Home Designer/ Self Employed Business Owner – Mentor, Dennis Walden

Home Designer/ Self Employed Business Owner – Mentor, Dennis Walden


This Mentor is both a successful home designer and self-employed businessman. He offers many insights not just on home design as a career, but also the business side of the profession based on his twenty-two year career of being self-employed.  He also points out that you can become a designer by taking work/study programs during high school and then attending a local technical college where your tuition is often free. This article should be of interest to anyone who has talent for drawing, good math skills and wants a career that allows someone to express their creativity. 


Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 6.42.22 PMI had an interest in home design while I was going to  high school in San Jose, California. There I took art and drafting and was able to spend time during my junior and senior year working in an apprenticeship program with a well known architect in the Bay Area, William Headley. Although I had an interest in designing buildings, my dream was playing college football. I was offered a football scholarship from the University of Tulsa where I received degrees in Physical and Special Education.


After I graduated, I was able to get a job as a football coach in the Tulsa public school system. But I wanted to make more money and three years later formed a partnership with a friend where we traveled the Midwest refurbishing hotels. While the money was good, I was on the road all the time and got tired of supervising a large construction crew. So I took a job with a Tulsa home builder who was constructing moderately priced homes ranging from 1,500 to 2,500 square feet. I got the idea was that these new homes would have more customer appeal if they had some design characteristics of more expensive homes in the area. At the time, the most expensive houses were in a part of Tulsa called Midtown where there were many mansions with an architectural design commonly found on the East Coast. This was in sharp contrast to the more contemporary and casual homes I grew up with in California. East coast architecture came to Oklahoma during the first oil boom in 1905 with the discovery of the Glenpool oil field, which at the time was the largest oil field in the world. People from the East coast moved to Tulsa to invest in the development of this and other subsequent oil field discoveries in Oklahoma. They not only brought their architecture they also named many of the main streets in Tulsa after their schools like Harvard and Yale.

My idea of giving these moderately priced homes some of the design characteristics of the Midtown homes was successful. It not only helped grow the developer’s business but also rekindled my interest in pursuing design and architecture. I began doing straight-line design drawings and front elevations for a number of other builders. But at first I turned the drawing over to people who did the actual building plans. Because my designs were in demand, I started doing designs for a number of other builders. As interest in my work grew, I started my own company and moved into home design full time. Eventually I started doing the detailed building plans and hired someone to do the blueprint drawings using computer assisted drawing programs or CAD. A full set of home plans include things like the front and side elevations, the entire floor plan, plumbing and electrical drawing, design and color selection of brick and stone and locating the home on the lot.

As the market for my work grew and as the Tulsa economy prospered from the rapid development of shale oil and gas fields, the size of the houses I was asked to design grew as well. Right now the houses I design are in the range of one to two and a half million dollars and represent a substantial investment for my customers.


The Business of Home Design

My business has now grown to where I have forty-five builders who refer their customers to me and a partner who does the blueprints on a CAD system.

I have never had to advertise my services. All my business comes from either builders with whom I have developed a relationship over the years or by referrals from people who own homes I have designed for them. To keep the referrals coming, you have to listen to what your customer wants, but also learn about your customer’s life style. As and example, I recently designed a home for successful produce distributor who liked to entertain. So I designed a house for him that had large open areas in the house, several wet bars and an outside entertaining area with a fireplace and outdoor kitchen.

It is also important to understand that it is your client’s home and that they often have tastes and ideas different than yours. It is important that you do your best to create a good design if they have strong ideas about something and to maintain your enthusiasm for the design of the home even though it may not be what you would have designed for yourself or is something that does not let you use all your own creativity.

Timeliness is also very important to both the contractor and customer. The contractor cannot make money until you complete the design and produce the building plans. The homeowner is not only investing their money but also making a personal statement with their new home. This can cause stress for your customer if you do not get them drawings when you promise so they can see your and their ideas come together on paper. I always make sure that I have a preliminary drawing to the homeowner within three weeks of our meeting to discuss the general concept of the home. As we talk about more of the details of the house, I always produce the detailed drawings in the same timely manner. Timeliness is also another way to convey to the homeowner your enthusiasm for the project.

It is also important that you realize that the home is a large investment for your customer. Your design needs to be one that will provide the owner good resale value. So while the custom design will reflect your client’s wants and needs and offer you the opportunity to do creative design work, you must always keep in mind the large investment in the house and things you can do in the design that will enhance resale value. For example, the current trend in home design is for more open spaces and rooms that are not closed off. There is also more interest in large outdoor entertainment areas. While this lends itself to more modern and contemporary homes, to give the house greater resale value I do something in between where I incorporate these living features in a home that also has some traditional aspects. (Dennis – can you think of some example of this?)

You also need to realize that the business of home design is cyclical and follows the business cycle for home construction. I have been able to stay busy even in a down cycle because I have build a good reputation and deal in an upscale market that in does not suffer to the extent of the general market for home construction. But there are going to be inevitable pullbacks for anyone in architecture. This means it is important that you control your overhead and quickly make the necessary adjustments when your business hits a slow period.


How to Prepare

I did not go to college to become a home designer. Unless you are interested in designing large building like office towers or sports facilities where you need a full degree in architecture, you can get your training through technical schools and apprenticeships. Make sure in high school that you take classes like geometry and calculus as well as art and drafting. My high school in San Jose offered these subjects. That allowed me to get into a work/ study program where I was able to apprentice with a distinguished local architect, William Headley. Most high schools work with local technical colleges to offer the same kind of programs. These normally include half a day of regular high school classroom study and half a day at a technical college beginning in your junior year. By the final semester of your senior year, you should be working with a company getting hands on experience and earning some money.

After high school you would then enter a technical college where you would study CAD drawing and design and learn the computer skills necessary to be successful in this industry. But keep in mind that success as an architect depends on maintaining your creativity. I find that doing my front elevations and some other drawing by hand often stimulates my thought process better than using CAD or other computer assisted drawing programs. Do what works for you. But make sure you do your work in way that allows you to fully express your own personal creativity.

This education path is also one that is very affordable. In Tulsa, classes as Tulsa Technical College are free if you get accepted. So it is important that you study hard in high school and are well prepared when you begin your technical training your junior year of high school and for about two years in work/study at your technical college.


 US Department of Labor Statistics and Job Information

 The DLSJI offers salary statistics for architects but nothing specifically for the related specialty of home design, which requires proficiency in many of the same skills. Keep in mind that as an independent businessperson, you have the opportunity to earn more than just being an employee.

Median Pay in 2012 was $73,090.

 About 1 in 5 architects were self-employed in 2012.

Employment of architects is projected to grow 17 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. Competition for jobs will be strong as the number of applicants continues to outnumber available positions.

1 Comment
  1. Jack 9 years ago

    Hi Dennis,

    I really enjoyed reading your article today. I am a little less than a month away from turning 55. When I was a kid in high school, I had a talent for drawing. I wasn’t very good in math, but after reading your article I wish I would worked on my math skills. In any case, I’m going to do a little research and see if this is a journey I should consider at my age. I’m confident I still have some of my former creative talents. Thanks again for sharing your advice.


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