Category: Managing Construction

Home Renovation: The Exterior

Even if your proposed renovation concerns only interior spaces—a thorough examination of the exterior is still essential.


Even if your proposed renovation concerns only interior spaces—say, a new kitchen, or converting an old closet to a second bath—a thorough examination of the exterior is still essential.

At a Distance. Begin by taking the long view. Look at each elevation of your house from 100 feet or more away. It may help you to squint slightly as you try to see the house as a whole and not be distracted by individual elements or colors. The idea is to see the forest for the trees.

Try to look and think in three dimensions: Do you see one uniform symmetrical volume? Are there apparent parts to the house, such as the main block with one or more smaller elements stepping down on one or both sides? Does a simple shed addition stand out distinctly as a later alteration to an otherwise symmetrical house? How about a boxy protrusion along the length of the building (a wing) or an addition that extends at a right angle from the main building (an ell) from the rear?

Keep in mind that only a generation or two ago, most new houses were typically more modest in size than new homes today. Children shared bedrooms and the whole family shared a bath. There were fewer single-purpose spaces (laundry rooms were a comer in the cellar, home offices rare, family rooms retrofitted into base-were remodeled. On narrow in-town lots, additions were often extended off the back. Dormers may have been punched through the root offering light to living spaces on the top level of the house. A recent trend has been to remove the original roof altogether, to strengthen the old ceiling joists, and to add a whole new story and roof above the old main floor.

Most builders in the past tended to keep a uniform roof shape, so if the roof line and pitch change dramatically from one section to another, they may indicate where changes were made. Are there dormers on the roof? They, too, could be the result of renovations, especially if the placement is eccentric. Houses built before 1850 tended to be symmetrical, and Victorian houses built in the next half-century often were L- or T-shaped. If your house was built before 1900 yet isn’t recognizable as a box, an L, or a T, try to determine why. On the inside of the foundation, a cellar that is not of uniform height and appearance can be another clue. An old, low-ceilinged crawlspace with a rubble stone foundation adjoining a full cellar of neatly laid up cement block is a dead giveaway: there’s the old section, here’s the addition.

Get a Little Closer. To get a fresh vantage on the dwelling you see every day, try examining your house with binoculars. Look at the place from both near and far. With the binoculars shaping your view, you may see details and compositions that surprise you. It’s rather like seeing snapshots of people you know well—sometimes they just don’t look like themselves, largely because you detect features you hadn’t noticed before.

Next, focus on the front door. Often the main entrance is the single best exterior clue to the floor plan of a building. If it’s located at the center of the house, that may indicate a balanced arrangement of rooms on either side of a central hall. Is there a discernable pattern of windows? Do the details on each window frame match the others? How about the sash: does each have the same number of lights (panes of glass)? One or several that are trimmed differently, contain different-size sash, or are out of alignment with the others may indicate an addition or remodeling. Is the trim at the comers and the roof line consistent from one portion of the house to another?

Now think about the house in two dimensions. In a traditional home, you should see a series of perpendicular lines on each plane. Is the roof line straight or does it dip in the middle? When you see wavy or undulating lines of siding or a wall surface that bulges, that may indicate a structural problem. If it is apparent to your eye that supposedly horizontal surfaces are not level and vertical ones are not plumb, you and probably a contractor should find out why. In an eighteenth-century colonial, elements that are out-of-square may be regarded as part of its character and the house perfectly sound. In newer construction, however, such signs may represent something to worry about.

While you are standing at a distance, can you detect any curling or missing shingles or other signs of roof deterioration? How about the chimney: Does it stand straight and tall, or are the mortar joints deteriorated so that it’s angling to one side?

Moving closer to the house, continue your examination on the south or southwestern side. These exposures are subject to more weathering, as the warming and drying of the sun exaggerates the effects of wind and rain.

What is the external wall covering? Wood is the most common siding in North America, with roughly 90 percent of houses clad in wood. Is it clapboard, shingle, board-and-batten (consisting of wide vertical boards, with the joints covered with narrower boards)? How soon will a paint job or more serious scraping, patching, and painting be necessary? If the walls are of brick or stone, is the surface in good condition? What about the mortar joints—do you need to repoint (replace the deteriorated mortar joints)? With stucco houses, look for cracks and bulges. If the siding material is aluminum or vinyl, check for dents, missing pieces, and discoloration. In an older home, these artificial sidings may have been added on top of the original clapboards or shingles which may be intact beneath and well worth restoring. Later in the process, you may want a contractor to help you investigate this option. If so, make a note on your wish list.

Look closely at the windows. Is there peeling paint? Where the vertical frame members abut the sill, are there signs of decay like softened and discolored wood, mold, and blistering paint? Is there missing or cracked putty where the panes of glass join the frame and muntins (the elements between the panes in a divided-light sash)?

Look at the foundation. Is it of uniform material and finish? Do the walls appear plumb, solid, and the mortar joints sound? How close are wooden elements to the ground? If any siding or other wood is closer than six inches to the soil, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. The excess soil should be excavated to prevent decay.

Walk around the perimeter of the house and look carefully for problem areas. If there is a porch, examine it with particular care. Porches are exposed to the elements, so posts, floorboards, and railings are subject to decay. Have you noticed soft spots on the porch floor? How about railings that tend to give a little? Look with care at the joining of the house and the porch. If there is decay, that may indicate that water has been moving from the porch into the structure of the house.

