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House Plans Q&A with Sam Morgan: Ask the Experts

Published April 14, 2020

 

Our Most Common Questions Answered by an Expert

With so many of us working from home, we thought we would take this time to virtually catch up with our expert house designers. Our first one-on-one interview is with Sam Morgan, a certified professional building designer (CPBD/AIBD CGP/NAHB), from SW Morgan Fine Home Design.

Sam answers our customers’ most common questions about house plans and home construction. We also learn a bit more about what makes Sam’s home plans so popular.

In this video, some of the questions our director of publishing, Tim Bakke, covers with Sam in-depth include:

  • What type of modifications can be done in the field? What modifications should be done by a designer before the plans go out?
  • What does a customer need to have to build their home beside the plans?
  • Will the house fit on my property? What types of things should the customer know before buying or designing a set of plans?
  • What inspires your designs? And maybe who or what are your influences in terms of designing homes?
  • How long does it take you to design one of your plans from an idea to the final stage?
  • What would you say to a client who's on the fence about what type of foundation they would get? What are some of the things they should consider? Can you give some guidelines about how you determine what kind of foundation is best?
  • If a customer needs to consult with a structural engineer, how much is it going to cost them to consult with the person?

 

 

To see up close some of Sam Morgan’s great designs, please check out his designer pages on our website. His styles range from traditional ranches to luxurious Craftsman homes to modern farmhouses.

 

Video Transcript

Tim Bakke:

So, we'll just say good morning, and thanks for joining us. And our special guest is Sam Morgan from SW Morgan Fine Home Design located in Utah. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today, Sam.

Sam Morgan:

Oh, you bet. It's a good way to add some interest when you're stuck in your house working.

Tim Bakke:

That's right. Yeah. For those joining us the first time, we're The Plan Collection, we're a broker that sells pre-drawn house plans online. And we've received hundreds of questions from customers regarding house designs, plans, requirements for building, and the like. All kinds of questions around building your own home. And Sam is one of the many designers that we work with throughout the country and is here to answer some questions for our customers.

Sam, before we begin, how are you holding up in these times of social distancing?

Sam Morgan:

I think I was made for this. I'm lucky. I work from home, so I don't have an office to worry about, I don't have a staff to be worried about do I have work for them? I'm a one-man show. So, my commute is from my bedroom down 14 steps and across the hall to my office. And I was very lucky that things have been really, really strong here in Utah. And so, I had plenty of work lined up, current custom work for local clients, before things started to get crazy with this virus. So, I've done enough work just between my custom work here and my stock plan, pre-drawn stuff with you guys that I'm doing okay. I'm not worried too much yet. If it gets worse, I might start to worry a little more.

Tim Bakke:

Right. Well, that's fantastic. And you are set up perfectly for this. You've come in before ... You're a trendsetter basically. So Sam, how did you get into design?

Sam Morgan:

I did this a little differently than a lot of people. You know? Some kids dream of being an architect, or maybe a counselor tells them that might be a good career path for them. I went about it in a little different way.

So, I grew up in the construction industry. My oldest brother is a builder. My next older brother and he had worked together for decades. And so as a teenager, I came up working for my brother as a builder and got my feet wet there.

When I was in my mid-20s, I started a construction business of my own, and I built homes and developed land right up through the great recession. And it was just a couple of years leading up to the recession, I moved to a really rural community where there were no architects, no designers, no anybody to draw plans. It was a very, very small community, and you were a good hour and a half, two-hour drive to any bigger community that would have someone like me.

So, I decided what most people were doing was either buying plans online, which is great, or they were hiring one of the guys that worked for the local engineering firm or whatever to draw their plans at night. As a builder, I couldn't wait for six weeks for the guy that was doing it on the side to do it. So, I bought some software, and just self-taught myself as a builder, which was kind of nice. Those first couple of drawings I did, I found the dumb little mistakes that you shouldn't make, but I was the builder so I could fix them right on site.

And I'm actually today working on a small project that I'm modifying for one of my builder clients for his personal home that he picked one of my pre-drawn plans, and it was one of those plans that I drew when I was a builder back in that time. It was one of the very first ones that I did. And I had to laugh and say, "Oh yeah, this is the one where my foundation and my main floor didn't match up."

So anyway, so that's how I got into it. Self-taught as a builder. Then the great recession hit, and I just decided I don't ever want to go back to being a builder. And so, I just kind of morphed into a full-time home designer.

Tim Bakke:

Right. Well, that's really creative and different, and I think it's a great thing for the customer to have someone with such practical experience who's also a designer that can build something that is actually buildable. because I've got to say there's a lot of stuff out there that people buy, and they can't build from it because it hasn't been really vetted that well. So, that's a great thing. I think that's a wonderful thing.

