Home Renovations: Getting Ready to Design

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it's very difficult to provide guidelines on what sort of renovation needs to be filed with the building department and what is considered “cosmetic.” it's our advice that you check with the building department before you do anything, even if you think it's minor. Certainly an addition to the house, the conversion of a porch or garage to a habitable room, the construction of a deck or covered porch, and the raising of the roof to provide another level must be filed in most municipalities, Painting, replacement of kitchen cabinets, the installation of new windows, and the repair of existing mechanical and electrical equipment usually don't have to be filed. We suggest you consult your local building department or talk to an architect or an engineer if you intend to do any of the following: demolish or construct partitions, invade the structure of the building in any way, move the kitchen and /or bathrooms, change the number of rooms in the apartment or house, replace the water supply, sewage disposal, or electrical system. Many municipalities require that renovation plans be filed by a licensed architect or engineer.


Now is the time to measure and draw your existing space. If you are planning a relatively major renovation, you should take detailed measurements of the existing premises and draw an accurate, scaled set of floor plans. These floor plans are important for three reasons. First, you will need them as a basis for any structural or mechanical drawings. Second, you may need to file your drawings with the local building department and get its approval before beginning construction (Inset I). Third, and most important in the design process, floor plans are very useful in understanding the way the space actually works and /or is put together. You are able to see relationships in a floor plan that are not immediately visible when you live in or walk through a space. A floor plan lets you see how the various rooms, closets, and hallways fit together, very much like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. The plan allows you to envision the living space as a whole rather than as a series of independent rooms and benefits the design process immeasurably.

For example, you may be living in an apartment with a traffic flow that necessitates your walking through the living room to get to the bedroom. Since you use the living room as an office and sometimes as a guest room, you may want to be able to close it off from the rest of the apartment. Your immediate solution to the problem is to construct a corridor on one side of the living room. This, unfortunately, narrows the living room considerably but is the only solution that immediately presents itself. On drawing the floor plan, however, you note that the hall closet and the bedroom closet back up to each other. By removing the partition between them you create a corridor from the hail to the bedroom. This eliminates the need for a hallway through the living room. New closets can be built to make up for the ones lost (Ill. 1).

Although it's possible for one person to mea sure a building, it's much more efficient to have two people (or, ideally, three people). If three people are available, one draws the diagrams and records the measurements, the second holds one end of the tape, and the third holds the working end of the tape and calls out the dimensions.

To make a set of floor plans you must first measure the interior of the house or apartment and then draw it to scale. Before measuring the premises take a pad and pencil and walk through the place drawing a rough schematic of the rooms and corridors and their interrelationships. The schematic should show door openings but need not show windows or any other details (Ill. 2). This schematic will be helpful when laying out the final plan. Next, with a rigid, retractable tape (if you are working by yourself you will need a tape about 30’ long) take the overall dimensions (length and width) of each room and all corridors and closets. Measure the distance between floor and ceiling and note if any part of the ceiling is lower than another. Note the material on the floor and walls (Ill. 3).

The next step is to make an enlarged, freehand drawing of each room in turn (including kitchen, baths, entry foyer, and closets). These schematics should show doors and arches, windows and window trim, any indentations or niches in the space, closets and closet doors, radiators, pipes (both vertical and horizontal), the location of electrical outlets and lighting fixtures (Ill. 4). Before taking detailed measurements it's a good idea to recheck overall dimensions. Double-checking your work is always useful and particularly so if you will be drafting in a place remote from the one you are measuring. it's very upsetting to have to return to retake a critical measurement when your long lines of dimensions don't add up.

