Home Renovations: Designing the Renovation

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The design process is not easy to explain and is even more difficult to teach. Most schools specializing in design teach the subject by briefly outlining theory and then giving students “problems” to solve. The instructors are called “critics” and teach by evaluating the design solutions presented by the student. Since the authors (unfortunately for you) will not be around when you are struggling with your own renovation schemes, we will demonstrate the design process in Section 6 by using case studies. The remainder of this section discusses design considerations.

Architectural or interior design is an integration of functional criteria with aesthetic ones. The de sign of a renovation is further complicated by the addition of yet another set of considerations, the existing conditions of the building to be renovated. The best designers begin the chore with a firm understanding of the program (the functional requirements), a feeling for the style or character of the existing house, and the designer’s own inherent insight into proportion and spatial flow. The design process takes a good deal of time and concentration. Rarely does a complete design spring spontaneously, full-blown and fully worked out, into the head of the designer. Most often a designer conceives the kernel of a design concept or approach and then spends hours on the details to see if the idea “works.” If the concept is a good one, everything should fall into place with a certain amount of ease. If the spaces look “tortured” (odd-shaped rooms, twisted corridors, too much space for circulation), the design concept is rejected and another one tried. There are often a number of good design solutions to the same design problem. (There are usually an equal number of bad ones.)

Generally the renovation design process begins with the plan of the existing building or apartment. (However, if you are considering an addition to a distinctly styled or historic building, you might want to start with the elevation.) The de signer tapes the plan to the drafting board and then tapes a piece of blank tracing paper over it. Most experienced designers then spend at least an hour staring at that blank piece of paper. When inspired, the designer takes a broad marker and makes some sketchy marks on the tracing paper, changing rooms around, removing a partition here, positioning a window there. Often these first attempts are rejected and another piece of “trace” is added on top of the first. This continues for a few frustrating hours until some approach is conceived. At that point the designer uses a scale and drafting equipment to work out the concept.

It is common for a designer to work on layer after layer of tracing paper until the design is worked out to his satisfaction. Conceptual ideas are generally sketched freehand over the existing drawings so that the hand can move as quickly as the mind. Most designers find that the use of freehand lines, instead of hard lines created with straightedge and triangles, early in the design process allows them to design more easily and not get “boxed in” too soon. Once the design has emerged from the several layers of sketch tracing paper the designer switches to a hard-line, measured drawing.


The design concept (or “partee” in architectural parlance) is usually (but not always) an organizational approach. For instance, the designer of a new building might conceive of a linear organization in which the hall is a spine and all of the spaces open along it (Ill.1). A more sophisticated version of this spinal arrangement has the spine continue through open spaces without walls to define it (Ill. 2). An example of a bad organizational concept is to fit a building into a round plan. Most often the rooms are odd-shaped, the furniture and appliances don't fit right, and the hallways are tortured.

An example of a stylistic partee may be a take off on the southwestern ranch house, informal and comfortable in approach. These houses are bathed in sunlight and have many overlapping rooms, often in a rambling arrangement. Materials look as if they were taken directly from nature (rather than technically produced) and are often rough in texture. Walls and partitions are constructed of adobe-looking stucco, ceilings are often of wood, and floors are covered in earth-colored Mexican tile. Lines tend to be fluid; there are few neat creases where corners meet, more often they curve together.

An overall design concept should be the basis for an interior renovation as well. At the outset you should endeavor to develop some organizational or stylistic concept (or both) and stick to it throughout. The concept can be as simple as the selection of a dominant material, such as rough- sawn cedar boards. The material need not be used throughout (as a matter of fact, it would be over bearing if this material was used on all surfaces). In some rooms rough-hewn cedar logs may be used as ceiling beams with cedar boards used as the ceiling surface. The walls in the room can be stucco or plaster. In an adjoining room the wood can be used for doors and window trim: Another room may be fully paneled in the material.

