Asking Questions

Before you seek professional interior design assistance, consider these basic issues.

By Bob Vila | Updated Nov 11, 2013 9:01 PM

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Interior Design


People with no formal design training—and that describes most homeowners— often have difficulty expressing their architectural likes and desires. They may be able to identify what they don’t like—I really thought her new kitchen was awful, didn’t you?— but articulate and thoughtful men and women frequently get tongue- tied when it comes to describing what they want from a renovation. They hear themselves muttering platitudes like, I want it to have, you know, a spacious feel … and I want it to look great, of course… and be light and efficient and warm and friendly and not too expensive … yes, that’s what I want. All of which conveys exactly nothing.

Before you seek professional assistance with your design I recommend you consider some basic issues. Whether you plan to talk directly to a contractor or to begin by hiring a designer, you will save both of you time and trouble if you have already considered some of the questions he or she will ask you.

This is not a test. There are no right or wrong answers. The purpose is to help you identify what it is you want both for yourself and, in a while, for the profession­als you hire to effect the renovation. Don’t be in too much of a hurry as you think about these questions. Some of them may seem irrelevant or elementary, but consider how you would phrase your answers if a design professional were to pose the questions. It is what’s on your mind that he’ll be interested in and you need to be able to communicate your needs and desires clearly.

Another purpose of this exercise is to stimulate your thinking. The questions that follow may get you to consider some key issues that you haven’t thought about before. Get other members of your family involved in this brainstorming, too. If you all have to live there, get everybody to contribute.

Will your renovated house out-price the neighborhood? The underlying assumption of this book is that the house or apartment you plan to renovate exists. So in that sense, location is not at issue here. Yet where your house is affects many other decisions.

I know, I know, you’ve heard it before, but I still have say it: The three most important factors in determining real estate value are location, location, and location. As someone considering a remodeling, you would be wise to proceed with this old truism in mind.

In practise, it means that if your house is already the most expensive in your neighborhood by far, you are unlikely to recoup the cost of any remodeling work. Pro­ceed, if you wish, but do it because you are satisfying a need of yours and not because you’re expecting the project will enhance the value of your house On the other hand, if your house is worth less than those around it, good renovation work should make it more valuable.

As you think about your renovation, keep the larger context of your home in mind, too. Different regions and neighborhoods come complete with unwritten rules. In staid old Boston, subdued and tasteful are preferred over the gaudy. In the Florida heat, hotter colors are more welcome. In California, there’s a premium on natural materials. If you’re a newcomer to a region, consider whether your design ideas con­flict with the prevailing tastes. You can do what you want, regardless of what your neighbors think, but you risk paying for the work a second time when you try to sell the house and potential buyers don’t like what you’ve done.

Are there features of your property that you want to use or need to work around in planning your renovation? Perhaps extensive landscaping will be necessary, or you’ll be moving an existing driveway or adding a new walkway. Elements in the hardscape, plantscape, or overall landscape may need to be changed to accommo­date the renovated house.

Do you have a site plan? Unless your job involves only the remodeling of interior spaces, you will probably have to file a site plan with the building department. A sur­vey may have been done at the time you bought the property, but if no survey exists, you may need to arrange for a surveyor to conduct one or pay your designer an addi­tional fee to do his own site inspection. Ideally, you should also have a topographical map of the property as you think about the landscape and try to communicate your vision to others.

Do you want to reorient the facade of the house toward or away from the street? Perhaps there is a view you want to welcome into your new master bedroom suite, or one you want to fence off so you don’t have to look at it each time you wash dishes in your new kitchen.

What about the sun? Many successful designs try to locate the kitchen so that it receives east (morning) light, and dining or relaxation areas to take advantage of afternoon sun. If no one in your household cares about a sunny breakfast space, then

perhaps it makes more sense to make that the office area. You live there and you understand your site best. Think about how the sun travels around your house and how you would like to see it welcomed into your home.

Light and heat decisions are also influenced by climate. Those of us who live amid snow and brutal cold much of the year welcome the sun. In a tropical or subtropical area, you’ll need to minimize the effects of the sun’s rays, especially during the hottest hours of the day. Factor the cli­mate into your thinking.

What other constraints will you need to deal with? You may also have to deal with external dictates. Your municipality may have zoning limitations. There may be maximum heights specified for residential buildings. Setbacks are often established to keep building density down by creating un built areas to act as buffers. Such setbacks require that no structure be closer to the street than a set distance (often 30 or 35 feet). Side boundary buffers of 10 feet or more are common; rear boundaries of 25 feet or more are also usual.

In the same way, easements may prohibit the construction of houses or addi­tions closer than specified distances to natural phenomena like bluffs, streams, or even scenic vistas. Determine whether there are setbacks or easements on the books in your community. And are there right-of-ways or other limitations on your deed? How about utility easements? Except in instances where changes can be negotiated in these requirements—and sometimes they can—you’ll have to work around them.

If you do want to make changes, be sure you follow the proper procedures. I know of one well-to-do Pennsylvanian who wanted to fence in his expensively land­scaped garden to protect it from deer. He knew that his driveway had once been a through road, but it had fallen into disuse. He had a casual conversation with a town official who told him with a shrug he didn’t think a fence would be a problem. So the property owner went ahead and enclosed a large plot of land within a 12-foot tall fence.

Almost immediately, several old-timers in town complained and the town board ruled that once a road, always a road, and that the landowner had no unilat­eral right to fence it off. Most of the tall perimeter fence remains, but it deters few deer because of a 20-foot gap that must legally remain open. The lesson? Find out who you have to talk to in order to complete the paperwork that is required, and then live up to the letter of the law. In the end, it’ll prove simpler.