Before proceeding inside, try to think about the exterior of the house as a unified whole. What do you like (or dislike) about it? If your house consists of several sections that were constructed at different times, do they work together nicely—or maybe the last addition seems somehow wrong and you’d like to devise a way to make it look more of-a-piece with the rest of the house. Perhaps you think the front of the home looks dull: many a plain ranch in recent years has been given a more stately appearance with the addition of an imposing entranceway. Perhaps there’s a design detail that you especially like—a decorative window, a band of molding, a porch post, an unusual building material like glass block, or some other element that you might like to revisit in your proposed renovation.

Muse a little on what you see. Dream a little about what you’d like to see.

Shopping DIY Online

Learn how you can maximize your DIY remodeling budget by shopping for bargains online.

DIY Shopping


Everyone is doing it—internet shopping.  In fact, this year 148 million U.S. consumers age 14 and older will make at least one purchase online, according to estimates reported by eMarketer.  By 2015, that number could grow by an additional 30 million consumers.  And it’s not just the convenience of shopping online that keeps customers coming back for more.  It’s the variety and the bargains.

You can find deals for just about everything online today, from clothing and electronics to groceries and travel.  Home goods and DIY/remodeling products are no exception.  Think faucets, hardware, appliances, lighting, windows and tools. Imagine buying a Kohler jetted tub at 2 a.m. in the comfort of your own home at a store that never closes, where there’s never a line at checkout. And, while sales are common enough in retail stores, you may find even greater savings by searching the sites.  With no brick and mortar stores to maintain, online retailers are in a much better position to pass savings on to their customers.  The key is to do your research and invest some quality shopping time.

Whether you live in an area where retail shopping is plentiful or limited to a big box store, a small hardware shop, or perhaps a manufacturer showroom, the key to finding deals is shopping comparatively.  Online you have access to the broadest range of products possible. Having more to choose from could seem more of a curse than a blessing.  But, rather than become overwhelmed, spend time researching and comparing brands and features, and the list will begin to winnow down based on your requirements, personal likes and budget.

To help you navigate products, features, and costs more competently, look to comparison shopping sites like,, and  You can search these sites by product category and then compare by brand. When you know the brand and model, be sure to check out the manufacturer’s website.  Many sites, like, will let you select multiple products in the same category to see how they stack up in terms of features and cost.

If budget rather than brand is your guide, then you’ll find even greater values online.  With promotional coupons and incentives from retailers, manufacturers, newsletter promotions, and websites like Groupon, your purchase can be a real bargain.  And, don’t overlook Amazon, (formerly, eBay and where unsold inventory of home goods and DIY-remodeling products can be found at significant savings.

Before you get carried away filling your “shopping cart” with purchases, consider some of the disadvantages of buying online. The most obvious one is that you can’t physically check out the merchandise.  How does the hardware handle or knob feel in your hand?  What is the outward swing of the refrigerator door?  How different does a satin finish look from a brushed finish?  Does the countertop material feel warm or cool to the touch?  And what about the true color of those cabinets?  It’s always best to see any product before you commit to buying it. The savings will not be as valuable if the product you choose is not what you expected.

Another concern is whether the online merchant is legitimate and a safe place to shop. Look at what other shoppers have to say about their online experiences at sites like and  You can also check out the Better Business Bureau online if you have additional concerns.  Look for signs that the website protects your data.  Encryption is a security measure that scrambles your personal information as it gets transmitted.  If you see “https://” in the browser web address, you should feel confident that the site is credit-card safe. Likewise, using PayPal is a secure way to make payments on the web that is linked to many popular online shopping destinations.

Before you make a purchase, be sure to read the fine print—all of it.  While shipping costs may be waived as an incentive at time of sale, some sites can make it very difficult to return merchandise.  Many will not pay for the return-shipping charges; some will only do so if the item is being exchanged.  You might also be charged a restocking fee for any merchandise returned.  If you are paying shipping fees, take that into account in determining the value of buying online or buying in-store.  Sometimes paying shipping charges for small items—like a light dimmer—may be more than the item itself or the potential savings.

Just as retail merchants rely on point-of-purchase sales, online retailers are hoping for the same impulse buy.  The array of products that are likely to turn up in the DIY remodeling category on your home computer screen will certainly be seductive.  Do not rush to buy because you see a great deal.  Also be sure you know what companion products may be required (a pressure valve or right-angle arm for a shower head) or the right specifications (a faucet that is center-set rather than wide-spread) for whatever you buy.

Still wondering what type of savings you can expect by shopping DIY online?  Check out this Buying a Faucet case study.

It was easy on one hand but not on the other.  Be sure you have the model number from the manufacturer as well as the correct name and details, including the finish color and a picture. Why a picture?  Because some online retailers change the model name when they offer it at a lower price than the manufacturer.  I selected a Margaux Faucet from Kohler because of its WaterSense® properties, simple design lines (translation—easy cleaning), and its two-handle widespread specifications.  I knew it was a faucet that would work well with the existing Kohler plumbing I currently have in the bathroom.

I wrote down the brand name, model number and part number from the Kohler website and started shopping:
• MFG Brand Name : KOHLER
• MFG Model # : K162323SN
• MFG Part # : 16232-3-SN
• MFG Finish Color: Polished Nickel
• MFG List Price: $682. 35

First, I went to my nearby Home Depot store to check the price: $483 plus sales tax; already a considerable savings from the manufacturer’s list price of $682.35.  That would serve as my base price for future shopping.  Back at my computer, I discovered that was having a sale on that very faucet for $399 (almost $100 less than the retail store) with sales tax required, but no shipping fees.  It was time to visit the online shopping destinations for more comparisons. Here’s what I was able to find.

Cost Comparison1.2

The winner— with best price and free shipping, even if I did have to pay sales tax.

Wood Clamps

Properly secure your glue joint with these tools.

