DESIGN: Five strategies for better renovations

view_from_attic_loftThere are an infinite number of ways to build mistakes, but far fewer ways to do things right. That’s why every homeowner looking to build or renovate needs to know something about design. While it’s not your job to be an architect, eventually you’ll find yourself making decisions that either make or break the look and feel of major renovations or your new home.  This is where these five real-world design strategies can pay off. They have nothing to do with colour choices or furniture layout or any of the fluffy things usually talked about in the name of “design”. What you’ll find here are practical, tangible, solid ideas that have helped me over the years. Perhaps they can do the same for you. 

Strategy#1: Make Scale Drawings or Models 


This is one of those ideas that seems like a waste of time until it saves you from a major visual mistake. Then its value is obvious. Even experienced builders can’t always imagine the overall effect of making, say, a home a foot or two higher. Verandah’s and decks can ruin the look of an otherwise beautiful home if they’re too wide, narrow or long. The slope of an addition roof can either enhance or ruin the overall appearance of an entire house. Even window shape, proportions and placement have a huge influence on how your project looks. Finding the sweet spot for all these design details is what a scale drawing or model delivers, and it does this by letting you make mistakes on a tiny and manageable level. If something doesn’t look right, change the drawing or model until it is, then build the real thing with confidence.

Despite years of experience, few builders that I’ve seen have the ability to fully imagine how a house or addition will look in 3D simply based on numbers and dimensions. Homeowners are typically much worse off in their ability to imagine building shapes ahead of time. That’s why creating some kind of scale rendering offers so much value.

A sharp utility knife, some 3/16”-thick foam board, a roll of masking tape, a bottle of wood glue and a ruler are all you need to get started building models. Experiment with window size, door placement and roof pitch on the model. You’ll find a scale of 1/2-inch to the foot is ideal for most homebuilding projects. If you’re handy with computers, you can do the same thing on a screen using a program like Sketchup. Scale modeling and drawing has saved me from making big, ugly mistakes many times. That’s why I never build out of my head.

Strategy#2: Create Light on Two Sides of Rooms

Have you ever noticed how some indoor spaces look and feel terrific, while others seem ugly and sad? Why the difference? More often than not it’s about more than just the quantity of light, but also the quality of light. When outdoor light enters a room from two adjoining sides, it almost always makes a space feel more inviting than the same space with light entering from one side only.

This effect was first noted by the team of six authors behind a classic 1977 book called “A Pattern Language”. Together this team scoured the globe looking for specific reasons why some regions, cities, towns, neighbourhoods and buildings make people thrive and feel alive, while others don’t. They identified 253 specific “patterns”, the most useful for builders being the last ones in the book that have to do with exactly how building design affects the sense of well-being enjoyed by people. Pattern #159 notes how important light on two sides of a room is. It’s not always easy to do, and sometimes skylights or sun tunnels are needed to make it happen when windows can’t be used. But despite the hassles, the results are exceptional

Strategy#3: Go For Steep and Interesting Roofs


When manufactured roof trusses first became popular after WWII, roofs got flatter, plainer, easier to build and considerably uglier. Slowly but surely even truss roofs have been getting steeper and more interesting over the last 20 years. Not fast enough for my liking, but things are getting better.

Computer-aided design means that truss manufacturers can now do a lot more than they could to accurately add gables, dormers and other interesting features to truss roofs with steep pitches. That’s why pleasing roofs are becoming more common.

While it’s true that not all building budgets allow more than the cheapest possible roof, when people realize how much more beautiful and interesting steep and varied roof lines are, it’s surprising how budgets expand. 

Strategy#4: Consider Livable Attics

Back in 2007, two large group homes were built about 25 miles from my house, and their design was both visually impressive and enormously wasteful. The total volume of space underneath the steep and beautiful roof structures totaled more than the volume of the entire living space within the walls, and yet the area immediately under the roofs was completely unusable. Complicated truss webbing and lack of foresight made this space forever inaccessible. A different roof structure would not only have more than doubled the living space in these homes, but it would have created coveted attic loft space – something that most people consider exceptionally premium living areas.

Built right, attic spaces are inviting, mysterious, romantic and rare. They can also be built so they’re comfortable year round. The first key structural detail is adequate insulation of the roof structure. Build with SIPs or use spray foam between rafters. Either way will create a hot, unventilated roof surface. If you’re roofing with shingles, use fiberglass instead of organic asphalt. Fiberglass shingles have no problem lasting under extremely hot conditions that would cause organics to curl in 7 or 8 years.

Strategy#5: Create Transition Zones

No matter how effective exterior doors get, there’s simply no substitute for a transition zone between indoor and outdoor spaces. Builders of old new this fact, and that’s why they built mudrooms, covered porches and awnings over doors. If ever there was a country that needed intentional transition zones between the warmth of indoors and the harsh realities of outside, Canada is it. Why we forgot this truth, I don’t know. But thankfully, I’m seeing more and more builders remember.

No one likes to step out of a house only to feel the full brunt of the elements inches away from the door handle. What you’re looking to create is a realm that’s neither completely inside nor outdoors, a space that eases the movements of people on a practical and visual level. Decks are a feeble attempt at this,  but the lack of a roof is like a hamburger without the patty. That’s why you should consider some type of covered entrance, verandah or mudroom in your projects. People are so starved for this kind of thing that they don’t even know enough to ask for it. Create transition zones and people will love you because they’ll love your work.

None of these five strategies will ever show up on the radar of slap-happy contractors, but that’s fine. The fewer builders who use them, the better off it is for homeowners that choose to use them. And when it comes down to it, beautiful work is always a rare and exceptional thing.

Posted on March 24th, 2016

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