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By Maria Luisa Castellanos, principal of United Architects

Photo of modern facade by Pixasquare from Unsplash.jpg

Photo by Pixasquare from Unsplash

As you are dreaming of building a new custom house, what are some of the important considerations?  As

a Miami architect, I can give you a few items on which to focus.

Orientation & design

Choosing the right lot is a very important consideration.  What is the orientation of the lot? If the front of the house will be oriented west, this means that the east side can be used for the family room and kitchen, and possibly the bedrooms.  I like my bedrooms to have an eastern orientation so as the sun rises the light goes into the bedrooms.  This is a very nice effect.  A southern exposure is also good for the living room, family room, or kitchen.  The sun here is at midday.  The sun is almost never on the north side so this side can have plenty of windows.  What needs to be avoided is the western sun which is the sun at the end of the day, at least in the Northern Hemisphere.  It is very hot and casts long shadows.  To summarize, pick a lot which has good views on the east and south sides, or at least has the east and south at the back of the lot.

Surveying and soil conditions

Before buying the lot, make sure to get a good boundary survey with spot elevations and an elevation certificate.  These will tell you the actual land area that you own as well as how high above sea level is the property.  It is important to know ahead of time whether this lot is in a flood zone and what finished floor elevation will be required by FEMA. You can get the FEMA information here, if you put in the address or coordinates of the lot.

It would also be a good policy to get soil borings to test the soil conditions.  Will you be building on rock or other stable soils, or will you be having to deal with soft or mushy soils?  You cannot build on unstable soft, organic soils with regular foundations.  You may have to remove a layer of this soil, or you may have to drive piles so as to create your deep foundations.  Either of these two methods is expensive, so you want to know this before buying the lot and starting to design the project.

Of the outmost importance will be the layout of the house.  How will you use the house?  Are your children young and you want their bedrooms near you, or are they teenagers and you want them as far away as possible in the house?  Will you have a formal living room and dining room or do you want just a great room for living.  How many bedrooms will you have?  Do you want them all together or do you want a split plan with some bedrooms on one side of the house and some on the other?  Will your kitchen be open or closed from the rest of the house?  And how many square feet do you want overall?  There is a direct relationship between size and budget so early on, you need to determine a realistic budget.  All these issues you need to think about and discuss with your architect.  Your architect will not be a mind-reader, so if anything is particularly important to you, such as the kind of roof you like, or the style of the house you want, you need to think about these issues and state them up front.must provide us with a retainer to start working on the project. 

Photo of living room by Alberto Castillo on unsplash.jpg

Photo by Alberto Castillo from unsplash


Many people think that the structure of the house and the design will ultimately determine the cost of the house, but actually, this is quite wrong.  The structure will cost about 10% or 20% of the total budget, but the most significant costs will be in the finishes.  Are you going to want marble floors, or will you be happy with tile from Home Depot?  There is nothing wrong with tile from Home Depot and you can work with very economical materials and build a stunning house!  So, keep this in mind.

There are two ways to work with an architect in Miami.  The first is for the architect to prepare what is called a permit set of drawings.  In this case, the architect works with the structural, mechanical, plumbing, and electrical engineers to prepare a set of drawings that will be acceptable for the building department.  These professionals will generally specify few, if any, brands.  The architect will prepare the drawings, which as an instrument of service, is a way to explain to the general contractor how to build the house.  So, there will be floor plans, exterior elevations, interior elevations of the kitchen and bathrooms, sections, walls sections; door, window, and finish schedules; and finally details.  However, very few if any brands will be specified or selected.  For example, in the kitchen, the sink will be shown, but it will not be specified by brand.  This set of plans will generally be more economical.

The other way to work with an architect in Miami is to have the architect, and maybe even the engineers, specify everything.  This means that there will be more meetings with the architect, possibly even visiting some vendors with the architect, and more discussions.  At the end of all the meetings and visits, the architect will include all the items selected in the general notes or even prepare a book of specifications.  This set of plans will generally be more expensive because of the additional time spent by the architect, but it will also be or higher quality because of the time spent considering different materials and making the best selections.