Photo: Flickr

Wood is a remarkable material. It’s widely available, handsome, and immensely diverse. Many of its varieties can easily be cut, sculpted, bored, and otherwise shaped in a hundred different ways. Wood can be fastened to metal, plastic, or other pieces of wood, using nails or screws. But the most miraculous of its tricks, at least for me, is wood’s willingness to be clamped and glued.

A properly prepared glue joint (and this is the amazing part) is as strong as the sinews of the wood itself. I’ve seen many broken pieces of furniture that snapped and cracked not at a glue joint but as a result of flaws in the wood itself. Not every glue joint is perfect, of course, but those that are can endure for centuries.

The first key to a good joint is proper clamping. The clamp—most are devices with pairs of jaws that are drawn together with screw mechanisms—is responsible for pulling together the pieces to be glued, and for holding them tight and flush until the glue sets. The other key is the glue, and using the right kind in the right way. But first let’s talk about the array of clamps that are available.

Clamps (or, as they like to call them in England, cramps) are in­valuable tools in the workshop. But unlike the vice, another tool that can be used to hold workpieces together, clamps are easily portable, which makes them most con­venient problem solvers at the work-site. Here are a few clamps for which you may well find many applications.

C-Clamps. These multipurpose clamps get their name from their shape. Especially practical for gluing in tight spaces, these clamps have jaws in the shape of the letter C, and rely upon screwdrives with metal shoes at their ends to hold workpieces tightly. The screwdrive is driven by a T bar that forms a handle on the screw; in general, finger-tightening will provide adequate force. The shoe is mounted on a ball joint, allowing it to sit flush even to slightly angled stock.

C-damps are made of aluminum, iron, or steel, and are designed to clamp metalwork. When used with plastic or wood, pads are generally used to protect the material from telltale indentations that are left by the metal jaws and the shoe of the clamp when tightened. Clamps come in a range of sizes, with jaws as small as one inch and as large as twelve inches. Some have deeper throats than others, to accommodate clamping some distance from the edge of the workpiece.

Bar Clamps. The bar is the backbone of this clamp, a rectangular length of steel or aluminum. There is a jaw at one end of the bar, and a tail slide that moves up or down its length. The tail slide can be fixed in the desired position at one end of the workpiece that is to be clamped. Depending upon the design of the clamp, this is done using a peg that passes through the bar or by locating the slide at one of the notches in the bar. The adjustable jaw device, which uses a screwdrive, can then be tightened over the workpiece at the other end.

Bar clamps, which are also known as joiner’s clamps, are sold in two- to six-foot models. The steel clamps, in particular, can exert con­siderable force in clamping. Pipe clamps and bar clamps have strongjaws, and can be used in rough framing to pull a reluctant joist or header into place. More often, they’re used in cabinetwork or to repair doors or windows.

Pipe Clamps. At first glance, the pipe clamp resembles the bar clamp, save that the spine is in the form of a length of pipe. As with the bar clamp, the pipe clamp has a jaw that in most models is fixed to one end of the pipe. A second sliding jaw can be positioned anywhere on the length of the pipe, with a cam operated by a lever mechanism or a clutch that is engaged when an object is clamped in place.

The fittings for pipe clamps can be used on any length of pipe. Two sizes of fittings are common, designed for half-inch and three- quarter-inch iron pipe.

Hand-Screw Clamps. All-wood hand-screw clamps were the rule for generations. One great advantage of wooden hand-screw clamps is that, when used properly, they apply pressure evenly over a larger area than most clamps, meaning they are less likely to mar a workpiece than other clamps.

The wooden screws in the older models travel freely through one jaw and thread into the other; the front and rear screws are the reverse of one another. The newer, steel-screw models have threads at each of the points of connection with the jaws, but the thread on each rod reverses at its midpoint, for ease of adjustment. Both wooden and wood-and-steel designs can be loosened or tightened by gripping them with both hands, a handle in each hand, and rotating the clamp. A clockwise rotation tightens the clamp.

For most uses, the clamp should be tightened to fit the workpiece with the jaws roughly parallel. When the mouth of the clamp is snug over the workpiece, turn the rear handle to fully tighten the clamp. When gluing, take care to avoid gluing the wooden jaws to the workpiece.

Over the years, these clamps have been manufactured in a great range of sizes, and today clamps can be purchased with jaws that open up to a maximum of twelve inches or more. Typically, the hardwood jaws are between eight and eighteen inches long, and be­tween one and a half and two inches square.

Spring Clamps. These clamps mimic the shape and function of the human hand when you are grasping something between your thumb and forefingers. Only this clamp is quite happy to remain in place in­definitely, exerting uniform pressure, enabling you to go off and do something more interesting.

The clamp’s jaws are usually made of steel, sometimes with a layer of plastic applied to reduce scarring on soft materials to be clamped. A spring holds the jaws tightly closed, until the action of squeezing the handles together opens them. Spring clamps are sold in various sizes that open one, two, three, or more inches.

Strap Clamp. Also called web or band clamps, these clever devices rely upon a beltlike length of webbing to tighten joints in a structure. A mechanical device functions as a kind of elaborate buckle, with a ratchet that allows the one-and-a-half-inch-wide belt to be tightened.

Belt clamps are especially useful in furniture work, tightening frames and cases (even round ones), and those seemingly impossible clamping tasks that most clamps just don’t seem to suit.

As with any clamp, make sure you remove any extra glue from the clamp. Not only can excess glue cause the strap to adhere to the clamp, but it may leave an abrasive residue on the strap for the next job. Either way, you can mar your work.

