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


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. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. Sandra 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

  5. Jody 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.

    1. 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…

      1. 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?

    2. 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.

      1. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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 🙂

      1. 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…

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

    2. 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.

      1. 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.

    3. Elaine 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.

  7. 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?

  8. Jill Frank 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

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