Should you “fix the architecture”? My 7 tips.

Pam's-kitchen-window-before-and-after

Here on the blog we write mostly about decorating, aka “applied decoration.” You know: Paint colors, wallpaper, flooring choices, window treatments, furniture, counter tops, cabinetry. Using decorating tricks can mask many architectural problems in an interior design — and for sure, decorating solutions are likely going to be way cheaper than changing the architecture of a room — moving walls, doors, windows, etc. But sometimes, even a single architectural change can make a huge difference. Case in point, above: Our original kitchen had just one small window on the wall facing the front yard. When we renovated, I more than doubled the size of the window. It’s not just those scrumptious aqua Geneva kitchen cabinets that transformed our kitchen — the window, and all the light now streaming in, made a tremendous difference, too. Even so, I go very slow when it comes messing with original architecture –>

Some tips:

  • Go slow, save money. When it comes to working with a period house, I am very cautious about changing the floor plan or making other architectural changes. First, because I am frugal. If you can love the house you are in while living with the walls, windows and doors you were dealt, you will save lots of money. Also, there is some *historical* value, I think, in keeping the original floor plan. This is especially true if your house was designed by a known architect or is part of an historic development.
  • Live with your space a while, and take lots of notes. If you think the architecture is off — for example, if you think you want to open up the kitchen to the dining room to make a great room — I think it makes tremendous sense to live with the space the way it is for a while. First, maybe you will change your mind. If not, and you become even more firmly convinced that you want to make an architectural change, you will then have been able to use this time to really live within the space while paying super close attention to how you could use change it most effectively. Really pay attention. Make copious notes. Talk to the others who may live with you. Read magazines and websites and look for how your design problem is solved in other rooms. Yada yada: Take the time to really figure out how to fix the architecture once and for all, to make for happier space utilization. You can then plan your final design accordingly.
  • Consult with a professional. Architectural changes are expensive to make and more expensive to fix if you err. To size our kitchen window — which is now a picture window flanked by two casements — I called on a local draftsperson/designer to help me get the measurements just right. This was actually quite tricky. The window had to sit “just so” for the interior design of the kitchen to work… but it also had to sit *just so* on the outside of the house so that the facade was symmetric. Not only would we be looking at and out of this window every day, but it was going to be expensive.  There was the window itself, our contractor to do the demo and install, and then, because our facade is brick, there were masons involved, too.  Having a professional ensure I had the measurements right was crucial and so anxiety relieving.
  • You’ll be happy to have a relationship with a pro when things go wrong. Reason two to have a professional: When things *go wrong* on the job, you have someone with experience to call in. Unbeknownst to me, during our kitchen renovation, my husband and my contractor (both of whom I love, still) thought the window should not have been so low to the counter — it’s like they thought the specs were off — so when it was time to submit the order, they ordered a window 3″ or 4″ shorter than the one I had specked with my draftsperson. Oh. Without asking me. Or even mentioning to me. So… one day I come home, all excited “because the window is going in today!” and BoOM WhAm POW! I am gobsmacked by a window that in one instant I know is “all wrong.”  This “mistake” then called for a big, anxiety producing powwow. Were they wrong? Was I wrong? Did we want to spend another $1,800 and get a new *right size* window or would this one be *okay*. I called my draftsman/designer. We two outvoted those two, as if haha She Who Must Be Obeyed was not going to get her way. But, She Who Must Be Obeyed was superbly happy she had an expert on her side who could calm her down and say, yes, the original taller window would be okay… would be better. It was. Hey, this makes me think of a whole ‘nother post to write: When do you *settle* for the  mistake vs. spend again to fix it? In the case of this window: We spent the money, and years later, the pain of that unforeseen expenditure has long faded, and the window is terrific.
  • Take advantage of open walls. Gutting to the studs? Now’s the time to enlarge or change windows or doors. P.S. Maybe double up on the insulation, too?
  • Leverage: Maybe here’s a rule: The more money you are spending on a given project, the more sense it may make to #1 fix the architecture while you are at it, and #2 get professional consultation to help.
  • Renovate safe. Vintage nasties such as lead and asbestos can be lurking in your layers, so consult with properly licensed professionals if you are messing with original surfaces.