If the house already has a dominant style and the scope of the renovation is small, you must decide either to work within the stylistic confines of the original house or to contrast it. (If you decide to renovate in a style that is in contrast to the dominant elements of the existing building, let this be a conscious decision on your part, rather than the result of a bad design.) If the renovation is a small one you are best advised to stay within the character of the house; otherwise the results may be jarring rather than fresh and innovative.

In the case of a limited renovation, the idea of a house-wide concept may be a luxury that can not be afforded. A kitchen or bathroom redesign may be limited to pushing out a few walls and moving the tub from one side of the room to the other. But even the renovation of a single kitchen or bathroom should have an overriding concept, if only a color-material concept for the bathroom or an organizational approach to the kitchen.


It should be fairly easy to evaluate your living space if you have occupied it for a long time. You know if the living room is too small, if the kitchen has too little cabinet or counter space, or if the bathtub is not long enough to stretch out in. If you are buying and renovating a new house, the chore may be more difficult. it's important to do a fairly complete evaluation if you intend to do a major renovation. Looking at the house as a whole, rather than room by room, may help you avoid costly mistakes.

Begin the evaluation by looking at the circulation pattern.

• Do you have to move through some spaces to get to others? If so, is this traffic flow disturbing to people using the spaces being passed through? Is there any easy way to change the traffic flow (Ill. 3)?

• On the opposite side of the coin, are there any halls or passageways that are useless or redundant? Can you squeeze a badly needed bedroom (Ill. 4) or bath room (Ill. 5) out of this space? Be moderate in your elimination of hallways, however. You don’t want to make the living room or dining room the crossroads of the house. it's one thing to walk alongside the living space to get to the rest of the apartment. it's another thing to have to crisscross it to get to bed rooms or the bathroom.

• Is the entryway large enough? If not, can it be made larger without sacrificing its special quality of being a reception area?

How does the kitchen, dining room, service entry work? Is the circulation between them easy or do you have to pass through an obstacle course? Can the spaces be switched around to ease the flow (Ill. 6)? Can obstructions be removed or new passages opened?

Is there a good separation between the communal areas and the private areas? Are the bathrooms accessible to the bedrooms without having to pass through the living spaces? Can the spaces be separated by a hallway or a door?

• Is it large enough? If not, can you borrow some square footage from an overly large dining room or the foyer (Ill. 7)? Can more space be gained by building out into the backyard? If nothing can be done to make the living room larger, what can be done to make it “look” bigger? Opening wide arches into adjoining spaces is very helpful; so is combining the living room and dining room into one larger space (Ill. 8).

• In the rare event that the living room is too large, what can be done to make it feel more intimate? Plat forms and ceilings of various heights will help. Book shelf-lined walls will make the room more cozy.

• A common problem in some contemporary apartment and house layouts is that the living room, dining room, entry area, and hallway all bleed into one large uncomfortable space (Ill. 9). One is not sure where the hall ends and the living room begins; which part is dining room and which part living room? If this is the case, how can we define the living space without chopping it up into little roomlets? Adding a closet or extending the wall may help shape the room into a more defined entity. A low partition, a change in level, or an archway may be the answer.

• Strangely enough, we have found wall space to be a concern to many house and apartment dwellers. Some people find it necessary to have at least one long wall for the couch and end tables. Wall space need not be a problem. it's easy to float furniture in a space so that no item is against a wall (Section 2, Ill. 5).

Now move on to the dining room.

• Is it large enough to house all of the furniture? If not, can you make the room bigger or should you consider getting rid of some of the furniture? Perhaps you can remove part of the partition between the living room and the dining room and construct bifold or pocket doors in its place. On holidays, when the table is expanded for large dinners, it can stretch right into the living room (Section 2, Ill. 6).

• If the living and dining areas are part of the same space, what can be done to separate the dining area without visually breaking the expanse of the space? Here a change in level or a lowering of the ceiling or even a large suspended sculptural lighting fixture can make a big difference. (See Section 9.)

Look at the living room.

Next look at the bedrooms.

• Are there enough bedrooms to house the family? If not, can you demolish the existing partitions between a few large bedrooms and rearrange the space to form smaller but more numerous rooms (Section 2, Ill. 2)?