The Sensitive Addition

Sensitive Home Additions


There’s been a lot of talk invested in the last few years in trying to define what is an historically sensitive addition. The National Park Service has published guidelines, which, in short, recommend preserving historic features and materials in order to preserve a building’s historic character. That’s the goal.

The Park Service also suggests, in a general way, a means of accomplishing that. The recommendation is that any addition to an historic structure be designed in such a way that it look enough different from the original structure that a visual distinction be apparent to the casual observer In short, respect the old building but don’t try to fool anyone that what you’ve added is old.

There have been a number of strategies devised over the years that aim to accomplish this, and I’ll discuss those shortly. But first there’s a question to be considered: Although the visual distinction notion has been widely accepted, is it always appropriate? In a word, no. I agree it’s a good first assumption but in some cases, an architectural solution will emerge that closely mimics the original and looks just right. Working on older houses requires nothing if not flexibility.

The possibility of not obeying the Park Service dictum raises another impor­tant philosophical issue: Is it somehow dishonest to add a new-old structure that isn’t distinguishable as being different from the original? Is that playing fast and loose with history?

Some would say, Yes, absolutely. I’d say, Maybe, it depends.

For me, it’s case-by-case. It comes down to whether or not we identify a given dwelling as an historic house. No, I would never recommend that their caretakers put an addition on Monticello, Mount Vernon, or any major architectural monument. On the other hand, the definition of historic house has broadened greatly in recent years. You ask Foursquare and Bungalow owners whether their old houses are historic, and lots of them will tell you from the bottom of their hearts that, surely, yes indeed they live in historic houses. And I’m not going to tell an enthusiastic wave of volunteer preservationists they’re wrong.

So let’s look at some strategies.

One good way to think about an addition is that it should be smaller in scale and overall size than the original house. If your house is a Classic Colonial, with a facade that’s two stories high and 40 feet wide, the wing you add to one side might be a story and a half and 30 feet wide.

Another common recommendation is that the front plane of the addition be noticeably recessed back from the original structure, a visual acknowledgment of its secondary status. A variation on the same theme is to sepa­rate the addition from the house with an even smaller hyphen or connecting struc­ture that further distances the original house from what you’ve added. Another proven strategy is to make the addition invisible from the front—for centuries, here and around the world, important building facades have been left unchanged when necessary additions were attached to the back rather than to the front of a building.

Not everybody agrees here: One camp argues that the siding, window trim, and other detailing should be consistent with the original; another group advises subtle changes are essential, such as simplifying the trim or using shingles to contrast the original clapboards. Both approaches are, in my opinion, perfectly correct under the right circum­stances, but the nature of an individual structure must be factored into deciding what to do.

Different rooflines will probably draw immediate attention to the addition. A radically different roof shape (a flat roof abutting a gable roof, for example) is likely to look wrong. Adding dormers, a cupola, or other elements not on the original may also look peculiar. While you don’t have to copy the cornice, eave overhang, pitch, or even the overall roof shape, a complementary configuration that echoes the original is probably the best strategy.

I recommend you take all of this reasonable advice and mull it over. Take what fits and feels right—and be forewarned that you won’t please everyone. The truth is that working on an old house requires a series of judgments. You need to think like an architectural historian, a builder, a curator, and a homeowner.

Remember, too, that you’re just passing through. The odds are that the house will be there generations from today… so treat it with respect.

Drawing Conclusions

In the simplest possible terms, the best remodeling results from a carefully calculated mix of good old work and appropriate new work.

Home Renovation


If you’re following the logic of this book, the time is approaching for the design work to begin. My hope is that by this point in the process you feel as if you know your house pretty well. You’ve identified historic elements, structural liabilities, and have a feel for the house’s character and vintage. Presumably you also have a grow­ing list of needs and desires you want fulfilled in the remodeling you’re contemplat­ing (though we’ll explore that list in the next chapter in more detail).

You may also have begun to hear, to your surprise, a previously unrecognized sound, a chorus of sorts that, as in the plays of ancient Greece, can help guide and inform the action in your own little drama. From time to time, as you think about changing your home, these voices sing in harmony about your obligation to the past. They may remind you that this house was there before you arrived and probably will survive you and generations of others after you. Do the right thing is one refrain you may hear. Even if you’re not hearing the voices (yet), there are other instructions that other remodelers before you have heard and disregarded at their peril.

Develop your plans on the basis of a thorough under­standing. Conduct your physical investigation and recognize the style of your house. Try to see your home in context, identifying both its location in time and where it fits in the development of your neighborhood and town. Lear about other, similar houses from local historical societies, museums, or reference works from your book­store or library.

You’ve heard the advice before, you’ll hear it again. But do listen to it: Save quality workmanship. Most old plaster, hardware, doors, windows, floors, and many other elements are probably worth keeping. Even if you think some­thing is hopeless, get a second opinion. Countless remarkable resurrections have been accomplished, often at a cost less than that of reproducing or even simply replacing the original.

If the first contractor you contact has an attitude about saving the old (Geez, that’d be a lot of trouble), maybe you’re talking to the wrong person. One caveat, though: Something that is old isn’t by definition better. Bad craftsman­ship, even if it’s old is, well, just bad craftsmanship. Good work in poor condition is probably worth conserving; shoddy work isn’t worth much, whatever its vintage.

Old isn’t always better. But when you are stuck, look behind you: The ghost of the builder is there to help. One way to consult the departed builder/designer is to consider what were his or her original intentions. Your close examination of the house will have given you some understanding for how the place was originally used, its degree of finish, its patterns, symmetry, detailing, and so on. Refer to that knowledge in making remodeling decisions.