For several years I worked managing the PR and Marketing for The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Estate and Gardens. Edith Wharton’s first published book wasn’t fiction — it was actually a book considered one of, if not the, first popular primers on interior design, The Decoration of Houses, 1896. I recall that in this book, she said that before you even start at the interior design, you must fix any architectural issues. I think this is right, fundamentally, although 95% of American probably does not have the money to aim for architectural perfection. So: We must carefully pick and choose what, if any, architectural issues we will try to address in our houses. With my kitchen, I think the window was well worth the expense.

Readers, have you made architectural changes that were well worth it?
Or, did you forego changes, and “it’s fine”?

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Comments

  1. says

    I think the other “fix the architecture” commandment is make sure it “fits” your house. Your window looks awesome because it increases the amount of light in the room, but it also looks awesome because it fixed the problem and still looks period appropriate.

    Go trendy with pillows, not with architecture. I’m still haunted by the horror of the house in my old neighborhood where the people tried to turn a rachelow into Craftsmen. It looks ridiculous, and I’m sure cost them an insane amount of money.

  2. Pamela says

    You say it faces the front yard, I’d like to see the before and after from the exterior too please. If you have them. Could be very involved especially if you have a brick exterior.

  3. says

    Our previous house we made 2 ‘small’ architectural changes. We moved and resized a window in the kitchen to allow for more cabinetry and increased function. We had several ‘issues’ we had to design around – plumbing stacks in less than desirable areas. Since we were on a budget (and concrete slab) we could afford to move the plumbing. Luckily, my dad was making the cabinets for us, so we simply made cabinets that went around the plumbing and allowed access. We also had a soffit that was necessary and decided to add to it to follow the cabinetry. Made it all look purposeful instead of a mistake. The second change we made was in the master bath. There was a weird 2 ft space in the master bedroom that was completely unused in its current state. We moved the wall that 2 feet to give that space to the tiny bathroom that became less tiny and added really needed counter top space.

  4. Larry says

    Hey Pam – remember that big pile of bricks and rubble laying around the base of my side porch? Well, I am oh so close to being finished. I’m trying to beat old man Winter to the punch. I have just a few more trim pieces to install, the porch ceiling and then final painting and that’s it! So I guess this is more like putting the original architecture back…does that count?

  5. Dawn says

    We have been pondering this for awhile in our ranch. It is very closed in. As it was designed. The trend, of course, is for open concept. I like the house as is. The husband has been itching to open up the dining room which we have used only twice in the year and a half we have lived there. Its a room we pass through while getting to the rest of the house. I have been hesitant because even though we dont use it, I like having it, plus the wall he wants to open contains pocket doors to the living room. Completely changing two rooms not just one.

    He very recently saw our neighbors house who is an original owner in her 80′s. They have the same house as ours and she and her husband did the same thing back in the 60′s. So now he really wants to do it. I say no. Just because open concept is “in” right now doesnt mean it always will be. And just because we have a room in the house we dont always use doesnt mean the next owners wont…I am very very hesitant to do any architectural changes without the money to back it up and do it right and a professional who agrees with my need to keep the house looking like she should.

    • MCM is Grand says

      I know a family who spent $$ to create an “open floor plan” in their 1955 ranch home…when it was finished, the result was NOISE…noise from the kitchen disturbing folks who were watching TV, and vice versa…I predict our society will eventually go back to separate “living spaces” and those MCMs who kept their floorplans intact will be ahead of the game :)

      • pam kueber says

        Add lots of granite and stone finishes to an open floor plan — and you have sound bouncing off the walls like it’s the Grand Canyon…

        • Robin says

          Having a dining room may actually increase the appeal of your house to prospective buyers. The trend seems to be toward great rooms but you still see real estate ads with the notation “formal dining room” often accompanied by exclamation marks. My dining room doesn’t get much use either but I like having it when we do dinners with friends and family. It’s more intimate and it gets us away from the darn TV in the living room.

