Read an Excerpt
A Plan to Live With
Want to fix up your home? Begin with the basics, in the form of an overall scheme.
My friends Shirley and Jason have the perfect house, but if you asked me to pinpoint what it is I love about it, it would be hard to describe. Is it a mansion? No. Is it furnished to look like some nineteenth-century museum? No. Does it have all the coolest gadgets and twenty-first-century styling you see in magazines? Hardly.
What it does have is class and comfort. It's the sort of place I could stop by with my wife and our four kids and spend the afternoon--without worrying about filing an insurance claim in the aftermath. Yet it's extremely beautiful, in that casual sort of way that makes you feel at home. The house is well built, which is evident to me, but its gracefulness is obvious to anyone who sets foot inside. There's a logical floor plan, beginning right at the entryway. The kids are able to run upstairs to their rooms, or downstairs to the play area. The living room is off the entryway, and connects to the kitchen in the rear. The dining room is also off the entryway, and connects to the kitchen from the other side. In addition, a short hallway leads directly to the kitchen, so you can carry groceries straight to it without tripping over the dinner guests in the dining room, or Aunt Susie holding court in the living room. A floor plan like this works beautifully because there are no "dead ends" to get stuck in. The house feels roomier and more private, because it allows people to choose their own routes to get from one place to another. Beyond this, there's a unity to how the house looks. It's a grand brick Georgian on the outside, butthis alone does not guarantee grandeur on the inside. After all, I have been in more than a few of these that have a layout that has been chopped and diced into so many separate little rooms it looks as though it's been through the Cuisinart.
We often wonder where to put our money in a renovation in order to come up with a better home. I always argue in favor of beginning with the major systems such as the plumbing and electric, as well as the bathrooms and kitchen. This does leave the rest of the house when all that is finished, however. Fortunately, the work here can usually be accomplished for a fraction of the cost of these other areas. Beyond paint, an interior can sometimes be transformed just by the addition of a passageway from one room to another, or from a careful refinishing and restoration of the floors, walls, and woodwork. In other cases, the solution lies in a full-scale addition, which has the power to transform a house to an even larger degree. This is the costliest way to go, to be sure, and it also requires an understanding of the home's basic layout. Otherwise, the addition risks becoming one more room added to the chaos.
To help you change the way your home works for you, let's focus on how to design an overall renovation plan, as well as to develop an effective strategy for working with the contractors who will help bring it to reality.
Who Lives in These Rooms?
I worked on a house some years ago in a tony area of Chicago, which to me epitomized everything that's wrong with many of the homes we live in. While I was remodeling the basement into a children's playroom, I had to walk right by the living room, and couldn't help noticing it in all its pristine glory. It had beautiful white carpeting, so plush that walking on it would feel like wading through whipped cream. Amazingly, in a house with three children under five, there was not a single footprint on the carpeting. I'm sure even the cleaning people vacuumed their way out of the place, just to preserve that showroom look. I commented on how gorgeous the room looked, and the homeowner agreed. "Yeah, but we never use it," he said. "We just look at it."
I did have to wonder, what's the point? If all you're going to do is look at a room, why not hang a painting of a beautiful room on the wall and spare yourself the effort? Why invest all that time and money in a room that you have no intention of ever using? Instead, the goal should be that the rooms in your house are yours to live in, not just to showcase and preserve for posterity or the occasional guest. If you use a formal living room regularly, wonderful. Create one that's as lavish as you want. But if not, then take a real look at how you live, and go from there. Need a larger family room? Colonize the living room. Need a place for the toys and the computers and the home office? Find a place that works for you, without trying to match your collection of rooms to some standard that you think exists.
The American home has evolved greatly over the years, in keeping with the lifestyle of the times. In the Colonial era, for instance, the rooms had great flow, with little more than a kitchen and a large gathering room where everyone huddled together against the elements. There couldn't be a simpler floor plan, yet it exactly served its purpose. As lives became more complicated, so did the typical floor plan. By the middle of the twentieth century, we added living rooms, family rooms, dens, and TV rooms, and before we knew it the house was a warren of little rooms with no real overall plan. For a while, we tried to unify them, most notably with the concept of a Great Room in the 1970s. This was intended to be one giant room that would contain the kitchen as well as the living spaces--harking back to Colonial simplicity--but it had one giant flaw: It tried to bring too many incompatible tasks under one ceiling. After all, who wants to have a conversation or watch TV with all that pot-banging and dishwashing going on? And who wants to have to clean up every dish all the time, just so the place looks presentable if anyone stops by? Clearly, the Great Room was little more than a Great Blunder.
I'd advocate a different approach today. And that is, instead of focusing on individual rooms or trying to bring everything together into one giant room, it's better to take a broader look at how the whole house functions. Obviously, certain rooms have their dedicated purposes. You cook in the kitchen, you bathe in the bathroom, and you can't do these activities anywhere else in the house. But as far as the rest of the rooms in your house, anything can go. Take the bedrooms, for instance. Sure, we sleep in them. But they also become the children's play and study areas, and a place for parents to climb into bed and read stories. Or take the master bedroom. We sleep here, of course, but who doesn't treasure a few stolen hours on a Sunday afternoon, to stretch out with the newspaper or maybe tune into a movie or a ballgame? Perhaps you have a home office in your bedroom, as well, where you come home after a busy day of work and spend a couple of hours getting a head start on the next day.