Even if so many changes have been made over the years that knowing what the designers or builders had in mind is difficult, it’s often possible to identify what they didn’t intend. A good example of this is interior brickwork. In apartment build­ings, brick was commonly used to construct the party walls that divide one building from another and then was covered with plaster.

In the same way, chimney stacks are traditionally of brick that, except for the vicinity of the firebox and mantel, was camouflaged with layers of plaster. Yet in recent years, many walls and chimney breasts have had their plaster coverings removed and the brick and mortar left exposed. The builders almost certainly would be embarrassed to have their masonry work revealed for all to see: their intention was for the regularity of the plaster to obscure the rough masonry. But in an historical irony, we have come to value the signs of the handmade, even when it’s poor workmanship. Think about the original context before making such changes.

Don’t try to make a house something it never was. Don’t try to make the Victorian look Colonial. Don’t try to make solid middle-class housing into a man­sion fit for a robber baron. Recognize what you have, respect it, and work with it.

A challenge to any remodeler is the mixture of times that are (or will be) evident in the remodeled house. If you are restoring a period house to its orig­inal appearance, the challenge is to do it with absolute fidelity. But most of us, how­ever, want to make our houses suit our needs.

Changes made over time add a fourth dimension: there is no one date and, in fact, there could be several dates of significance. Among preservationists there is a consensus that later changes can have equal validity to original construction. Good workmanship may have been followed by better workmanship. We’ve already dis­cussed saving good old work, but don’t let any one era dictate all your decisions. Modern conveniences are essential to most people. Even if you’re remodeling a house that is only a few decades old, the technology has changed and you will prob­ably be updating kitchen appliances and adding bathrooms. Perhaps you’ll be mod­ifying heating and cooling systems. Respect the evolution of your home as you go about changing it. Consider all the earlier changes as equal until proven otherwise; then decide what works for you and what doesn’t.

At this stage, you should also be developing some kind of informal formula that you can use to help you make decisions about your renovation. We’re not talking about an unbreakable law of nature that dictates, “Yes, you can do that,” or, “No sir, no way.” It’s subtler than that. There are variables to be factored in, per­sonal and architectural and economic considerations.

In the simplest possible terms, the best remodeling results from a carefully calculated mix of good old work and appropriate new work. On the face of it, the for­mula is just simple arithmetic. But there’s an overlay, too.

I don’t believe every homeowner needs to be slavishly consistent to the orig­inal configuration and detailing of the house. I don’t take a purist’s approach. How­ever, the straightest road to a bad remodeling job is to pay no attention at all to what you’re starting with.

Asking Questions

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

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.

Maximizing Your Remodeling Dollar

Here's how to make the most of your money when remodeling your home.

Remodeling Budget


The average American is said to move every five to seven years. As that statistic suggests, you would be wise to think carefully about how you spend your renovation dollars. The odds are that in the not-so-distant future, you will be trying to recoup your expenditure when you’re getting ready to move on to your next dwelling.

Not every home improvement or renovation will bring a healthy return on investment. So which will enhance the value of your house? Kitchen and bathroom renovations usually more than pay for themselves. Some experts believe that for every dollar well spent in bath or kitchen renovations, the value of the house increases by two dollars, though some studies are more conservative (one recent survey found that on average sellers recouped better than 90 percent of the dollars they had invested in kitchen remodeling). Painting, stripping, and such cosmetic work typically pay for themselves, but other work is less of a sure thing.

Remodeling the kitchen
Most of us, consciously or unconsciously, tend to think of the kitchen as an indicator of the quality of a house. A well-equipped, efficient, and attractive kitchen makes the potential buyer feel immediately at home. Conversely, an outdated kitchen will leave the buyer thinking it’s a problem to be solved. Thus, if you’re planning a kitchen renovation, consider both what you want and need and what will leave future buyers with the best impression.

Quality is important—both for you and them. Durable and attractive materials like stone counters, hardwood cabinets, and imported tile can help convey a sense of the well-made. Make sure you have ample storage and counter space. Good lighting is important, too, especially over cooking surfaces, the sink, and food preparation areas. In medium size or larger kitchen, eating areas, whether at tables or islands, add to the life of a house, involving other family members and guests with the cook’s activities. Brand-name appliances are another good way of conveying a sense of quality.

Bathrooms are second only to the kitchen in maximum benefit for the buck (according to one survey, better than 80 percent of remodeling costs are recouped on average in subsequent home sales). If you have no bath on the first floor of your multistory house, a half bath is an excellent investment—both for your comfort and the resale value of the house. Private baths off master bedrooms are also popular, but be wary of an overly large master suite. Some homeowners have discovered the hard way that too many square feet devoted to dressing areas, workout space, and bath-shower-whirlpool combinations can be an expensive waste of space and money. Good tile work and quality fixtures (new or antique) also add value. For a modest investment, handsome towel bars and other hardware can add considerably to the finish. The installation of two sinks can make the new bathroom twice as efficient on a workday morning.

Decks, window and siding replacement, home office installations
In terms of financial returns, these projects are next, recouping on average roughly 70 percent of the costs invested. Decks offer indoor-outdoor spaces that add significantly to living areas for minimum cost. Replacing windows and siding can offer considerable energy savings, as well as make the house more attractive. With more and more small businesses being run from home offices, a well-appointed office space can also be a selling point when it comes time to move on.

Floors, moldings, and woodwork
Whatever the nature of the job, the materials you choose will have an impact on the perceived value of the work. Hardwood floors are good investments. They’re durable, warm, and attractive. After the stripped-down starkness of the seventies, moldings, casework, and other woodwork have made a major comeback. Bold cornice moldings can add formality to a room. Chair and picture rails are practical and attractive additions that define surfaces and set off furnishings. Consult with your designer about appropriate profiles and scales for moldings, since they should reflect not only your tastes but the vintage and quality of the existing home.

