Category: Managing Construction

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.

The Architect Versus the Designer

Note these differences between architects and designers.

Architects vs. Designers


You will probably have a choice when you look for someone to help design your remodeling project. The most likely candidates will be architects or designer-draftsmen.

The architect
Architects are licensed by your state. Typically, an architect has passed a licensing examination, has at least a bachelor’s degree in architecture, and has spent three years working in an architect’s office. A registered architect must take legal responsibility for his or her work.

The architect’s formal training involves a varied and complex curriculum. Courses such as strength of materials are just as important as those in design. The architect must know not only how materials look, but how they are used. As a result, he or she should be able to advise you on what materials distinctions really mean (e.g., hardwood versus softwood floors, porcelain-iron or fiberglass bathtubs, etc.) and devise appropriate solutions to the sorts of challenges remodeling older structures often present. The architect can help engineer structural changes, too.

The designer-draftsman
There are no licensing requirements for designers in most states. Theoretically, anyone could hang a shingle out tomorrow and call himself a designer. As a result, it is doubly important that you thoroughly establish the experience and proven abilities of a designer before making your hiring decision.

As a rule, home designers are less expensive than fully trained and licensed architects. But many specialize in certain kinds of work and bring much practical experience to certain tasks. Kitchen designers, for example, design nothing but kitchens; space planners often do commercial, office, or retail spaces.

Other candidates
Your carpenter can also be your designer. For a kitchen renovation, you may find a design consultant at your disposal at one of the “big box” houseware stores. Some of them can very efficiently slot their own cabinets and fittings into a software program and redesign an existing space. You may find plans for similar renovations in books, magazines, and other sources that, in collaboration with your carpenter, you can copy. Yet in many of these cases, too, you’d be better off paying for a few hours of design time to make sure the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

I need to add, however, that degrees and titles rarely tell the whole story. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about highly trained but incompetent architects. On the other hand, one of the best remodeling designers I know is a sometime contractor who, having immersed himself in historic architecture and long acted as an intermediary between clients and architects, finally threw up his hands and said, Hey, I can do that better than those guys can! And he does.

Find a designer you can afford, whose skills are in proportion to the job you want done, and with a style that suits yours.

What Kind of Design Help Do I Need?

While all designers should have each of these skills in some measure, not all designers are alike.


A designer must be both creative and pragmatic. He or she must have an artist’s eye for shapes and color. The designer must be able to envision the space being designed, and to anticipate the traffic patterns, airflow, and seasonal changes. In addition, the architect or designer needs to know the rules and regulations to be met in a given jurisdiction and have an accountant’s expertise for balancing budgets. As if that were not enough, the designer must also conceive a design that suits the sub­jective tastes of the client.

While all designers should have each of these skills in some measure, not all designers are alike. Some have a great deal of design training, others have relatively little. Some are especially expert at solving complicated structural problems; others are more adept at devising decorative solutions. What kind of professional do you require? Must your designer be a fully licensed architect? Or will an experienced draftsman suffice? That depends upon the job and the experience of the designer. Consider the following questions:

How complex is the job?
In deciding which professional you need, a key considera­tion is the complexity of your renovation. One that involves structural change should be reviewed by a licensed architect or engineer who has been trained to resolve the special problems presented by removing beams, opening up cathedral ceilings, or otherwise changing the skeleton of the building and thereby shifting the loads it must bear. Architects and designers alike consult structural engineers when the going gets complicated, but if you are thinking of using a designer-draftsman, inquire whether he will consult an engineer if your design involves out-of-the-ordinary or outsize shapes.

How much design help do you really need?
For small jobs, design help may be an unnecessary luxury. An experienced carpenter who has done dozens of similar jobs may have the necessary design skills to see you through a wide range of basic remodeling.

On the other hand, a good architect or designer has design experience to draw upon. When you look at a rabbit warren of tiny upstairs bedrooms in the old house you just bought, you may understand intellectually that there are many possi­bilities there. But the professional may see immediately that the addition of a dormer here, the removal of a wall there, and presto, in his very mind’s eye, a brightly lit stu­dio appears. To you, there are possibilities you can’t quite see; to the architect, it’s a matter of developing a clear image that can be put on paper. Then you get to review the possibilities.