The point is, rooms have taken on a multifunctional purpose that they never have before. In this, they reflect our own lives. After all, we're expected to be everything--from parents, and workers, and friends, to the occasional romantic date for our spouses or significant others. Our rooms need to work just as hard. With this in mind, it's possible to work to bring the whole house together the way you want it to be, rather than have it dictated by the labels we give to various rooms, or by the pictures we see in house magazines. Reclaiming your house to use it the way you live is the ultimate goal. Why go through all the work of renovating and decorating, simply to end up having to put "hands-off" signs on everything? In my own house, while I try to keep my kids from taking grape juice and cookies into the living room, it happens--and the room is set up to accommodate that. My neighbor Kathy just remodeled the first floor of her home, which included eliminating the formal dining room in favor of a much-needed family room that connects to the eat-in kitchen. Recognizing how you live, not how you think you should live, is the first step in knowing how to renovate your house.
In terms of decor, the fabrics and the furniture that we choose should all make sense and give us the ability to clean a place up as we use it. We have enough stress in our lives, why compound it by creating rooms that need special protection? Back in the '50s, this was accomplished by wrapping the furniture entirely in plastic. It's a laughable concept today because of the sheer tackiness, but we often do the equivalent to our whole houses, by creating rooms that can't really be lived in. Instead, let's think beyond the plastic wrapping--whether literal or metaphorical--and come up with rooms and surfaces that don't need such coddling.
One home where I saw this practice at work was in a large condo that an older couple had bought. The luxurious place had four bedrooms, one of which was theirs, one was a guestroom, and one was a home office. The other was empty, but perfectly decorated with new blinds and fresh carpeting, as if it was a project waiting to happen. "What's this room?" I asked. "Oh, that's our 'God Forbid' room," said the woman. "God forbid we should ever need someone to move in here and take care of us, we'll be ready for it." The room gave them peace of mind, knowing that they could look to the future with ease.
That's the sort of planning that makes sense for us all, whether you're retired or just starting a family or anywhere in between. Making your rooms serve you, rather you serving them, is the ultimate goal.
Go with the Flow
My wife, Mary Beth, is not an architect, but she does have a good sense of how a house feels. Sometimes, if we've been to a place, she'll say that she liked it, but that it felt "choppy" inside.
It's true; there is something unsettling about a house where you enter one room, then have to back out of it to leave. A simple task such as finding the kitchen or the bathroom becomes an exercise in discovery and perseverance, like finding your way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth. What's remarkable is that this chopped-up floor plan seems to transcend architectural style. You can find old houses set up this way, as well as new ones. And if you don't already have one, it's all too easy to create one yourself, by going ahead with a botched renovation or an ill-planned addition. This brings me to one simple element that is the hallmark of a great house. It is not style, nor is it architecture. It has nothing to do with the size of the home or the size of your budget. I can sum it up in two words: circu-lar flow. In a comfortable home, rooms flow from one to another. You walk in one room and out another, rather than bumping into a dead end and having to travel back again.
One of my pet peeves is houses where you have to walk through the living room or the dining room to get into the kitchen; this is the style of the old "shotgun" style or "railroad" apartments, so named because the rooms are connected like cars on a train. The result is claustrophobic. I'm a true believer in a hallway or some type of division to show how to get there. This can be accomplished in even the smallest house, as I discovered a few years ago while renovating a tiny American Foursquare, a style of home that was popular a century ago. While I loved the house, I didn't like that you had to walk through the living room and the dining room to get into the kitchen. Worse, when you stepped in through the front door you landed right in the middle of the living room. There was no way to build a full-scale addition, but there were ways to compensate for these shortcomings fairly cheaply. I was able to build out and create a small 6-by-8-foot entryway to create a better landing area. One opening led to the living room, and I was able to create a second opening that led right into the kitchen. The awkward floor plan was solved.
At the same time, I found a way to make some important changes in the combined living room and the dining room. As they existed, the two rooms were a muddle with no real distinction between them other than the furniture. The couch was on the living room side, along with the coffee table and TV set; the dining room table was on the other side. That's how you knew where you were. Instead, it was possible to better define these spaces with some simple additions, rather than partitioning them with a solid wall. Across the ceiling I built a thin soffit, which looked like a finished beam to mark the separation between the two rooms without building a wall. At each end of the soffit I added a pair of architectural columns, which stood about 6 inches away from the wall. The columns and the archway probably cost all of $300 in materials, but they added a great deal more in terms of defining the floor plan and making the rooms seem better planned. These are the sorts of changes you can make that greatly improve your home's livability, without costing a fortune.
Putting It Together
Okay, so you have a plan--now who do you get to do all the work? Unless you're planning on nothing more than some simple painting, a room renovation likely will involve working with a contractor. As everyone who has ever owned a home well knows, this sounds much easier than it actually is. There are the expected aggravations to manage such as delays and cost overruns. Then there are the unexpected ones, such as shoddy workmanship and even criminal billing practices. Being a contractor myself, I can offer a few insights into the Byzantine world of contracting that may help you better manage the process. This will be of use whether you're working on one room or attempting a whole-house makeover.