the perfect home for their site, their budget and their life.

There is never just one solution

In all the years I’ve been designing homes, I know that there is never only one design solution.

You ask 10 designers to come up with their design for a specific site, with specific conditions and environment, and working to budget and town planning requirements, and you’ll get a range of solutions.

Some of them may be a variation on others, and there will also be completely contrasting versions too.

Of course there will be solutions that suit your requirements more successfully, and will be a better home to live in. In my experience, this won’t be limited to just one design though … and because your preferences are subjective and personal, what you choose will be informed by this as well.

So how do you determine what tradeoffs to make? And what your priorities are to inform those tradeoffs so they don’t feel like compromises?

Get clarity on what you’re seeking to achieve

You may say “Well, I want a family home. One with 4 bedrooms, a study, a master with an ensuite … an open plan living area, dining and kitchen. And a butler’s pantry … I’ve always wanted a butler’s pantry. And I want it on budget.”

When I ask you though “What are you seeking to achieve”, I want you to think about how you want your home to feel .. and how you want to feel in your home. Is this your forever home? Or something you plan for the short-term? Do you want comfort, ease and relaxation in your home? Or excitement, wow and drama? Or maybe a bit of both?

It may sound like the same thing. However, the difference is that there are various ways to deliver those feelings, that environment that you’re seeking to create, that may not look like the list of rooms you initially provide.

These other ways may suit you more closely, be able to be delivered on your budget, and create a home that feels more ‘you’.

When you have this clarity about what you’re seeking to achieve, your choices become simple. They’re not compromises. They’re the most suitable, most perfect choice for you

Choose a design leader or be one

Unless you’re working with a designer who is experienced at and qualified to expand your vision, you’ll need to be the design leader. If you’re not equipped to do this, you’ll miss out on opportunities – to save time, money and get the best outcome. You just won’t know what’s in front of you, because you won’t know what you’re looking for or what is possible.

I recently had a client who is working directly with their builder and their draftsperson. They said to me “The builder isn’t a designer. So when we can’t tell them how we want things, or what it is exactly that we don’t like, they’re lost”.

Don’t get lost. Get a design leader or be one.

There has to be one person you trust to guide your process. Whose voice is stronger, has more weight, and helps you remember your priorities. If that isn’t you, then hire someone whose opinion you do trust and value. Listen to them above all others, and let them help you create your home.

And human nature is such that you’ll only really value their opinion when you pay them for it. Something happens when you have to put your hand in your pocket. You do more homework about who you’ll give that money to, and you put different weight on what they tell you.

Designing by committee doesn’t work

You have a design. You’re reasonably happy with it. You may have even paid a professional to help you create it. But you’ve decided not to work with them the whole way through. So onwards you go, managing the process yourself.

As things develop, more decisions need to be made. You ask the building designer you’ve found to prepare your construction drawings. The builder. Some friends who’ve renovated or built. A mum at school who is an interior designer.

Everyone has an opinion. They all add it to the mix. Their ideas seem good, so you add them in.

If you haven’t a) checked every decision against the core fundamentals of what you’re seeking to achieve … and b) hired a design leader, or are being one … then you can be in danger of design-by-committee. Your design can become a jumble of functions and spaces that seem like a great idea individually, but don’t work holistically together.

This is where you can end up with 2 outdoor living areas, 4 internal ones, a study and storage all over the place … rooms that may all make sense as stand-alone ideas, but together may not create the perfect home for you. Including things “because you can” or “because so-and-so says they’ve always loved them” can cost you more – not only financially, but in creating a home that isn’t about you, and what your specific needs, aspirations and goals are.

What’s your definition of perfect?

Our ideas of perfection can be distorted by the glossy magazines, the internet images, and the catalogue versions of the latest trends we ooh and aahh over. When planning a renovation or build, we can spend a lot of time ‘researching’ … when what we’re actually doing is looking at pretty images we collect on pinterest or put in a scrapbook.

Look beyond the pretty things, spaces and images.

Focus instead on the feelings they evoke in you. The sense of peace, or calm, or excitement. The quality of natural light. The connection to nature. The notion of not only have a space to curl up with a book, but the time to enjoy doing it also!

I’ve always spoken about the ‘perfect home’ as the perfect home for you … your site, your budget and your life.

A home that’s functional, flexible and fun to live in. That gives you bang for buck, helps you be the best version of yourself, and sells well and quickly when the time comes to move on.

That’s my definition of perfect. What’s yours?

Amelia Lee

Amelia Lee is the architect behind Undercover Architect. Undercover Architect operates mainly online to help homeowners (especially women) design and plan their future new homes and renovations. Think of it as your secret ally in getting it right, and saving time, money and stress - whoever you’re working with to create or transform your home.

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