A Word Picture: The first step toward designing your own dome home

Beautiful exterior sketch of a Monolithic Dome Home.

Before spending money on sketches and floor plans, completing a word picture will help define how your Monolithic Dome home needs to function for you and your family.

Rick Crandall, Architect

The single most important step in any construction project is the “word picture.” Most of the time, when someone starts thinking about their dream home, they get out a pencil and start sketching. It’s an understandable impulse, but sketches and floor plans don’t communicate your intentions to a designer very well.

You and your designer need to uncover the intention behind illustrations and drawings. Flipping through floor plans will not help you determine what matters most to you in your new home. The best way to identify and order your priorities and communicate them effectively is through a word picture.

A word picture is a comprehensive, written description of what you want and need in your new home. It should be well thought out and detailed to the point of describing the dimensions of rooms, the direction they should face, their arrangement in the house, and the overall feeling of the home you are hoping to create.

The word picture needs to be developed over a considerable amount of time. Inspiration often comes several days or weeks after other ideas have been firmly in place. The investment you make in terms of designing your home is possibly the most valuable investment of time and money you will ever make. Your new home will be where your life happens. Your satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) in your new home’s design has the potential to affect you and your family’s happiness now, and for many years to come, so take your time.

Follow the steps in this guide to successfully create your word picture.

Before you get started

Before you begin the process of creating your word picture, write down the names and ages of everyone who will be living in the home when it is first constructed. Do it again for how you see things developing in 5, 10, 20 years from now, and so on. List details like interests, hobbies, or special needs for each individual. Maybe even write a list of potential frequent guests and any special considerations you may want to keep in mind when developing your word picture.

Elegant, low profile Monolithic Dome Home Rendering.

When working on your word picture, take into account the specific needs of each member of your family. The sleek, modern design of this Monolithic Dome home provides lots of shady outdoor areas for entertaining.

Rick Crandall, Architect

Step One—Brainstorm

Make a list of every single wish you have for your new home. Include interior rooms, garages or storages, and outdoor spaces like porches or decks. Gather your family and friends together to help with this step. How many bedrooms do you want or need? Are they big or small? Open floor plan? Who will be living there? What are their needs?

Some helpful questions to ask during the brainstorming session include:

  • Do you want a basement?
  • Do you want to embrace or highlight staircases? If you are planning to live in the home for many years, you may want to avoid staircases.
  • Where are you going to store your family’s sporting equipment, sewing supplies, or tools?
  • Do you do a lot of entertaining?
  • Do you need dedicated space for an office or offices?
  • What about your kids and grandkids? What space will they require?
  • Do you have a large family with the need for more than one washing machine?
  • Do you need to have a small apartment built into your home? Perhaps for elderly parents, your college-age kids, or just for supplemental income?
  • Are your personal needs small, but you have adult children and grandchildren you wish to accommodate during the holidays?
  • Country living or city life?
  • If you have your site picked out, what details do you have about it? What do you like and dislike about it? What do you want to emphasize?
  • If you don’t have a site picked out, what are you looking for in a potential lot? Do you want a fun neighborhood? A rural setting?

Get specific, and don’t hold back. The more ideas you write down, the better your foundation is for completing the next steps.

Artist's concept sketch of interior of a large Monolithic Dome home.

When planning a two-story home, consider carefully the needs of you and your family as the years go on. Stairs can become difficult to manage for elderly occupants, but offer drama and privacy for younger families.

Rick Crandall, Architect

Step Two—Expanding on your initial brainstorming sessions

After you have made your list of wishes, describe what you want to happen in each of the rooms. Is the room for conversation, a big-screen TV, or dance practice? For some, a bedroom is simply a place to sleep; for others, it becomes a gathering place to read to the kids or watch TV. Do you want a private bathroom just for you? What should the feeling in the bathroom(s) be? Organized and efficient? Or laid back and inviting as a place to relax?

To help with this part of the process, purchase a few home and lifestyle magazines and cut out images that speak to you. This works well if you ask your family members to participate. Have everyone cut out pictures of bathrooms, bedrooms, living rooms, workshops, etc. and tape them into your notebook. Ask for detailed, written descriptions for each image describing what they like about the room.

You may find that this step changes many of your initial ideas about what was important in your home. That’s okay! That just means you are doing the work.

Another thing to think about is how much time you actually spend engaging in the various activities and hobbies that take up space. Keep a journal. You may think you need a dedicated wrapping paper room, but if you only spend 1-10 hours a year wrapping presents, maybe a closet will do. It makes sense that you might want to devote more room—or more thought—to the areas where you and your family spend the most time.

Consider where you want your kids to hang out. Do you want them to gather in shared spaces, or isolate in their rooms? Design accordingly. Think about where you want your kids to use their laptops. Making space for homework in the common areas may be necessary. Instead of big bedrooms built to accommodate toys and desks, maybe you want to have cupboards installed in a hallway so that toys are played with in the common areas with everyone together and then quickly cleaned up.

Look at combined use rooms. If you need a guest room, could a Murphy bed or a daybed be installed and the room be used as an office when there are no guests? Could the laundry room become a utility room where tools and household accouterments are stored? Or can an entryway become a mudroom with the washer and dryer in it? Many small households are happy with a stackable washer/dryer unit in a bathroom or kitchen.

