ready, set, buildEnthusiasm alone won’t get it done. From defining your dream to recruiting your home-building all-stars, here’s what you need to get started.

So you want to build a house, but you feel paralyzed by the immensity of the task, by the ten thousand details, and by the gazillions of dollars involved. You’re as nervous as you are excited, and you don’t know where to begin.

Or maybe you’re just so in love with your dream that you’re convinced that the creative vision will carry you right through to certificate of occupancy, furnishing, landscaping, and mortgage payments.

Whichever type you are, you’d better think again, because while both the cautious and the confident approaches have their merits, each will benefit from a well-researched, open-eyed preparation for the process of design-and-build. This is what will free you from excessive worry or rescue you from starry-eyed optimism. Home building is indeed a high-stakes undertaking, but it’s a wonderful and rewarding one deserving of all the care you can give it.

So how should you start? By creating the first tool—a concise one-page (and only one page!) description of what, where, and when you want to build and how much you want to spend.

What you want to build will obviously be the bulk of this one-pager, and you’ll have about three paragraphs to tell how big the house will be, to explain what rooms and features it will have, and to give an impression of what it will feel like. The first benefit of this document is that it will force you to collect your thoughts and get really clear about your goals for this project. The second benefit is that you’ll have to get real in terms of the scary stuff like time and (gulp) money. For couples, there’s the added challenge and reward of coming to agreement on the details of your life.

It’s a good idea to take your time with this exercise and set the tone for a fun and creative project. After all, it’s only a matter of paper and dreams at this point, and nobody’s handing out grades on your work. In short order you’ll have developed a valuable document for the next step of getting feedback from the marketplace and for interviewing candidates for the primary positions on your construction team: the designer or architect, the contractor, and the banker.

Most home builders will have picked up some referrals by word of mouth, which is often the best source. Make the necessary appointments with these professionals, and regard them not just as candidates for hiring but as consultants—because these individuals can provide the real-world feedback you critically need as you go about shaping your project. They’ll help you gain a better idea of whether your balance sheet will support a budget that is adequate for bringing your dreams into reality. You’ll see whether the site you have selected will accommodate your design, and you’ll learn about construction timelines and the current state of the market.

Armed with this information, you can tweak your one-pager and go about the next task of finding that one key person who will be your project chief. This is most often the designer or architect, but it could also be a contractor who’s good at drawing plans. The designer’s role is crucial: if the person is any good, he or she will give you much more than a set of blueprints. The designer will have at his or her disposal a network of financiers, consultants, builders, and craftspeople, as well as a wealth of industry knowledge ranging from building costs to where to find a kitchen sink. Your designer should be someone you can trust completely—someone who demonstrates the ability to grasp what you want as well as the willingness to execute it.

Very soon, you’ll have to offload an unbelievable amount of information to your new team leader. Once again, this is a process: you have to communicate your myriad preferences and desires for the house, and at the same time he or she has to form essential impressions of who you are, what lifestyle you want to create, and ultimately what sort of home will serve as your second skin. In effect, you are creating a very unusual and potentially lasting relationship.

I myself am a designer, and years ago I created a comprehensive questionnaire to help my clients formulate the data I need to get started. You can feel their sense of relief as they unload all these details onto someone else who will deal with them! While some of the items in my questionnaire are particular to my work in Taos, it’s proved useful for projects as far away as Colorado and New York. You can find the questionnaire on my website,, and you are welcome to use it.

While you’re there, you can look at the FAQs, which answer typical questions about designing, finding a contractor, getting financing, and much more. I post these documents to save myself time—perhaps they will save you some time and energy, too. The sooner you can inform yourself and the sooner you can delegate responsibilities, the sooner you’ll feel more relaxed and more in control of the project—hence, free to enjoy the really creative stuff.

Construction always presents the risk of getting so myopic about the details of floor coverings and kitchen appliances that one forgets the core dream the house is intended to realize: how you want to feel when you walk in the door, what kind of relationships will be fostered, how the real you can emerge more and more over time. These are the truly important things to understand, convey, and hold in your sights the entire time—and they may well be the subject of the next Style with Substance.

Vishu Magee designs homes around Santa Fe and Taos. He is the author of Archetype Design: House as a Vehicle for Spirit. Contact him at