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 Don’t Miss The Opportunity To Perfect Your Design

Although most clients have a general understanding of what they need, some critical design elements are often forgotten. After years of designing homes, we have come up with a list of design guidelines to which every client should keep in mind.

It seems to be the convention that clients will begin their search by browsing on-line plan libraries in the hopes of finding something they would like. The search often starts by inputing the number of bedrooms, levels, bathrooms, garage bays, etc. Although those items are indeed important, they are areas of your home in which you spend the least amount of time.

Our understanding is that if you are building or renovating, you probably have not been able to find something you love. This creates the perfect opportunity to implement all of the elements that are useful in your everyday life.

Site Planning

A home’s intended design may not always suit its property’s natural grading. We recognize the importance of this relationship and make site planning the first order of business when approaching the design of a new home or renovation.

From flat lots to steep slopes, every home should be designed in mass and layout to suit the site’s contours. The unique characteristics of a property should be seen more as opportunity than a challenge.

Our client wanted a garage that would blend into the natural slope of his lot. By utilizing the contours of his existing site, we were able to provide him with the 15 foot ceiling he requested in the lower portion of the building as well as a 3-car garage with living space above. (See examples below)


Street Side (Top of Slope)


Waterfront Side (Bottom of Slope)

Here are the essential cues we take from a site before we start designing:

1. Capture views and sun. Plan your house to best utilize view corridors and sun. Don’t build your house on the sunny spot of your lot but rather adjacent to it. Try to maximize those south facing outdoor spaces. Look to bringing that winter sun into the house while keeping the summer rays at bay.

2. What’s unique about your property? It might be a cliff, a view or a just a big, bright yard but this special feature can play an important role in the design of your house.

3. Understand the essence of the site. Try to work with the site rather than force something on it. The placement of structures, roads, gardens and outdoor areas should enhance the site rather than take from it.

4. Be strategic in the placement of your house and its landscaping. Use the building itself to screen unwanted views and create private zones. Be creative with your landscaping. It too can work as an effective tool to separate public and private areas.

Location on the site is the key first step to a successful design. Get this right and the value of your home will always benefit.

Zoning By-Laws

If you’ve ever dealt with a municipality regarding zoning and bylaw regulations you’re probably well aware that this can be a frustrating and confusing experience.

Something allowed in Barrie might be prohibited in Toronto. So it’s essential to check the regulations before we start designing.

Be it commercial, multi-family or single family residential, a particular piece of land will be governed by zoning regulations that define its place within the larger community plan. These regulations dictate the size, shape and location of a building on a site in order to ensure that what’s being built is in keeping with its environment. By setting restrictions such as setbacks from property lines, maximum building heights or permissible built areas, zoning bylaws quickly define what you can and cannot build.

Occasionally there are situations where zoning bylaws move beyond being reasonable rules and prevent the best and most sensible design solutions. Such cases are typically looked at by a building committee based on the submission of a variance application. If the objection is deemed reasonable, the contravening design will be allowed. Based on the client’s willingness to explore this avenue, compromise may need to be made to the design in lieu of the application process. It has been our experience that the most frequent cause for not going through this process is timeline restrictions. If the objection is deemed justified, the proposed design will be allowed.

We were approached by a client wanting to build a new home in the Town of Blue Mountain. Intrawest had a series of guidelines that had to be met and the style had to reflect the Victorian era. After incorporating many of these features into their design we found ourselves breaking the zoning regulations of Town of Blue Mountains for maximum allowable height. They were forced to apply for a variance. In the end the application was accepted by the building committee. We recognize when going this extra mile will be better for the client and the neighbourhood. (See example)


Here are a number of zoning regulations a home owner may need to address before embarking on a building project:

1.    Setbacks define buffer zones around the edge of a property in which a building is not permitted. Most bylaws allow certain elements of structure like overhangs and chimneys to protrude into the setback but not always. Accessory buildings such as garages and storage sheds are generally permitted within the main building setbacks but fall under their own individual requirements.

