Home Renovations: Assessing Your Needs

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There are two approaches to the redesignof any apartment or house. One is to start with a list of your functionalneeds and to begin master-plan fling the house around these priorities.The second approach is to study the style and proportions of the houseand to make the preservation of these qualities the major design determinant.This section approaches the redesign strictly from a functional pointof view, whereas Section 3 focuses solely on the style and characterof the building.

Whichever approach you choose, be sure that the other determinant is not neglected.A functional approach need not result in ruining the style of the existing building.Rooms can be reorganized without destroying their original character or detailing.Additions can be constructed that are sympathetic to the existing façade. Conversely,even if your first priority is the preservation or reconstruction of a periodhouse, there is no need to sacrifice space, privacy, and indoor plumbing. Unlessyou are restoring a historic monument to period conditions, much can be doneto integrate functional bathrooms, compatible electrical fixtures, and modernkitchen equipment into a gracious period piece.

The first step a design professional takes in any renovation is an assessmentof a client’s needs and an evaluation of the existing building. An analysisof needs focuses on the spatial, organizational, and life-style requirementsof the people who will occupy the house or apartment. An evaluation of theexisting premises is made in terms of its physical condition, aesthetic potential,historical context, and the size and distribution of its interior spaces. Byfollowing the steps outlined below, a relative stranger (the designer) becomesacquainted with the individuals living in the house or apartment and the potentialitiesof the space that is to be renovated. Although you may be very familiar withboth your needs and the potential of your existing residential space, we suggestyou follow these steps as well. You may find that we cover some points thatyou may have otherwise missed. In addition, we hope to teach you the firstrule of architectural design: com promise.


Some people about to renovate are quite sure of their needs: more closets,a new bedroom, an overhauled kitchen. Many renovators, however, are lesssure of their exact requirements short of knowing that they need more spaceand they want the place to look “better.” We include this section for readerswho wish to follow the redesign process from the beginning. We feel thata careful analysis of your household’s needs (especially in comparison withyour existing space) may be of value and ultimately may save you money.For example, one of our clients saw the need to build an additional fourrooms onto his existing house. He claimed that he needed a gym, a home office,and a practice room to contain his piano and recording equipment. His wife,a writer, needed her own office. The four rooms were to be small and crampedsince the site adjacent to the house was small. Two of the rooms would facethe blank wall of a neighbor’s garage. After questioning the client on howhe was going to use those three rooms, we reminded him that he could occupyonly one of them at a time. We suggested that instead of his three tinyrooms he might be happier with a single large room which would contain gymequipment on one side and the piano and recording equipment on the other.The word processor would be built into a cabinet that could be opened tothe room or closed off from it. The room would be pleasant and airy witha view to the backyard and perhaps a skylight or greenhouse extension. Asan added bonus, his wife’s office would be more generously proportionedthan was originally anticipated (Ill. 1).

If your budget and existing space are tight you will have to seriouslydifferentiate between what are real needs and what are “wish list” items.An audiovisual screening room, a private gym, and a lap pool may be fineif you are renovating a château. On the other hand, if you are redesigninga five-room apartment for your family of four, the private-gym fantasy mayhave to be abandoned and the exercise equipment incorporated into anotherspace.

The design analysis that follows focuses on (1) functional needs—that whichallows us to carry out our household activities efficiently—and (2) aestheticimperatives—that which pleases the eye and enlivens us. Careful and thoughtfulplanning and a good eye for proportion will satisfy these two design categories.

The third ingredient, that which makes a house or apartment into a home,is less tangible than the first two. it's the elusive “something” thatsatisfies our psychological need to feel comfortable and secure. It generatesthe good feeling we get when we return home from a particularly hard dayat work and close the front door behind us. No matter how many times wecross that familiar threshold, the feeling that we are in the embrace ofour own private world should be there; in fact, it should grow more intensewith time. We sleep best in our own bed, in a room with our imprint, surroundedby the pictures we have chosen to hang on the walls.

We feel that the more time, effort, and hard thinking you invest personallyin designing your environment, the happier you will be in it. This doesnot mean necessarily that you should make all design decisions on your own.What we suggest is that you think about the atmosphere you wish to create.A home’s environment should mirror the life style of its inhabitants, theirtastes and sense of style.