Individual lighting fixtures can be surprisingly expensive, yet a few new light fixtures may be the most cost-effective way of “remodeling” a house. Without changing anything else, a new lighting design can add drama, convenience, and character to a house. Certain kinds of fixtures can draw attention to themselves, while others are almost invisible but emphasize other elements. Good light can also make your life in the house more comfortable. (See also The Lighting Designer)

Basement and attic conversions
If you’re going to remodel spaces downstairs, be sure that the space is light and dry enough. Your remodeling dollars won’t be well spent if the first impression people get is of darkness and damp. Sometimes designers can, however, design imaginative solutions to illuminate downstairs spaces, using a mix of natural and artificial light.

If you’re going upstairs, beware of too little headroom. Or of a narrow or steep stairway. If the place is going to feel cramped from day one, consider alternative approaches. Light and ventilation are crucially important, too. Roof windows and dormers can help.

Think about it: Have you ever heard anyone say they have too much closet space? Unless they intrude on other spaces, closets are always improvements.

Other factors
In this era of fax machines and the Web, more than one phone line and plenty of phone jacks are a small but appealing selling point (and a convenience while you’re in residence). Modest landscaping involving shrubs, trees, foundation plantings, stonework, or small perennial beds almost always pay for themselves. Faux building materials like vinyl siding and fake brick make a house look plastic.

Keep in mind the delicate balance between what you want and what the next owner will need. That tension can sometimes be a tie-breaker in the decision­ making process.

Another way to save money may be to use architectural salvage.

Drawing and Measuring Your Home

When it comes to architectural renderings, make a few preliminary sketches yourself and leave the finished drawings to the professionals.

Drawing and Measuring Your Home

When it comes to architectural renderings, I have two recommendations: First, make a few preliminary sketches yourself and, second, leave the finished drawings to the professionals. This isn’t as paradoxical a strategy as it sounds. For a complete novice, making simple drawings can be easy and the benefits great. After a couple of hours spent measuring your house and rendering the spaces on a few sheets of graph paper, I guarantee you’ll have a better understanding of the place.

Now, though, it’s time to sharpen your pencils….

The key drawing is the floor plan. To draw one, you’ll need two tape measures, one 50 feet long and another that’s 16 feet in length. (If you don’t own two such tapes, they’re good investments. Inexpensive tapes can be bought for less than ten dollars each and will be handy later, too, when you’re monitoring construction progress, laying out a garden, doing home repairs, whatever).

For the beginning draftsman, quarter-inch graph paper makes the drawing job immensely easier. During this measuring and preliminary sketching stage, you don’t have to worry about rulers and square comers. You can rely on the grid to keep you from getting too far off.

Start with a single room. Begin by drawing a rough approximation of its shape on your graph paper. Be sure to mark off all the fixed elements, including windows, doors, built-ins, radiators, fireplaces, and appliances.

Starting at the comers, measure the overall length and width of the room. The measurements should be from wall to wall, not molding to molding. Don’t worry about eighths and sixteenths of an inch—round off dimensions to the nearest half inch.

Record the measurements on your sketch. Having a helper will save you time. The second person can not only hold the end of the tape but can write while you call out measurements.

Next measure the distances between the elements. Note those measure­ments on your drawing, too. Now, look again at what you have: Did you miss any­thing? And check your work: Add the shorter distances along one wall to be sure their sum is equal to the overall length. If the numbers don’t add up, go back and measure again.

On a fresh piece of graph paper, start anew. This time iden­tify the longest dimension and determine the largest scale you can use to fit the room onto the sheet. Depending upon the room’s size, the scale might be four quarter- inch-squares per foot, meaning 1 inch of the drawing represents 1 foot of the actual dimension of the room. That would allow a small bathroom of about 7 feet by 10 feet to fit comfortably onto a sheet of paper. Two squares to the foot would allow for a room that’s roughly 15 by 20 feet, and so on.

Plot the outside dimensions of the room first. Next locate the openings, the doors and windows. Put the interior wall thicknesses in, too (they’re easiest to mea­sure at the doorways).

Locate the other fixed elements.

Now that you have a basic plan, you can experiment. I find making little scale models of couches, tables, chairs, and other elements helps in thinking about what you have and what you want to change. Position them in order to see what works for you. In the case of a kitchen renovation, for example, it’s a sim­ple matter to photocopy your basic plan and then vary it with different configura­tions. You can make the room bigger. You can add an L. Or blow out a wall. How about eliminating a closet? Or combining the dining room and kitchen?

One discovery you may make when you draw a room is that your dreams are bigger than the reality. Often spaces that seem large enough to accommodate mixed uses are not, and it’s suddenly apparent when you draw in that new kitchen island, breakfast nook, and pantry. They won’t all fit. That’s one of the purposes of such drawing: You are continuing to educate yourself about your spaces and what you can reasonably expect.

Once you’ve drawn one room, adding others is more of the same.

These drawings won’t make you an artist or designer. Having made them, however, will prove a tremendous advantage as you try to identify for the design pro­fessional or contractor you hire what it is you want and expect. These drawings are a first step toward describing in visual terms what you want to do.

Most architectural firms these days rely on computer-assisted-drawing (CAD) programs. Consumer versions of such software are available from a number of different publishers. Will they save you time in mak­ing basic drawings? If you’re computer literate and adept with a mouse then, yes, probably, the investment of time and money (roughly $50 for a basic program) makes sense because, in the end, you’ll be able to do additional drawings quickly and move on to other sorts of drafting tasks, too. On the other hand, if you don’t often venture into cyberland, it’ll probably take a fair amount of practice and experimentation to execute even a simple drawing. It’s your call.

