Creative Ways with Interiors: New Spaces for Old Houses

Sometimes your lifestyle and family size will demand an addition to your old house. Although you might make do with existing space by subdividing rooms or by adapting them to unconventional uses, you often risk spoiling the house by those shortcuts. If you are going to live in this house longer than a year or two, you will want to have your space needs satisfied.

In my own home, for example, I needed a very large room (500 square feet) for meetings and entertainment. I might have re moved a nonbearing wall and destroyed two antique fireplaces to gain the space I needed. In exchange, I would have lost the unique functions of two beautiful, symmetrical rooms—a parlor and a guest room—and destroyed two of the four rooms of the original nineteenth-century house. The better solution seemed to be to remove a somewhat awkward, recent porch and to replace it with a 35-foot room across the entire back of the existing structure and extending out to one side. A floor-to-ceiling, arched window, made from a secondhand sash from a house of comparable age, was added on the front of the addition where it extends out from the house. The porch of the addition reproduces the gingerbread found on the front porch of the existing house. In fact, the whole addition consciously preserves the style of the original house, with the exception of a double-insulated glass wall across the whole back, which is admittedly contemporary for the sake of modern materials and convenience. This compromise is somewhat modified by rustic trim, varnished floors of reused, random-width hard pine, and a collection of antique glass on a shelf between the lower and upper windows of this glass wall. I was also able to install a woodstove, which does not barbarize my old house and yet adds some degree of heat to the whole house. Although in some cases one can tastefully add a woodstove to the central hall, mine did not lend itself to that. Since the new addition sits a third of a story lower than the main house, heat rises from it into the central hail and contributes to heating the entire house.

This solution to my space problem had several advantages:

First, I got the kind of space I really needed. Second, I was able to avoid destroying existing spaces in my old house, which I valued for both their appearance and unique functions. Third, I got rid of an obtrusive addition to the house, replacing it with one that looks planned rather than like something that happened by chance. Fourth, I gained an efficient source of additional heat for the whole house.


An addition is a sensible way to make more space of exactly the kind you need. A shed-roof addition added to one wall of your house is the cheapest and most common. It has the disadvantage of blocking off windows in the room against which it's added. Furthermore, unless skillfully done it can look like a cheap add-on.

A free-standing square or rectangular addition, joined by a connecting hallway, is a somewhat less common and more expensive technique. It has decided advantages: It can duplicate the style, roof pitch, and general profile of the main house, is less intrusive on the original house, and leaves the original house windows still usable. Further, it becomes a quite private area in the house.

Innovations in New Additions

A new addition is the place to try out some of the amenities you have rightly avoided while working on the rest of the house, for fear that you would ruin the ambience and architectural integrity of the structure. Additions are the perfect place to try whatever your architectural fantasy craves:

• Super-bathroom with all the gadgets

• Solar-heated rooms

• Special-use rooms for hobbies or recreation

• Woodstoves

• Out-sized fireplace

Here, too, is the place to use the most up-to-date building technology. After putting up with certain inconveniences for the sake of the charm of an old house, in your brand-new addition you will enjoy

• A separate electrical system with plenty of outlets and fixtures that will not put additional burden on the main system

• A separate heating system that will be efficient and cheap to operate

• A well-insulated, energy-efficient addition that makes up for heat loss in the main building and offers a retreat for uncomfortable days

Attic Space

Additions aren't the only way to add space to your house. Another option you can consider is to develop your attic. An attic bedroom or study can be a charming hideaway, and with modern insulating materials it can be comfortable in both summer and winter. Skylights are a helpful innovation to make attic expansion more attractive, for they bring lighting into such a setting without the resort to the much more considerable expense of building several dormers. You can choose between skylights that open to let in fresh air and the less expensive, easy-to-install, double- walled, plastic bubble skylights.

Do not install plastic skylights beneath a tree: The sap and debris from the tree will eventually ruin the transparency of the plastic.


Dormers do add some additional floor space that skylights, of course, don't . While a dormer may seem an ambitious project, if you plan it carefully, build it light in weight, and finish it quickly, you will be all right. Study dormers on other houses and in books, and choose a style as well as a size and proportions that are appropriate to your house, because a dormer conspicuously adds to, or detracts from, the beauty of the house. There are three main types:

Shed-roof dormer: Roof slopes in the same direction as, but at a flatter pitch than, the main roof; often used on houses after World War

Flat-roof dormer: Like a shed-roof dormer, but with only enough slope to allow the water to run off; roofed with double-lap roll roofing, with no nails left exposed and seams sealed with cement alone

Gable and hip-roof dormer: Reproduce the roofs on the main house; much harder to build but often considerably more attractive than the shed- or flat-roof types

(A) Hip-roof dormer. (B) Gable-roof dormer. (C) Shed-roof dormer.

Tips on Building a Dormer

• Make an accurate drawing of the front of your house with the proposed dormer in place, and show your drawing to people whose knowledge and taste you value.