An analysis of the way you live should be the starting point of the designprocess.

Private Spaces

Most households consist of individuals who sometimes need to be togetherand sometimes want to be alone. We need to be alone in order to nap, think,study, or have a private telephone conversation. All people, children included,need to withdraw on occasion to put together the events of the day or toponder a decision. The place a person chooses for this private contemplationis a room or area that is felt to be one’s own. The bedroom is the mostlikely candidate. Most people seem to have a particular attachment for theplace where they sleep. Perhaps we shed our inhibitions when we take offour clothes. The bedroom need not be the only bastion of privacy in thehouse. The kitchen, when the rest of the family has deserted it, is anotherchoice; so is the bathroom. Each member should feel that there is at leastone spot in which he or she may be alone and undisturbed.

The private areas of the house are the bed rooms, studies, or home officeswhich are to be used by one or two members but not by everyone. Privatespaces can be large or small, bright or dark, open or closed. Some peopleconsider the bedroom to be their sanctuary to be used to take morning coffee,read the paper, or make early morning calls. Often they retire to theirbedrooms as soon as they finish dinner, toss off their clothes, don theirpajamas, and watch TV or read in bed. Others might use the bedroom minimally.They would prefer to spend most of the time they are awake in the livingroom. It makes sense that these two kinds of bedrooms be designed differently.The former requires a small sitting area as well as room for the bed andTV; the second bed room could be very basic.

Traditionally, individual bedrooms are the only private spaces in a house.Adult privacy is pro vided by the master bedroom, which is larger in areaand has direct access to a private bathroom. The secondary bedrooms becomethe children’s spaces and are generally smaller, sharing a common bathroom.Although this arrangement has proven efficient for many families, it isnot necessarily the model for every family. A household with visiting children,frequent guests, kids away at college, whose foremost concern is flexibility,may be happiest with a large area that can be easily partitioned into anynumber of smaller spaces. This space can be divided in accordance with changingneeds (Ill. 2).

Another family may find that it's essential to separate adult privateand communal areas from the children’s bedrooms and playroom. The adultarea might be a single space that accommodates sleeping, relaxing, working,and grooming in a group of areas. The children may prefer to play and worktogether but don't wish to share bed rooms. Their private space could bea large communal playroom-workroom with small sleeping rooms and bathroomfacilities closely related (Ill. 3).

Other private areas are a painting or music studio, home office, woodworkingshop, sewing or hobby room, personal gym, sauna, and steam-room.

Space can be defined by visual rather than physical boundaries. In thishouse, one space is separated from another by a change in level, ceilingheight, or plane.

This room, which embraces the outdoors, was designed to maximize viewsto the meadows and mountains beyond.


Thus far we have used the terms “room” and “space” almost interchangeably.A “room” is usually defined by physical boundaries such as walls and partitions,doors, floors, and ceilings. A “space” is an area in which a specific activityis likely to take place. For example, an area near the kitchen can be setaside for dining. It need not be a room surrounded by walls. It could bea corner of the living room or kitchen, a balcony overlooking the familyroom, or the center of a greenhouse. Any number of locations are possibleas long as the original criterion of being close to the kitchen is maintained.

Spaces are defined by visual rather than physical boundaries. These boundariesare provided by light, texture, color, materials, furniture, changes infloor level or ceiling height, and so on. A space can be partially enclosedby low walls or it may be totally free of them. The ceiling above it canbe raised or lowered. It can be dramatically lit with a skylight. A free-standingfireplace or a “floating” bookshelf can partially enclose it. All of theseelements manipulated in various ways set this space apart from any otherspace in the house, giving it a different use or setting a different mood.

A house should be thought of as a relationship of spaces, not a collectionof rooms. Achieving the proper space interaction to satisfy your needs iswhat constitutes a successfully designed house or apartment. The spacescan relate to each other directly or indirectly and sometimes they mightoverlap. For example, the need for privacy and sound control will determinethe distance between the bedrooms and the noise-producing areas of the house.Functional criteria will place the kitchen in close proximity to the eatingspaces. A need for supervision may lead to the placement of the children’splay area close to the kitchen or as an alcove adjacent to the family room.