Complying with the Code

Though building codes vary by state and municipality and can be difficult to pin down, contractors and DIYers involved in major projects must heed the letter of the law.

Building Codes


A building code is a collection of regulations regarding building construction that is intended to ensure public safety. Not all codes are identical, however, as they vary from one jurisdiction to another. There are state codes, city codes, and town codes, and more than one may apply to your job. Although the contractors you hire will assume the responsibility for meeting code specifications, a rudimentary knowledge of building codes may be useful as you consider your renovation. Among the restrictions that may concern you are these:

Ceiling Height
The standard is for a minimum of 7 feet, 6 inches for habitable areas. Exceptions may be made for kitchenettes, bathrooms, and cellar conversions. Keep this in mind, particularly if you’re converting existing space in the attic or basement.

According to most codes, a room is not a room unless it has a win­dow. This applies consistently to bedrooms, living rooms, and dining rooms, although in some places bathrooms and kitchens may be deemed habitable if they have ade­quate mechanical ventilation. In some municipalities, no room that is below grade is classifiable as a habitable space.

The requirements for stairways typically specify a minimum overall width. The treads must not be too shallow (from the nosing at the front to the junc­tion with the riser at the rear); the risers should be of consistent height and not too tall. Angled treads called winders (they’re shaped like slices of pie and are often used when a stairway changes direction) may be prohibited except on secondary staircases. The rules on railings specify height, strength, and location. If you are converting existing space in an attic or basement, the code may require that you substantially rebuild original stairs that are inadequate or that you add a second run of stairs.

Fireplaces, Chimneys, and Woodstoves
Most codes specify a clearance of 2 inches between the wood frame and all ele­ments of a masonry mass. New chimneys must be lined, either with clay tile or steel, and be of a specified height with relation to the peak of the roof. Spark protectors may be required at the cap of the chimney; dampers may be specified at the throat. The outer hearth of the fireplace must extend a minimum of 16 inches in front of the firebox; on either side, there must be a clear­ance of at least 6 inches between the firebox and any flammable materials. The fire­box may have to be built with fire brick. Woodstoves must meet similar installation criteria regarding fireproof materials and clearances.

Electrical Codes
The electrical code is a discipline unto itself and, again, it varies considerably from one jurisdiction to another. Some codes require all wires in the walls be sheathed in armored metallic cable; most permit the use of nonmetal sheathed cable. The gauge of the wire must be suited to the load at one end and to the fuse or circuit breaker at the other; thus, a kitchen circuit with several wall recep­tacles (outlets) will be wired with 12 gauge wire and a 20 ampere breaker or fuse.

In new construction, there are requirements regarding the number and location of receptacles, indoors and out; the gauge and type of wire used in different applica­tions; whether electrical boxes can be plastic or galvanized metal; and so on. All receptacles must be grounded (a safety feature that directs any wayward electrical current that results from an electrical malfunction to the ground rather than through you; the third prong on a plug is there for that purpose). Most codes also require ground-fault interrupters on bathroom, kitchen, and exterior receptacles (GFIs are safety devices that function as secondary fuses and will, in the event of a fault in the ground, shut off power to the outlet and prevent electrical shock). The bottom line? Even if local ordinances don’t require it, hire a licensed electrician to do the wiring required on your job. In any case, many codes require that you do so.

Plumbing Codes
Given the variety of needs in a modern house, plumbing codes, too, tend to be complex. And variable, as well, since some municipalities prohibit the use of plastic pipe, others permit it. Some allow it to be used for waste lines only, some for supply lines as well. Lead solder is forbidden for joining copper pipes in some places; in others, it’s permitted.

Even after you’ve established what’s acceptable in your area, the language of plumbing can be mind-numbing. There’s PVC, ABS, and PB plastic pipe; metal pipes may be copper, brass, black iron, cast iron, or galvanized steel. The fittings that join the pieces together range from couplings and caps to tees and street ells to elbows and nipples. There are unions, Ys, P-traps, straps, and clamps. And that’s even before you get into fixtures and faucets and their miscellaneous parts. As with electrical work, major plumbing is best left to the licensed professionals. With HVAC plumb­ing, wiring, and ductwork? Again, I’d recommend you consult with the pros.

Fire Codes
Fire codes also tend to be long and complicated, specifying the use of noncombustible materials on the roof, furnace area, and partition walls between an attached garage and the home. Some codes prohibit the use of certain plastic prod­ucts because they give off toxic fumes when burned; others require that rigid insu­lation be covered by a noncombustible surface for the same reason. Then there are fire-stop requirements in wood-framed structures, meaning strips of wood must be placed in wall bays between stories and between joists where they pass over parti­tions to prevent the spread of fire. Smoke alarms are virtually universal today.

The Letter and the Spirt of the Law
Elements of older houses often don’t meet current code requirements, having been built before the code was writ­ten or enforced. If that is so in your house, you may want to bring into compliance conditions that are dangerous and out-of-date.

Yet that isn’t always necessary or appropriate, as most codes, by necessity, take a one-size-fits-all approach. So, for example, antique fireplaces and stairways often don’t meet code. Old wooden exterior doors may also fall short. When it comes to existing work that is not demonstrably dangerous, however, only an overzealous building inspector will demand that changes be made. If the code officer asks for changes that you think are unnecessary or would detract from the historic character of your house, explain why you are reluctant to make the change. Or try to reach a compromise. There may be an appeal process as well. Good old work is worth fight­ing for if there’s no issue of safety but merely a desire by the code officer to enforce the building code.

