When Sherry Crichfield mentioned to her husband, Tim, that she'd found plans for her ideal Wine Country farmhouse while surfing the Internet, he immediately put the kibosh on the idea.
"Absolutely not. We're not buying anything online," the retired financial consultant informed his wife.
Famous last words. After calling several architects for estimates on a custom design — one said he would start at $75,000 and "go from there" — they wound up clicking back to Houseplans.com and selecting a classic, single-story California ranch house with an old-fashioned exterior and a simple, contemporary interior.
They paid $15,000 for plans for an architect-designed house that included site plans, permits and engineering and personal adaptation to their Sonoma property. The Novato-based company has built two houses in the Sonoma Valley adapted from the same plans created by in-house designer Nick Lee, so the Crichfields were even able to walk through an existing variation of their home before buying.
"It was an amazing deal, overall," said Sherry, a retired dental hygienist and cooking-school graduate. "We saved tens of thousands of dollars and got pretty much what we wanted."
Mass-produced house plans have been around since at least the turn of the last century. Many manufacturers have sold the American dream through catalogs, books and pamphlets. Would-be homeowners could thumb through pages of pretty homes,
dreaming of a wrap-around porch or a white picket fence.
But companies like Houseplans.com, as well as other big sites like Eplans.com and Dreamhomesource.com, are trying to move that concept into the digital age.
Since taking over Houseplans.com, owner Stephen Williamson,a former CEO for Odwalla juices, has set out to retool the site. He recruited Dan Gregory, a longtime senior editor of Sunset Magazine with a doctorate in architectural history from UC Berkeley, to finely curate the plans and architects whose works are featured on the site.
"We don't just accept everybody. I look at the work and if it meets our needs, we start with a few plans and we go from there," Gregory said.
Clients can shop an inventory of 30,000 plans, covering virtually any style from adobe and Victorian to Colonial, French country, Prairie or Southern Plantation. They can also search by size, shape, lot characteristics, cost or features like great kitchens.
Most of the architects are from the Bay Area, but the site also highlights international names like Leon Meyer from Australia and Lorenzo Spano from Italy.
Working the contacts he made during his years with Sunset, Gregory actively recruited a stable of exclusive architects and designers, some of them pioneers in small-scale and sustainable architecture, like urban innovator Donald McDonald of San Francisco; Francois Levy, author of "BIM in Small-Scale Sustainable Design"; Marianne Cusato, who designed the compact Katrina Cottages; and Sarah Susanka, the celebrated advocate for downsized design and author of the popular "Not So Big House" series.
Susanka is a big advocate for making good design more available, and high-quality, pre-made plans that can be adapted if necessary to different needs and building sites offer great promise if done right, she said.