Home Renovations: Case Histories

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The following three case histories resolve real de sign problems through renovation. All of them take into consideration the personal needs of the occupants, the existing conditions of the building, the limitations imposed by the municipality, and aesthetic criteria .


Jonathan and Toby had been looking for a large apartment in the city for months. They had recently remarried and needed to house four children (two full-time and two for occasional visits), a part-time housekeeper, and a dog. They could not seem to find an apartment with three large and three small bedrooms, but finally found one that came close.

They fell in love with a riverfront apartment with three bedrooms and two tiny (former) maid’s rooms ( Ill. 1 ). The apartment had not been remodeled since the building was constructed (in the 1920’s) and the kitchen and all of the bath rooms would have to be replaced. Because the apartment needed extensive renovation they would be able to purchase it at a surprisingly low price. The layout of the apartment had some ad vantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, each of the three main bedrooms faced the river and was bright and well ventilated. On the negative side, however, the family/entertainment rooms of the house had no access to the wonderful river view and received no direct sunlight. (The kitchen, dining room, and the small bed rooms were located on a very dark rear court and the living room faced a narrow side Street.) In addition, each of the apartment’s three and a half bathrooms was accessible only by walking through a bedroom ( Ill. 1 ). Furthermore, the apartment had a strange layout. The working end of the kitchen was about fifteen feet away from the dining room and there was no room in the kitchen for a small table. The couple decided to buy the apartment on condition that these problems could be resolved by renovation.

The apartment was measured, and plans of the existing conditions were drawn at ¼” = 1’-0”

( Ill. 1). Some investigation assured them that the structure of the building consisted of steel columns and beams. It was presumed (and confirmed by the superintendent) that the thickened sections of the walls contained the building’s columns or the pipe chases for the heating, plumbing, and electrical systems. Since these items could not be removed or relocated, they were darkened on the plan. The thick wall areas near the toilets were assumed to be the location of the waste line. Since these locations were critical for the placement of the kitchen and bath rooms, they were darkened as well.

It seemed obvious that at least one of the river- view bedrooms would have to be sacrificed to open the view to the communal spaces. Two options came to mind: the first made bedroom #3 into the living room and the second converted bedroom #1 into the dining room.

The first option required the removal of the partition between bedroom #3 and the dining room. An overlay of tracing paper was taped to the plan and the concept was laid out ( Ill. 2). The existing living room would become a bedroom, bedrooms #1 and #2 would remain as they were, the maid’s room adjacent to the dining room would be converted into a kitchen, the existing kitchen and the remaining maid’s room would become small bedrooms. Some doors could be altered to make the bathrooms work better. This plan seemed to meet most of the established criteria. The only problem was an aesthetic one:

the foyer would receive even less daylight than in the current arrangement, and the living room— with its magical view—seemed tucked away in a remote corner. This scheme was put aside for a while pending an investigation of the alternative solution.

The second option combined bedroom #1 with the existing living room to form a large living- dining-room complex with river views. An over lay of tracing paper was taped to the plan and a large L-shaped living-dining room was sketched over the existing corner bedroom and living room. The problem with this approach was the location of the new kitchen. At first the couple thought they would leave the kitchen in its original location. This concept was rejected immediately because the kitchen would be too far from the dining room.

A possible solution was to convert the middle bedroom into an eat-in kitchen. The adjacent bathroom ensured that the requisite plumbing was nearby and , as an added bonus, the kitchen would have a lovely view of the river. Yet another overlay was taped to the plan and the new living- dining-kitchen arrangement was sketched out. The remaining rooms were assigned as bedrooms; the two former maid’s rooms and the former kitchen and dining room were to be four children’s bedrooms ( Ill. 3). (It was decided that the housekeeper, only there on some weeknights, would sleep in one of the rarely used small bed rooms.) This seemed to be a very good solution. Only two problems remained. One: which of the two children who made the apartment their full- time home would be assigned the huge former dining room and which child would occupy one of the small back bedrooms? Two: the bathrooms were now in very inconvenient places. Both these problems seemed insoluble. After some deliberation this scheme was rejected for the above reasons and because the couple was reluctant to sacrifice yet another river-view bedroom.

The first option was beginning to look like the leading contender, but the couple decided to give the second option one last shot. They explored the possibility of removing the bathroom and closet adjacent to bedroom #1 and making that area into an open kitchen ( Ill. 4). This solution actually worked! Bedrooms #2 and #3 would remain as sleeping quarters, the dining room be came a bedroom, as did the three rear rooms. They were happy with the living-dining room in that location and suspected that they would be able to see the river as soon as they entered the apartment. Unfortunately, the two-and-a-half- bathroom solution was still awkward.

