Q&A With an Architect About What it's Like to Design Your Own Home

Q&A With an Architect About What it's Like to Design Your Own Home

By Jen Hill and Dwell
When you're an architect, designing your own home is a dream come true. Or is it?

To find out what it's like for architects who bring their expertise to their own home build or remodel, we turned to Jen Hill of Austin-based CDK Architects to give us the full, honest scoop.

To illustrate some of Jen’s ideas, we’ve included photos from her home that she just finished for her and her family in Austin, Texas.

Q. How did designing your own home differ from designing homes for clients? 

A. The main difference is how personal every decision became. I spent a lot of time imagining all the details of my—and my husband’s—daily routine, and imagining how the house would function in the future, as our family grows. It was such an immersive experience. I lived and breathed this house for years—first during the design phase and then during construction. Few days passed when I didn’t work on the house in one way or another. I even dreamed about the house at night. It was more stressful for me than a typical project, but also more rewarding. 

The home pays tribute to the neighborhood's midcentury roots in style and scale. The Hemlock Fir siding is warm and welcoming. There are three entrances—the main entrance, a separate office entrance, and one that goes directly into the laundry/mud room. 

Q. What was the most challenging part? 

A. The hardest part was the constant questioning of my own decisions. Did I choose the right style for the house, did I provide enough storage space, am I going to regret some of my choices? When you’re designing a completely new home, with no client input, you’re really working with a blank slate (apart from existing site constraints). And sometimes, a lack of constraints can feel overwhelming. Although, I’m extremely happy with the end result. I still think about all the other choices I could have made, and I wonder what the house would have been like if I had chosen things differently. 

The open concept living/dining/kitchen has a large vaulted ceiling with rectangular and triangular clerestory windows that wash the space with tree-dappled natural light from high above. 

Q. What was the most rewarding part? 

A. I really enjoyed the entire process from beginning to end, and being both the client and the architect gave me a better understanding of what my own clients experience. Being on the job site almost daily, I also learned a lot about construction. I was lucky to have a great team working with me, and the relationships that I developed with my design and construction team have outlasted the timeline of the project itself. As with most things in life, it’s the people you surround yourself with that make experiences so profound. A lot of love was poured into the home, and we feel that on a daily basis. 

The wood used on the fireplace wall was salvaged from the floor of the old home that the architect and her husband lived in before eventually deciding to build a new home in its place. It was painstakingly salvaged, sorted, stripped, cut, and re-stained before finding new life as a wall finish.

For the kitchen, the architect selected a recycled Fireclay Tile in Slate Blue and paired that with High Park paint from Benjamin Moore. Copper pendants from VITA accent the space. The vent hood is mounted in front of a large window, bringing in natural light and allowing for a view of the herb garden.

Q. What were some of the key influences that inspired the design? 

A. The style of the home was inspired by the midcentury origins of the neighborhood. It was important to me that the new house be respectful of its surroundings. At the same time, I wasn’t trying to hide the fact that this is a modern home. The house is on a somewhat busy street, so I oriented it to take advantage of the more private backyard space. The connection to the outdoors was a driving factor, and I also wanted to find the right balance between public and private spaces. My husband and I worked with an interior design consultant, Becca Stephens, to come up with a color palette that felt organic, calming, and warm. My husband advocated for a lot of color in the home, which made me a little nervous at first, but turned out to be a wise choice. The home is rich with warm woods, soothing colors, and natural light. We also added some fun wallpapers to keep the mood playful—one is a medley of insects in sophisticated jewel tones, and the other is a bold blue-and-gold underwater seascape. 

Jennifer Shorto "Emeralds" wallpaper was used for the powder bath.

The wallpaper used in the master bedroom is Captain Smith Promenade. An antique Thonet Bentwood Rocking Chair, which has been in the family for generations, sits in the corner of the room. 

Q. What do you wish you would have done differently? 

A. With any project, there are things that don’t go exactly according to plan. During construction, I had to make some changes in order to stay within the budget. Cabinets, for instance, had to be scaled back a bit because the initial bid was too high. But I think that sometimes these "problems" actually make the design better. Pairing down can be a good exercise in determining what’s really important, which is good for the project. We finished construction for less than two-percent above the budgeted amount, which is fantastic. There are minor things that I question from time to time, but these "lessons learned" mean that the next project will be even better. 

The architect's home office, situated in the front corner of the house, allows for ample natural light and views. The office has its own entrance and is attached to the powder bath, which can also be entered from the hallway near the living room.

Q. Would you do it again? 

A. Yes, absolutely! We love our home and intend to live in it for the foreseeable future, but the process was so rewarding that I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again, given the right circumstances. I’m so grateful for the opportunity, but for now, I’m enjoying working with my clients and helping them achieve their own dream homes.   


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