Sam Morgan:

Right. [crosstalk 00:05:38] Oh, go ahead. Sorry, go ahead.

Tim Bakke:

No, I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Sam Morgan:

I was going to say I have people occasionally that'll when they find out that I used to be a builder, and they are enjoying working with me as the designer, and they'll say, "Well, why don't you just activate your license again, and build this for us?" I'm like, "No, thank you. I would love to introduce you to one of my fantastic local builders that I work with, but no, I don't want to go back, and renew my license, and build your home." I don't even want to build my own home again.

Tim Bakke:

Right, right. Well, you've been doing it a long time, and you're obviously successful at it, so that's one of the reasons we're talking to you.

Why don't we take a question from our audience? We have a customer who loves a plan but wants to make some modifications. What type of modifications can be done in the field, and what ones should be done by a designer before the plans go out?

Sam Morgan:

That's a great question. And having been a builder that would do modifications in the field, I can easily answer things that are easy to do in the field versus boy, that's going to require some work. I had, when I was a builder, I had a foreman working for me. This real sharp kid that a guy I could just leave to build the home if I had to go on vacation, or had to go out of town, whatever. When we would start a new job, his favorite saying to me was, "Are we building what's on the plans this time, or are you going to screw around with it?" Because sometimes you get a set of plans in front of you, and an idea may pop in your head of, "Oh hey, we could move that wall over a little bit."

So, my opinion as a former builder is simple things like, "Hey, this plan is perfect, but if we had two more feet on the master bedroom it would be just exactly right." That is something that's probably easy enough to change in the field. You buy the plan, you meet with your builder and say, "We bought this plan, but we've really decided that we could use two more feet in the bedroom. Can we just move that wall?" That's pretty simple. The builder can tell that information to the gentleman putting in the foundation, and problem solved. The one thing I would say there is if you're in an area like me where everything is reviewed and stamped by a structural engineer, it's probably good to run that by the engineer first. Is it okay? Is it going to cause any problems if we move that wall two feet?

Another simple, let's say you've bought a house plan that has a hipped roof on it, and you decide, "Oh, it would look nicer if we could put a gable on this one end." That's fairly simple. And again, if you're in an area like me where most roofs are pre-manufactured trusses, that's a phone call to the company that's going to build your trusses, say, "Hey, how would it be the put a gable on the end here instead of a hip?" They're going be doing their own engineering on the truss design, so fairly simple.

Now, you want a four-car garage instead of a two-car garage that's on the plan you're looking at, that you should be going back to the designer and saying, "Yeah. That's a little bit more change than we want to make in the field." And likely, you start making those kinds of changes in the field, you're going to have a building inspector raise an eyebrow and say, "Wait a minute, that's a big change." That two-foot extension on the master bedroom that you want, the building inspector probably would never even notice that you did it. But you start adding garage bays, or something like that, that's a little more than you want to be doing on the fly.

Tim Bakke:

Right. Yep, I get it. And small things like changing doorways, and changing sizes of closets, and things like that, those are things that can be done in the field, correct?

Sam Morgan:

Oh, absolutely. As long as you'd probably want to be looking at the whole picture like, "Is this wall that I want to move a bearing wall?" And if so, what will that affect?

So, let's go back to the idea of just adding two feet to that master bedroom. Just the two feet is only part of the equation. You probably want to be looking at your floor spans. If you're doing like where I'm at where most homes have a basement, you'd want to look and say, "What does that do to our floor framing now? Are we now over spammed?" So, we have a floor that doesn't meet code or a floor that's going to be bouncing when you walk across it. And if you're working with a reputable builder, or if you're building on your own and you have some construction experience, those are pretty simple things to look at and just verify, yes, this isn't going to cause a future problem.

Tim Bakke:

Right. Okay. That makes sense. Okay. Well all right. Appreciate that. That's good information.

Let's go to the next question. What does a customer need to have to build their home beside the plans? We get asked about engineering, gas line diagrams, HOA approvals, site plans, things like that. What does someone need besides the pre-drawn plans that they're going to be getting from us, or you, or some other online pre-drawn house plan supplier?

Sam Morgan:

That's a great question, and I would answer that it's going to vary from region to region, or sometimes even city to city within your county. Where I'm at, most every city is going to require that it's reviewed and stamped by a structural engineer, a gas line diagram. If you're using a roof truss, then truss drawings that are engineered. Manual D, J and S calculations, which is part of the energy efficiency things. That's making sure your furnace is sized correctly, the ductwork is sized correctly, so you don't have just the guy using the rule of thumb, "Oh, this is a four-ton A/C house." They want to actually do the math using software to calculate all that to make sure it's done properly. We don't want to have houses that have air conditioners and furnaces that are way oversized or way undersized.

