Ask the Home Expert

We have a home that was built in the 50’s. It’s a little ranch with two bedrooms and a funky layout. We don’t want to invest so much in the home that it could never be sold for what we put into it, yet at the same time, we would like to make sure that the changes we make help this funky little layout to flow better, to update the living spaces and add a third bedroom. We’ve considered everything from a piecemeal approach to a gut and replace to full on knock down to the foundation and build brand new. How do we go about evaluating each option without incurring a mountain in design plans and expenses?

-G. Lockwood

“This is absolutely the right question to ask,” says David Stern, a principal of Stern McCafferty Architects in Boston who does consultations for homeowners all the time to help them figure out their next step. “We often get calls from people who are exploring their options but aren’t sure where to start. We go to their homes, we walk the property with them, listen to their concerns, and try to get a sense of their spatial needs and their budgetary goals.”

Stern says that a good initial consultation usually takes about four hours, and includes lots of pointing, and “You could do this here,” or “You could do this there.” It’s a brainstorming session, he says, and it “gives homeowners lots of fuel to start thinking about the possibilities.”

According to Stern, a four-hour consultation would cost about $1000, a fee that would be folded into a more thorough exploration if you decided to continue. Some homeowners like to jump into the design process at this point while others prefer to take time to reflect on what was discussed.

If you choose to go ahead and explore options in greater detail, you will need to get a drawing of the existing house (unless you already have available plans with true dimensions). Stern estimates that it would take one person in his firm about a week to do, but it’s a vital step in the process. Actual dimensions will determine what’s possible with a little tweaking, and which ideas will require major work. In a small house, every inch counts!

Armed with a dimensionally correct plan, the architects can begin sketching possibilities, very schematically, more like “bubble diagrams” than plans, says Stern. Along the way, you decide whether or not you want to continue. If time and/or budget are major concerns, make it clear to the architect from the start. They are trained to solve spatial problems with any number of constraints, and should be aware of yours from the start.

Ultimately, an investment of a few thousand dollars in design fees will give you a very good picture of your options, the construction costs, and possible phasing options (why do everything at once?). To me, this sounds much better than blowing the same amount to upgrade a bathroom only to realize that moving it would have markedly improved the overall plan.