On the next schematic go-around the couple decided to enclose the kitchen and have a separate dinette for informal dining . This decision necessitated demolishing and reconstructing some non-load-bearing partitions, but the expense would be worth the effort. The apartment now had two and a half bathrooms instead of three. It was decided that the narrow bathroom at the rear of the apartment could not be enlarged easily to include a tub and a lavatory. The couple decided to demolish the maid’s bathroom and in corporate the space into one of the small bed rooms. After difficult deliberation they decided to sacrifice one of the rear rooms and convert it into an extra-large bathroom. A few overlays later they realized that the allotted space was large enough for two bathrooms, one with access from the rear hail and the other from bedroom #3 ( Ill.5). The schematic design phase was successfully completed.

While drawing the hard-line preliminaries additional details were added: the line of closets between bedrooms #1 and #2, the computer center in the space of the former pantry, a washer-dryer closet, and a wall of built-in book cases in the rear hall.


After a long search, Sarah and John Simon, a professional couple with a young child, purchased an 1880’s townhouse in a historic district in New York City. The house had been in the same family for generations and was virtually intact. They loved everything about the house, the woodwork and plasterwork, the fireplaces, the parquet floors, even the old icebox. In plan, the building was a typical Victorian row house with four long and narrow floors. The first floor housed the kitchen and dining room. In addition, this floor had a service entrance and the only access to the back yard. The formal entrance and the traditional front and back parlors were on the second floor. The first and second floors had the nicest details. The third and fourth floors were reserved for the bedrooms and bathrooms.

Although the Simons wanted to modify the house as little as possible, they were aware that their functional requirements were quite different from those of a turn-of-the-century family with live-in servants. To begin with, they needed professional office space. John, a principal in a small interior design firm, was tired of commuting to work and wanted to carve office space out of his new home. The Simons also wished to make the new kitchen and backyard more accessible to the rest of the house. Other considerations were the upgrading of the finishes and electrical system and the provision of additional bathrooms and closet space.

The Simons went to the building department to look for plans and information on the building. Nothing existed on record. They checked zoning ordinances to determine whether an interior design office was permitted in their building. Luckily, because the house was located on a commercial street, office use was allowed. Having no floor plans, the Simons started by measuring the building and drawing plans of the existing conditions ( Ill. 6).

With the plans in hand, a number of design options (and limitations) became apparent. The existing kitchen space was so large that the new kitchen could be designed as a combination kitchen—family room with easy access to the backyard. This would allow the formal dining room to remain intact. The service entrance could serve as a mudroom and a place for bikes and provide convenient access to the kitchen, family room, and backyard. Sufficient space would still remain for a half bathroom and washer-dryer. The second-floor parlors would be restored to a gracious living and entertaining area. Two bed rooms and a bathroom would remain on the third floor. If necessary, a small third bedroom and a second bath could be provided at a future date. The top (and least interesting) floor would be re served for the office suite with its own separate bathroom ( Ill. 7).

The major drawback in this scheme was the location of the office. Although the top floor would provide the office with privacy and light, clients and office personnel would have to go through the entire building to get to it. There would be little or no privacy for the family during work hours. Sarah and John took a second look at the house. By using the service entrance as an office entrance, they would gain privacy for the office and the family. The entire first floor could then become office space. The biggest problem with this solution was that the kitchen would have to be moved to another location. The back parlor seemed the most likely candidate. The parlor floor would have a living room in the front and kitchen—dining room toward the back. Access to the backyard could be provided by converting one of the existing windows into a door leading to a deck and staircase.

The existing third-floor layout was not altered. The Simons would have their master bedroom and family room there. The fourth floor had two small and two large rooms. One of the small rooms would become a combination bathroom—laundry room, the other one a study. The two large rooms would remain as bedrooms ( Ill. 8). This solution pleased the Simons. It not only pro vided them with all the spaces they wanted but also minimized the amount of changes needed in the existing layout.

Having solved the overall space planning, the Simons moved on to designing specific areas. The kitchen was one of their primary concerns. The parlor floor had a wealth of woodwork and detailing which they wanted to retain. The back parlor, where the kitchen would be located, had a fire place, two large windows, two large closets, and two beautiful sliding doors leading to the front parlor. It was difficult to add a new wall to divide the room in two. Without a wall, there was little or no wall space left for kitchen cabinetry. Sarah and John’s first step was to redraw the back parlor plan to a larger scale (1/2” = 1’-0”). This scale allowed them to show all existing moldings and detailing. Over the enlarged plan, they placed a layer of yellow tracing paper, on which they traced everything they wanted to keep ( Ill. 9). There was only one length of wall that could be used for cabinetry. They drew in the refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, and sink. There was no room left for any other cabinetry. John suggested get ting rid of the two closets in order to get a larger stretch of wall ( Ill. 10). This approach would give them more cabinetry, but Sarah felt the room would look incomplete without the closets and woodwork. In addition, she did not like the idea of a kitchen strung along a single wall.