So, those would be the main ones. I know that's not a requirement in every jurisdiction around the country. The manual D & J has been in the codebook for several years now as a requirement, but not every place adopts that as a requirement. So, the best thing to do is check with maybe before you buy a plan a quick phone call to the city or county you're going to be building in and say, "Hey, I'm buying some plans. What else am I going to need besides just those plans?"

Tim Bakke:

Right. Okay, that's good advice. Thank you. Good information.

Here's another question we receive repeatedly. Will the house fit on my property? What types of things should the customer know? Setbacks, zoning, height restrictions, any easement such as utility, things like that. What does he need to know to be sure that the house will fit on the building lot that he has? Or she has.

Sam Morgan:

That's usually one of the very first things that I am checking when I have a new custom client. Before I'll even start drawing what they want, I will get a copy of the plat for the property they're going to build on, I will draw it, recreate their plat on my computer, with the required setbacks, with any utility easements just so I know ahead of time this house can be no more than 76 feet wide and 42 feet deep, or whatever it may be.

If you're looking at buying a new pre-drawn plan, that would be relatively easy. It would be the same kind of process that I go through redoing it on the computer. In most areas, you should be able to get a copy of the plat for your lot from the county recorder's office, or maybe the realtor that you're dealing with to buy it. Worst case, you've got to get a surveyor involved.

And having all of that information, let's say you get the plat from the county and it doesn't show the setbacks that are required, how far you have to be from the front, and the rear, and the sides, that would be an easy phone call to the city. Just ask, "What are the requirements for that specific lot?" And then, do a little bit of math. If you find out your lot is 100 by a 100, and you have a 10-foot setback on each side, well, your planning can be no more than 80 feet wide. If you have 25 front and rear, you're locked and your plan can only be 50 feet deep.

Those are things that I would recommend people are looking into and asking those kinds of questions before they buy so you don't end up disappointed when you find out that you bought a set of plans that are six inches too big. And now, six inches could probably be fudged a little bit with your builder. Say, "Hey, we need to move this wall six inches to fit on our lot." But that's just some good questions to ask upfront so you don't end up in that situation, and it doesn't become a problem for you later.

Tim Bakke:

Right. So, someone actually should have the property, they should have all that information, and know what all the parameters are before they actually buy a plan to put on that site?

Sam Morgan:

You know, I would think that that might depend on how the market is in your region. For years when I was a builder, I would just recommend to my clients to get with the designer. This was before I was doing my own, I would have a guy I'd worked with, and say, "Let's just design what you want. We'll start working on a bid while you're out shopping for your land if you haven't bought it already." And that was easy for a long time because there was so many lots available in most areas that if a client said, "Here's the lot we found," and the house plan they really wanted didn't fit on there, well, there's probably another lot three lots away that would fit.

That's gotten a little harder for us around here because there's just such a shortage of available lots that now I'm telling the clients, "You should find the lot you want first, and then we design something that fits specifically so we don't end up with a plan that we've designed or that you bought that is bigger than the only lot you can find that you want."

Tim Bakke:

That's a very good point. Very good point. It's very local. You're right.

Sam Morgan:

Yes. In your area, it may be, oh no, there's hundreds and hundreds of lots available in really desirable areas, so pick out a plan, and if the first lot doesn't work, the next lot probably will, and it's a block away.

Tim Bakke:

Right. Okay, good. Good advice. Thank you, Sam.

So far we've been answering customer questions, but we'd love to know a little bit more about what goes behind the scenes. What inspires your designs? And maybe who or what are your influences in terms of designing homes?

Sam Morgan:

If I was to say what's my favorite, my favorite designs, and maybe some that does influence, I try to have my own influence dictate what my clients get. And I tell all my custom clients, "I'm not afraid to give you my opinion, but I got pretty thick skin. So, don't be afraid to tell me your opinion sucks." If you don't like what I like ... Because I'm not going to live in this house.

My favorites are typically European inspired. For years, some of my favorite designs, especially when I was a builder, were like the French country. Matter of fact, I built two homes for myself in the early 2000s that were French country inspired. Very steep roof pitches, wood shake roofs, a lot of stone, et cetera, et cetera. Then, I married a girl from Spain. And now, one of my favorite designs is the Spanish architecture, tile roofs, stucco, stone, et cetera. And when I build my next home, it will probably be a Spanish inspired home. Number one, I really like it. Number two, that'll be a good way to convince my wife we should build a new home.