• If you need another bedroom, can you construct an addition to the house near the other bedrooms? Can the addition be designed so that you need not walk through one bedroom to get to another? You could put a partition dividing the “walk-through” bedroom into part bedroom and part hallway, but that might make the room too small (Ill. 10). If the only location for the addition necessitates walking through one space to get to the new one, consider making the original bedroom into a communal space (such as a family room or playroom) and making the existing family room into a new bedroom (Ill. 11).

• If there is still a bedroom shortage, consider dividing one bedroom into two. If the bedroom to be divided is not large enough, consider an arrangement that places the beds on top of one another (Ill. 12). The upper bed, in one room, appears to be on a raised platform reached by a short ladder. The lower bed, in the other room, appears to be in a cove with a low ceiling.

• Is there enough closet space in the bedrooms? If there is a closet in the space between two rooms it can be reversed to serve the bedroom it's backing (Ill. 13). A whole wall of closets can be constructed in the bed room. The closet can be designed to contain hanging rods, dresser drawers, and the TV set (Ill. 14). If the remaining room appears too narrow after the closet wall is constructed, mirrored doors will make the room appear to be much wider.

• In a very small bedroom consider building space saving closets on either side of the bed.

• A 4’-0” closet can be constructed under a high plat form bed (Ill. 15).

The kitchen deserves special attention.

• The most efficient kitchen arrangement is one in which the major cooking elements (stove, sink, and refrigerator) are arranged in a comfortable triangle. it's best that these elements are spaced far enough apart to have some working counter space between them, but not so far apart as to require a long walk to any one of them. Does your kitchen conform to this general guideline? Is it too large to work efficiently? If so, you may consider a working island (Ill. 16).

• Is the kitchen too small? Can you expand it by borrowing some space from the dining room or mud- room? Many urban apartments have a maid’s room adjacent to the kitchen. Can the maid’s room be incorporated into the kitchen?

• Is the kitchen efficiently arranged? Can doors or windows be relocated to provide for more counter area or pantry space? Does it make any sense to move the appliances around? If the kitchen feels narrow and small, consider opening it up to the dining room by removing the partition between them. The sense of division between the spaces can be maintained by hung cabinets over the island. The dirty dishes can be partially concealed from guests by a 4’-high divider. (More on kitchens in Section 7.)

The bathrooms are next in our evaluation.

• If the bathroom is tiled, any enlargement will probably require a total renovation. If the tub, toilet, and tile work are in fairly good condition, you may not want to do anything at all in the bathroom. A less expensive face lift could include the replacement of the lavatory with a new cabinet or pedestal sink. New large medicine cabinets can be surface-mounted to the walls for additional storage space.

If you are considering demolishing and reconstructing the bathroom, check to see if you have adequate room for the fixtures you want. A 6-long tub will not fit on the end wall of a 5’-wide bathroom. Before seeing if you can borrow space from the adjoining rooms, locate the waste line and risers that feed the bathroom. In a one-story house the waste line is easily relocated. In a multistoried dwelling the waste stack runs vertically from roof to basement and is problematic and expensive to relocate. If there are no pipes (or minor feeders) in the partitions, consider relocating the wall to widen or lengthen the bathroom. Sometimes space can be “found” in closets or hallways. (More on bath rooms in Section 8.)


Entry. The minimum size hail for greeting a guest and taking his coat is 5’ X 5’. A gracious entry foyer can be as large as 10’ X 10’. Be sure to provide a coat closet adjacent to the entry.

Closets: The minimum depth of a closet is 2’. The length can be whatever you want. A walk-in closet should be about 7’ wide to allow for clothing to be hung on both sides. The doors to a closet can be hinged (swinging Out), sliding, or louvered. Sliding doors interfere least with furniture placement in the room because they take up no space when they are opened.