Joint Activities

Most of the activities of the household are communal. The family usuallydines together at least once a day and most of us prefer to watch the ballgame with company rather than watch it on separate sets in separate rooms.The shared spaces — the living room, dining room, kitchen, and playroom—arethe places in which to share ideas and experiences. These spaces shouldhave a warm and comfortable feeling, conducive to such exchange. For somepeople a room filled with pictures and treasures collected on vacationscreates such a feeling. People who love the outdoors are likely to feelhappiest in a room that embraces the outside.

Special demands are often made on the joint- activity areas of our homes.Many households differentiate between formal and informal areas. Some houseshave formal parlor-like living rooms for company and more informal familyrooms for TV viewing. Many houses and apartments have parallel spaces foreating: one formal for company and holiday meals, the other in or near thekitchen for daily dining. Others don't feel the need for so rigid a spacehierarchy. They choose to use the same space for all kinds of purposes,both formal and informal. Each household has its own ideas on how to makebest use of its space; it's the quality of space and not the quantity thatis vital to good design.

Special attention should be focused on the de sign of these joint-activityareas. What kinds of activities actually take place in the communal areasof the house? What kinds of experiences do you hope to have in these spaces?What kind of “feeling” should the rooms have?

The shared areas of the house are where people gather to talk and argue,watch TV or look at the fire, read out loud or to themselves, prepare food,eat, gossip, listen to music, entertain friends. The activities to be housedin these areas will be as varied as the age groups within the family. Thecommunal areas are also used for entertaining friends in large or smallgroups, with varying degrees of formality, and for sweet-sixteen and slumberparties and community-group meetings. Play areas accommodate activitiesthat may at times be unharmonious, such as a quiet game of chess and a noisycomputer game. Work areas might be used by someone preparing a term paperon the word processor while another family member is consulting with hisboss on the telephone. Dining areas may be required to accommodate Boy Scoutseating pizza, a formal dinner party for six, the baby’s high chair and solobreakfasts, but, hopefully, not all at the same time.

Once you have established the activities or combination of activities thatare to take place in these areas, you should try to envision the environmentor “feeling” you wish to create in the space. You may prefer to interactwith family and guests alike on a small, intimate scale. A large space ofballroom proportions would be useless and feel uncomfortable. Perhaps aseries of small spaces would be more appropriate.

A family might feel the need for a large entertainment space for the adults,a big playroom to be used exclusively for the kids, and a range of smallerspaces for study, piano lessons, private tutoring, and word processing.If the construction budget and the space available are unlimited, all thesespaces can be accommodated. Unfortunately, most people will find that theymust work with finite space and a limited budget and will have to make compromises.

Service Areas

The service areas are the kitchen and bathrooms, garage, laundry, and storageareas. The kitchen is best located adjacent to both the inside and out doordining areas. It should be accessible from either the front or back doorso that you won’t have to haul groceries across forty feet of wall-to- wallcarpeting to get to the refrigerator. The kitchen can be at the hub of thehouse, open to the living and dining areas, or in a separate room. (Moreabout kitchens in Section 7.)

The most critical question asked about bath rooms is how many are required.Many families have managed with one bathroom for years and it may be allthat your household requires. As a general rule, we recommend two completebath rooms for three to four people and two bathrooms and a powder room(which has a lavatory and toilet but no tub or shower) or three bathroomsfor five or more in the family. These need not be luxurious and may haveeither a tub, stall shower, or tub-shower combination. The bathroom mayor may not have a window, but most municipal ordinances require all bathroomsto be either mechanically (using a fan and a duct to the outside) or naturally(through a window) ventilated.

It is most practical to locate the full bathrooms on a hallway adjacentto the bedrooms. If planned correctly, the bedrooms, hallway, and bathroomsshould be somewhat isolated from the communal spaces of the house so thata bather need not walk through the living room in bathrobe and slippers.Many designers provide a separate bathroom for the master bedroom. Somemore luxurious houses are provided with a bathroom off each bedroom. Thepowder room should be located near the living areas but not directly offthe living room or dining room. it's best located off a hallway or theentry foyer. If you have a two-story house it's a good idea to have a fullbath on each floor. (More about bathrooms in Section 8.)