French Country Style Home Design - TPC #187-1113

And those two are so dramatically different. The Spanish style, very low pitch roof, lots of hips. The French country, very steep roof with lots of gables. So, they couldn't be more opposite, but-

Tim Bakke:

That's right. Yeah.

Sam Morgan:

I think [inaudible 00:20:18]. I really will tell clients, and I'll point out, "Hey, what if we did this? Here's something I really like," but I'm not never afraid to have a client say, "Yeah, but we don't like that. That's not what we want." Like, "You're going to live there, not me."

Tim Bakke:

Right. Right. What is the proportion of your pre-drawn plans that come from past custom work versus designs that you just want to design for the sake of that, or that you think will sell, and you create them as pre-drawn plans from the beginning?

Sam Morgan:

I would say so now, now that we've got a booming economy, and really busy with custom work, most of my stock plans that have been done in the last six to eight years were a plan that I designed for a local client. And then, we eventually offer them for sale. If someone here locally came to me and found one of my pre-done plans that was done for a client locally, I would want to really do a little research into where they want to build. Because I don't want to sell that plan to person number two and find out they want to build four blocks away from the person I did it as a custom plan. So, I try to be careful about that. If they're building in an entirely different city 40 miles away, it doesn't matter. Those two will never meet anyway.

A lot of my pre-drawn plans came during the Great Recession. There was no work to do. I was still a builder at the time, but I was drawing plans for myself. And when you got no job site to go work on today, you might as well be doing something productive. So, I would sit in my office and just draw plans. I would say probably half of the ones that you guys offer of mine were done in that timeframe of 2008 to 2012 when there was just not much to do.

Now occasionally, I'll go through and go and find one of those old ones that's got a great floor plan, but maybe an outdated elevation, and say, "Okay, if the modern farmhouse is what's popular right now, let's take this great floor plan and recreate it with a better, updated elevation to give it that farmhouse look." So, I'll do more of that than I will spending a lot of time doing a completely new from scratch.

Tim Bakke:

Right, right. Got it. That makes sense.

Do you set time limits on yourself when you're in the design process? How long does it take you to design one of your plans from say idea to final stage?

Sam Morgan:

On a pre-drawn plan that's just going to be for sale, a typical plan like that I could do in a matter of a few days to maybe a week. It just depends on how much time I have to devote to it. Sometimes I'll like to take a break from it and say, "Okay, maybe I'm getting a mental block," and say, "Let's back away from it for a day or two, and then come back."

So, anywhere from a couple of days to maybe even a couple of weeks I might spend on a plan for sale. On custom plans, it's totally different because a lot of times that depends on the client's decision making abilities as much as anything else. So, I've had projects in the past that I've spent two years designing because people just take time to think about it, and they're not in any big hurry to build.

Tim Bakke:

Right. Yeah. I get that.

Sam Morgan:

Luckily that's not the normal. For most things I'm doing, it's a couple of weeks.

Tim Bakke:

Okay, good. Well, thank you, Sam. That was some interesting stuff. Why don't we get back to a couple more customer questions?

Sam Morgan:

Okay.

Tim Bakke:

We find that most home plans in the Northeast where we're from come standard with a basement as you said a lot of yours do. And many homes designed in the Southern states come with standard with slab foundations. What would you say to a client who's on the fence about what type of foundation they would get? What are some of the things they should consider? Water table, cost. Obviously, what's going on in the surrounding area, but that doesn't necessarily rule out a specific foundation. So, can you give some guidelines about how you determine what kind of foundation is best for you?

Sam Morgan:

Yeah. I would look first at probably what's most common in your area. Here where I'm at, almost every home has a basement. The only times I do a crawl space or a slab is if we're in an area that maybe has a high water table. So, it's really prohibitive to do a basement.

But you hear people here talk all the time about not doing a basement is resale suicide. When you go to sell that home, because every home has a basement, you ought to have one. And I tell clients all the time that "Yes, there's some truth to that, but at the same time, don't design your house or don't build your house for the next guy. Build what you want, and let the next guy make some changes."

Now obviously, you're not going to go and add a basement later. But personally, I'm not a basement guy. We have a basement in our house, but we never use it. We never go down there. So if I were to build a new house, it would probably either be a slab or a crawl space or maybe you have a partial basement like for a theater room. But that would be my first thought is to consult with people on what's most common. And then, if it's most common to have a basement, maybe it's worth considering even if you're just going to leave it unfinished, and let the guy down the road finish the basement off.

Tim Bakke:

Right. Okay, well that's good advice.

