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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 –>

7 tips to help decide whether to invest in architectural changes:

  • 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 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 America 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”?

  1. Elaine 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?)

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Ken says:

    Could someone please tell me what a “Rachelow” is? I tried googling it and came up with nothing. I like crafstman style myself.

  8. 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.

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