At one time closets and storage areas were created out of the leftoverspace between rooms and at the ends of halls. Built-in closets were consideredso unimportant that many beautiful and gracious homes were constructed withvirtually no clothing closets. Today closets and storage space are at leastas important as bathrooms and bed rooms. Most of us find that we need alot of area in which to hang our clothing and store such paraphernalia ascross-country, downhill, and water skis.

Clothing closets are ideally located in or very near the bedrooms of thepeople they serve. Extra closet space can be located in any part of thehouse. These closets can be used to store the winter wardrobe in summerand the summer clothing in winter. This system necessitates a twice-yearlyswitching of the closets’ contents. General storage can be located justabout anywhere. In tight quarters space to store suitcases and other seldomused items is often found above closets in hung ceilings (designed to takethe load of the items being stored) and under platforms (Ill.4). See p.22 and Section 13 for more storage ideas.


Although we feel that the quality of a space is more valuable than itsquantity, we recognize that the size and shape of a room are important factorsin how it works, looks, and feels. it's difficult to quantify the aspectsof good design in regard to size and proportion; the best we can do is offersome suggestions as to how you can develop a sensitivity to size and compilea list of standard room dimensions.

As a starting point in learning about size and proportion, we suggest youmeasure rooms that feel “right” to you (whether in your own house or a friend’s).You can “pace off” a room by step ping toe to heel across the room (mostmen’s shoes are about a foot long or you can adjust accordingly). At somepoint in the design process you should measure your own furniture and existingrooms and draw them to scale (Section 4, Inset II) to get some idea of thesize of your house or apartment and to have some means of comparing thesize of the existing rooms with the ones you are planning. It takes a whileto get a good idea of how big (or small) rooms should be.

Proportion refers to the relationship of length, width, and height. A nicelyproportioned room is either square or rectangular but not overly long andnarrow. The ancient Greeks believed that the ideal proportion conformedto the golden rectangle of 1:1.43, and felt that a room’s length shouldnever exceed twice its width. We agree that 1:1½ is a good guide to roomproportion. Rooms 20’ X 28’ or 14’ X 20’ are considered well-proportioned.

The height of a room is critical as well. A large room (20’ X 28’) witha very low ceiling (8’) may feel more like a finished basement than a ballroom. The same room with a ceiling height of 22’ will actually look smalland somewhat institutional. A ceiling height of 12’ to 14’ would be mostappropriate. Any small room with a disproportionately high ceiling willlook smaller than an equivalent room with a lower ceiling. For example,a 14’ X 14’ bedroom with a 14’ ceiling height would look like a smallerroom than the same room with a 9’ ceiling. To apply the Greek pro portionto room height, we use the width of the room to determine the ideal ceilingheight, which would be 0.7 as great as the width. For example, if the roomis 20’ X 28’, the “ideal” ceiling height would be 0.7 of 20’, or 14’. Theideal height for the 14’ X 14’ bedroom is about 9’. These Greek ideals arenot actually adhered to by contemporary de signers, but we include themas guidelines.

Many families find that one living space is ample for sitting, reading,playing, and entertaining friends. Other families require multiple roomsfor these functions. The living room can be as small as 200 square feet(11’ X 18’) or as large as 500 square feet (18’ X 28’). The former spacewill feel intimate but is large enough to accommodate a small party. Thelatter space is amply sized to accommodate large parties. Anything over600 square feet is baronial in size but may seem over- scaled for a simpletête-a-tête. A space this large will require multiple seating arrangementsto make it work as a living room. The above dimensions apply to the familyroom and the playroom (Ill. 5).

Dining rooms are often sized to fit the furniture they will house. A largeroom that accommodates both living and dining requires less overall spacefor the dining functions than if they were contained in a separate room.In the case of a large dinner party with an expanded table the dining areacan “spill over” into the living space (Ill.6).