Having decided that the room should remain intact, the only choice left was to create a floating element within the room. It could house one or two of the appliances and give more counter and storage space. This element could also serve as a visual baffle between the kitchen and dining areas. The existing plumbing risers were located in the party wall. It seemed the most logical place to locate the sink and dishwasher. After drawing the sink and dishwasher in plan, they discovered there was still enough space for the refrigerator. Thus the only appliance that would be in the floating unit was the stove. They realized they did not have a lot of storage space and decided to use one of the closets as a pantry ( Ill. 11).

With the basic layout in place, the Simons proceeded to look at the kitchen in elevation. They projected lines from the plan and gave them appropriate heights (counters at 36” high and over-head cabinets at 18” above the counter height). They decided to leave the floating unit low, with out cabinets above, to avoid competing with the architecture of the room. To prevent pots and pans from slipping over and in order to hide any mess on the counter, they extended the side of the unit facing the dining room one foot above the counter ( Ill. 12).

The next decision concerned materials. Sarah wanted a practical kitchen that would be easy to clean. Plastic laminate seemed the most likely candidate. John was somewhat skeptical about plastic laminate, for he was uncertain how a con temporary material would blend with ornate woodwork. They explored the possibility of wood cabinets, but decided they simply could not afford the type of wood and workmanship that would stand up to what already existed in the room. Not being able to match the existing, they chose to contrast it. The house’s architecture would remain intact but the cabinetry additions would be contemporary.

Going back to the plan of the room, they made the window closer to the kitchen into a door to the deck. Zoning regulations dictated a 30’ back yard, which left them with a deck 10’ in depth.

They would have preferred it larger but it seemed adequate. They needed to decide whether the deck should span the whole width of the house or just part of it. Although the entire width seemed preferable because it would give them more room, they realized that such a deck would significantly reduce the amount of light available to the office below. The deck became 14’ wide rather than the full 22’ ( Ill. 13).

There was not much work to be done upstairs. The third floor would remain as it was. Existing sinks were left and used as part of a dressing area ( Ill. 13). The fourth floor needed a bit more plan fling. The small room in the back became the bathroom since it was directly above the existing bathroom on the third floor. The bathroom did not have to be large. They also realized that by locating the washer and dryer in the same room, they would save themselves a lot of plumbing work. They again redrew the plan to a larger scale and laid out the fixtures: a lavatory, a water closet, and a bathtub. There was only enough space left for either a washing machine or a dryer, not both.

They had two choices: either to get an apartment-size washer-dryer, with one unit set on top of the other, or to replace the bathtub with a shower. Since they already had one tub downstairs, they decided it would be better to have the larger appliances and forgo the tub for a shower ( Ill. 13).

Finally, there was the office floor. The interior design firm was rather informal in structure. It needed an open layout with lots of drawing tables, a conference area, a space for computer and typewriter, and a separate powder room. As they had done for the other floors, Sarah and John placed tracing paper over the existing plan. They traced those areas they wanted to keep. The old dining room had oak wainscoting, a beautiful fireplace, a marble breakfront, and a bay window. It had to remain intact. The old kitchen, on the other hand, had little left to offer other than crumbling plaster and a linoleum floor. It became apparent that using the front dining room as a conference and presentation room was a good idea. The back area offered wall space for drawing tables and a center section could be carved out for computer and typing facilities. The powder room was located as close as possible to the plumbing risers ( Ill. 13).

Sarah and John once again reviewed the overall plan. They had managed to incorporate all their functional requirements without much disturbance to the building. With the preliminary schematic plans at hand, they were ready to proceed with the development of more detailed drawings.


The Harris-Bankses had designed and built their own house approximately ten years ago. At that time they were not able to build as large a home as they had originally wanted. Instead, they de signed an efficient “core” home which satisfied their immediate needs and planned for future expansion. When they built their home they had a young son. Ten years later, their son was twelve and they had another son, age five. June continued to work as a newspaper editor. Her husband, Murray, a writer, did most of his work at home. It became clear that their two-bedroom house was no longer adequate for their family needs. It was time to expand.