This may also be the time to start researching flooring options. What do you like or dislike about carpet, ceramic tile, wood floors, or the new vinyl plank flooring options? How do they compare in terms of cost and maintenance? Ask owners of each type of flooring what they like and don’t like about each. Flooring is not a critical part of the word picture, but it’s a decision that will affect the overall budget, design, and function of the house, and is not one to take lightly. (Tip: Seriously consider vinyl flooring if you have kids or dogs and don’t want to be continually reminding everyone not to get water on the floors! You can always upgrade to wood or carpet after everyone grows up and moves out.)

Don’t forget the exterior

While you are researching the design of the interior of your home, do the same for the exterior. Make notes about what conventional styles you like and rip pages out of magazines. Consider if you want a traditional style garage, or if you want the garage to be part of your home, or a separate dome, or any combination in between.

Completing step two can and should be fun! Compare and match up what you learn during this part of the process with your brainstormed lists. Has anything changed? If so, make a new list of “must-haves” for your house and continue to Step Three.

Front and rear elevations of proposed Monolithic Dome home.

Look at as many sources as possible for design inspiration. The book, Dome Living is a great place to start.

Rick Crandall, Architect

Step Three—Measure, Measure, Measure

For this step to be successful, you will need a measuring tape, notebook, and pencil to carry with you at all times. You are going to record the measurements of every room you encounter and make notes about what you did or did not like about the space. You can take pictures of rooms you like, but don’t skip over taking the measurments!

It is imperitive you measure, measure, measure. Measure bedrooms, closets, and hallways. Measure your own and measure your neighbors’. Measure the space between cabinets in kitchens. Measure the actual cabinets. Measure your bathtub! Go to Home Depot or Lowes and measure the tubs they have on display. Measure your shower and other people’s showers. Measure bathroom and kitchen storage spaces. Measure linen closets, pantries, and front stoops. Measure decks, foyers, staircases, offices, and even the desks in offices. Measure other people’s shops, garages, and rec rooms.

Measure furniture. Measure every couch, bed, filing cabinet, dresser, bookcase, toy box, and table you come across. Learn the sizes of the furniture you use every day in every room.

Decide on the MINIMUM size for each room on your list, as well as the OPTIMUM size. This is the time to examine the make-it-or-break-it dimensions for the rooms in your new home. Think about what is truly going to be happening in each area, what furniture and how many people it will need to accommodate, and what you can live without.

Defining each room, porch, and storage space in terms of minimum and optimum sizes is very important. Be specific. What are your “deal breakers?” Write down your minimum and optimum dimensions next to the detailed descriptions and images of rooms you collected in steps one and two.

The importance of this step cannot be overstated. Do not rely on “guesstimates.” Do not rely on your interpretation of blueprints or sizes of rooms you see in magazines. Pictures of rooms can seem much larger than they really are, and blueprints are challenging to visualize accurately. Again, you will hopefully be living in your new home for many years; you do not want to be disappointed in rooms that are too small or spend money on spaces that you don’t truly need or use.

Gorgeous Monolithic Dome mountain retreat residence.

Take into account your building site when creating your word picture. This home takes full advantage of the view from its spacious deck and floor-to-ceiling windows. Monolithic Domes can be partially (or wholly) incorporated into the side of a slope or rocky outcropping.

Rick Crandall, Architect

Step Four—The Arrangement

So, you have a list of rooms, porches, and storage spaces. You have the minimum and optimum sizes defined. You have pictures from magazines and detailed descriptions of how you envision each room looking and functioning. Now it’s time to put it all together.

Describe which rooms you want next to each other. Do you want the baby’s nursery next to your bedroom, or do you want it down the hall? Do you have a formal dining room on your list? If so, do you want it immediately adjacent to the kitchen? Are the bedrooms right next to each other? If so, do you want the closets positioned in between them to dampen noise transfer? Or is it more critical that a bedroom closet buffer noises from a bathroom? If the living space is expected to be noisy, where are the offices and bedrooms going to be? Keep in mind the secondary uses of each room and how those activities will fit into the flow of the home.

Think about the direction you want each of your rooms to face. Which windows have to face east to catch the morning sun? Do you live in a hot climate and need to minimize any windows to the south? Are you in a cold environment that might benefit from the entire home facing south? How much natural light does the room need? Do you want a particular room to overlook a view or face west to watch sunsets? Do you want the kitchen door to lead out to a garden or deck?

Next to your information on the size, design, and feel of each of your spaces, make a note of arrangement needs and which direction you would like each room to face. Note whether those desires are wishes, must-haves, or deal-breakers.

Step Five—Location considerations

This step is part of every other step but can differ depending on whether or not you have a lot picked out. There are a few details about the location you have in mind that inform this stage in the design process. What is the general climate? Do you think you will be inside or outside city limits? Is there an available sewer and water system, or will you need a septic tank and well? Do you foresee zoning being an issue in your area? Do you know what the soil conditions are?

If you have already purchased a lot, those questions will be more easily answered. Include with your word picture the dimensions of your lot along with a description of the topography and information about the soil, if you have it. Pictures of your lot will help design professionals do their job. If you do not have information about the soil and underlying composition of your site, ask your neighbors. The more information you can gather about your lot or area you wish to build in, the better.

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail

The time you spend thinking about the design of your home will be time well spent and will mitigate the risk of regrets further down the road. You do not have to have everything figured out in terms of your lot and financing yet! Completing your word picture will help you make every other decision confidently.

After your word picture is complete, contact the designer of your choice to have preliminary plans drawn up. Monolithic offers Residential Feasibility Studies—a practical, helpful tool for those preparing to build their dream home. The study includes preliminary floor plans and a professional, detailed evaluation of your project.