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House of Good Principles

How to win at home renovation


Creating a place of one's own out of an older house can be one of the elemental pleasures of life. Yet transforming a house can involve a highly complex and overwhelming set of decisions, concerning everything from the structural integrity of a wall to the finish on the bathroom floor. My goal as an architect is to make the decision-making process clear, understandable, and even enjoyable for my clients. In the end a house can be not only practical and comfortable, it can be one of the most engaging and pleasurable things in our lives.

In my architectural practice, I have noticed certain concepts that create good houses. These concepts are not only about roofs and doorways but about communication and ways of being. Over the last 17 years, I have applied these principles in my own practice, and I have observed them working as well for me as they do for other architects.

A year ago, two architects in our firm, Rob Wagner and Vinny Petrarca, designed a house renovation that illustrates many of these concepts. The clients, Rich and Amy Podurgal, had lived in their one-story brick ranch house in Raleigh for four years. Amy had just started her own firm and wanted a home office. They needed more bedroom space, more storage, and larger entertaining areas for their blended family. In the following, I will define the concepts and then demonstrate how they were integrated in the design of the Podurgal's house.

1. Get To Know Your House: Live in your house 12 months before you change it. Not everyone can do this, but if you can, get to know how your house responds to the seasons. You'll know where the sun comes in the windows in the morning. You'll know which direction the breezes come from if you want to add a porch. You'll discover what parts of the garden are too shady to grow roses.

Rich and Amy lived in their house for four years. To get more living space they considered moving, but they recognized the benefits of the existing location. "We loved the neighborhood, where every house is unique," Amy said. We liked the way our house sat on a hill behind a 75-year-old oak tree; we loved the naturalness of it. But we wanted more space, more light, and a more contemporary house." Another drawback was that they didn't like the way their guests showed up at the kitchen door instead of the front door. The front door was hard to walk to because it was at the top of some uncomfortable steps.

2. Ask For What You Want: Communicate, communicate, communicate. Give yourself permission to ask for what you want. Most folks find it very difficult to ask for the house they deeply crave. They find it easier to ask for the house their parents wanted, or for a house with good resale value. In other words, they make a house for someone else. Ask for the place you want to come home to, the room you want to wake up in every morning.

The Podurgals were very specific about their needs: comfort, convenience, space and light. Their dream house had to embrace beauty, not only their furniture and artwork, but the beauty of a maple tree framed in a window. "Rebuilding was a big emotional and financial commitment," Amy said. "It helped us to think about it from a long-term point of view, to consider our lifestyle. Whether you rebuild or buy a new house, it's a long-term commitment anyway."

3. Size, Quality, and Budget: These are the three variables in any house renovation. You get to choose two, and the architect controls the third. For example, you can control the budget and size of the renovation. The architect plays with the quality.

Rich and Amy wanted to double the size of the existing house, including a spacious home office for Amy, and they wanted to build within a specific budget. Rob and Vinny found that the most economical solution was adding a second floor. They also decided to use standard systems of construction and to work closely with a building contractor early in the design process. With the economy of building on the existing walls, which Rob verified with a structural engineer, he was able to design a unique steel and wood staircase, a spacious glass block foyer, and a custom kitchen with stained concrete countertops, all within the Podurgal budget.

4. Choosing the Architect: Choose an architect who is a good listener. Your house is unique to you, and translating you hopes and dreams into tangible results takes someone who can understand what you're really looking for.

One of the first architects the Podurgals interviewed wanted to cut down the big oak tree and add a one-story addition in front of the house. "It didn't feel like he was listening to us," Amy observed. "It seemed like he already had in mind what he wanted to do." Another architect they interviewed "was mostly interested in function. He seemed to miss our interest in art." After the Podurgals interviewed Rob and Vinny at our office, we sent them a questionnaire about the home they wanted. "When we got your questionnaire, we knew you were interested in our lifestyle," Amy said.

From Process to the Front DoorThrough the years, we have successfully applied the preceding process to many homes in the Triangle. Each situation and client is different, so the application of the process manifests itself in many ways. In addition, we have discovered specific ideas that make a big difference in the design of Triangle homes. These are down-to-earth ideas about the roof, the arrangement of rooms and the front door. Rob and Vinny incorporated these practical ideas into the Podurgal's redesign--easy things for anyone to keep in mind when making future renovation plans.

Car Connection: In many houses today, the most used entrance to the house is from the garage to the kitchen. While this may be convenient, a better plan has the entrance from your car and the main entrance to the house in the same place. Usually the foyer is one of the most beautiful parts of the house: It's where we meet, greet and say farewell. Why not use it everyday?

At the Podurgal's existing house, visitors and family alike entered through the garage and kitchen. The front door was rarely used. Rob created a new front entrance, connected to the garage and street by a porch and trellis. He designed comfortable, gentle steps. Now visitors and homeowner alike can enter and leave from the same front door. The path to the entrance offers places to sit, to view the garden, and creates a sense of expectation about the house. The front door opens to an inviting foyer that is the center of the house.

Sheltering Roof: Obviously a roof serves to keep the rain out and keep the heat in, but one of its most important functions is to provide a sense of shelter.

We added a second floor to the existing house, and over the second floor designed a shingle roof with wide overhangs--in some places the roof overhangs eight feet. The overhanging roof protects the walls below, and provides shelter for the Podurgals to sit and relax outside the house. The roof also has a rooted, nurturing quality. Parallel to the hillside and slightly above it, the roof seems to anchor the house to the earth. We created generous spaces for the Podurgals under the roof--a master bedroom suite, game room and Amy's office. The shape of the ceiling follows the shape of the roof, giving these rooms a sense of air and lightness. All rooms have views out into the treetops. "Rob and Vinny discovered the incredible views we didn't know we had," Amy said.

Intimacy and Openness: Create large spaces that are open and generous, and that flow into one another while also making other spaces that are alcoves off the larger spaces--alcoves for reading, dozing, or intimate conversations.

On the ground floor of the Podurgal house, the kitchen, dining room, living room and foyer all flow together, yet remain separate spaces with their own particular character. The house is very open, yet intimate. Rob placed windows so that every space has daylight on at least two sides. This creates good light for talking, reading or working and a lovely pattern of light and shadow throughout the day. "Anywhere you stand in the house you can look outside," Rich observed. Glass block, trellis, terrace and careful placement of windows with respect to neighbors give the Podurgals both openness and privacy.

All of the preceding principles give the Podurgal house a sense of integrity, simplicity and calm. By looking at the house with these concepts, we see the house as a series of experiences, not just a collection of rooms. The big ideas--the roof, openness to the outdoors and the flow of rooms--connect to the smallest details of the trellis and glass block surrounding the entrance door. A well-designed renovation thought of this way can transform an ordinary house into an uncommonly beautiful place to live. EndBlock

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