See Your House in a New Light

Thinking about remodeling? Pretend you're meeting your home for the very first time.

By Bob Vila | Updated Jul 23, 2020 1:11 PM

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Home Assessment

Architect Gregory Rochlin and Bob Examine the Exterior. Photo: From Bob Vila

Before you pick up the phone to call a contractor or an architect, let’s look at your house in ways that you probably never have before. This will allow you to gain a true understanding of your house and how you live in it, beyond its obvious pleasures and annoyances.

1) Take a Step Back
Actually, take 100 steps back, and take a good long look at your house. You might want to squint so that you see the house in its entirety as opposed to distracting specifics. Look at the three-dimensional space. Is there one symmetrical mass that’s of a piece? Or is there one main shape with one or several smaller shapes? Does an addition stand out in a pronounced way, marring what is otherwise a symmetrical house? You are going for the big-picture view here.

2) Come a Little Closer
Now, take out your binoculars. Look at your house from a close and far distance. You may be surprised at the details that you see, that you have unconsciously overlooked. There may be a design detail that you like especially that you might want to incorporate in your planned home renovation.

3) Get Ready to Get Dirty
Those tattered trousers you may still be holding onto will come in handy here. Add a long-sleeved shirt and sneakers or work shoes and you’re dressed for the job at hand. Grab a clipboard, tape measure, hammer, jackknife, and flashlight. The screwdriver’s optional. There’s a good chance that you’ll have to inspect those out-of-plainview spaces such as the cellar and the attic on all fours. Remember, the most inexpensive way to expand your living space is to finish unused areas, but in order to do that, the areas will have to be dry, properly ventilated, and adequately spacious.

4) Think Like an Archaeologist
When you walk through the living quarters of your house, look for indications of changes that were made in the past. Remodeling changes are usually not just cosmetic – either the floor plan’s been altered, new doorways added, old doorways closed up, etc. Use your powers of investigation and imagination to dig down to the original layer of the house. Look for areas of difference–they will often provide clues as to what has been changed.

5) Lay Out Your Life
Did you know that the best domestic interiors have something in common with one another? They all divide the home into three principal areas: the private areas of the house (e.g., the bedrooms), the working areas of the house (e.g., the kitchen), and the relaxation area (e.g., living room, dining room, family room). In some cases, there are both public relaxation areas and private ones. Well-laid-out houses separate these functional areas of the home so that sleeping children aren’t awoken by loud laughter coming from the living room and guests don’t come across loads of laundry on their way to your dinner table. Think about your particular needs and how alterations in the layout can make for a happier, more considerate home environment.

6) Shut Off the Lights
You can light a candle or use a flashlight. Or do both. What you’ll find is that shadows will appear and that colors will soften. Shapes can take on a more dramatic appearance. Moldings will be more pronounced in shadowy light. The very nature of candlelight is such that you’ll be able to focus on smaller areas within your spaces as those will be the only spaces that are illuminated. Take note of any surprises that come from this new way of looking. Is there something odd about the relationship of the rooms? Do certain objects suddenly seem out of place?

7) Have a Seat
You can position yourself at a lower vantage point by sitting on a low stool or an upside-down pail. Seat yourself in a corner, in the middle of a hallway, or at the bottom of the stairs. This may feel strange to you, but it will help you imagine the space from the eyes of a small child or a pet or perhaps a person in a wheelchair, should an elderly relative be coming to live with you, all of which may help you brainstorm new solutions for your space.

It will take time to discover your house, maybe weeks or even months to inspect every nook and cranny and conduct a proper home inspection. You can marry your new, surprising findings with your actual past experience of how you and your family move through your space as you go about your daily activities. Combine this with a deeper understanding of architectural style and your dream house will be revealed to you.