Bedrooms can be any size. A single twin bed is 39” wide and 75” or 80”long. The smallest bed room could include a bed and a dresser and pivotspace (make sure you adhere to code requirements) (Ill.7). Keep in mind,when designing children’s bedrooms, that most children over the age of tenhave sleep-over dates. The bedroom should be large enough for a foldoutcot or trundle bed. (If this doesn’t work, be prepared to offer the guestroom or family room to your kid for these mini-slumber parties.) A queen-sizedbed is 60” wide by 80” or 84” long and dictates the minimal size of a bedroomfor two people at about 10’ x 11’ or 9’ X 12’. (These dimensions do notinclude closets.) More space is required for bureaus, lounge chairs, deskspace, or exercise machinery.

If you have a lot of kids and are tight on space, you may consider combiningthe bedrooms in some novel way. Two children’s rooms can be reconstructedas three rooms. A large bedroom can be divided into two tiny private sleep-studyareas with a joint play space. A high ceiling may allow for a more elaboratearrangement which partially piles one room onto another (Ill.8).

Home office and study sizes depend on their function and what you wantto put into them. If you build in desk space on both long walls of a room,the room should be at least 8’ wide. This room will be adequate for onlyone person since there is not enough circulation space around the chairsfor two or more. If two people are to use the space, the room should be9’ or 10’ wide.

A clothing closet must be at least 2’ deep to accommodate clothing on hangers.A depth of 2’-3” is more comfortable. Any depth over 2’-6” is inefficientsince the increased depth will not permit the hanging of additional clothing.A walk-in closet with hanging on opposite walls can be 5’-6” wide, but awidth of 6’ or 6’-o” is more comfortable. These closets can be any length.A less effective closet (but useful in awkward spaces) is one with two rods,one directly behind the other, which hangs clothing two rows deep. Thiscloset is useful primarily for storing out-of- season wardrobes or otherseldom used items since you have to remove most of the clothing on the frontrow to get to the clothes in the back. Linen closets can be as shallow as18” deep but should not exceed a depth of 24” (Ill.9).

Kitchen and bathroom sizes and proportions are detailed in Sections 7 and8.

Outdoor space comes in all sizes and shapes depending on where you live.If you are one of the few city dwellers with a penthouse, balcony, or backyard,consider yourself lucky. Good de sign will maximize this space so that itis attractive and useful. If you have a choice in relocating the outdoorliving and dining areas, consider these spaces as you would the interiorspaces when you plan the redesign of the floor plan. Any outdoor space willbe more useful if it's located adjacent to the communal areas and has goodaccess to the kitchen.


The organization of the living space is very much dictated by the sizeand nature of the household. A family with small children has differentneeds than a household of adults or one of adults and adolescents. A singleperson or an adult couple living without resident children can exercisea great deal of design flexibility in planning a renovation. Such housescan have showers in the living room, balconies over the living room as bedrooms,or totally partition-free interiors. Of course, this arrangement can workwith a family with children as well. it's our experience, how ever, thata completely open space does not work for most families with children. Thenoise factor is enormous and the lack of audio privacy ensures that thereis no place to retreat for an intimate encounter, parental argument, orprivate telephone conversation.

A house designed for a family with young children should include play spaceand room to accommodate the kids’ toys and paraphernalia: bikes, baby swings,strollers, games, dollhouses. Large children’s bedrooms can serve as playareas, but they are likely to be too far away from the central areas ofthe house for parental supervision. A playroom off the kitchen is a goodidea for a household with young children. The playroom can double as a guestroom or a study if it's provided with doors that can be closed for privacy.The problem with designing a house around babies and young children is thatchildren grow up very fast. A family that designs a house around the needsof a two-year-old will find that the child is three years old, going onfour, before the construction is completed.

We have found it hard to convince the parents of young children that verysoon their progeny will be demanding separate bedrooms and private space.Parents who open the playroom to the kitchen so that they can supervisetheir children find it hard to believe that in a short four or five yearsthey may actually prefer to have the kids (now teens) play with their friendsin some re mote part of the house. If you have small children, try to havethe foresight to incorporate the needs of adolescents in the scheme of things.

As a final consideration, if possible, try to pro vide space for guests.This room can be a “flexible” room, sometimes study, sometimes guest room,sometimes playroom.

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