2.    The height of your home is calculated differently with every zoning district. Some measure from average grade height while others measure from the highest façade up. For sloped roofs maximum heights might be taken to ridge line or to the median height of ridge and roof spring line. Regardless, this is something that should be established from the outset otherwise the repercussions could be disastrous.

3.    The maximum gross floor area dictates the amount of floor area permitted on a site. It includes all floor areas but often has exceptions for area below grade. The calculation can vary widely between municipalities with certain areas being counted in one and not the other.

It’s essential that the zoning bylaws that govern your site are fully understood before you begin the design process. The sooner you know what you can’t do, the quicker you can plan what you can.

I Want To Renovate, What Should I Do?

Homeowners these days are faced with countless decisions when approaching the renovation of their new home but one that’s rarely considered is whether it’s financially worth it to stay where they are. In a construction market gone wild the cost of renovating has escalated to unprecedented levels. It’s something one needs to reflect upon before embarking on a project.

Phil Lamadeleine, Senior Designer of Custom CADD, has provided countless consultations over the last decade and feels there’s tremendous confusion about construction budgets. People generally don’t realize the high cost of building these days, the thought is that $100,000 will get you a lot, but it doesn’t. Construction costs are likely the most pressing issue for most homeowners and it’s essential that expectations and budget are realistic prior to making a decision. These decisions may vary from moving forward with an addition, demolishing and starting new or even selling the home to move elsewhere.

Most people considering renovations generally like where they are and want to make it work so the decision becomes to renovate or demolish and build new.

A small renovation, or one that has little direct effect on the existing home, is the most logical to carry out. As the scope increases and the renovation becomes more involved, the client needs to take a more serious look and decide whether it’s worth it. A big renovation on an older home is not usually done to save money, it’s usually cheaper to build new.   Large renovations are done for other reasons.

More often than not, there are more basic reasons why a homeowner may choose to renovate than move or build new. Recently, we were approached by a client that had purchased a 35 year old custom home. The home needed serious updating but it’s location, view and private rear yard backing onto environmentally protected land was beautiful. The existing home had an interior pool, and a solid foundation.   They were already invested heavily in having purchased the property and knew the neighbourhood was where they wanted to be. “The location was perfect for us”, explains Mirna the homeowner, “to have found a house we wanted on a property like this would have cost us much more money.” The client and ourselves went through the wish list and realized a renovation was a sensible way to go. “It’s always a balancing act when a renovation gets this big”, states project designer Phil Lamadeleine, “The scope on this project is big, but not big enough, to warrant tearing down the existing house.” (see example)



If you’re contemplating a renovation, it’s worth the consultation about your budget and wish list right from the start. Suggestions may be to proceed with the renovation, scale down the wish-list, phase the project, or indeed, move but, in the end, you’ll be armed with the best information to make the proper decision for your house and your pocket book.

Spacial Height & Width

With real estate ads boasting a “magnificent 14 foot living room” or “soaring 10 foot ceilings throughout”, it’s easy for the homeowner to assume that the best house on the market is the one with the tallest ceilings. Don’t be fooled. A boring plan is a boring plan regardless of its height. A successful layout is one that uses height as a device to define and accentuate spaces rather than simply making them bigger.

Most of us would agree that a grand dining hall with cathedral ceiling is not the place we’d curl up to read a book. Its proportions are ideal for a dinner party or social gathering but on a regular day, when the room sits largely empty, it tends to feel cavernous and uninviting. We all possess an innate sense for what feels right in volume and space.

We’re being told that big is what we want but in reality variation is what we need. We recognize this and try to create a hierarchy of space when approaching their designs. Raise the ceiling of a small powder room and you increase its sense of grandeur. Lower the perimeter of a big room and you create more intimate spaces at the edge. It’s all in the relationships.