Begin at one corner of the room and measure along the wall from the corner to a window opening. Record the dimensions. Next, keeping the zero end of the tape near the corner, measure and record the distance to the other side of the window opening. Continue measuring the length of the wall, always leaving the zero end of the tape at the corner (Ill. 4). (When you get to the end of the wall, check to make sure that this dimension is the same as your overall for the room.) Go back and measure the depth of the window and any projections along the way. When the first wall is finished, attack the adjacent wall repeating the steps above. Continue measuring around the room, from corner to corner, and include the closet-door openings and all indentations, niches, and column projections. When this step is completed, go back and measure the widths of the window trim and the door molding. Measure and note the depth of the window, the height to the windowsill, and the distance from the sill to the top of the window opening. Measure the width, height, and depth of the door itself and note on your sketch the direction of the door swing. For a complete reference set, measure the height of the baseboards and note any trim on the walls and ceilings. Some rooms may have beam drops, places in the ceiling where the structure shows. Note the beam drops on your drawings and approximate their dimensions (Ill. 4). Draw an elevation if you need one (Ill. 5).

Before leaving the room, measure and note the height, width, and depth of the radiator or base board. Note any pipes or valves that are visible in the space. Look for and note any electrical panel boxes, gas meters, air conditioners, or duct openings. In addition, locate each of the electrical out lets on the drawing. Draw the approximate location of the overhead lighting fixture and locate all wall switches. Turn on all of the switches to determine which outlets and fixtures each controls. Draw a broken line between switch and fixture (Ill. 4).

Draw and measure each room in turn. For the bathrooms, note all the items enumerated above. In addition, measure the lavatory cabinet and the toilet. If possible, note the exact location of the toilet on the floor. If you are partially renovating the bathroom, note the distance between the hot and cold valves of the lavatory and of the tub set.

Measure the tub (width, length, and height) and note the location of the drain and the faucets. Note the size of the tiles and whether this material covers all or only part of the walls.

In the kitchen, note the width of the cabinets and locate the sink and the gas outlet.


In order to make a hard-line drawing of what you have measured, you will need the following drafting equipment:

• Drawing board about 24” x 30” with a resilient surface such as chipboard (resembling shirt cardboard)

• T square long enough to cover the length of the board

• Architect’s scale (one that has 1/4” and 1/2” scales)

• Pencil and eraser

Triangle (at least 12” long, either 45-degree or 30-degree – 60-degree)

• Drafting or masking tape

• Roll of tracing paper

This is a minimum list and the items can be purchased at most good art supply stores. Don’t buy expensive varieties of the equipment listed unless you intend to make drafting your career. Other drafting equipment that might be useful: an erasing shield, drafting brush, bathroom fixture template, mechanical drafting pencil and the corresponding pencil sharpener.

The architect’s scale divides the inch into ‘Ao’s. Look at the end of the scale and note the markings: 16, 1/4, 3/16 and at the opposite end: 1/2, 1/8, etc. Look at the line of numbers to the left of the 1/4 marking: 0, 2, 4, 6, and so on. The 1/4” scale divides the inch into four parts. Architects use this scale to represent feet, letting 1/4” represent 1’. The measurement from the U to the 4 is actually 1” but using the scale 1/4” = 1’-0” it represents 4’. To use the 1/4” scale to represent 27’-6”, draw a line from the 0 to midway between the 26” and the 28” mark. Next measure back from the 0 and count six fine lines, which represents 6”. The line (which is actually 6" long) is 27’-6" at the 1/4” scale.

The T square is used to draw a series of parallel horizontal lines. The cross end of the T square slides up and down the left (or right) side of the drawing board. The T square is held in place b the left hand while the right hand draws the horizontal line. The triangle is used to draw a series of parallel vertical lines. The short side of the triangle rests on the top edge of the T square and slides along it. Hold the assembly in place with your left hand while using the vertical edge of the triangle to guide your line. If this is uncomfortable, invert the triangle.

To begin a drafting project, cut a sheet of paper from the roll and place it on the table. Make sure the lower edge of the paper lines up with the bottom edge of the T square before taping the four corners to the drawing board. Generally, zoning laws regulate building location, e, size, and setbacks.

Ordinances prohibit the construction of a factory in a residential neighborhood (or a residence in industrial zone). Some businesses will not be permitted in a strictly residential zone. Many municipalities allow only dentists and doctors to conduct business on a residential street. Even if you are allowed to practice your trade adjacent to your home you may be required to provide on-site parking for your clients’ automobiles.