• Use good trim and appropriate siding on the dormer, or your project may resemble a transplanted chicken coop instead of an asset to the house. Because trim materials are expensive, you might rationalize that omitted moldings and cheap siding won’t be noticeable from a distance. On the contrary, people may not be able to tell exactly what you left off, but they will have a distinct impression of something amiss.

• If you cut the hole for the dormer with a reciprocating saw, you can aw right through the roofing.

• Flash the sides into the old roof or if you are soon due for another roof, force a sheet of flashing under the roofing and up under the first row of siding on the dormer, then glue the shingles to the flashing with copious quantities of roofing tar.

Stairways Up to Your New Attic Space

New attic space will necessitate a stairway, and planning a stairway requires some mathematical calculations. If space is unlimited, use the ideal proportions for a stairway, which specify 7-inch risers and 11-inch treads, including a 3/4-inch nosing (overhang). Use the following formulas to calculate all of your measurements before you begin.

Parts of a stairway.

1. To figure the number of risers, take the distance between floors minus the thickness of one stair tread and divide by 7.

2. To figure the height of each riser, take the distance between floors and divide by the number of risers.

3. To figure the ideal width of a tread (excluding nosing), subtract the height of one riser from 17 1/4 inches.

4. To figure the length of the completed stairway, take the number of risers minus 1 and multiply by the widths of the treads (excluding nosing).

It is important to make these calculations accurately, so that the top or bottom step isn't of different height than the others. Steps of uneven height are frightening to climb and lethal to descend.

If space is very tight, your stairway will be quite steep with high risers and treads cut to a minimum. Cut the nosing down to 1/2 inch or nothing at all, or you’ll never be able to descend the stairs without a safety rope! A narrow tread with an overhang will make you miss the next step as you descend, and you’ll go down the stairs as if you were a human toboggan.

Make sure there is enough headroom for a tall person where the stairwell is cut into the upper floor. It would be better to have very steep stairs than to have people whack their heads every time they use your stairs. You could have the distinction of people cursing you for the next eighty years if you don’t get this right. If you are unsure where the stairs are going to come out, don't frame in the stairwell until after the stairs are built

When There is No Room for a Stairway

If space is so constrained that the resulting steep stairway presents an unacceptable safety hazard, there are other options:

U- or L-shaped stairway. If you are making steps that turn, you will need either a landing or wide, pie-shaped steps on the turn, which should be at least as wide in the middle of each tread as the straight steps are.

Circular steel stairs. These are frightfully expensive (unfortunately), extremely handsome, and freestanding (so you don’t need walls to hold them up). They are usually put in a square opening.

Custom-made, circular wooden stairs. Supported from a middle pole by hardwood arms going out like the arms of a towel rack, these stairs, too, if made by a cabinetmaker, will be quite ex pensive. (But see my method of building circular stairs, described below.)

Prefabricated, pull-down, ladder-type staircases. Pull-down stairs are relatively inexpensive and easy to install. You must ascend and descend them facing the stairs.

Building a Stairway

In the past, carpenters went to great lengths to make creak-free stairs. They first routed out the stringers (side members) to contain the ends of the steps and risers, then drove a wedge dipped in glue under each side of the step, into the space they had routed out. Stairs in this tradition are a veritable art form.

Most amateur carpenters today choose to screw cleats to the wall where each step will go and then nail the tread to the cleat It is very important to screw the cleats, with thin, 1 3/4- or 2-inch screws, into something solid (not just plaster lath) at front and back. Most staircases take a lot of stamping and the cleats will come loose if they aren't very secure.

Although this cleat method is a very easy way to build stairs, a better, and more orthodox way is to use precut stringers under each side of the steps. This is fairly easy to do for straight staircases but when you get into U- or L-shaped staircases with pie- shaped steps all the way up, or even just on the turns, the cleat method saves you a lot of complicated calculations: You simply screw cleats to the walls as needed, working from bottom to top.

The Lazy Way to Make a Circular Staircase

1 Figure the riser dimensions.

2 Plot out an L or U shaped area for the stairs

3 Frame in the walls and ceiling hole

4 Line the walls with cheap plywood (not particle board it won’t hold screws well enough)

5 Cover walls with wallboard.

Beefing Up the Ceiling to Support the Room Upstairs

The ceiling joists for the room below your attic addition may need reinforcement in order to serve as the floor joists for your new room. Often it's impossible to add a second joist as large as the original because either the plaster ceiling below interferes or the doubler would stickup higher than the original joist. In such cases, you will have to add to each side of the original joist a doubler that's 1 or 2 inches smaller than the original joist (2x6 for 2x8 joists or 2x4 for 2x6 joists). Even better (and cheaper) is a 5/8-inch piece of plywood sawed into lengthwise strips and nailed on each side of the joist. Because the plywood is only 8 feet long, make 60°-angle cuts where the reinforcers must be pieced, and make sure these joints don't occur opposite to each other on the joist. Be sure to nail the doublers to the joist well.


