4 Rules for Remodeling Within the Existing Footprint

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Dining Room in a Formerly Underused Space
Dining Room in a Formerly Underused Space

If you keep in mind 4 rules of thumb you can successfully remodel within the existing footprint of your home.  Doing so can both deliver the house of your dreams and save lots of money in the process.

1. Think about Flexible Use of Space and Re-Think Space. The dining room, above, was formerly a space that was almost never used.  It was just too narrow and wasn’t well connected with the rest of the home.  But once we swapped the old dining room and kitchen, it became the perfect dining room and is now used regularly.  Similarly, the old formal dining room was rarely used by was taking up prime real-estate in the home.  But once we put the kitchen in that space, all the surrounding space was put to better use — because the space and flow now made sense for how this couple lives.  Item 2, below, is only possible if you’re also open to re-thinking space.  Too often, homeowners add onto the back of the house and the old living room and dining room become spaces to simply walk past.  But they still need to be heated and they still need furniture.  By re-thinking the use of space, all the spaces in the home can be lived in — an heated and cooled more cheaply.  This is just good, “green” sense.2.  Open the Kitchen to Flexible Family Gathering Areas. You’ve heard it from me and many others — today’s kitchen is the heart of the home.  Families used to gather around the hearth; today they gather around the kitchen.  Extended kitchen spaces need to accommodate lounging, homework, entertainment, TV watching, and family discussions.  I have yet to find a situation where I can’t successfully make the kitchen the center of even very old homes built at the turn of the 20th century.  It may mean moving walls (see example) or it may mean moving the kitchen (see example).   What my clients report and what I’ve experienced in my own home is that creating the central kitchen in an older home is often much more successful and comfortable than what they find in newer homes.  This is because the spaces are often both more intimate and more flexible.  Many times the large open spaces of McMansions are  largely empty because they just don’t feel right.  Even with the cathedral ceiling, guests and family gather in the more intimate space with a dropped ceiling over the kitchen or dining table.  Even though there are separate office, entertainment, and media, the bulk of a family’s time is spent in quite a small area.  The remaining space — rarely used — takes money to furnish and to heat and cool.
Instead, in an older home, each space is human-scaled.  With walls removed or opened up, guests can be comfortably seated in the “living room” while still connected and conversing with the  hosts in the kitchen.  Or the kids can be doing homework on a large eating counter or with a laptop on the dining table.  While each of these spaces can retain their own boundaries and intimacy, they are opened to each other and also become a single “great room”.  When we design this way, we also design for the way we actually live.  Think of how many times you or a friend will use the living room or dining room as an office instead of using the specially designed office for that function.  When we design for this way of living, we also design in spaces to store the paraphernalia that comes with multiple, flexible uses.  We can design a place to store school books, the laptop and the bill-paying supplies.  Instead of having to schlep them back to the unused room where those activities were planned to occur.

The Kitchen is the center of dining and family activities
The Kitchen is the center of dining and family activities
3.  Open Views Through Rooms and to (new) Outdoor Rooms. We naturally feel safer and more comfortable when we’re in an intimate, protected space but can view an almost limitless horizon.  Think of how much more protected it feels to look a river valley from a viewing stand than when standing out in the open of a cliff.  Exactly the same principles come to play in our homes.  The sunroom, below, is a tiny room — 7 ft by 9 ft.  But it feels both protected and expansive.  Sitting on the love seat you can see into the living room and beyond into the kitchen.  You feel connected with both.  You feel a part of the patio just outside the glass door.  In fact, the family that lives there says spending time in the sunroom “feels” like they’re spending time outdoors — but with comfortable cushions and no worry about mosquitoes or Washington’s brutal heat and humidity.  The feeling would be quite different if the outdoors beyond the patio door was not designed and furnished like a room (see discussion of Garden Rooms).  If it was a yard or woods, you would feel separated from it — a distinction between indoors and outdoors.  Instead when the “room” outside feels like a room (with walls, a ceiling and furniture), you feel as connected to that room as you feel to the living room.  [Notice the pergola beyond the vegetation that forms walls, the tree canopy that forms a ceiling, and a stone floor similar but different than the stone floor of the sunroom.]  With these visual design cues, we are often much more comfortable in the spaces created when remodeling older homes than in the overly large spaces in new construction.

Views Through to Living Room, Kitchen & Patio Makes This Room Feel Expansive
Views Through to Living Room, Kitchen & Patio Makes This Room Feel Expansive
4.  Create rhythm with multi-layered, coordinated finishes. The final rule of thumb is to not scrimp on finishes and detail.  This does not mean that the finishes need to be expensive or luxurious.
It means that you need to think of the entire house as the “composition” not individual rooms.  Too often, it’s painfully clear where the new addition starts and the existing home ends.  Hardwood floors transition to vinyl or carpet; casings around windows and doors changes size and detail; door knobs and hardware changes.  When this happens these are subtle messages to our brains that the old and the new are separate.  Invariably we prefer one of the areas to the other and underutilize the total space in the house.
Whether a space is modern or traditional, we are comforted by a repetition of complex details.  In a modern space the repetition might be in using rectangular blocks of space or consistent use of
horizontal surfaces or a rhythm in light fixtures that is repeated in another element.  In a traditional space, the repetition might be in layers of trimwork such as wainscoting or crown molding.  When that rhythm and repetition are absent — in any type of architecture — we feel it in our minds even if we don’t recognize why we don’t like the space.   I’ve included two spaces, below.  In the first, you see wainscoting whether you look at the breakfast area (foreground) or through the kitchen to the dining room (background).  The tile in the backsplash is exactly the same height as the wainscoting and the flat panel detail of cabinet doors is repeated in the wainscoting.  The materials are not in themselves very expensive but they feel “rich” in combination.

Rhythm & Repetition Pulls House Together
Rhythm & Repetition Pulls House Together
In the second space, below, repetition and rhythm are just as important even though it is a very modern space.  In this home, the large-format porcelain tile are repeated in several different spaces in the home, the stainless steel is repeated, and the rhythm of the cable railing and the monorail lighting is repeated in other elements.  Again the finishes feel “rich” — and in this case, they are more expensive.  In both cases, elements are carried through to other rooms and the totality of the house feels like a single integrated space.  The complexity also gives are eyes and our minds interesting surfaces and details that keep us interested and engaged — even if subliminally so.

Rhythm & Repetition Pulls House Together
Rhythm & Repetition Pulls House Together
In my experience, if instead of just building-on, you do the most with what you have, the costs are reduced and satisfaction is enhanced.  Certainly, remodeling within the existing footprint is environmentally beneficial requiring fewer materials, resulting in less waste, and requiring far less energy to heat and cool than building large additions onto existing housing stock.  Sometimes a small bump-out will allow a better flow and make the existing space far more usable — see example.
Just today, after composing this article, I met with a homeowner who called asking me to design an addition.  When I arrived he described wanting to building out in 2 different directions.  As we walked through the house I discovered that they already had large attic and basement spaces that were poorly used.  Relatively simple access changes and the addition of light and space enhancing features such as dormers could make the space much more usable.  When we spoke about budget, it was clear to me that their budget would come close to covering the cost of the additions but that all the functions they wanted could be included “within the existing footprint”.  I started to describe how to do this and his eyes opened in surprise.  Suddenly something that he thought might have to be phased over many year, could be largely done within the next 9 months!
Images courtesy of Braitman Design/Build
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