Hallways: A hall can be as narrow as 2-6” if it's not much longer than 5’ and the ceiling is not too high. It can be as narrow as 3’ if it's not much longer than 8’. The hall should be about 3’-6’ to 4’ wide if it's to run more than 10’. Reasons of practicality and proportion dictate the dimensions of halls. it's difficult for two people to cross each other in a hallway that is 2’-6” wide. Also, a long, skinny hall seems to be oppressive, while the same hall a few feet wider is more comfortable. In addition, the wider hallway can be better lit and can be used to hang art objects.*

Doors: The front door of a house is usually 3’ wide. Doors to bedrooms, kitchens, or studies are generally 2’-6’ wide, give or take 2”. The door to the bathroom is preferably 2’-6”, but could be 2’ if absolutely necessary.” The same holds true for closet doors on hinges. Most doors come 6-8” in height, but some are available at 6-10”. Doors can be specially ordered at 7’.

Ceiling heights: The height of the ceiling can vary between 7’ (in the oldest Colonials) and 12’ or 14’ (in the old townhouses). New houses are usually built with ceilings of a minimum of 8’ for living areas and a minimum of 7’-6” for bedroom areas. The structure between ceiling and floor can be anywhere between 6” and 1’-6”. Ceiling height, like anything else in design, is dependent on a sense of proportions.

Wall thicknesses: The exterior walls of a house constructed from wood are about 7 ½” thick; the interior partitions, approximately 5” thick. Masonry walls (brick or stone) are about 10” thick. These are approximate dimensions and not necessarily the thicknesses of your walls and partitions.

*Many communities have instituted guidelines to make housing accessible for the disabled. For example, these codes dictate that in new construction, hallways be at least 3’-0” wide and door clearances at least 2’-10”. Check your code to see if your building type falls within the code’s jurisdiction and if your specific project will require conformance or can be “grandfathered” under the older rulings.

Hard-Line Schematics

The hard-line drawings that follow the freehand conceptual overlays are known as the schematics. They are the first set of scaled drawings that show the width of the window openings, the location of the doors, and the exact sizes of the rooms. Schematics are laid out on a piece of tracing paper taped over the drawing of the existing conditions. This process may be best understood by reading the case histories in Section 6. These are not necessarily the final design drawings for the house. There are a number of items that must be checked out to see if they “work.” Can we get windows that size? Will we have to allow space to accommodate heating, plumbing, and ventilation? Can we fit the kitchen into the space we allotted for it? These questions are answered during the development phase (covered in Part Two of this volume). At that time the plans may be modified somewhat. (See Inset I.)

The schematic drawing includes the size of the rooms, the width of the halls, and the placement of windows and doors. Sometimes it's helpful to overlay a furniture plan on the schematic drawing to make sure the furniture fits properly. (See Inset II.).


To experiment with furniture layouts, cut out small pieces of paper to the same scale as the schematic drawing, representing the sizes of furniture, appliances, and fixtures. (You can trace the most commonly found household items off the drawings in this inset. They have been drawn to a 1/8” scale.) Place the pieces of furniture in the spaces drawn to quickly determine whether the room sizes and shapes are compatible with the objects to be placed in them.


If you are adding a wing to the house, changing the configuration of the windows, or modifying the roofline, you should draw elevations of the building. The exterior elevations will allow you to evaluate your house’s new proportions and will serve as “footprints” for the final working drawing. Even if you are not making changes to the exterior of the building, you should draw interior elevations of the kitchen and the bathrooms (and other rooms with intricate details).

Elevations are simple projections of the four sides of the building: front, rear, and both sides. Interior elevations show walls of a room and are particularly helpful if you have windows and a door on the same wall or if you are designing a mantelpiece or are using trim strips. Exterior elevations are laid out by taping the plan to the drafting table slightly above the paper you will be working on. The main lines of the elevation (building boundaries, window and door locations and widths) can be “brought down” using vertical lines. Various heights must be measured directly on the elevation (with care taken that you are working in the same scale as the plan). Interior elevations are drawn in the same way Ill. 17).



