Make Space for Your Life: How to Minimize Remodeling

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Partial openness is the key in combined kitchen/dining/living room “great rooms.” Natural light, Neil Kelly wheatboard cabinetry and Slatescape countertops create a comfortable living area.
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Half-height bookcases, a lowered beam and the change from oak to cork flooring signal the transition from living room to kitchen without blocking views or light.
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Half-height bookcases, a lowered beam and the change from oak to cork flooring signal the transition from living room to kitchen without blocking views or light.
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Built-in cabinetry and a countertop around a washer and dryer can convert a messy laundry room into a functional work area, neat enough to be visible from the kitchen.
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Half-height bookcases, a lowered beam and the change from oak to cork flooring signal the transition from living room to kitchen without blocking views or light.
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High ceilings and clerestory windows above the cabinets flood this kitchen and dining peninsula with natural light.
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Installing built-in bookcases and Plyboo bamboo plywood countertop transformed this bedroom into an office.
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This deck and trellis, constructed of salvaged yellow cypress, extends an eat-in kitchen and serves as a sunny open-air dining room.
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Paved with flagstones and surrounded by flowering vines, the area below the deck becomes a shady private patio just outside a bedroom.
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Half-height bookcases, a lowered beam and the change from oak to cork flooring signal the transition from living room to kitchen without blocking views or light.
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Save resources and money by redesigning your existing rooms around activities your family enjoys:?Let a wall become an art gallery; design cabinetry to store and display your favorite things; build bookcases near a sunny spot with a chair for reading.

For most people, remodeling means building an addition; if the current spaces aren’t working for them, they assume that more square footage is the answer. Yet more space means higher construction costs; more material resources used; more house to clean and maintain; and more energy required for heating, cooling and lighting. By reorganizing and rearranging the space you have–or just changing the way you use rooms and closets–you often can solve your problems with less expense, fewer headaches and less consumption of natural resources.

More space or better space?

Many houses have plenty of floor area, but much space is wasted because the rooms don’t relate to each other well or match family activities. Making space is about designing around the activities that you and your family enjoy. After all, what is comfort but the ability to move through your day with ease: waking in pleasant surroundings, bathing with bliss, finding your keys, sorting the mail, cooking meals with the food within reach, gazing into the garden, relaxing in a cozy space and sleeping in a quiet area. Making space is about evaluating your home, your climate and site, what you love and what you need, then massaging the space so that it works for you. Only consider building an addition after you’ve been creative with what’s already there.

Start by evaluating how you use your house now: Where are the problem areas? What works well? What rooms are seldom used and why? Ask yourself, “What would it take for me to use all of these rooms every day?” Moving a doorway, opening up a wall between a kitchen and living room, or installing French doors to a garden patio is often all it takes. Seldom-used rooms can do double duty. For example, with built-in bookcases and drawers for storage, a formal dining room can host guests at holidays and also serve as a study for after-school homework or bill paying.

How rooms relate

Many older homes were designed for the lifestyles of a previous age when wives stayed home. Kitchens in these houses are often isolated from the main living spaces and too cramped for modern appliances. Today, with parents and children away most of the day, families crave the comfort of preparing and eating food together at the end of day. In more modern houses, the kitchen has expanded into one big “great room” that accommodates dining, socializing and food prep, but the competing needs of the various spaces often make great rooms chaotic.

Neither isolated kitchens nor open great rooms work all that well, but partial openness can be the key. Raised countertops can screen the kitchen mess from view and provide an informal eating bar. Counters and islands double the workspace because helpers can cook from both sides. Upper cabinets add an extra layer of separation–but hang them high enough to see underneath. Built-in eating spaces between the kitchen and family room strengthen both rooms by preserving each one’s independence while also linking them.

Bring in more light

Rooms with poor natural lighting often feel cramped and uninviting. Rather than adding floor space, consider adding sunlight to your rooms to make them more alluring. There are many ways to bring light to dark spaces:

• Reflect light farther into the space from an existing opening by painting the opposite and/or adjacent wall and ceiling a light, reflective color. Extending window jambs with built-in bookcases will also reflect light into the room and give you extra storage and maybe even a window seat.

• Borrow light from another room. Opening rooms to each other by removing or punching through a wall provides both light and an extended visual range. Well-sealed interior windows or glass blocks can allow two spaces to share light without compromising acoustic privacy.

• Add a window or glazed door. Windows placed high in a wall throw light deep into the room.

• Add a skylight to a room where wall space is at a premium or in an attic where windows aren’t an option.

Build furniture into the room

Built-ins simplify rooms and increase their usability by eliminating the need for additional furniture. They also can divide rooms and provide storage at the same time. Here are some good ways to use built-ins to make your space live larger:

• Bookcases add thickness and display space to existing walls. Half-height bookshelves can replace interior walls, providing both functional separation and visual connection between rooms.