In general larger spaces warrant higher ceilings just by the nature of their proportion. As a ceiling height increases beyond this balance point, so too does the feeling of formality and ceremony in the room. Move in the opposite direction and the feeling of shelter and enclosure comes to the forefront. Living rooms and dining areas typically demand a more formal expression and are often made taller than the more functional areas of the house like a kitchen or bedroom. Window seats and eating alcoves benefit from lowered heights to accentuate their sense of intimacy.

Here are a few ceiling height ideas that might spice up your home:

Instead of using a wall, vary a ceiling height to define a space. Frank Lloyd Wright used this to delineate zones of a house while still maintaining an open plan.

Play with ceiling heights to enhance relationships between rooms. Think of the ceiling plane as something that can be pushed and pulled to create a hierarchy between spaces. Passing through a lowered area into a higher room will add to the drama of entering that space.

Designing a home is much more than a two-dimensional exercise. Understanding the effects that ceiling heights have on the spaces they enclose is an essential step in the creation of a richer, more comfortable place to live.


Living in Ontario is truly experiencing all four seasons. The mudroom, as its name describes, is a room that controls mud. It’s a processing point that takes the dirty household entrant and transforms them into the clean and presentable household occupant. Wet kids and trail-mauled hikers can be efficiently cleaned up without spreading their mess to the rest of the house. I tell my clients that a well-designed mudroom will become one of the most important rooms of their house.

The scale of the mudroom will be a reflection of the number of household members and the general activity level of the group but, in the end, the planning concepts that shape it will remain the same. It should be located near the secondary entry point to the house and should be inviting while still concealing the inevitable clutter from the rest of the house. The floor of the mudroom should be made of a hard, easy cleaning surface that allows quick clean-up. For the avid mountain biking couple with four active kids, a drain in the centre of the room will help. Incorporate an in-floor radiant heating system for pleasant greetings to cold bare feet (Budget permitting).

The mudroom should provide a bench for taking boots on and off with space below to store them. Provide coat hooks, one row at adult height and another accessible by kids. Smaller cubbie spaces for gloves, hats and other items should be close at hand while a drying rack can be a great addition in our wet climate. It’s also handy to provide additional coat hanging space for guests if space allows. In larger more deluxe mudrooms individual storage units can be provided for each member of the family allowing for even better organization and containment.


We always try to locate the mudroom as close to the garage as possible so that bikes, skies or strollers are dropped off at the entry. Providing a water closet and laundry room nearby will also make it all the more useful. You can enter your mudroom after a messy excursion outside, dump your dirty clothes in the washer and step into your house dry and clean.

Here are a few design ideas that help make a successful mudroom:

  • Locate adjacent to your secondary entrance.
  • Durable and washable floor surface.
  • Bench with hooks above and shoe storage below.
  • Cubbie space for small items like hats and gloves.
  • Close proximity to washer/dryer and water closet.
  • Adjacent to kitchen.
  • Adjacent to garage.
  • Have a shower and even a dog shower.
  • Space for recycling bins.
  • Quick access to rear yard.

Big or small, a mudroom is the perfect room to manage the realities of dirty, daily life. Design a good one and you’ll never regret it.

Front Entry

Entering a house involves a psychological shift as much as it does a physical one. We leave the public realm of the street and enter into the private, intimate world of the home. It’s a transition that affects our thoughts and emotions and if not treated properly may leave us feelings uneasy.

Imagine this example:

A bungalow with its front door placed in the front of its façade. The narrow concrete path leading to the front door is identical to the sidewalk and creates an indifference to the front yard. Being unengaged, you move quickly to the front door and press the buzzer. The entry door is flush to the face of the house and there’s no canopy above so you’re forced to tuck in tight to the building to get out of the rain. After a short wait you enter the house and realize you’ve stepped into the living room. The hustle and bustle of family life around you makes you feel like you’ve interrupted something while the carpet under foot brings an uncomfortable thought to your muddy shoes. You’ve just arrived but you already feel like leaving. What’s gone wrong?