          • says

            Our kitchen in our MCM is separate from the living room which is combined with a modest dining room. I LOVE it. I LOVE that the kitchen mess and dirty dishes etc. are far away from the guests. The design is a galley where there is an open bar to see in. People sit at the bar and chat with me but they don’t tend to come around and get in the way because it is a long walk. At first I thought it was odd. But after living with it, wouldn’t change a thing.

    • Jennifer Kepesh says

      I think it can be very helpful to read “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, which describes several principles that make spaces more or less livable (with research about what people truly like, not just what they profess to like because of trends). Many modern architects have taken the precepts of Alexander’s work and built great practices on it–the books in the Not So Small House series by Sarah Susanka are good at showing these more abstract concepts in real settings. Once you understand the pattern language, it will help you look at your own space with better perspective.

      • Diane in CO says

        I love that book – it’s like a bible to me. Sits right out on my office desk at all times. Nice of you to mention it as people would really enjoy reading it but so few know about it. It’s a classic! There’s a first volume, The Timeless Way of Building and also The Oregon Experiment — this last one I haven’t read.

    • says

      We did open up the wall between the kitchen and living room in our 1963 ranch and I am very happy with the result. The kitchen works are in the opposite corner and I can cook without making too much of a mess where it intrudes on the living room. We did not have a dining room, just a dinette at the end of the kitchen with an archway to the living room. It was separated from the kitchen by a peninsula counter with a see through glass cabinet above, which now separates the living room from the kitchen.

      If you are happy with the space and it is just a fashion thing for your husband, though, I think I would hold out and leave it as is. We went back and forth, first I didn’t want to do it, then hubby didn’t want to do it, but we both love it now.

  6. says

    This is a great post, and timely, as my husband and I have been discussing our first “capital” project in our 1953 split–our top choices being either knocking the ceiling into the roof for a cathedral ceiling, or adding a second wall of windows to our family room. Both options will greatly increase the natural light in our house, and, I think, be true to MCM design. (We have a lot of trees in our backyard, which is great for privacy but not so great for natural lighting!)

    We’re waiting a full year so we have a complete year’s worth of sunlight helping us gauge what we really need. So far, as the sun is lower in the sky, we’re getting more light, but we still keep lights on all day long, so we might still decide to do something drastic.

    All that said, we’ll absolutely be hiring an architect (despite my dad’s suggestions that he can “knock out the wall”)….. And we might end up replacing the roof of our family room instead, which is flat and currently home to several puddles of standing water.

    • pam kueber says

      A memorable episode of that Holmes on Homes tv show was when Holmes told a couple that their entire downstairs of their townhouse — which had been “opened up” by the sellers/previous owners — was missing a structural wall in the middle. Like, the ceiling — holding the 2nd floor — above the main living area was slowly but surely sinking and could some day collapse entirely.

      Consult with a professional. Get your building permit and inspections. Don’t be penny wise pound foolish…

      • Jamie D says

        I think I remember that episode – was that the one where they rolled a golf ball on the second floor to illustrate how much their entire 2nd floor was sagging because the load-bearing wall had been removed?

    • Katie says

      If you want to increase natural light, another option to consider is light tubes. They may not be as period as the other options, but they give you a goodly amount of natural light, and don’t let in as much heat or cold as a window does.

      • Sandra says

        I love mine! The light is fabulous, and they may not be “period” but they are modern (just like any number of period round escutcheons) and can look quite appropriate.

        I added one to each bathroom above the sinks, and two to my long, dark hall. Now I wish I had put them in the dining, kitchen, and living areas, too, for reading light during the day.

  7. Marilyn H says

    This post pertains to an earlier period, but is still relevant.
    I was on the Historic Preservation Board when a woman with more time and money than brains wanted to remove and change the size of two windows in her bedroom because “the bed didn’t look right between them”. I voted against, others voted for (I have no idea why). This twit called and complained that I was mean and I was kicked off the board. I lost all respect for our citizen’s board at that point.

    • Robin says

      As a person who works in historic preservation, I feel your pain. I’m pretty surprised that your HP Board would allow such a dramatic change in windows since that runs afoul of the Secretary of Interior standards.