• Built-in cabinets used as room dividers take up a little more space than a stud wall, but they give back a lot more in functionality.

• Built-in seating eliminates the need for a sofa and chairs and even can function as a sleeping place for guests. Flip-top storage extends its functionality. A window seat is often the most sought-after place in the house.

• Dining nooks with built-in tables and seating allow the table to be closer to the wall, saving valuable floor space.

• Built-in work surfaces and bookshelves are often the only furniture needed in a home office.

• Lofts in rooms with high ceilings can double the available square footage and provide good spaces for working, meditation or sleeping.

Add flexibility

Extend your spaces’ usefulness by adjusting for different functions at different times of day. Creating convenient or movable storage is often the key to multi-use rooms.

• Movable cabinets or bookcases act as room dividers but can be rolled against the wall to accommodate functions requiring more space.

• A kitchen island on wheels rolls away for flexible floor space or can be pushed to the garden for outdoor cooking.

• A door or sliding wall panel can hide a home office or divide the kitchen from the eating area during more formal meals.

• Murphy beds transform a den, office or family room into a guest room.

Change interior walls and traffic patterns

Public rooms need a balance of the openness that facilitates social contact and the separation that allows conversations and activities to flow uninterrupted. Differentiate spaces without walling them off by using changes in ceiling height, lowered beams, columns, built-in furniture or changes in flooring. Rooms that are sheltered on three sides, with openness on the fourth side, provide a sense of refuge and an outward view. At a minimum, each activity center should be protected on two sides by walls, built-ins or furniture.

Go up or down

An attic or basement may be the perfect place for an office, guest bedroom, master suite or meditation room. If you’re finishing an upstairs or downstairs, you’ll face these common design challenges:

Access: Adding stairs gobbles up space, but they often can be accommodated by giving up a closet or one side of a larger room.

Insulation and Moisture Control: Controlling heat and moisture presents special challenges in attics and basements. Get professional input to avoid creating problems.

Structure: Attic ceiling joists or roof framing may need to be reinforced. Consult with an architect or structural engineer to evaluate your current structure.

Indoor Air Quality: Consult a professional to avoid problems from combustion appliances, radon, mold, rodent excreta and poor ventilation.

Go outdoors

Outdoor rooms add living space without the high cost of weatherproof, insulated construction. They add seasonal living space and can be coupled with new windows and doors to add visual space to existing interior rooms. A gated courtyard, trellis or porch can add welcoming charm to a plain house by making an arrival feel like a journey through several well-crafted spaces.

Sunrooms can improve your passive-solar heating while adding floor space. In cold climates, design the sunspace to be sealed off from the house at night to minimize heat loss through all that glass. Avoid overheating by including adequate summer shading and thermal mass, such as concrete or masonry, to store solar warmth by day and release it at night.

Less is more

Smaller needn’t feel like less; good design, not square footage, is what makes a space feel ample. When you keep your floor area modest, you may free up money to pay for the energy-efficiency upgrades, high-quality materials and decorative details that personalize a house and give it soul. You’re remaking your house into a haven that will sustain your spirit. Value quality over quantity, comfort over volume, elegant functionality over impersonal square footage and a relationship with the sun, wind and web of life over isolation.

Excerpted and adapted from Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House by Carol Venolia and Kelly Lerner (Lark Books, 2006).

Why remodel?

As the green building movement has expanded in recent decades, a perception has grown that unless you’re living in a solar home built of earth or straw, you’re just not doing the green thing. In fact, staying right where you are and massaging your current home into greater harmony with nature is powerful and productive. Here’s why.

You’re working with an existing building. It takes fewer resources to make your current home more eco-friendly than to start from scratch somewhere else–even if you use green materials. Capitalize on the energy and materials already invested in your home.

You’re not destroying undeveloped land. That bucolic image of the eco-homestead in the country comes with a not-so-lovely price-tag: topsoil torn up and compacted; drainage patterns disturbed; plant and animal communities uprooted; vast material and energy resources consumed in construction; new roads, wells and septic systems; and greenhouse gases produced by driving long distances to jobs, schools and stores.

You save money. Chances are you’ll spend less on remodeling than you would on a new custom home–and many changes you make will lower utility bills. You also have the option of making changes step by step, paying as you go, and avoiding the cost of interest on a loan.

The infrastructure is in place. With an existing home, the roads, driveway, water and power are already there. The civic investment in generating and distributing power and treating water and waste has already been made; you don’t need to tear up the landscape or your budget to create them.

You’re in an existing neighborhood. You’re probably already knit into a community with its nearby schools, recreation, stores and services. This has social and economic value, not to mention lower energy costs than driving long distances.

You can revitalize your neighborhood. Eco-improvements you make to your home and yard may inspire neighbors to do the same. You even can join with others to turn your neighborhood into an eco-village.

