What you need to know when beginning a custom home project in the Portland Area


Through our work on custom residential design projects, we have realized that there are some common misconceptions that people have about the custom home design process. Choosing to realize your dream of building your family a custom home is a huge decision in your life and we want to make sure you’re starting off on the right foot. To help you understand the process and all the things you don’t know you need to know, we’re kicking off a blog series on custom home design in Portland and the surrounding areas.

Over the articles in this blog series, we will cover topics such as:

  • What is Pre-Design and why it’s the most important step in designing your custom home?

  • How does the design progress from schematic ideas to a thoroughly developed design?

  • What happens once your construction documents are finalized and your permit is approved?

  • When do you engage a general contractor, and how will you, the contractor, and architect work together to realize your design and stay on budget?

  • How long will your project take to complete, and what are the steps along the way?

  • Questions your architect wishes you’d ask?

  • How to select an architect for project? (And why it shouldn’t be based on fees)

  • Principles for creating a sustainable custom home.

In this article, we’ll discuss the first step in the custom home design process: the Pre-Design phase and explain why its essential to a successful project.


When engaging with Propel Studio on a custom home project, the first step of our process is to undertake an in-depth analysis of the project and goals. The Pre-Design phase outlines the project schedule and identifies all of the milestones, it includes a site evaluation, outline of the project program (all the things you want and need us to include in the design), and documents the project budget. This information gathering process begin with the client interview.


Client Interview

The client interview is where we find out the basics of what is important to you – what you are looking for in a custom home, what your lifestyle needs are, what your future plans are for your new home, what styles appeal to you, and what you think your budget target is. Even if you don’t know all of the answers, this starts the conversation and we can help you develop the needed information as we do more research and assign some homework assignments. Our goal is learn more about you, your family, how you live, and how you want to live. This is where we get to know you better and build a strong foundation for future phases.

Site Evaluation

This is incredibly valuable and absolutely necessary because each property is unique and different localities have different requirements and regulations that can affect the design of the project (and these can change from year to year). If your site has specific characteristics such as a steep slope or a stream running through it, there will be local requirements that your custom home design must meet to get approval for construction.

Our side evaluation starts with us visiting the site with you. We walk the grounds and discuss things you like about the property, ideas you have on project location, identify any key features or aspects of the property you want to preserve, or special views you want to take advantage of. We document this with meeting notes and lots and lots of photos. We also take general measurements, and locate any existing structures or specific features that would affect the design - like large trees, retaining walls, landscape features, etc.

Once we have an understanding of the property itself we research what the local jurisdiction may require for the project. In some areas, you will be required to connect to the city utility system and in other more rural areas you may be able to connect to a well or septic system. It’s a good to know what this and other requirements from the start, as this will influence your home design and your budget. As part of the site evaluation part of the process, we’ll research the local zoning laws and building code restrictions, and help explain to you how they will impact the project.  

Tip: before you decide on a property for your new home, meet with the town development office to ask questions on rules they expect you to follow. At this point, you’re just getting a general picture of possible restrictions there are for your site. Typically, larger cities like Portland have a longer list of requirements than smaller towns. It is good to know what is needed before you put in an offer on the property or get too far into the design process. If you are unsure of where to start or what questions to ask, this would be a perfect time to engage an architect for your project.

Programming and Feasibility

Programming is the process of documenting a list of spaces, sizes, and your needs for your custom home. This is realized from our interviews with you. Think of it as a wish list of all the things you’d want in your new home, including the must-haves and the would-be-nice-to-haves. We try to list everything to start, and then go through the document to set priorities on what is most important and what might be nice to have only if the budget allows it. We take this list and develop it in relation to the unique qualities of your site, identifying any overlooked opportunities and any possible challenges. It’s common for your program to change over our various conversations with you. We work with you to figure out what program is best for your dream home.

Budgeting and Scheduling

By doing all of this initial work with site evaluation and programming, we can develop a realistic preliminary budget and also the project schedule. We discuss both the soft costs (design, permitting, and other fees) and hard costs (construction costs) involved in a project, so you can have a full understanding of what the custom home may cost and develop a budget accordingly.

The information from the Pre-Design phase sets the parameters from which we design your new home. The next phase is Schematic Design and this is where the fun begins! Our next article will delve into what happens and how we keep your project on budget through Schematic Design, Design Development, and the Construction Document phases.

If you are ready to start the process please contact us or schedule a consultation.