Get More Space by Staying in Place

July 13, 2011 | Comments Off on Get More Space by Staying in Place

You can create the space you need in your home without the cost and hassle of adding on.

By Pat Mertz Esswein of Kiplinger’s

    Stay in place, get more space (© Blend Images/SuperStock)

Need a bigger kitchen, another bedroom or space for a playroom or home office? Your first thought may be to add on, but that can be a costly solution. Even if local zoning requirements for setbacks and lot coverage allow it, adding on is expensive. And construction costs soar any time you build a new foundation and break through a home’s exterior.

Architect Sarah Susanka, co-author with Marc Vassallo of “Not-So-Big Remodeling,” says that most homeowners will discover the space they need within their home’s existing footprint — a less expensive and greener alternative. She helps readers assess their needs and their home’s problems and suggests possible solutions with illustrated case studies drawn from her own and other architects’ experience.

Susanka admits to her own bias but says it’s imperative to hire an architect or an interior designer (if you’re not moving walls) to help you through the design process. Going straight to a well-meaning builder or remodeler might save money upfront, but it could cost you at resale if the resulting proportions are wrong or the layout inconvenient. To find design and building professionals who subscribe to Susanka’s “not so big” approach, visit

Before starting a project, Susanka urges clients to declutter so they can better see how much space they actually have. She also recommends an energy audit so that you can fold energy-efficient improvements into the project. Remodeling always turns up surprises, so set aside a contingency fund in your budget. And because your home will become a construction site — albeit a modest one — it’s smart to move off-site if you can. 

Problem: You want your kitchen to serve multiple purposes, but it’s too small and cramped to accomplish that efficiently. Plus, the cook doesn’t want family and guests to be underfoot but doesn’t want to be cut off from them, either.

Solution: Look at any adjacent space that you could reallocate to the kitchen, including part of a large room, such as a living room or family room; a rarely used formal dining room; a smaller, functional space, such as a powder room, pantry or closet that you could relocate; or a hallway or foyer that is wider or larger than necessary.

In this example: Architect Sophie Piesse joined a kitchen and dining room by breaking down the wall between them. The wall between the rooms wasn’t load-bearing, so it didn’t need a beam in its place. (Before knocking out a wall, seek the opinion of a builder or structural engineer.) Piesse placed columns at the end of the new peninsula to define the cooking and dining areas a strategy that paradoxically makes the room look bigger than if every trace of a wall were removed, Susanka says.

Cost of example: $40,000 (including structural framing, insulation and drywall, windows and flooring, custom cabinets, tile work and other detailing and new appliances).

Tip: If you must give up some cabinets to break through a wall, think about building a 10-inch-deep pantry along a hallway or walkway in or near your kitchen.

Reclaim the basement

Problem: Basements often become “dungeonlike tombs for unwanted junk,” replete with structural obstacles such as columns, ductwork, plumbing and wiring, Susanka says.

Solution: Remove the obstacles or, if you can’t, account for them in your design and turn them into assets. To ensure that you get maximum enjoyment from the space and increase its resale value, use finishes similar to those upstairs, instead of lesser-grade ones.

In this example: Seattle builder Paul Vassallo and his wife, Jeremy, turned their basement into a rainy-weather haven for their boys. In order to remove columns that chopped up the space, Vassallo reworked supports for a main beam (in effect, making it into an I-beam) and trimmed it to look like a thick wood beam. Vassallo hid ductwork between floor joists and behind a valance above new, built-in cabinets that take advantage of the basement’s existing contours. A narrow ledge in the foundation wall became a display shelf, while a wide portion of the wall houses kid-size cubbies. Ample and varied lighting makes up for the lack of daylight.

Cost of example: $65,000 (including installation of a new furnace and relocation of the hot-water tank to a new closet; audio system and wiring; sound insulation; shelving, doors and trim; and carpeting and paint).

Tip: If your basement lacks headroom or a floor slab or has moisture issues, call in a professional to help you determine whether it’s possible to reclaim the space and, if so, at what cost.

Create another bedroom

Problem: The birth of a child or a newly blended family prompts the need for more sleeping space, or kids outgrow sharing a room.

Solution: Repurpose a room elsewhere in the house, or divide an existing bedroom in two. The international residential code allows a bedroom to be as small as 70 to 90 square feet of open floor area (local codes may vary), but anything less than 100 square feet will feel too small to most Americans, Susanka says.

One example: Architect Elaine Gallagher Adams helped homeowners remodel their attic, creating separate bedrooms for the kids and making the parents’ room more functional. Rather than “popping the top” — that is, rebuilding the entire second floor to full height — the homeowners raised a 12-by-24-foot area at the rear of the attic to accommodate the kids’ bedrooms. In the parents’ room, Adams took advantage of the roof’s original profile to create a bed alcove and space under the eaves to install bookcases, drawers and other storage.

Cost of example: $55,000 (including restoration of the original windows and new windows on the new wall; installing a split-system air conditioner; extending the heating system; and installing new wood floors and built-in cabinets).






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