Entry to a home begins, in a very real sense, at your first sight of a building. The building appears, you get a hint to the location of the entrance and then you start your approach. There must be no confusion. Once you arrive at the edge of the property you should be given some suggestion of a threshold between sidewalk and entry, a line that when stepped across feels like you’ve moved from the public realm of the street to the more private sphere of the home. This can be treated in a number of ways from literally stepping through a gateway to simply changing a level or the surface material but the feeling created should be that of arrival. In our example the individual moving onto the property had little or no sense of change from street to home. They simply moved from one sidewalk to the next.

The actual entrance to the home needs to be a symbol of both entry and shelter. It should be different from the rest of the building and provide a place of protection from the elements. This can be achieved by pushing it’s facade up, in or out at this location. In our bungalow example the unfortunate entrant was left to fend for themselves as they waited to enter.

If the entry has been placed in a logical location the other spaces of the plan will naturally fall in line, place it in the wrong location and everything else falls apart. In our example the entrant steps into a space designed for living not entering. A well designed home provides the entrant with a place to hang their jacket and shed their shoes without forcing them to be directly involved in the activities of another space within the house.

Fron Entry2

Entering a home is far more than moving through a front door, it’s a transition from one state of mind to another. Next time you enter your home, think how you can improve the experience.

Stair Location

Locating the staircase is a critical first step in laying out a successful plan. When located poorly the stair will interfere with the spaces it adjoins and create awkward circulation patterns throughout the home. When located well the stair can become one of the most dynamic and interesting places in the house.

In general the stair should be more or less centralized to the plan and readily visible to the occupants. It might rise comfortably out of a living space, slide neatly up the side of a corridor or act as a focal point in the plan but in all cases should clarify rather than confuse the circulation. It is an essential component for movement within the house.


Here are a few ways to create a more interesting and dramatic staircase.

1.    Introduce an interior window that links spaces internally and enhances the feeling of level change.
2.    Place the stair near the entry where the added height created by the stair volume will enhance the feeling of grandeur.
3.    Create a window seat on a stair landing. The landing forms a natural stopping point and lends itself as a perfect “get away” spot.
4.    Place a skylight above your stair. The light that washes over the stair will carry right down through the house.
5.    Let an open staircase run down the side of a room. It will create a dynamic between the room and the stair itself and make the room seem larger.
6.    Use the walls that abut the ends of the stair as feature walls for artwork and sculpture.

By giving some thought to the design and location of your stair, the homeowner will find that the simple device that allows you move from one level to the next can become an interesting and memorable place of its own.

Natural Light

Whether you’re basking in its glow or simply stealing a few rays to brighten your day, we’re all naturally drawn to the sun. We all want sunlight. We need it. Why is it then that so many homes fail to capture it?

The position of the sun in the sky is determined by the time of day, the season and the particular location you’re situated at. Facing south means facing the sun. It rises in the east and sets in the west. We all know this but we often fail to translate this understanding into a meaningful expression when it comes to our homes.

When approaching the layout for a new house we should start by determining the lighting requirements for given spaces in plan and will then group these spaces to best take advantage of natural light. It might be the lazy rays of morning for a breakfast nook or the smouldering glow of a sunset in a dining area but the understanding of what light will affect what space is a critical first step in the thinking of room placement.

As a general rule rooms like the library and den require less light than do the kitchen and living areas. Morning light is best utilized by morning activity areas like change rooms and en-suites while afternoon and evening light better services zones that buzz later in the day. Simple ideas but important ones.

LightExample of a naturally bright Living Room

Technology has given us the ability to create functioning spaces even when we ignore our natural environment but we lose something in the process. The intensity and spectrum of colour in sunlight can’t be matched by artificial light. We innately sense daily and seasonal changes through the light of the sun. The long, cool rays of a winter’s afternoon can never be confused with the sharp brilliance of a mid-summer day.