The bottom line? If your project is very straightforward and requires essen­tially no imaginative brainstorming, you may be quite satisfied with the standard structure your contractor offers to build for you. But if you want something out of the ordinary, you need a professional to guide you in the design of your new house or addition. And sometimes design professionals pay for themselves simply by helping you avoid costly mistakes and assuring that you get what you want… not what you think you want.

On the other hand, if you are hiring an architect to supervise a contractor so you can be confident the job is being done just right, what you really need is a “con­struction manager.”

How Much Will a Designer Cost?

Follow this advice and stay informed when settling designing costs.

Home Design Costs

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The title “architect” conjures up in many people’s minds fancy designer houses, monumental homes out of the pages of Architectural Digest. And, yes, it’s true, people with a great deal of money often hire architects. But it isn’t true that you have to be rich to afford an architect or designer.

The designer/architect is paid to perform several different tasks. You will be paying the designer to learn your house, your needs, and to develop a program for your renovation; for him or her to execute preliminary drawings for your review; and then to execute finished drawings once you are happy with the approach. The last part described is roughly half the job, the first two parts something like a quarter each. Should you hire your architect to supervise construction, that may increase the fee another 15 or 20 percent.

Design fees vary tremendously but there is a logic remodeling a modest kitchen, say, will cost less than designing a large addition. The way fees are calcu­lated varies, too, but most designers will work for a fixed design fee, a percentage of construction, or bill on a per-hour basis.

The fixed fee is just what the name suggests, an arrangement in which the architect and the client agree to a single price for the job. They also agree on what the job is so if there is a significant change from the original agreement (say, the addition doubles in size or budget), then the fee may be renegotiated. Otherwise, the fee agreed upon on day one should be the fee the client pays.

The fee will be a percent­age of the total construction cost, generally 10 to 15 percent in residential construction. The greater the cost of construction, the lower the fee percentage should be.

The key word here is budgeted. The implication is that if you determine before breaking ground that the total cost is to be, say, $25,000, then it is the archi­tect’s job to complete the construction for $25,000, and his percentage will be of that sum. However, if the job ends up costing $35,000, there is no reason why he should be rewarded by being paid the same percentage of the higher cost, especially if he has been in charge of the process from the start. (One exception would be, however, where the cost overrun was the result of the client making changes and adjustments well into the process. In such cases, it is reasonable for the architect to expect addi­tional payment for his additional services.)

Whatever the method of payment, the designer will want, as mentioned above, the bulk of his fee upon completion of the plans. If you do not plan to involve him in the supervision of the project, he’ll want it all. After all, whether the designer is to be at your side throughout the process or not, he will have done the bulk of his job by the time the finished drawings are completed.

This is perhaps the most common approach in renovation or remod­eling jobs. At your first meeting, you agree to an hourly rate; depending upon the experience of the designer, fees may range from $50 an hour to many times that. If the price is too high, finding a less expensive designer is one answer, though many architects charge a lesser rate for the time spent by draftsmen employed in their offices.

If you opt for this arrangement, consider writing two safeguards into your understanding. First, negotiate an “upset price.” You and the architect agree on a maximum fee; further, you agree on an hourly rate. Then he keeps track of the hours required to complete the job. If his hourly wages are less than the upset price, you pay the lower sum, but if they are more, that’s his problem. You do not pay any more than the ceiling (the upset price) you agreed upon at the start.

The other safeguard (not only for this agreement, but for any agreement) is a clearly stated payment schedule. You should agree to pay the architect for performance. Perhaps a small payment is due upon signing the contract, another on acceptance of the preliminary sketches, and so on. In this way, the architect gets paid as he works, but you also know exactly what you are paying for.

It is common for architects to bill separately for extra expenses. These include reproduction costs (photocopying of blueprints), which shouldn’t be more than a few hundred dollars and, for a modest remodeling job, much less. There may be a fee for the services of a specially trained structural or professional engineer, if required (an unusual design configuration or an addition to an older home that requires the existing structure to bear some of its weight are two circumstances that might call for such a consultation).

The prices for engineering services vary greatly, so be sure your architect gives you an estimate up front. Another cost would be to prepare a survey that indicates the boundaries or contours or other aspect of your property; this might be required if you are putting on an addition. As with engineer­ing fees, get an estimated cost from your architect for such a survey before it’s done.