After you identify the least-used rooms and their problems, consider how you might reconfigure the spaces to better fit your activities: moving doorways, adding a closet, adding beams, taking down or building walls, installing new windows or bookcases.

Declutter and rearrange

When a house goes up for sale, the realtor often recommends cleaning thoroughly, repainting and removing half the furniture so the house feels more spacious. Why not take the same approach to creating more space for yourself right now? Commit 15 minutes a day to organization, and you’ll be surprised how much gets done.

Here are some clearing-out guidelines:

• Pass along things you don’t need, love or use.

• Install simple storage units: recycling bins, a compost bucket, bookshelves, hanging racks for pans and kitchen tools, baskets, file boxes, magazine racks, shelves.

• Create places for organizing things that enter and leave your home: coat racks and hooks, shoe storage, recycling bins.

• Reorganize your existing storage: kitchen cabinets, closets, understair areas and so on.

Evaluate your living patterns

A graphic analysis of how you use your current house can be enlightening. Sketch a plan of your site and make several copies. Figure out the approximate square footage of each room, including outdoor patios and porches. With colored pencils, locate the activities in your home during different times of day: morning in yellow, midday in red, afternoon in green, evening in orange, and night in dark blue. Do these patterns change seasonally with longer hours of sunlight or different thermal conditions?

Now rank the rooms by how much time you spend in each (including outdoor rooms and the garden). You might be surprised by the patterns that emerge. Your family might be migrating to follow the light, warmth or coolness. Large rooms such as formal dining and living rooms may not see much use. The point is to identify which parts of your home aren’t being well used. Why aren’t they used more? Consider whether the problem might be:

Circulation: Is there a lack of connection with other rooms or too much circulation through the room?

Space: Is the room too big or too small for the activities? Is there a lack of storage space?

Function: Does the room lack light or have too much light and heat? Does it not suit its function well (often a problem in kitchens and offices)?

Appearance: Does the room lack character? Does it feel too dark and heavy or out of proportion?

After you identify the least-used rooms and their problems, consider how you might reconfigure the spaces to better fit your activities: moving doorways, adding a closet, adding beams, taking down or building walls, installing new windows or bookcases.

Energy efficiency at home

Making your home more energy efficient reduces fossil-fuel use and the accompanying global climate change, saves money on utility bills and increases your physical comfort. Because appliances last 10 to 20 years, it’s important to buy them wisely. Here are a few tips:

• The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) offers free condensed consumer guides to buying energy-efficient appliances on its website, You also can order the 250-page Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings for $13.95.

• Look for the Energy Star label when shopping for appliances and lighting products and check for special rebates in your region. Consider Energy Star standards as a minimum; you often can find products that exceed them.

Reduce water-heating costs

• Lower your water-heater thermostat to 120 degrees to save as much as $45 per year and reduce the risk of being scalded by tap water.

• Insulate your water-heater tank with specially designed water-heater jacket insulation. (Some newer energy-efficient models should not be insulated; check the manual.) Gas water heaters should be not be insulated on top. Set an electric water heater on a piece of rigid foam insulation, especially if it’s on a concrete slab.

• Insulate all exposed hot-water pipes. Use minimum 5/8-inch foam pipe insulation or 3-inch fiberglass wrap.

Reduce heating and cooling costs

• Install a programmable thermostat. Set the timer/programmer to determine when and at what temperatures your heating/cooling system will operate.

• If your air-duct system is outside your home’s insulated envelope, thoroughly seal it with mastic and foil tape, then thoroughly insulate ducts.

• Close holes, cracks and gaps where air can pass into or out of your home (called air-sealing).

• After you’ve air-sealed your home, insulate your attic, walls and floor or crawlspace.

• Replace your heating/cooling system with an energy-efficient unit. Heat pumps are especially efficient in milder climates; look for a Seasonal Energy-Efficiency Ratio (SEER) of at least 14.5 and a Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) around 9.0. For fuel-fired heating units, look for sealed combustion and an Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) of 90 or higher.

Lighting and electronics

Though lighting and electronics aren’t a home’s largest electricity consumers, they’re an easy arena for reducing energy use.

• Maximize your use of sunlight.

• Don’t try to achieve uniformly high levels of light. Task lighting, such as desk lamps or fixtures that shine directly on kitchen work surfaces, illuminates the most-needed places.

• Switch to compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which are three to four times more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and last eight to 10 times longer. Replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs may appear expensive, but it actually can reduce your lighting energy costs by 50 to 80 percent with no loss in lighting quality.

• To avoid standby losses, unplug appliances when not in use. Better yet, group appliances (for example, a computer, printer and other peripherals, or a TV, DVD, VCR and stereo) on one surge protector that can be turned off when the appliances aren’t in use.

Adapted with permission from Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House by Carol Venolia and Kelly Lerner (Lark Books, 2006).