Is Adding On Really the Answer?

This article was written by Yestermorrow instructor Moneca Kaiser to share with the Yestermorrow community.

Your Home-- Is Adding On Really The Answer?

When I was apprenticing as a carpenter, I got to work on some really great additions. Often they were new family-friendly kitchens with tons of counter space, a place for the kids to do their homework, and with casually elegant family rooms off of them. Usually they had two story banks of windows, maybe a fireplace, ambient and task lighting, clear maple flooring… welcoming wonderful spaces. They were grand -- the kind of space we all seem to want to live in these days.

Unfortunately, we’ve been seduced by all those glossy magazines. I’m sure if the people who live in those pages have problems, they’re the elegant kind -- like having been invited to two dinner parties with fascinating guests on the same night. The magazines want us to believe that we need more space.

The underlying message is that more space means there’s a place for everything. Then our house won’t be so cluttered and our mornings will be calm, the kids won’t fight about who’s got who’s mittens because they’ll each have one of those Martha Stewart-style wicker baskets, and they’ll always put there stuff there as soon as they come home. I’ll be able to enjoy that second cup of coffee in the morning, and maybe even glance at the paper instead of playing referee.

This is how we get seduced. The problem is that rarely is an addition the most elegant solution to the challenges of our house. Often the more sensible (and affordable) option is to renegotiate our existing space. The problem with adding on the “aint it grand room” is that it can easily wreck a house. The rest of the house is demoted because it’s dwarfed by the grandeur of the addition. Sometimes an addition is in harmony with its potential, in which case I say, let the excavators roll. But too often it can be like too much water on that precious seed, and you end up with a soggy mess.

Now the “old” part of the house looks just that way -- rooms that were a decent size seem stingy in relation to the “ain’t it grand room,” and they become lonely, forgotten spaces. Lonely, empty rooms and grand additions can suck the life out of a house. They’re also wasteful; in the age of climate change and peak oil, we’re not going to be able to afford to heat these spaces. Small will be appreciated more and more as beautiful; the magic lies in letting it breathe and feel spacious. Gargantuan additions and lonely, empty room are the antitheses of the homey-ness we so desperately need to nourish us and provide refuge so we have more to share with the world.

Still think you need more space? Could be. But the next step isn’t to start planning an addition. The next step actually is to make a list of everything you need and want -- a wish list. Don’t even think about how to achieve it. Then it’s time to get an as is picture of your house and lot. What do you already have, and how are you using it. Then it’s time to play! Draw, scribble, sketch. How can things be re-organized or rearranged to provide you with what you need. Re-imagine the space you have.

Most of the time, we discover that if we rework the existing space, we need much less addition (if any) than we anticipated to satisfy our wish list and maintain the integrity of the house. Compromise is the magic element, but it can be hard to do with visions of dream homes dancing in our head.

Some friends came to me thinking they needed to add on at least a 400 sq. ft. great room because they love to have family gatherings and also wanted a space for their grandchildren to stay over. Their current space just wasn’t working. Their lot could easily accommodate this size of an addition, and it almost made sense until we looked closely at the existing space. In the end, we were able to add just a small foyer (well under 100 sq. ft.) and renovate their existing spaces to accommodate everything on their wish list that really mattered by eliminating all the dead space (see before and after drawings below). Often the problems originate in previous additions that don’t live up to their promise.

So as you imagine your home’s next iteration, think inside the house! There are so many delightful, sustainable ways of transforming a house into a home. And many times, those options are already available under your already built roof. If you listen very carefully your house may even tell you how. Greenspeed!

Moneca Kaiser is a trained carpenter, designer, writer, student of eastern philosophy and owner of Moneca Kaiser Design Build.

the home's floor plan before renovation

home's layout after renovation