What about daylight basements, walkout basements? What are the differences between the alternate foundations crawl space, daylight basement, walkout basement that people would want to choose one over the other?

Sam Morgan:

So, that typically is going to depend on the terrain of the property that you bought. If you've got a lot that has a decent amount of slope, then doing a daylight or a walkout basement makes a lot of sense.

Now, this could go back to one of your first questions. So, what can you change in the field? Let's say you've bought a plan that's drawn as a full basement on a flat lot, and the lot you have has enough slope that five feet of the rear of the house is showing. So, all of your windows on the back of the basement could be daylighted, no window wells, et cetera. That would be a fairly easy change to make with your builder. To say, "Hey, on the back of the house, we're only going to pour a four-foot-tall foundation, and then frame the rest so we have a daylight basement." That would be an easy on the fly.

The walkout would probably you could do that as well depending on how much slope. Do you need a little bit of a retaining wall for some steps? Et cetera, et cetera. So, one nice thing that I'm doing now, it's kind of a newer thing with my custom clients, is just recently found out that the software that I'm using to design homes, I can import topography data from Google Earth. And to determine what the slope of your property is, as long as Google Earth is fairly accurate, I can show people, "Here's how much slope there is. We should be considering a walkout basement, or a daylight basement, or whatever it may be."

Come in very handy when we need to look at does an eight-foot basement work. Because someone has a really steep sloping lot. When we can bring in that topography information, we can determine whether an eight-foot basement is going to work, or maybe we have to go to a nine or a 10-foot basement to get footings on good soil.

Tim Bakke:

Right. Yeah, I never even thought about that. That you can do that as a field alternative. That's good information.

Sam Morgan:

Right. I would think, again, it depends on how dramatic your slope is. You may run into that situation I referenced earlier of you're making some changes like that on the fly. Might be worth consulting with a structural engineer that those changes aren't going to cause any major issues.

Typically doesn't. In my experience, most of the times when I call an engineer with those kind of questions, sometimes the response I'm getting is, "Now, why are you calling me again?" You know like, "Why are you wasting my time with a dumb question?" But when you're about to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on your dream home, it's worth that phone call. And if it costs you 100 bucks for an answer.

Tim Bakke:

Right. That brings up a good point. A question we get a lot from customers is if they have to consult a local architect or a structural engineer, how much is it going to cost them to consult with the person?

Sam Morgan:

Right. That's probably going to vary by region. Here where I'm at, for the most part, if you bought a set of plans online from you guys, you would just then take that plan to a structural engineer. It doesn't need to be ... You could take him a paper copy, you could take him a PDF copy, you could take him a CAD copy. Whatever you've purchased. With most structural engineers, that's not going to be a problem. On an average home, what would you say, Tim, an average size plan that you sell?

Tim Bakke:

2,200, 25, 22, 2,300 square feet.

Sam Morgan:

Okay. So on a plan like that here in my area, you could expect to spend probably $1,000 to $1,200, maybe $1,500 at the most for a structural engineer to review, and stamp, and provide all the calculations. Possibly cheaper if it's a fairly simple plan. A big square box, that's obviously going to be cheaper. So, I would say yeah, anywhere from maybe $800 to $1,500 is probably a good range depending on the size and style of the home.

Tim Bakke:

Right, right. Yeah, because if you go down below 2,000 square feet, it'll get obviously cheaper.

Sam Morgan:

Right.

Tim Bakke:

Okay.

Sam Morgan:

Right.

Tim Bakke:

Good information [inaudible 00:32:45].

Sam Morgan:

Most of the engineers I work with are just charging by the square foot. So, if you're your 1,200 or 1,300 square feet, it's going to be just whatever that proportion of how many whatever they charge per square foot is.

Tim Bakke:

Right, right. Okay, thanks.

Well Sam, I can't thank you enough for speaking with us today. Thank you so much for your time. You've given us some good information, and really enjoyed getting to know a little bit more about you as a designer, and some of the thoughts that you had for our customers, so I really appreciate that.

For those of you out there who would like to see some of Sam's great designs, please check out our website at https://www.theplancollection.com/house-plans/designer-161. And you'll see Sam's selection of plans that are on our site. And I can tell you one is better than the other. So, please do that. And thank you again, Sam, for your time. And until the next time, stay safe, and stay distant from your neighbors. All right? Thank you so much, Sam.

Sam Morgan:

Hey, thanks Tim. Appreciate it.

Tim Bakke:

All right, take care now.

Sam Morgan:

All right, we'll see you.

Tim Bakke:

Bye-bye.

Collage of home designs by Sam Morgan

 

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