In marked contrast to the boom years, homeowners no longer regard their house as an “investment” that will quickly grow in value, enabling them to sell at a profit and move onto something bigger and better. Instead, Dickinson said, they see their house as a “static asset,” whose value will remain more or less the same for the foreseeable future. They’re “staying put,” (the title of Dickinson’s latest book, Taunton, 2011) and pouring their energies into making their houses more livable, not more salable. And their budgets are tight: “They think about every square foot and every dollar,” Dickinson said.
Yet homeowners are becoming more radical in the changes that they want in their houses — “walls that are completely transparent with so much glass mass that visually you feel like you’re directly outside,” Dickinson said. After a long work day in front of a glowing computer screen, owners “from the boomers on down” want to immerse themselves in nature and create their own version of Thoreau’s idyllic Walden Pond.
The challenge that these two trends create for an architect can be daunting. Dickinson is asked to address a litany of complaints about a house that brought its owners to his doorstep in the first place, while creating a strong visual connection to the outdoors and remaining within the existing footprint of the house to keep costs down.
It’s a tall order, but strategic moving of interior walls and increasing the size of some but not all the windows can transform almost any plan configuration, even one that seems as iconic and immutable as a traditional center hall Colonial that’s been a fixture in suburbia for more than 100 years, Dickinson said.
The No. 1 complaint of homeowners who seek Dickinson’s help is their kitchen, the center of family life in most households but small and isolated in older houses. In a center hall configuration, the easiest fix, and one that Dickinson has done many times, is simply removing the wall between the kitchen and dining area to create a large country kitchen with a dining table, island seating and plenty of counter space. The latest wrinkle here is the desire for comfortable cushioned seating within three to five feet of the cooking area, so that the person who is cooking does not have to yell to be heard by family members who prefer lounging on a sofa to an island bar stool after a hard day at the office.
Once the kitchen is integrated into the living area, many homeowners want it to look like a living area, and they elect to remove the wall cabinets. Taking out storage here means adding it in somewhere else, and Dickinson’s favored solution is creating a large walk-in pantry within the new kitchen and dining area that’s big enough to accommodate the 30-serving-size, bulk purchases that are now routine in many households.
The desk and “planning area” where Mom kept her cookbooks and stashed coupons — a hot item in new kitchens 10 to 15 years ago — has morphed into a place for a laptop, where owners can sit and pay bills, and a 1- by 2-foot flat-screen monitor, placed at eye level and close enough to the food prep area that the chef can read recipes, Dickinson said.
Another frequent complaint that Dickinson says he hears concerns living rooms: “They really are dinosaurs for three-quarters of our clients and not used at all.” When a budget allows for a renovation of a center hall plan that is more extensive but remains within the the house’s footprint, he “activates” the living room by removing walls, relocating a back powder room and integrating the freed-up space with the kitchen to create a combined eat-in kitchen and family room across the back that overlooks the nature the owners crave. The front half of the living room can be turned into a formal dining room or some other space that is more useful to the household.
Moving the main family living areas to the back frees up the old formal dining room space on the front of the house to be converted into “service areas” that most households now desperately need, Dickinson said. These include a large walk-in pantry and a multipurpose mudroom foyer accessed from the garage, the place where most car-dependent households enter their houses. The mudroom, requested in all climates, not just those that track in mud, has become a place to store kids’ sports equipment. Dickinson also incorporates a new powder room into this area, and, when there’s enough space, a laundry room.
The home office, a must-have only a few years ago, has shrunk by at least half and in many remodels that Dickinson designs now has vanished. Few homeowners need dedicated desk space or bookcases because they can use their laptop anywhere in the house, and they can access whatever reference material or other information they might need electronically, he said.
How much would such an extensive renovation of the traditional center hall plan cost? Dickinson said that costs vary a great deal across the country but that by staying within the footprint of the house, it can be done “in the neighborhood of $100,000.”
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Michigan. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.katherinesalant.com.