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August 6, 2010 / Robert Ross

Living Large

In my practice, “Living Large” is the phrase I use to describe a project that lives like it has more square footage than it does. Applying a Living Large design attitude to smaller, in-town properties allows for the maximization of a property while respecting the character of the established neighborhood. In this instance, not only was I able to help some great neighbors, but I had the special treat of designing the view from my living room window!

The basic challenge to this project was to remove the roof and add 2 bedrooms and a bath to an existing home. A huge item on the owners wish list, and probably the instigation for the entire renovation, was a walk-in master closet.  The additional challenge was that the budget dictated the existing main level would largely remain intact, including existing window units and placement.

What was ultimately accomplished, was based on a couple of key design decisions.The first was the programmatic decision to share a bath area between the 2 new bedrooms. Originally envisioned by the clients as a “Jack and Jill” set up, I made the suggestion that they instead provide a separate vanity space for each bedroom and share a common tub/toilet area. Since they have a young daughter, they immediately latched on to the long term value of this.

The second decision was how to maximize the potential usable square footage upstairs. As seen in the existing photo, the front porch was accessed by an open flight of exterior stairs. By cantilevering the new floor three feet past the existing front wall, not only did we gain extra headroom upstairs, but also the additional benefit of weather protection for the front stairs.  The overhang also helps reduce the heat gain through the west facing front windows. The addition of a one foot cantilever on the back, combined with a shed roof on the back of the house, also added square footage and had the added benefit of protecting a rear door from the rain. The new overhangs also provided the opportunity to use recessed cans to effectively light the front and rear of the house.

The large gable/dormer on the front of the house provides a strong design element to effectively cap the house. It also provides the room for a bonus loft that has become the main hang-out zone for the family in the evening. Since it was not feasible to relocate the central stair location, we made a couple of decisions around it that greatly influence the atmosphere of the house. The first was to add 2 skylights above the stair and hall to let morning light into the space. The  design of the large skylight well was important to maximize the light into the previously dark center of the house. It also added volume to the space above the stairs. One of my favorite memories is of the day when sheet-rock went up. The wife came over, gave me a big hug and said joyfully “I live in a museum!”. What she had not been able to see during the framing stage she was finally able to understand when the sheet-rock was hung!

An important aspect to Living Large is that the perceptual boundaries of a space are always larger than the actual space itself. There are several additional design features at play around the stair that effectively contribute to this effort. The landing serves multiple purposes. It helps break up and extends the run of the stair, providing a pause. It defines the flow of the main level spaces. It is a space divider and extender. The use of open rail on the living room side of the stair and a half wall on the kitchen side allows for interaction between the living and kitchen spaces without giving everyone a view of the dishes in the sink!  The openness of the stair also helps expand the living room visually.  Another feature is the use of the bookshelves as rail between the loft and stairs. By facing the opening side toward the stairs, the stairwell is given utility and interest. The shelves also visually widen the stair well at the point where it would tend to constrict.  The back side of the shelves also become available to the loft for furniture placement.

While the main level of the house was off limits during the design phase of the project, that changed. During construction, we discovered an existing wall between the dining room and kitchen was not load bearing, so it was decided to do away with it. This did a couple of great things for the house. First, it opened the living area up and improved the flow to the kitchen area. Second it allowed us to close off a back entrance from the existing bedrooms to the kitchen. Closing off this corridor made the new guest area a private zone and allowed for the addition of a pantry to the kitchen. The additive nature of this change was at a minimal cost.

A less obvious aspect to Living Large is that it is also more efficient. Typically, smaller footprints require less utility usage and smaller bills. Since the siding was being replaced, the renovation offered the opportunity to insulate the existing walls. as well as add a house-wrap and new sheathing. This brought the house up to new construction standards. While not a visual effect, it has had a major impact on the interior climate of the house.

While every project poses its own challenges, maintaining flexibility and recognizing opportunity are essential to successful renovation.  There are always surprises.


One Comment

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  1. Jeff Ribnik / Aug 7 2010 6:39 am

    Very well done, Robert! I really like the term “Living Large”.
    Great photos!

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