The Harris-Bankses’ house was rather compact. It was organized around a central core element which housed the bathrooms and kitchen. The other spaces—the living room, dining room, den, and bedrooms—flowed freely into each other ( Ill. 14). This quality was important to June and Murray and they wanted to maintain it in their renovation plans. Their life style, of course, had changed over the years and some of the spaces they had once dreamed of for their expansion were no longer applicable. They did need another bedroom and a family room. In addition, they wanted to enlarge the kitchen and make the half bath downstairs into a full bath. Finally, and in the category of “wish list,” they wanted to pro vide a space for the new grand piano.

Fortunately, the Harris-Bankses had been very methodical in their original design and planning. They were particularly careful about the location of the house on the property. For this reason, there was room for expansion in all directions with no problem in terms of setback requirements. Not having to worry about zoning, June and Murray concentrated on issues such as the view and circulation problems within the house. The nearby pond was seen primarily from the south and west of the house. Both June and Murray enjoyed this view and did not want it disturbed. The combination of the space layout and the roof configuration made expansion to the west rather problematic. The north seemed the most logical direction.

It was time to start the yellow trace overlays. The best location for the family room appeared to be downstairs as close as possible to the kitchen. June drew a rectangular space north of the kitchen extending the full length of the house. She made this space 12’ wide since it was the structural module which had been used in their original de sign. She then moved the entrance door from its existing location to the new outside wall. The space she had just drawn would give them a 12’ X 32’ family room ( Ill. 15). They did not need a room that large. They kept the area closer to the kitchen and cut off the room where the front door to the house would be located ( Ill. 16). With the space outline for the first floor laid out, they put down another layer of yellow trace and examined the second floor. A bedroom could be built directly over the family room with access from the top of the stairs ( Ill. 17). They liked this scheme because it did not involve changing much of the original house layout.

With some basic decisions at hand, it was time to figure out how the half bath and the kitchen could be made larger. Looking at the half bath, they realized that they could not move toward the den or the mechanical room. Extending toward the kitchen would necessitate reworking of the plumbing and the kitchen cabinetry. Worst of all, the kitchen would lose space. The logical place for enlargement was toward the new family room. They drew lines north and incorporated the existing hallway and closet into the bath area ( Ill. 18). There were problems with this solution. Not only would they lose access to the kitchen but they would also lose a good amount of closet space. Perhaps a long line of closets along the north wall of the family room would replace what had been lost to the bathroom expansion ( Ill. 18). Although this seemed like a good idea at first, they realized that stealing 2’ for closet space from a 12’ room would not give them the kind of family room they wanted. They tried placing closets perpendicular to the entrance door. This approach solved the issue of closet space and it also provided the family room with privacy from the entrance ( Ill. 19). The pieces were beginning to come together.

A further advantage to the bathroom enlargement was additional wall space for the kitchen. Laying out the new kitchen space, the Harris Bankses decided to eliminate the eat-in area and extend the kitchen counter on both walls. They would remove the present greenhouse window and install a larger greenhouse in the family room, which could serve as an eat-in area ( Ill. 19). The bathroom remained to be laid out. With the lavatory and toilet left in their existing locations, a shower could be incorporated in the new space. The bathroom entrance would be from the en trance hallway ( Ill. 19).

It was time to move to the second floor. The new bedroom could easily fit over the family room. The entrance would be at the top of the stairs and there was still room for closet space. They loved the deck in the existing master bed room, so they decided to include another deck in the new bedroom ( Ill. 20).

Happy with their design, the Harris-Bankses looked at the house in elevation. Since they had their old drawings, they simply traced over them and accounted for the new spaces. The south elevation remained the same. The east elevation with the new extension looked rather handsome. They overlaid the north and west elevations ( Ill. 21). The house looked different; it no longer had the self-contained quality of the original design. Both from the north and from the west, the new extension looked tacked on. They tried to see what these elevations would look like if the ex tension ran the full width of the north side. Carrying the existing roof slopes over on the north and west elevations, it became clear that a full-width extension seemed better integrated into the building ( Ill. 22). In addition, they could change the living room’s west window to a door and gain easier access to that side of the property.

The Harris-Bankses had to go back to the plans. By making the extension the full width of the house, they now had a space between the front door and the west wall ( Ill. 23). The living room could not be extended into this space since the existing stairs were in the way. Perhaps this space could accommodate the grand piano. After giving it some thought, they decided it was a good idea. June and Murray had always enjoyed the feeling of walking into their double-storied living room. The space for the grand piano would have a ceiling with a pitch similar to that of the living room. Both areas could seem like part of one large open space. They were pleased. The new extension not only satisfied their functional criteria but also offered them the type of spaces and character that they had always enjoyed in their house.

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