To Hire or Not to Hire an Architect or Designer

Strange as it may seem, having an architect or designer is usu­ally more important on a renovation job than for new construction.


If know what I want, why do I need a designer at all?
Perhaps you don’t. But understand that, strange as it may seem, having an architect or designer is usu­ally more important on a renovation job than for new construction. Countless plans exist for new houses—but no two renovations are alike. Your needs and require­ments are site-specific and you can’t just go out and buy a set of ready-made plans. And you will need plans.

Unless your remodeling is confined to cosmetics, you will need a building per­mit. Before issuing one, most municipalities require that you submit plans to the code officer. National, state, and local codes require close adherence to regulations regarding wiring, plumbing, structure, and even rubbish disposal. If you are planning on seeking a loan to underwrite a major renovation, your bank may also want to see professionally prepared blueprints. The detailed listing of materials that designers prepare are also necessary for getting accurate cost estimates.

In short, whether you draft them or someone else does, you’ll probably need plans.

Do I need an architect or a designer?
Most architects happily identify themselves as designers; on the other hand, a self-described designer usually is not an architect. Because they perform basically the same role in a typical remodeling job, I use the terms “architect” and “designer” more or less interchangeably in this book. However, most architects are licensed and have more academic training and professional experience (See The Architect versus the Designer).

Can’t I just hire a contractor and work out the design with him?
Well, you certainly could. People do it all the time. Many experienced contractors are as well equipped to deal with a simple remodeling as an architect. Some have established relation­ships with local code officers so the red tape is minimal. However, if you have some special needs or your house has some peculiarities, you may want to draw upon the design skill and training of a professional designer.

Some builders are quite good designers, but most are not. Though designers and builders often work closely together, the nature of what they do is fundamen­tally different. Architects and designers specialize in the abstract, in conceiving suitable configurations, shapes, and spaces. Builders are concerned with the con­crete details of materials and fasteners and with the physical work of construction. The architect is a big-picture person, responsible for envisioning the whole. It is the carpenter’s and the other tradesmen’s jobs to be concerned with the individual parts.

In a sense, asking a builder to be your architect is like expecting an actor to write the play in which he is to perform. Certainly some actors are playwrights, and some builders are fine designers. More often, however, the disparate talents of the designer and builder are found in different people.

Can’t I do the design myself?
If you have design skills, that’s another option. But are you sure that you know enough to do the job? The simplest definition of “design skills” is that you have had the training to execute drawings that are clear and com­plete enough for the inspector, carpenter, and other contractors to follow. But that’s a bare minimum.

A good designer also has a working knowledge of ergonomics (human engineering), local building codes, materials, and costs, plus at least a modicum of design sense. That’s an intangible. It’s the ability to take a practical design problem and devise a solution that is both functional and aesthetically satisfying. If your design skills are such that you can draw the plans but aren’t so sure you can bring a mix of vision and critical distance to the assignment, getting a pro is probably a good idea.

I’m planning to do the work myself, so why can’t I design it myself?
Again, you prob­ably can. However, in most communities there are design requirements for significant renovation jobs. This won’t apply to work that involves no more than repainting, new countertops, or other minor work, but for remodeling jobs that cost more than a certain sum, or that involve rewiring or new foundation work, the requirements are more rigorous. Which brings us full circle: You’ll probably be required to submit plans that bear the stamp of a licensed architect or engineer. Such regulations were estab­lished for your protection, as well as that of your neighbors. The experts can help ensure that the work done at your house is consistent with fire and electrical codes and is structurally sound.

What are the other benefits of having a designer or architect on my team?
Architects and designers cost money … but they can also save you money. In the short term, the savings may be reflected in more informed purchasing of materials and labor, as designers or architects may be familiar with economical solutions.

In the course of the job, there are fewer change orders when a design has been thought through thoroughly, and that is the essence of the designer’s job. An architect will begin by asking many questions to elicit as much information from you as possible. This time spent in working through the design to anticipate problems can help avoid the need to make changes during construction that are invariably more expensive. A designer or architect may also help avoid code violations.

In the long term, good design work is as important to the resale value of your house as structural matters. If fact, you will cost yourself money in the future if you remodel your house (or “remuddle” it) by violating the integrity of the house’s origi­nal design or even if you simply make the sort of small mistakes that often occur in the absence of a good designer. Examples of such mistakes are doors that open into other doors; mixed up window shapes that seem fine from inside but look all out of proportion from outside; ideas adapted from magazines that looked just right in their original settings but seem grossly out of place in your house

Perhaps the most important advantage of a skilled designer or architect? While the mere presence of one on your team won’t guarantee a better finished product, the odds are greater that it will be well thought out. Often remodelings that were done without design help telegraph to the visitor, No designer or architect worked here.

Successful spaces are the result of good planning. Effective use of light, whether it’s through intelligent fenestration or artificial illumination, helps, too. So does the right mix of materials, textures, and colors. The good architect/designer comes to every assignment with a body of experience, design training, and, perhaps most important, an open mind and a fresh eye. With luck, he or she will leave you with a satisfying living space that meets your needs and expectations.

While the mere presence of one on your team won’t guarantee a better finished product, the odds are greater that it will be well thought out. Often remodelings that were done without design help telegraph to the visitor, No designer or architect worked here.

Successful spaces are the result of good planning. Effective use of light, whether it’s through intelligent fenestration or artificial illumination, helps, too. So does the right mix of materials, textures, and colors. The good architect/designer comes to every assignment with a body of experience, design training, and, perhaps most important, an open mind and a fresh eye. With luck, he or she will leave you with a satisfying living space that meets your needs and expectations.