Balconies, or lofts, are another way of gaining space if your old house has high ceilings. Although they aren't an authentic eighteenth- or nineteenth-century design idea, they add a very nice touch to an old room, especially if you use trim and other ornamentation that suits the style of your house. They can provide extra floor space, access unused space, and add interest to an otherwise plain room.

Use them for:

• Guest beds

• Sewing area

• Study area

• Storage

Basement Rooms

Another possibility is to plan a living space in your basement, especially if one or more walls of your basement is mostly above- ground.

The most fundamental task is to assure that the basement is, and will stay, dry. Normally, this involves three precautions:

1. Eliminating groundwater as much as possible

2. Preventing ground moisture from entering the room

3. Providing for overflow in time of heavy rains or flood

Keeping Things Dry

• Lay polyethylene sheeting before pouring cement floors and behind all masonry walls. If walls already exist, consider covering existing walls with polyethylene sheeting and then applying a. new wood wall covering on top

• Lay plastic drainage tiles under all floors and at the base of all walls. They should be connected with a gravity drain to the outside or to a sump hole, lower than the floor, with a sump pump installed. Be sure to make the whole system slope downhill to the outside or sump hole so that the water won’t settle someplace in the drain A flue tile, filled at the bottom of work fitting around all those steps and nosings later if! )U install wallboard belor. I h ‘ are l)ut iii.

6. Calculate the staircase sections so that. there art ii ic sarn number of steps in each section of the I or I

7. Mark the stair treads on the outside wall and u.niporanlv nail in the ch’ using 4d nails to facilitate adjustment, if necessary.

8. Mark and place cleats on the inside wall in the same manner. If vni are building such a light staircase I.hat y U have a 6xt (or. less desirable, even a 4x4) post around which the stairs pivot, instead of cleats, cut 3/4—inch hoards long enough ii) span the chstanct 1r wi one step to another. l I thu st p and the cleat Sh1( 1111(1 be the saInt. Wi(lth as the Center post.

9. Cut the treads. l’hvy should he at k 1 inch thick or. if possible. 1 1/2 inches. If they art. thin, they should be knot-free. If your circular stairs have no risers, the tread shotili I be of 1 1/2—inch, kia 1— Free lumber. It is soinctiim’s difficult to figure out the angles of pie—shaped steps: cut cardboard f);ltlurns to help get the fit just right. Be sure to make the treads 10 or I inches wide in the middle of the tread. not (1w outside.

10. Fit the riser troin the back side and screw it into the back of the lower step so that it will support the upper step.

Keeping Things Warm

Concrete floors that don't have good foundations on the edges (such as a garage floor where there was once a door to the outside) will be very cold, as the heat will be conducted right out through the floor. Place a layer of rigid foam insulation (and a sheet of polyethylene to keep out moisture as well as cold) on the existing floor and add a new floor surface to alleviate this problem. If your new floor is wood, use treated lumber to avoid possible rot from damp conditions.

If the room has a rough floor, you might lay bricks on it, either set in a bed of mortar or laid in a bed of sand. Sweep a mixture of 1 part cement and 3 parts sand into their joints.

For floors in fairly good condition, simply glue down wall-to wall carpet

Digging Out Basements

In digging out the basement, it's quite important to work carefully around posts and supporting walls. if a house is set on piers (stout, vertical, structural supports, often made of bricks laid chimney-style), one pier alone may very well carry the weight of two or three automobiles, and thus, even when the earth is barely disturbed, that pier could settle 1/16 or 1/8 inch.

The minimum size of the “island” of unexcavated dirt has to be governed by the firmness of the soil. Light, sandy soil is less stable than clay soil. If you have any doubts, leave a large island at first, then cautiously reduce the size of it on one side and install a temporary jack post. Repeat the process on the other side.

Replacing Original Posts

1. Make sure that the concrete will be at least 6 inches deep for an area about 1 foot square just to each side of the post to be removed.

2. Pour the concrete floor and let it harden completely.

3. Put a jack post on each side of the post to be removed. Tighten up the jack post by any means. If you use a jack stop, tighten only until the original post loosens. If you actually pick up the house, you may crack plaster or cause other damage. If you are using wedges, select smooth cedar shingle (not hand-split shingle, which has an uneven surface).

4. Remove the original post. Dig out the dirt on which it rested within the area of newly poured cement to a depth of 2 inches. Fill in the hole with concrete.

5. Cut a treated 6x6, two 4x4s, or a 4-inch steel pipe to the desired length

6. Drive smooth cedar shingle wedges (shims) above the top of the post very tightly. Remove the jack posts.

Although you hope your house hasn’t settled at all, it's not the end of the world if the settling is only slight. One way you will know if it’s not level is if the doors and windows don’t shut properly. A small amount of settling is insignificant and has probably occurred before without you even noticing it. If you feel the problem should be corrected, however, rent a house jack and jack the joist back up about 1/8 inch higher than its final desired level. This allows room for about that much settling on your wedges.

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