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. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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).

  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. Elaine 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    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.

  9. 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.

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