If you are planning an addition, how large would you like it to be? Will you be adding bedrooms? If so, how many? Will you be adding a family room? A sepa­rate dining room? An eat-in kitchen? Office?

Make a list of the spaces you want. How many rooms have you at present? How many are you thinking about adding? Consider the existing rooms and com­pare them to your vision of the new spaces. Are the volumes you’re talking about adding similar to those in the original house? You don’t have to mimic what exists but houses that look like a unified whole generally appeal to the eye.

What style is your house? Thinking about your home and the changes you would like to make in its archi­tectural context can help resolve a range of problems and questions. Identifying other houses in the same style that have elements you admire can be useful in thinking through the design. Collect pictures, clippings, or photocopies in a folder for reference. Keep a few photographs of your house there, too, for comparing and contrasting.

What establishes the character of the exterior finish of your house? Is the siding wood, stone, brick, aluminum, or vinyl? What style are the windows— double hung, casement, awning, sliding, skylights? What about the trim: Is it flat, thin, and nondescript or decorated, molded, carved, or bold? Are there decorative elements you like/don’t like such as pilasters, balusters, window boxes, porches, doorway or window decorations?

What are your specific room-by-room requirements? Every family is different. In musical families, room may be needed for a piano, or an appropriate space designated for trombone practice. Consider the house room by room.

Entry/vestibule area. Is more closet space required? Are there tables, chairs, or other furniture to be planned for? What would you like the floor covering to be? Here and elsewhere in the house, are there special wall or ceiling surfaces or would you like certain finishes? Most new interior wall and ceiling surfaces today are by default drywall construction. Make a note if you want paneling or some other finish. How about the lighting, windows, and doors? Is there another entrance to the house, or should there be, such as a mud room or garage entry?

Kitchen. Lighting is critical in the kitchen. Is it adequate or is that on your list of changes? Will you be changing the floor covering? What about the appliances: Do you know the size and kind of refrigerator you need? A separate freezer? A range or independent cook top and wall oven? Dishwasher(s)? Are the washer and dryer to be located in the kitchen? Do you want an eat-in kitchen? If so, for how many? Do you want visual access to dining or living areas or for the kitchen to be a discrete space?

Dining room. Is a separate dining room necessary? Do you have pieces of furniture that must be accommodated in the design? What about floor coverings and wall or ceiling surfaces? Seating for how many at the table will be required?

Living room. Are there sofa, chairs, rugs, artwork, or other furniture or decorative ele­ments to be planned for? Is there a fireplace 01 do you wish to add one? What activities do you anticipate this room will be used for? Do you entertain often? If so, how many people must you allow for? Lighting design can be important here, too, so note your concerns.

Family room. What activities do you anticipate this room will be used for? Are there special furniture requirements (e.g., pool table, projection TV screen)? How about closet or storage requirements? Bookshelves? Computer desk? Phone lines? Have you concerns about floor covering or wall or ceiling surfaces?

Master bedroom. Do you want a private bath or separate dressing room in a master bedroom complex? Is special soundproofing necessary? For your clothes closet, how many linear feet of hanging space do you require?

Children’s bedrooms. How many separate bedrooms do you require? How much closet space for each? In addition to a bed and dresser, must each room include space for a desk, dressing table, or computer? Will you need a phone jack in each room?

Guest bedroom. What are the basic requirements: just a bed and dresser? What about closets, television, or phone? Will this room have its own bath? When it’s not occu­pied by a guest, will it have family purposes, such as hobbies, home office, play, or study space?

Bathrooms. How many do you need? Where are they (or will they be) located? One each on the first and second floor? One in the master bedroom complex? A half bath downstairs? Is a bathtub required in a new bathroom? A shower? A circulating or whirlpool bath? What about towel storage? A linen closet? Bidet? Special floor cov­erings? Distinct wall or ceiling surfaces?

Office or den. Will you need a desk? Chairs? What are your storage or closet require­ments? Will there be furniture elements like filing cabinets or bookshelves?

Utility Room. What will the space contain? HVAC equipment? Washer and dryer? Hot water heater? Have you additional storage requirements?

Other spaces. Does the photographer in your house require a darkroom? Is there a need for special storage of old files? Is there to be a basement workshop? Do you need a garage? A deck? Greenhouse? Wine cellar? Stable, shed, other outbuildings? Do you dream of a fireplace in the family room?

Are there some rooms that you would group together, oth­ers you would separate? For example, most people would prefer the master bedroom at one end of the house and the children’s rooms at the other. Do you want the nurs­ery adjacent to the master bedroom? Would you put the living room away from the master bedroom? List your priorities.

Perhaps the best time to update or modify the working sys­tems of the house is while other construction is taking place. Does the house have central air conditioning? How about zoned heating? Will the existing electrical entrance provide adequate power or do you need to upgrade? Is the existing wiring safe? Is the existing plumbing, both supply and drain lines, in good condition?

Are you anticipating any changes in the usual patterns of your home? For example, are you expecting another child? Will some or all of your children shortly be leaving the nest? Will an elderly parent be coming to live with you? If you are remodeling, is your present house energy inefficient, and should you be consid­ering retrofitting it with insulation or another heat source?

Have you considered all of your special needs in specifying your rooms? Keep in mind such issues as privacy, the individual hobbies practiced by members of the household, any contradictory schedules of household members, lighting needs, noise factors, and so on.

How much can you spend? This may be the most important question of all as, directly or indirectly, the level of investment you can make will determine everything about your remodeling. The budget frames everyone’s thinking as plans are made and construction pro­ceeds.

Most designers and contractors work with tight budgets everyday; they will conscientiously try to work within the limits you establish. But you need to be clear about what you have to spend, what you expect for your money.