This is What You Need to Know Before Building a Custom House

Dan Meade of Pittsburgh-based Prime 1 Builders shares his insights and tips for building a home from the ground up, including why you shouldn’t skimp on the kitchen.
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HOUSTON, WASHINGTON COUNTY | PHOTOS BY NORA BEST PHOTOGRAPHY

Furniture designer Charles Eames famously said “Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.” The sentiment could also be applied to building a custom home — just ask Dan Meade. 

The award-winning president and owner of Prime 1 Builders — which has been recognized by Houzz, The Builders Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh and The Pennsylvania Builders Association among others — has been building custom homes for more than four decades. 

While semi-custom or new home builders will sell you the land, as well as give you optional pre-existing floor plans and finish packages, a custom homebuilder incorporates your design choices from start to finish on the lot of your choice.  

Because that’s a lot of decisions, including planning and budget, we asked Meade to share his insights into the home-building process.  

Open Floor Plan

Q: What happens when a customer comes to their first meeting? 

A: We talk about what your vision is for the house. What is your style, and more importantly, what are your long-term goals? Are you raising children or ready to kick it down a notch? We really want to understand the use and purpose of your home so that we can build a beautiful home to suit your needs. 

The best builds happen when our client is fully engaged in the process. Plan on spending five-to-seven hours per week on the process. 

Q: What are the considerations of purchasing a piece of land? 

A: Utility availability, first and foremost, is on our list. Can they tie into public utilities where possible? Also, tree clearing and grading the land and even access. We had a client that wanted a long [driveway] to the center of the property, and when they saw the associated costs of installing it they were shocked. Their plans changed on that decision. 

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Q: What are clients requesting in their custom homes?

A:  The biggest thing that we are still seeing is the desire for open space. Young families still want open spaces in their homes. We are also seeing more home offices as a defined space, meaning walls and a door. We just completed a home with two dedicated home offices as the owners both worked from home and could not share a space. 

Q: What are some of the new innovations in custom home building? 

A: Home automation is becoming more and more prevalent. [Homeowners] also want to program the house to be connected to their smartphones, [including] everything from garage doors to lighting. 

We are also finding more ways to utilize that large kitchen island and creating more inventive storage options in the island.

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ROBINSON TOWNSHIP | PHOTOS BY MARY ANNE MEADE

Q: Tell us about one of the smaller houses you’ve built

A: We had a customer come to us to build a small home in Robinson Township. She had drawn the plans by hand and had imagined 900 square feet. We took a look at her plans, and from a one-time meeting, created her vision in 1,188 square feet. 

It features three bedrooms, two baths, an eat-in kitchen, first-floor laundry, great room, mudroom and lots of natural light. The basement is partially finished and includes a tight two-car garage. 

We delivered that house in under 100 days from breaking ground to turning it over to them on a lot that they had already purchased.

Kitchen Dining Area

Q: That’s pretty amazing, what would it cost to build that home today with the supply chain issues? 

A: In today’s climate we are looking at $300,000 on your own purchased lot.

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Q: You were also talking about a bigger build you executed in Houston, Pa. 

A: Yes, we ended up with a really nice build because of their vision. Their large kitchen island had a little bit of everything: wine storage, cookbooks, microwave drawer. We have a lot of different elements of storage and display shelves. They are decorative and interesting. They really knew what they wanted and were very engaged in the whole process. Their style shows throughout the home. 

Q: Any last words of wisdom? 

A: The biggest thing is that building a house should be a lot of fun. Be prepared for a lot of thinking and planning along with your builder. It is a big undertaking, but we do the heavy lifting and are there to stand alongside you if decision fatigue sets in. 

A 3,000-square-foot house is taking about 9 to 10 months with supply chain issues. Just settle in and enjoy the ride.

Dan Meade’s Top Five Tips for Building a Custom Home

  1. Talk about energy-efficiency. Go above and beyond with your insulation packages. We bring it up early and often in meetings with our clients. There is no wow factor and no bragging rights, but at the end of the year, when your heating and cooling costs are not off the charts, you will see it pay itself back within 3 to 5 years.
  2. Think about if you really need that additional space. [This is] for the ones that want to be right-size. Meeting after meeting we talk about space usage. For example, do you really need to build that extra space as a bedroom that will be used once a year for guests? Or can we do something else with the space that you will use everyday (think home gym, office). What is your true need for that space?
  3. Choose quality over quantity, every time. From interiors to exteriors it is always the better choice and will serve you better in the long run.
  4. Don’t skimp in the kitchen. It is the heart of the home. It is the focal point of the home from a view standpoint and a usage standpoint, We use all custom-built cabinetry. That means dove-tail joinery, custom paint and stain finishes and excellent hardware. They are built to last. Cabinet doors will be opened hundreds of times a week. Counters should be the best and flooring will constantly be used. Make that a comfortable place and a place that really fits the house.
  5. Mind the Budget. Many people come to us and they are underestimating what it really costs to build a house. Now more than ever, it is increasingly challenging with the cost of material and labor. For some, they find that they are excluded from the game. For others, they understand that is exactly where they want to be. The price per square foot will depend on the finishes and the complexity of the build.

Hot Property is an inside look into unique and historic homes on the market. Each week, Hot Property goes behind the For Sale sign to share the story of a special Pittsburgh-area home. And four times a year, Hot Property gives an in-depth look at the region’s real estate market in Pittsburgh Magazine HOME, tracking housing prices and sales and detailing where the hot properties can be found. Rosa can be reached at onecordovaroad@gmail.com.

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