In order to compare apples to apples when bidding a project, I often include allowances in the set of plans.  An allowance is a value given to a certain item.  For example, I could call for an allowance of $200 for each toilet.  This means that the toilet does not have to be picked before the bid, but all the contractors know how much to estimate for each toilet.  When the toilet is actually selected by the owner, if it cost $225, then the owner owes the general contractor $25 more.  If on the other hand, the toilet actually cost $150, then the general contractor gives the owner a credit of $50.  This system makes bidding a project easier and does not force to the owner to make all the decisions upfront before starting construction.


Miami houses have many types of roofing.  As a Miami residential architect, I have designed houses with different roofing types.  The most common roof today is the hip roof.  These are normally built with prefabricated roof trusses although they can be built with individual roof rafters.  The outside is a layer of plywood, building paper, and then shingles, cement tile, or a metal roof.  Another common roof shape is the gable end roof.  These have lost popularity as hurricanes have become more intense.  Many years ago, before Hurricane Andrew, gable ends were often built with wood studs.  This made them weak.  Gable ends today should be built, in my opinion, with concrete blocks and concrete like the rest of the house. 

Another roof type becoming more and more popular is the flat concrete roof.  This roof makes the house look more modern and certainly stronger against hurricanes.  Even if the roofing paper were to fly off during a hurricane, it will generally not rain in the house as is common with wood trusses structures covered with plywood.  Concrete does crack and there may be some water intrusion, but not to the extent that would occur with plywood sheathing.  But let me state from the beginning that concrete roofs are more expensive, but they are indeed better at keeping out the rain.

Working with a contractor

It is of the utmost importance that you get the right contractor.  The contractor you select should normally work on the size project and complexity that is similar to your project.  If you pick a contractor who normally works on larger projects, he will not give your project the importance it deserves.  If you pick a contractor who is used to smaller projects, he may feel overwhelmed by your project.  Here is an article that goes into detail on what to avoid when selecting a contractor.


Selecting the right form of contract is as important as selecting the right person.  I like the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Contract A105-2017.  You can find it on the internet.  This contract tries to be fair to both parties, the owner and the general contractor.  Under no circumstances sign a contract drafted by the general contractor.  This will likely be one-sided and not in your favor.

Photo by by Romain Dancre from Unsplash

Photo of signing contract by Romain Dancre from Unsplash.jpg
Permitting and working with the building department

Sometimes this part of the project can be an ordeal.  This is particularly true of the City of Miami.  Many times, you think you are done at the property line, but this is not true.  Municipalities like the city may require you to replace the sidewalk, add street trees, and other things.

It may take months or years just to get an approval out of the building department, through no fault of the architect or engineers.

Financing the project

It is important that your project, if it is to be financed, be more or less the value of the adjacent properties.  Banks generally do not want to finance the most valuable house on the block if it exceeds the value of the other properties by a substantial amount.  Before you even meet with an architect, or possibly even before you buy the lot, sit down with your banker and discuss the lot, the area where you will be building, and how much you will want to borrow.

Construction Process

When construction starts, you or the architect will likely get something called “shop drawings” of “submittals” for your review.  These are drawings or documents that reflect what will be installed in the project.  For example, there could be shop drawings for the windows, doors, the A/C unit, etc.  If an owner or the architect thinks that what is going to be provided is not what was specified, then he/she can reject the item.  If a specific brand was specified and the item did not say “or approved equivalent”, then the contractor must install what was specified.  The shop drawings should confirm that.

A small down payment can be given to the contractor at the beginning of the project, however, large deposits are to be avoided.  I recommend no more than a 10% or 15% deposit.  After that, the general contractor will bill every 30 days for the parts of the work completed.  Make sure there is enough money left unpaid to finish the project.  Make sure that the contractor gives you a book with all the warranties and the equipment maintenance manuals before he closes out the project.

If you want to read more about working with an architect and the construction process, go to the bottom of the Residential Page, put in your name and email, and you will have access to another article on this subject.


Call 305-552-5465 or Email to discuss your exciting project ideas with the principal of the firm, Maria Luisa

Castellanos, R.A., LEED AP

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