Straight Talk with Steve: What Are You Doing with That Living Room?

Straight Talk with Steve: What Are You Doing with That Living Room?

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Your grandmother sanitized it. Your own mother never let you go in it, and now you probably have it too: the formal living room. It is most likely adjacent to the dining room that only does duty on Thanksgiving. Byggmeister Architect Steve Baczek sees a whole lot of possibility in those abandoned spaces, so before you add on, maybe you should consider looking in.

Rumor has it you actually talk clients out of additions. Is that true?
Not so much talk them out of it, but I do try to understand the overall goal first instead of just saying, 'O.K. you want a 20-by-20 family room, let's just put that off the back.' I will jokingly say, 'What are you doing with this room here?' Usually it's the one with the old grandfather clock that used to be in someone's mother's house.

It's the formal living room, right?
I call them museum rooms because they hold all the heirlooms and paintings. It's that room that looks really pretty and no one ever goes in. They don't let the kids go in and play in it, that's for sure.

How can abandoned rooms be incorporated into renovations?
Before the first meeting, I ask clients to write up a one- or two-pager on their lifestyle. Then we can really look at what they want their rooms to do for them. Sometimes by shifting one room's function, all the surrounding rooms' usage can be elevated. A great example, is moving the dining room into the formal living room space. Then we can remove the wall between the dining room and kitchen and renovate the space to include a kitchen, family room area, and a mudroom. We may end up building half-a-room's worth of space off the back of the house instead of that whole 20-by-20 addition.

Are clients open to reconfiguring existing space instead of creating a large addition?
About 60 or 70 percent of them are. It's funny because very often those addition conversations start off 'We were at my sister's house over the holidays and they have this beautiful new family room....' The key is to use that first meeting to really understand what the family's needs are and go from there. I am not the type of architect that just says 'Oh yea, we'll just blow out this back wall, add this here, and that there.' When you look at a house with an addition that someone wanted because they found a photo in a magazine or they saw it at their friend's house, it can look really forced. It just won't fit with the home.

Are there budget considerations as well?
Absolutely. The more you can consolidate the remodeling work, the more cost-effective it is. Houses sometimes scream at you, like the kitchen should really have been here instead of there. Moving rooms can work well with a budget because you can get a usable kitchen while the other one is being built, so we don't have to put in a temporary. Rather than putting in all new systems, we can work off accessing what's there. That saves time, labor and materials. The hardest thing is to get people to overcome their perceptions. If they spend X amount they want to see their square footage expand by X as well.

Where should clients' focus their renovation dollars?
There is always that special feature we can add that just makes it work, and it's different for everyone. One recent client was adamant that dirty dishes not be visible from the living and dining areas, so we put in a corner sink and a half-wall to separate it. Sometimes it's a trim detail outside that elevates the look or it could be an elegant window seat in the mudroom. For one client, adding a dog shower to the mudroom bath was the special element because they were near a beach and a pond and the dog and kids would come in filthy. With that shower, the dog gets clean and feet get rinsed before anyone comes into the main living areas of the house. That's where lifestyle and design come together.

You keep mentioning lifestyle, but aren't homeowners still thinking resale value, not just designing to meet their particular needs?
That definitely used to be the case. I call it the Sunday real estate listing mentality; have to have four bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, etcetera. We're seeing a real shift away from that with today's real estate market. People are planning to stay in their homes, so they want them to have the kind of space that meets their needs and lifestyle requirements for the next 20 years. To get there, you really have to ask, 'What do you want the spaces in your home to do for you?' If the architect doesn't ask the right questions to get those answers, then a project can go really wrong. I've actually been re-designing a lot of those 'gone wrongs' lately.

You're redesigning projects clients started with others?
Quite a few. Usually it's because they got the design with everything on their wish list and once the bids came in they can't afford to build it. If we don't carefully consider the budget and work creatively with the client to give them the space that will meet their needs within that budget, then those pretty drawings were just an academic exercise in my office late at night.

Is that the biggest challenge with renovation projects?
You know, you're trusting me to take your house and your dreams and interpret one to create the other. That's the challenge, but that's the part I love. And when it all comes together, often the reality of their dreams wasn't as extreme as what they thought they needed to do from a building standpoint.