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Building a house: Planning and designing

During the lifetime of this blog, I’ve written extensively about building different things. At the moment, I have 54 articles outlining anything from building solutions on IoT to Azure and Microsoft 365 services and how I utilize them for my needs.

Therefore, it only makes perfect sense to write about the next big project: building a house.

I plan to write a few articles about this project in the next year or so. Nothing uber-detailed, and something I hope will help anyone else embarking on a similar project.

About the project

I’m based in Helsinki, Finland. It’s the capital area, and as you might have guessed, available land is limited (even if we have plenty), and the land you can find is often costly. As a result, we’ve seen many free lands that are separated and zoned from larger plots – and they are thus often sub-optimal but still costly.

My parents built their own house in Helsinki – where I grew up – in the late 1980s. I remember my dad being very hands-on with the project, often working day and night at the site. I think I was the enthusiastic little helper that probably caused more havoc than true help. But I was contributing the best I could, I guess. Therefore I wasn’t sure I’d want to go through all that stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and effort just now.

We currently live in a nice apartment complex by the sea, but it’s a rental. There are some awkwardly specific and intrinsic reasons for this, but suffice to say that this has been optimal for the past years. No shoveling snow, a warm garage for the car, a private charging station for the car, fast Internet, and a very private balcony. Too bad it’s rental and not for sale.

The plan has been to find a house to move into. We’ve spent quite many years looking at what’s available. We’d limit the search parameters to “less than 10 years old”, own land (thus, not owned by the city), fast Internet option (fiber), reasonable location within Helsinki (and there are some particular areas I’m not willing to move into), and enough space. When you think you’ve found something that fits the bill, you hear there are already 15 families bidding for that, and the price doubles before you can spell ‘mortgage.’ And at that point, you realize the house is not worth that much to you.

But why now?

I’m (almost) fresh out of school. The youngest kid turned three, and we are in a good place in life right now. But there is more here.

My uncle has a house; I think it was built around 1934. Not sure if it gets hot water anymore. It’s next to the land where I grew up and where my parents built their house. Every time I visit the neighborhood, I’m flooded with warm memories from my childhood. I guess this is inevitable once you turn 40.

Then, one day my uncle signaled that he’d be ready to move to a smaller apartment, and before I knew, I owned the land. And the circa 1934-built wooden house. Nothing inherently wrong with it, just built in the wrong millennium. And I checked – fast Internet is possible.

Here is a picture of the old house – picture taken during a gray autumn morning.

I knew the old house had to go and make room for the new one.

Now that the supposedly largest hurdle was tackled (land: ✔), it was time to start the design and permits process.

Designing the house

We’d seen a few houses previously we really liked. So my wife looked up the architect in charge of designing some of those and called her up. She agreed to do a private design just for us – which I guess consists of bits and pieces of previous designs mixed with our desires, needs, and wants.

Overall, the rough design process went smoothly and took about six weeks. We had certain limiting factors:

  • Maximum size of the house in square meters
    • The size of the land has an efficiency figure, which for us was 0,25 (e=0,25)
  • Our budget
  • District land permissions and requirements

I won’t go into the technical details here, so take my word that there is plenty to figure out before you actually get to open that fancy 3D planning tool. We certainly had a budget in mind, but I factored in a 15 % overrun – just to be on the safe side. As we haven’t completed the house yet, I’m uncertain how the budget will survive but so far, we’re within safe boundaries.

For our land, we have to build two floors, and the upper floor has to be relatively sized to the first floor. I hunted through the permits, old drawings, and restrictions for weeks, and relayed those to our architect. Some of those you can do via fancy portals, others you have to hunt for from the city archives. Digital transformation is not everywhere, yet.

A funny story here: As the land is connected to the land that my parent’s house is on, a separate formal agreement has to be made. This is called the agreement to divide the land’s joint possession and more of a formality. You craft the agreement with all stakeholders, and then you get that notarized. We ran into an issue that you cannot just ‘show up’ at the notary office – you have to schedule a time. And the first time was 6 weeks away. Once I finally got there, they complained that the signatures (from multiple people on multiple pages) are in black. It has to be in blue. Anyway, that was fun, and I approached these sort of issues with the mentality of “this is just one challenge out of 15,000 in the next year, so just go with the flow.”

As a cornerstone for the design, we settled on four bedrooms – one for each kid, and a master bedroom. We’re also fans of large and open living room spaces, and the open kitchen concept (with the typical island separating the two areas). I also realized we’d need a separatable space to work from home.

After a few iterations, we finally settled on the following design. First, a nice mockup of the envisioned finished house:

On the left, you can see the slightly separated home office, then the terrace/patio area in front of the kitchen, and on the right is part of the living room. As it is two floors, we expanded the balcony to cover a few bedrooms to make it look more balanced. We shifted a lot of things from the initial design proposal. One of the things we added, and it’s not visible in this picture, is a basement.

We had two wants for this, and I’m happy that they fit within the budget: A home gym, and a music/band jam/movie room. The home gym will require a bit more space, as I want to fit a weight lifting rack, and the music/band jam/movie room will be a multipurpose room and slightly smaller. I’m anxious to see how they turn out. Just adding a basement with multiple rooms added to the complexity of the design, and this also added to the budget – about 20 % in total. But we feel it’s more than worth it.

It’s a stone house, which in practice means it consists of bricks made from autoclaved aerated concrete:


On paper, everything looks great now. I’m perhaps oversimplifying the process to keep this more digestible, but to get to this point, a lot of time has already been spent. Also, you start getting invoices through the mail for different things you need, but that produces very little visible progress.

What next?

I’m still working on plans for plumbing, electricity, and other details – but the project is now progressing nicely. The project has started, but we’re still about 10-14 months away from actually moving into a new house.