Zoning laws often prohibit the renovation of a single-family residence into a two-family house if the district is restricted to one-family usage. (The conversion of a multifamily building into a single- family residence would be permitted.)

Most districts have ordinances that cover building height, overall size, and setbacks from the property lines. Many areas limit the height of the building to two or two and a half stories or a specific number of feet. In some communities houses larger than a specified size can't be constructed unless the property is oversized. Zoning ordinances often limit the %age of lot cover age. As an example, you may not be permitted to construct an addition to your existing house if the new construction falls outside of the 40’ front, 30’ rear, or 15’ side property setback lines or if the total building (original house plus addition) covers more than 25 % of the lot.


Before laying out your floor plan, determine the scale you will use and the paper size required (Inset II, above). If the whole house or apartment measures 40’ x 100’, you will need a piece of paper larger than 10” X 25” if you are using the 1/4” scale. If you choose the 1/2” scale, the paper will have to be larger than 20” X 50” to fit the entire plan on one sheet. Generally, architects use a scale of 1/4” = 1’-0” for the floor plan and the 1/2” scale for separate, detailed plans of the kitchen and bathrooms.

Begin with your sketch of the overall dimensions of the house or apartment. First, block out the major dimensions of the whole plan before detailing any single room. (All too often an inexperienced drafter starts at one end of the paper and draws room after room in great detail only to find that he has run out of paper and can’t fit the whole plan on the sheet.) Measure the entire length of the floor plan (in scale) on the paper and make sure it's centered. Do the same for the width of the plan (Ill. 6). Begin at one corner of the plan and draw the partitions of the first room. Allow 6” for the partitions and walls around the room, and draw the adjacent rooms and halls. Complete the floor plan with light lines and check all dimensions to see if they conform. If there are any discrepancies, make sure you transferred the dimensions correctly from the sketch to this drawing. If that is not the problem, you might have made an error in taking the original dimensions. If there are large blocks of empty space between the partitions that you can’t account for (and you did not make any errors), it's likely that there are pipes or flues hidden in these chases.

If the overall plan is correct, go back to your detailed room sketches and fill in the door and the window widths and any indentations or articulations in the space. Go on to the next room and complete the drawing. Note all critical dimensions, especially in areas you plan to change. When you complete all of the rooms, go back and add light fixtures, switches, electrical outlets, pipes, radiators, fireplaces, and other architectural details (Ill. 7). The symbols for these items can be found in Ill. 4.


Before investing a great deal of time in fruitless labor, you should be cognizant that a number of outside factors may restrict your design freedom. If you are considering changing the usage of the building to anything other than a one-family house or if you are considering constructing an addition to the building, you may be affected by the zoning laws (Inset III, above). In addition, most municipalities (but not all) have adopted building codes and guide lines that may restrict your design options still further. The codes are designed to protect you from structural collapses, undue fire risk, and poisonous building materials. In almost every case the restrictions make a good deal of sense. Make sure you have a copy of the building code governing your municipality (and a copy of the national building code) if you are planning anything more than a cosmetic renovation* (Inset IV). Further more, many states have passed energy conservation codes which may limit the number, size, and glazing of windows, dictate the composition of the exterior walls of an addition, and affect the design and selection of fireplaces, heating systems, and exterior doors.

Be sure to call local and state authorities to determine what codes and restrictions are in effect for renovations and /or additions. Make sure you have the most recent updates to these documents. it's likely that the township you live in will re quire that you file plans for anything more than a cosmetic renovation (Inset I). You may also have waste-disposal pipes are not as easy to deal with, especially in a multistoried building. Waste lines are 3” or more in diameter and run vertically, carrying sewage down to the cellar and odoriferous gases up and out through the roof. A waste line can be tapped on any floor along its route as long as it's large enough to carry the accumulated waste of the bathrooms and kitchens along its line. Since the system relies on gravity (rather than a pump) the horizontal pipes carrying the sewage from the plumbing fixtures (toilets and washing machines) to the vertical stack must be pitched slightly downward to allow the watery waste to flow properly. Because of the pitch of the pipe it's impractical (and sometimes impossible) to locate toilets far away from an existing vertical stack. In a one- or two-story house you may decide to install a new plumbing stack to accommodate a bathroom far removed from the existing

plumbing facilities. If you are renovating an apartment on the tenth floor of a high rise, it's almost impossible to install a new stack.