  8. says

    Well, a cheaper way to bring light into the room would have been to simply move the dumpster…

    But I agree with the “live with” edict, and apply it also to landscaping. The seasonal changes in light from the sun and weather all play into these things.

    I used to sell real estate, and there’s nothing worse than the cut-up, “off,” or wierd feeling you get from a bad remodel. Proportions and relationships matter. You don’t want to enlarge a dining room doorway to reveal a view of the toilet, for example. And, the view from inside and from out, definitely matters. Sometimes you don’t want to see into the neighbor’s bathroom, either.

  9. says

    Pam, I have exactly the same idea for my 1958 ranch – to double the size of the kitchen window. While my house has great views toward the front yard from the living room and front bedroom, it suffers from a lack of a view into the back yard. Enlarging the kitchen window will provide a nice view and is the only spot in the yard presently shaded by a neighbor’s tree along the fence line.
    The former owners took down the dividing wall between living and dining in 1965 (which I love!) and unfortunately removed the red brick planter box in the foyer at the same time. I plan to restore the planter box at some point. As soon as I manage to complete any one of the projects I’m doing, I’ll send photos. Right now everything is “in progress.” RetroRenovation….the never ending story.

  10. Mark says

    One more vote for fixing the architecture. I’m so lucky that I found an un-remarkable ‘box’ of a half renovated project house! I’ve been going at it slowly for 5 years now, and will surely still be working on it 5 years from now…I live in the sub-arctic, and my renos have to take into consideration: prevailing winds, seasonal variations on the angle of the sun, ‘polar bear proofing’ windows (Not even kidding.) It’s fun and, yes, it’s good to proceed slowly!

  11. Zoe says

    Pam, any idea how to find an architect with retro sensibilities in Michigan? I want to put on a small (~200 square foot) addition to my 1940s ranch/cottage, and I’m afraid I’ll end up with a professional with no understanding of my desire for the addition to blend in with the 1940s/1960s vibe of the rest of the house.

  12. Andi says

    The only architectural reno we’ve done in our ’52 Cape Cod was to replace a literal “wall of glass” that had been installed when the original owners converted an outside area into a sun porch in the 1970s.

    The entire 27-foot-long outside wall consisted of one set of sliding doors, and HUGE pieces of glass suitable for a storefront. No windows, and everything in the room faded to almost non-existent color after a year. (Why didn’t I realize that would happen?).

    The room was sweltering hot in summer and freezing in the winter.
    After living here for six years we decided to make that wall of glass into a wall of windows, in a traditional style to compliment the colonial vibe of the house.

    It looks so much better, both from outside and inside; we got a custom-installed dog door; and I can OPEN the windows. The new, insulated and energy-efficient windows also served to make the room an all-year-round retreat.

    Each window has its own wooden blind for light control and privacy, and sliding doors still lead to the yard. Stationary “reverse transoms” along the bottom—instead of the top—allow my dogs to check out their yard 24/7, their greatest pleasure.

    I researched and agonized for a couple years before we decided to go for it. Didn’t have an architect but hired a trusted contractor who had worked on our previous (Victorian) home restoration. It was an expensive project but has proved to be well worth it—it’s our favorite room in the house now.

    Other than that, no major changes planned. We have lots of walls between our separate living spaces, and I like them.

    • says

      We had a lovely screened porch on the back of our 1964 colonial and we did just what you did. There was already a nice knee wall, which we liked, so we rebuilt and insulated that and added windows all around. They can come out to make a screened porch if we want. We tiled the cement floor and added a gas fireplace. Like you,we live out there all year round.

  13. says

    My favorite rules above are “live with it.” This is critical. Don’t go too fast. You will make mistakes and regret it and get to spend the same money twice. Also, for critical complicated decisions hire a professional. We wanted to add a third bathroom onto our mid-century. We had an idea of how to do it. Consulting with a real architect who was very respectful of mid-century really made a huge difference. We kept to the aesthetic of the house, yet got bathrooms of our dreams.