Once the rooms have been roughly located in plan, we need to consider how natural light will illuminate the spaces within. Light coming from two directions is always the ideal. This might be from windows on adjacent walls or from a window wall and skylight above but having light wash over an object from two directions adds a sharpness to it and enhances its three dimensional qualities. A clerestory can be a wonderful way of bringing additional light throughout house.

Everything seen in space is perceived and understood through the light that falls upon it. The quality of this light adds to the comprehension of what we’re looking at and affects our feelings for it. It’s easy to see why natural light is an essential aspect of any well designed home.

Covered Porch

A home is a physical shelter affording protection and security for the people that live within it.  A house needs to feel safe and secure as well.

A well designed home will provide opportunities for its occupants to capture a sense of security and shelter while enjoying a view to something beyond. This view might be a distant mountain range or simply the hustle and bustle of family life but in each case the viewer will feel comfortable and protected in their space while still visually participating in something else. Examples of such experiences might be soaking in your hot tub as snow blankets the world outside or sipping a lemonade deep in the shadows of your covered porch on a hot sunny day.


Places of retreat often take on a cozy nature. A reduced light level on a porch or balcony can be very effective in enhancing the sense of detachment and might encourage a longer stay on a summer day. The opposite might be true in winter months when that sunny window nook looks particularly inviting. A reduction in ceiling height over the area will add to a sense of enclosure and privacy.

Central Hub

It’s the end of the day and you’ve returned home from work. You grab the mail, unlock the door and enter the house. After taking off your shoes, you hang up your coat and lay down your bag. A glance at the stack of mail in your hand confirms more bills and flyers and you look for the nearest surface to lay it down. “I’ll deal with that later”, you think to yourself, as the reality of kids and dinner begin to dominate your reality. It’s a typical routine. The bills can wait.

Kitchen counters and dining tables, those open surfaces closest at hand after entering your home, are the most common dumping grounds for our mail. Unfortunately these surfaces are used for other household functions and the mail gets moved from one place to the next until it’s finally dealt with. But all too often that important bill on its tour of the house gets tangled in the pile of junk mail and ends up in the recycling bin.

The best way to solve this problem is by creating a sorting space near the heart of the house. We find that people have a tendency of bringing mail into the kitchen so anticipating this is a good first step. We design the space as a control center or hub that allows the homeowner to organize the mail without interfering with other functions in the home. We provide mail slots for incoming and outgoing mail as well as for different family members and a handy trash bin to get rid of the junk mail and recyclables. The idea is to provide a place specifically for the mail so that it can be dealt with efficiently and effectively without interfering with other areas in the house.

Ideally the hub becomes exactly that: a centralized place within the home where essentials are stored and disparate functions are carried out. It’s a place for sorting mail, charging your cell phone, posting messages and leaving your keys. Providing space for a computer with access to internet allows you to take care of the bills right where the mail sits and, with the hub being close to the kitchen, it allows you to surf for recipes as well.

For households with school age children it’s important to differentiate this space from the area designed for school related activity. The piles of school associated material that come through the house can easily overwhelm the hub. This is why we suggest providing a specific work area for children and their material off the kitchen as well.


Things to look for in a well designed household hub are:

1.    A location close to, or part of, the kitchen. The hub needs to be in the heart of the house or it won’t be effectively used.
2.    Provision of mail slots for incoming and outgoing mail. It is very useful, if the volume of mail warrants it, to have an incoming mail slot for each member of the household. We generally suggest a mail slot specifically for bills as well.
3.    Electrical outlets, a telephone jack and internet access are essential.
4.    Allocated space for essential reference items like the yellow pages and address books is very useful as are little cubbies for keys, wallets and cell phone charging station.
5.    A bulletin board or black board can be very helpful in making the hub a place for notes and reminders.
6.    A place for a calendar is very useful as well.
7.    A recycling bin to dispose of junk and unwanted mail is a must.

In the end one cannot overstate the importance of creating a space that manages the piles of mail that come through a home. This seemingly small element can go a long way to easing the frustrations that come with clutter and disorganization.


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