• Cardboard (chipboard, or illustration board, or 1/16” foam core board)

• Matte knife (with extra blades)

• Glue (Elmer’s)

• Metal cutting edge

• Cutting board

• Drafting instruments

Exterior model: Begin by drawing the first-floor plan on the cardboard at about 1/4” = 1’-0” or at the scale of your schematic drawings. Draw and cut all of the exterior walls and make sure they fit around the perimeter of the building. (You will need the elevations for the heights.) Lay the exterior walls back on the drafting table and draw in the windows and doors. Cut out the openings (you can blacken them in with a marker if you are lazy) and glue the exterior walls to the base. Cut and glue the roof to the model. Balconies, porches, greenhouse, and other projections may be added last.

Interior models: A model of the interior floor plan is very helpful in seeing proportion and flow. Draw the floor plan on a piece of cardboard (it is not necessary to cut it out). Draw the exterior walls and partitions to height and cut them out. Be sure that they fit around the perimeter. Put the exterior partitions back on the board and draw in the windows and doors. Cut out the openings and glue the partitions to the base. Then do the same for the interior partitions.


Interior models are worth the effort even if you are renovating only a kitchen. Scale models help you see proportions in a way plans and elevations can’t. You will be able to see if the windows are set too high, the door too narrow, the walls too high for the size of the room. Set aside a good chunk of time for the construction of the model, for even a simple project can take the better part of a day. (See Inset III.)


So far we have concentrated on the interior lay out. Keep in mind, however, that a house needs to be looked at as a whole. Many of the choices involving interior planning affect the exterior, and vice versa. Take a walk around the building focusing on its shape and the various elevations.

Begin with the overall shape.

• Are you planning a renovation which includes an ex tension, porch, deck, or greenhouse? If so, is it going to improve the general massing of the house or make it awkward? Try to keep in mind the scale of the house and its surroundings. Don’t plan a deck that is too large for the backyard or an addition that dwarfs the main building (Ill. 18).

• Look at the configuration of the roof. Are you adding a floor or raising the roof to gain additional head room? The new roof angle should work with the other angles of the building.

• Are you staying within the same roof vocabulary by continuing the same roof angles as those of the existing house? Will using these angles give you the right amount of head clearance? Will they make the house look too tall and bulky?

Perhaps you are thinking of introducing a new set of roof angles. Should they be steeper or shallower than the existing ones? Are you considering a flat roof? Try to visualize what the new roof or roofs may look like (Ill.19).

If you are removing an existing porch, will the house look bare without it?

Next evaluate the elevations with a critical eye to the openings, symmetry, detailing, and materials.

The overall symmetry of the elevations will have an impact on your renovation options. Are the elevations symmetrical or not? Is the placement of new windows, doors, chimneys, decks, extensions, etc., going to alter this symmetry? Breaking the symmetry by slightly offsetting a window or a door will look more like a mistake than a planned effort (Ill. 20).

• Are you planning more windows? How are they going to look next to the existing windows? Keep in mind the size and proportions of the windows. If you are replacing a large window with a smaller one, will it destroy the harmony of the facade?

• Are you eliminating windows? Try to visualize how the elevation will look with few or no openings.

• What about the type of window? If you are happy with the existing ones, match the new ones to the old. If you are changing the type of window, will it add to or detract from the present style and character of the house? How about the doors? Are you changing their size? We have seen many homes where the original front doors have been replaced with smaller ones.

The result is often an unattractive mismatch of scales. Should you be eliminating doors, make sure the facade does not look as if it’s missing something (Ill. 20).

• Is there any trim or other detailing? Will you be keeping it? Could the house use some window and door trim to give it character? New trim around windows and doors should match the old.

• If you are eliminating detail, make sure you are not taking with it the intrinsic charm of the building. Take some time to reconsider that decision.

• What is the material of the exterior walls? New brick or stone should match the original as closely as possible in color and texture. Patches in buildings with wood siding tend to blend in more easily than in masonry buildings. If the building is painted, you need not worry about patches.

• Are you considering putting new siding on the building? If you are changing from shingles to siding, try to assess whether horizontal or vertical clapboards are more in keeping with the original design of the house.

• When building a new extension, will the use of a different facing material enhance the façade? Would you rather keep it within the original materials’ vocabulary?

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