  14. Carolyn says

    My husband and I are just finishing up the renovation of our 1958 tri-level and while we stayed true to the original floor plan we did do a few things that just make me love the house even more. We went round and round about putting a larger window in the kitchen but stuck with the original. We decided to replace the back doors from the kitchen and lower level walk-out with full view plain glass doors which addressed the window issues. We also put in a solar tube in the upstairs bath (while the roof was being replaced) that was previously windowless. The biggest addition we made was in the dining room. I had scored a period built-in from the local Restore for a song with the idea of just making a wall unit out of it. The wall we were going to put it on was the garage wall so my husband ended up building it in with no loss of square footage. The timing was perfect, before the carpet install. We removed 2 studs, added a header and presto! one built-in dining room cabinet. It’s amazing, it looks like it’s been there since 1958! I love my house!!

  15. Jennifer Kepesh says

    I love the choice we made to remove one kitchen wall and create a pass-through in another; also, to shift the front door. When I first walked into the late-50s adobe-revival house, it was through a very narrow all brick hallway, and those first few seconds, I thought, “not the house for me.” Then I entered the living room, and was instantly twitterpated. Back to the kitchen, my only comment was, “Well, that’s going to need some work.” Once we went into escrow, I began to play with IKEA’s kitchen software. At some point, I had a Eureka moment–remove that brick wall that separated the kitchen from the icky narrow hall, and make the icky narrow hall part of the kitchen. This was made possible by the fact that the front door was actually a last-minute revision of the plan oh those many years ago–what was to have been the front entry had been turned into a teeny storage area. Every part of the kitchen, except the sink/dishwasher, was shifted around, and a nice peninsula now straddles the site of the former brick wall. The former squished and dark kitchen is big and functional (my highest compliment), light-filled and very pretty. If I hadn’t suddenly seen how losing the wall would make everything so much better, I don’t know if I would ever have been very happy with the configuration of the kitchen.

  16. says

    This is great! All the ideas are wonderful. Our Florida time capsule is a basic block rectangle ranch. Inside, it was dark and cramped feeling. I hated it the minute I walked in. First architectural change was knocking out most of the wall between the dark kitchen and the dark living room. I hated to do that because we lost a beautiful wall of paneling, but my wonderful contractor was able to preserve the paneling and used it for the living room side of the counter we moved from between the dining area and the kitchen. BAM! Most wonderfully the kitchen, dinette and living room all have light and feel much more spacious.

    On our 1964 colonial, we had several mishaps, The most architectural was when the nice but not so hot contractor replaced the windows in our bedroom by measuring INSIDE the old frames. New windows went inside the old frames, making the windows smaller and looking, IMHO, pretty ridiculous. The old frames continued to be in need of insulation and refitting. Just a few years later, we replaced the perfectly good windows again, just to fix that problem. (What IS it with men and windows?)

    Next architectural project on the time capsule, rebuild the front porch, which is now just a screen box that looks like a hampster should live in it. We want more structure and also a knee wall to keep our bumptious dog from blasting right through. There are pix of the house and the great room project on my blog, linked at my name above.

  17. Joe Felice says

    What a dreary “before” kitchen! And what a cheerful “after.” I’d love to be able to have those cabinets. (Or, weren’t they more accurately called cupboards back then?)

  18. Pam Shellenberger says

    Yes! All of what you said is so true. We lived in our 1952 ranch house for 13 years before removing one wall between kitchen and dining rooms. We did not change any outside doors or windows; the footprint is fine and now seems much larger.
    The dining room was mostly neglected space prior. Now we have a nice sitting room (photos available) that also shows off the foyer and original double planter.
    The only other architectural change was putting a door where a large window had been, so there is access to the back yard and a new sunroom instead of a paver patio (in the Northwest a warm dry spot to enjoy the outdoors is a coveted upgrade from an exposed patio).

  19. Pam Shellenberger says

    To clarify: the window we turned into a door was already framed exactly the right size for a door: we guessed the original owners opted for the window for reasons of their own. Other 50′s houses I’ve seen here in the Nw also did not have direct access to their backyards.

    • Pam Shellenberger says

      Last but not least, we did have invaluable assistance from a builder and architect team in the family, to ensure the structural integrity was preserved where the wall was removed. We added two 2×12′s to the ceiling and reinforcement in the crawl space to support the kitchen floor.

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