Forever home? Residential architects reimagine and improve domestic livability

One trip around the sun. Fifty-five weeks. 9,288 episodes of The Crown. No matter how you count, it’s been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Confined to our houses during lockdown — and continuing to work or learn remotely after — we are all hyperaware of the perks and shortcomings of the places we call home. As homeowners reemerge vaccinated and with stimulus checks in hand, many are looking to fix some of the flaws they’ve noticed over the last year.

Getting into the Great Outdoors
Under stay-at-home orders last spring, access to outdoor spaces became a high priority. As the weather improved, entertaining outside was a pandemic-friendly way to visit with friends and family, but not every home is designed with easy outside access.

“Requests for outdoor spaces are exploding,” says Stephanie Labbe, AIA with SKL Architecture. “It’s a trend we were seeing pre-pandemic, but also partially because of COVID, people want their friends over, but not inside their houses.”

Built outdoor spaces — a deck, covered patio, front porch, screened in porch — benefit from the involvement of an architect and their knowledge of both design and construction.

“We approach an outdoor space the same as an indoor one: how the spaces relate to each other,” says Brian Gernetzke, AIA with WiFiVE Architects. “We look at the flow, connection to the kitchen, tying into the roofline, where the sun is rising and setting, where you need shade and at what time of day.”

Outdoor spaces not only provide a venue for safe gathering, but access to the outdoors is important for our health. Views of nature and increased sunshine can reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and enhance our moods.

“It’s about extending the amount of time people are able to spend in their outdoor spaces,” says Jonathan Wood, AIA with Wood Architects. “Some spaces can be used year-round with the addition of heating elements or removable windows.”

COVID, Your Name is Mud Room
The pandemic launched a fervor for handwashing and sanitizing. Design writers have speculated this will translate into demand for half-baths added to foyers and mud rooms. But the mud room addition has been increasing in popularity for years and local architects aren’t yet seeing a proliferation of powder room requests.

“The mud room is an important feature because you’re coming into your house and you want to take off your coat and shoes, drop your bag,” said Wood. “If you don’t have a designated place to do that, your stuff ends up all over the place, like on the dining room table and floor. Having that space is important COVID or not. Its somewhere you bring your dog in from the rain and deal with their muddy feet.”

In older homes, the addition of a mud room can connect the home to the garage or driveway, providing additional storage as well as a transitional space that helps keep the entire house cleaner.

A Space for Kings and Queens
As the pandemic grinds on, it has negatively impacted our mental health with increasing reports of anxiety and depression. Creating a restful sanctuary in the home can improve relaxation and restoration. The master suite, long celebrated on HGTV and in new construction, is even more popular now.

“[The] number one renovation request is a master suite addition,” says Labbe. “People living in older homes want a bigger bedroom with an attached bathroom and bigger closets.”

Architects develop creative solutions to make the best use of existing space or an addition. When a walk-in closet isn’t possible, adding a dressing room area that leads into the master bath can fill that need.

“The McMansion giant bedroom with a fireplace, bookshelves, and seating groups isn’t what people are asking for anymore,” says Gernetzke. “Clients want something comfortable but not huge. The jacuzzi soaking tub is out. We’re seeing more wet rooms or big showers and fewer double vanities.”

Walk-in showers are also an element of Universal Design: design features that can be used by all people regardless of their age, size, or ability. Wider doors and hallways make it easier to move furniture, like those king and queen mattresses now and, in the future, to navigate with a walker or wheelchair.

Reports of the Death of Open Floor Plans are Greatly Exaggerated
Design publications from coast to coast have speculated that the open-kitchen-dining room-living room concept will be a casualty of COVID-19 as mom, dad, and 2.5 children will demand separate, walled offices and study space. In some cases, that may be true, but it’s not the trend architects are seeing in greater Cincinnati.

“The pandemic hasn’t overridden the way people want to live in their house,” says Wood. “Whomever is cooking in the kitchen doesn’t want to be isolated from everyone else.  As people are spending more time at home, it can feel even more cramped. Opening up rooms can make it feel like you have more space.”

While the open plan is here to stay, there is a new emphasis on creating flexible spaces that can serve multiple purposes. Building a new addition isn’t an option for everyone, but going through the design process may reveal better ways to use existing space and help keep work or school separate from personal space. The spare room may be the office by day and fitness area before or after work. A laundry room may have a dropdown desk for schoolwork.

Find a Design Partner
Buying, building, or remodeling a home is a major investment. Architects can help homeowners maximize their dollars and get the outcome they want. For homeowners who view their house as the place where they live their lives, and the equity is a bonus, working with an architect to get a custom solution that fits their lifestyle adds both value and livability.

“Not everyone has a million dollars to spend on their house,” says Wood. “We can do a lot with $50-100k: a kitchen, a deck, changing the flow of the home to allow for more air, light, and improve flow.”

Architects consider the assets and challenges of your home to find the right solution — take out a wall, build an addition, add a second floor — for your site and budget. Buying plans off the internet is easy but ignores the orientation and topography of your lot and the unique needs of your family.

“Working with an architect is totally worth it because you get what you really want,” says Labbe. “I listen to what clients want and I’m aware of the potential that a project could include. I give them options and we tweak one until they get what they want.”

Architects don’t just stamp drawings for a permit. They are design partners with the homeowner, there to tease out what a client wants and share ideas they may not have considered. In addition, most offer a variety of services — they can provide design and drawings, serve as the construction manager, or help with the detailed decisions like cabinet selection and paint color.

These days there is no shortage of inspiration thanks to HGTV, Instagram, Pinterest, etc., but applying those ideas to your 1920s bungalow can be challenging. Working through the design process with an architect — discussing ideas, understanding the current space and structure — helps improve the livability of your home.

“If you have a small project that you think isn’t right for an architect, it shouldn’t stop you from reaching out,” says Gernetzke. “The design process applies no matter the scale. Having the conversation and getting that advice early on — what is the heart of the project, what are the goals, how do you spend your time in the room — will get you a space that works.”

Having architectural drawings also helps ensure contractor estimates are comparable. Drawings that show the project layout and identify specific cabinets or other features will set expectations about the quality of materials and clarify the design.

Ready to Remodel?
Homeowners considering a renovation project can do some homework to prepare in advance.
  1. Budget – HGTV projects that show a family’s “budget” for a project don’t reveal how much of the show’s marketing budget is also used, or the value of sponsor donated products, or that furnishings in the reveal may be on loan for the episode. Decide before you start what you can realistically spend.
  1. Ideas – Collect pictures from magazines, Pinterest, and Instagram, of what you like, even if you can’t explain why a design resonates with you. Conversations with your architect will draw out those answers.
  1. Priorities – List everything you want to achieve with the project then prioritize them from “must have” to “like to have” to “could do without.” 
  1. Timeline – The design process takes time. Once you have plans, the permitting process takes a couple weeks, longer if you need a variance. Many contractors are scheduled six to eight months ahead. When construction starts, it will likely take longer than you expect. Consider what disruption you can live with and for how long.

Your Home is Your Castle
A home is more than a commodity. Although resale value shouldn’t be disregarded, improved livability for the homeowner and their family should be the primary concern of any remodeling project.

“A lot of people would be happier in their homes if they had an opportunity to communicate with the architect and participate fully in the design process,” says Gernetzke.

Investing in an addition or renovation is a major decision for most people. Architects can help ensure that every penny is used wisely.

“I want people to love their house so much that they live in it forever,” say Labbe.

So dream big, do your homework, and find a team that will help you get your forever home.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.