In this 2006 file photo, then-owner Nancy Ginsburg kept the unusual decor in her Colonial in Leesburg to help the property stand out on the market. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Francisca Alonso is the co-founder and CEO of AV Architects + Builders in Great Falls, Va.

Ever wish you could transform your home from an inefficient 1980s Colonial into the functional, updated space of your dreams?

According to the American Institute of Architects, homeowners overwhelmingly prefer floor plans that are accessible, bright and open.  Conversely, homes built in the ’80s — or before — are often small, subdivided and simply don’t work for the way we live today.

A traditional Colonial — the basis for so many homes in the Washington area — is commonly defined by a center hall with stairs with two rooms to the left and two rooms to the right.  These four rooms are usually similar in size, compartmentalized and include some variation of a formal dining room and a kitchen on one side and a formal living room and family room on the other side.

The problem is that while most of the rooms are made to be the same size, the reality is we spend most of our time in the kitchen and very little time in the dining room and living room (the two rooms usually found in the front of the house). The result? Half of the main floor is underutilized and half is overutilized.  It’s the definition of dysfunction!

Here are three tips to increase the functionality and value of your home now and for years to come:


The view of a kitchen and family room in a McLean Colonial before renovation. (Francisca Alonso)

• Rethink your floor plan

Create a hierarchy of spaces by determining which rooms get the most use.  Hint: For most families it is the kitchen and family room.

Now, try reimaging your floor plan to serve you better by catering to those high-use spaces. Change the functionality of your home by making your main floor into two key spaces: a great room and a grand kitchen.  An ideal option is combining your formal living room and family room to become one great room.  And here’s the big transformation: Open the kitchen to the dining room so that it becomes one big family gathering place for cooking, eating, entertaining and doing homework and projects.

• Update your lighting plan

De-clutter your home by eliminating floor lamps and table lamps and install recessed lighting using a strategy that takes into consideration general lighting, task lighting and ambient lighting.

Next, look at your windows.  Are they small? Could they be combined to appear larger and let in more natural light? Instead of two side-by-side windows hung 3 to 5 feet apart, could you open the space for one big window?  Another way to bring more light in and make your home feel larger is to add two windows on either side of a sliding door and exchange the slider for French doors.  It’s a great strategy that tricks the eye by giving the illusion of gained space — giving you a bigger home without having to add an addition or change your footprint.

And consider your windows themselves.  Most Colonials feature windows with mullions (also called divided lights) and double-hung windows.  Both “features” obstruct the view, making your home feel darker, smaller and closed off. Remove the mullions and you can transform the feel of your home. While you’re at it, have an architect determine if the windows could be made taller or wider for an even larger transformation.


This is what the McLean Colonial looked like after the renovation. (Stacy Zarin Photography)

• Use finishes and techniques that magically add visual space

Look up.  Do you see soffits and moldings in your rooms?  Both make your rooms feel smaller. An architect can help determine if soffits, bulkheads and moldings can be eliminated or reduced to make rooms seem sizeably larger and allow for more storage by installing taller cabinets in the space once occupied by an empty, room-shrinking bulkhead. Bonus: Installing cabinets that are narrow and taller in a room with 8-foot ceilings will make that ceiling appear higher. Similarly, eliminating moldings automatically ties the eye to the ceiling making it appear higher, as well.

While you’re taking down the moldings, ask your architect to investigate your doorways. By eliminating the casings on interior doors/passages, removing unnecessary doors, and making the openings both taller and wider, your home will seem larger, brighter and more functional.

Flooring is another finish that can make or break the feel of your home.  One way to tie all of the rooms together — and make your home seem larger — is to install the same hardwoods throughout your home, making seamless transitions from room to room.

The same goes for paint.  Be very neutral with paint color and paint all of your rooms in the same hue with a very similar ceiling color.  Making these paint and flooring changes will make a small, subdivided house feel much more spacious and less cluttered.