The electrical and heating systems are less critical. It may be expensive to relocate heavy electric appliances or to expand the capacity of the air conditioning service, but it usually can be done.

In a multistoried building the superintendent is often able to tell you where the main electrical risers, hot- and cold-water pipes, waste lines, and intercom are located. More often than not you will have to investigate for yourself by chiseling small exploratory holes into the suspected areas. You can suspect any wall that is particularly fat, or adjacent to the intercom or behind the plumbing fixtures, or near the electrical panel box.

Part Two of this book explores in greater detail the structural and mechanical systems of a building and will provide further information on how to locate and identify the various components of these systems and explain how they work. Those sections should be studied before you get too far into the design process. In addition, we urge you not to rely on the elementary structural and mechanical education provided in this or any other book. Hire an architect or engineer to review your structural plans and consult with a licensed engineer and plumber before lifting a crowbar.


If anything is likely to rein in your design creativity it's the ultimate price tag of the renovation. To make matters worse, the cost of the total project may be very difficult to estimate in advance. One way to get an idea of what a project is going to cost is to call in a general contractor who has done similar work. This sounds like a good idea but it often backfires. Most contractors are very reluctant to give any estimates at all unless you provide them with very detailed plans and specifications. If a contractor does go out on a limb to give you a price on the basis of your verbal description (or sketchy plans), he is not in any way bound to his “ballpark figure” when you are ready with final drawings. For some reason the price often appreciates considerably between verbal description and hard-line drawings.

Another way to estimate the cost of the renovation is to ask the contractor for square-footage prices. Often a contractor will estimate that a relatively uncomplicated kitchen with few frills will cost so much per square foot and a luxury kitchen will cost so much per square foot. This will not be a very accurate estimate either, since you probably consider your kitchen design to be very basic and simple, whereas the contractor may think it falls into the luxury range.

A third way to estimate the cost of construction before the drawings are completed is to ask around and find out how much similar renovations cost. Let us say you want to replace your kitchen and bathrooms with creations that were inspired by magazine photographs. You have budgeted $15,000 for the renovation and intend to hire a general contractor to do the work. Many of your friends and neighbors have renovated their kitchens and bathrooms and you want to use one of their contractors. If your neighbors paid $60,000 for similar work it's unlikely that your budget of $15,000 is realistic. Perhaps you should reconsider the scope of the project, or consider doing most of the construction yourself.

The best way to get an estimate of construction costs is to give completed drawings and specifications to a general contractor (he will be adding 15 to 25 % of the construction cost for over head and profit).

If you are doing the construction yourself, be careful not to bite off more than you can chew in terms of both your finances and your construction skills. it's a depressing experience to live in a home that is in a permanent state of partial demolition because the renovator hasn’t the time, the money, or the skills to complete the project.

Another factor that should cause you to pause before demolishing the critical elements of your house or apartment (such as the kitchen and bathrooms) is where you are going to live while all of this is going on. Demolition work of any kind produces a great deal of fine dust that tends to get into everything (even closed closets and drawers). Renovation projects often take much longer than originally anticipated, which means you may be spending a lot of time with the dust and without a kitchen. If possible, find another place to live while the renovation is taking place. If this is unfeasible, be sure not to demolish all of the bathrooms at once. You will be able to set up a temporary kitchen by plugging in a refrigerator and a hot plate, but dirty dishes will have to be washed in the bathroom lavatory.

Some final words of caution: If you are renovating your kitchen or your only bathroom, be sure to order and receive everything needed in advance of demolition. If you are planning to re place windows or remove parts of the roof or exterior walls, schedule the renovation for the summer, when it's likely to be warmest and driest.

Prev: Style and Character
Next: Designing the Renovation

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