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.


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.

The concept has made huge strides in recent years, she added.

"I have for most of my career been trying to spur my profession to get more of our designs into the house-plans market," she said. "I actually started in 1985, working with Better Homes and Gardens to try to get them to illustrate plans better. Back then the only thing you would get is two floor plans and a front perspective."

She maintains that architects have tailored themselves to the well-to-do, missing a "much larger audience" of potential homeowners with designer tastes but a budget that is more off-the-rack than couture.

Susanka offers eight plans exclusively on Houseplans.com. At $5,000 to $6,500, they are among the most expensive on the site, which has some plans for as little as $510.

She said a lot of plans she has worked on for clients have been 10 to 15 percent of the construction cost of the house, easily more than $100,000. So even adding on the cost of modifying plans for a particular site or tailoring it to one's own needs — either using Houseplans' in-house services or an outside architect — the savings still can be substantial, she stressed.

The site even features some historical blueprints, which would have to be updated to modern codes if built. Through an exclusive arrangement with the archives of UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design, Houseplans sells blueprints for eight iconic Eichler-style homes designed by Claude Oakland, several cottages designed for The Sea Ranch by the late William Turnbull and the famous Case Study House No. 3 by modernist architect William Wurster.

Some architects have reservations about the concept. Pete Gang, a Petaluma architect who founded the green building program at Sonoma State University, cautioned that people just perusing online sites can be misled.

"There's more involved than drawing a set of plans. Who takes care of the septic design, the well, the grading, the drainage and the landscaping? Who takes their plans before the Design Review Board if need be?" he said, noting that applying stock plans to any site can be "fraught with hazards."

Nick Lee, who is in charge of design for Houseplans.com, said they can facilitate the permitting process and do the structural engineering as well as other services like permits, energy calculations and providing consultants to help site the house and customize it. Even with additional reports and professional services, it can still come out costing tens of thousands of dollars less, he said.