The Thinking 

When Is a House Too Big?

February 12, 2013


CHRISTIE writes:

As a housewife and mother raised by a feminist “working woman,” I appreciate your insight into living under a traditional value system. The thoughts you and your readers have shared on your site have been so valuable to me as I figure out how to follow my conscience as a mother in a world that provides no example how to do so.

I am hoping you and perhaps your readers can help me with my current situation. I am blessed to be a stay-at-home mother to two children, and our happy family lives in a cozy bungalow built in 1915 in a lovely old-fashioned neighborhood. We have lived in our house for eight years, and many of the amateur improvements to the house done by the previous owner are reaching the end of their lifespan (plastic stick-on tiles on the bathroom floor are no match for active children, I am afraid). Like many old houses, our house also has been improved little by little, by various owners, for various reasons, over the years, and my husband and I had thought that we would someday have the opportunity to renovate the house and make it cohesive in design and truly functional so that it can last another 100 years. That “someday” seemed to us to have arrived as we needed to do our other smaller repairs, and we have engaged the help of an architect who has years of experience in our neighborhood to help us plan our renovation.

We have been planning for nearly a year and are drawing close to beginning construction. However, I cannot shake the nagging feeling that our plan is wrong. The architect has drawn a beautiful set of plans for us, including lots of natural light and access to the outdoors and achieving our goal of creating a beautiful cohesive home. It just does not feel like MY home, when I look at the plans. The “new” house has three bedrooms, as we asked, but there are now four bathrooms instead of two. It has a lovely kitchen from which I can see out the windows to the backyard where the children can play, but I had to fight the architect to keep a simple functional stove where I can cook our meals instead of a big fancy “range” that looks like a bear to clean with no vent hood to keep the smoke from actual cooking from dirtying the walls and cabinets. And the cozy 1400 square foot house where our babies learned to walk, and where I can hear their sweet voices from any place in the house has gained 2000 square feet more. The size comes not so much from added rooms but from the fact that the new rooms are very large.

Our architect, who is very nice, though I do not think he can really wrap his mind around the fact that I am a housewife and plan to be a housewife my entire life, heard us when we told him that we hope to live in this house for the rest of our lives and assures us that as our children get older, (and especially if God should grant us more), we will want the extra space. We live frugally, and my husband is certain the improvements are well within our budget. We are only considering contractors who build their own cabinetry and do superior work, so we should not end up with a poorly built, ramshackle mess, but a lovely, solid home. And if we should ever have to move, our renovated house will undoubtedly appeal to more buyers for a greater profit. Am I being unnecessarily fearful about the unknown? Am I letting my fondness for the cozy house where we have been so happy cause me to reject improvement without reason? Am I merely horrified at the thought of cleaning that much floor space and that many toilets? Or should I listen to my heart and find another way to “improve” our house without making it gigantic? My husband shares my misgivings, but we are both homey, quiet people and are prone to eschew change for the familiar, no matter what the reason. If I should listen to my heart, what on earth do we do? Do we forget about the money we have already paid for these plans and try again with someone else, or do we keep working with this one until he makes a plan that satisfies the value we place on living “small”?

Laura writes:

Thank you for writing.

Small houses have great advantages, as has been discussed in previous posts herehere, and here. Then again, bigger houses do too. Extra space as your family grows and as your children get older has obvious benefits. You’ll have room for guests, for larger gatherings and for grandchildren. It’s one thing to have useless space or to spend too much, and it’s another to add to the beauty and longevity of a house that you love in an affordable way.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to respond to the actual design of your house without seeing it. Your description of it sounds beautiful. But perhaps smaller rooms, an additional bedroom and fewer bathrooms would make more sense. It’s not for me to judge. I will say that whenever I make a change to a room, even if it’s painting the walls, I hate it at first. You may be suffering from the same syndrome and just need time to adapt to your plan. You shouldn’t fear that your new house won’t be as cozy as there are ways to make large rooms intimate and warm.

May you have many happy years in your home either way.

— Comments —

Mary writes:

This was us five years ago. I’ll tell you how it started and how it ended. Our house was tiny, uninsulated, and falling apart. We had plans drawn up but I had the horrible feeling in my gut that we were overreaching, as nice as they were. Our architect went straight to “big” with the plans because I guess that’s what most people wanted and we got sucked in. But I had the strange feeling that our renovated house wouldn’t be “us”; it was too much of a good thing (although my husband wanted to move forward). I then read a book called The Not-So-Big-House by Sara Susanka. It’s a great read. Although her style is more contemporary than mine, her ideas about creating a home resonated deeply with me. In a nutshell, she explains why people respond intuitively to certain features such as built-in breakfast nooks, window seats, fireplaces, etc.; she suggests ways to cut back on square footage by eliminating spaces that will only be used a few times a year (such as formal dining rooms – we have one eating area we use every day) or by creating rooms to have a dual purpose (office/guest room); and suggests using the funds saved to add details that will make the house feel more like home, with built-ins and mouldings, wood exterior siding, etc. There’s lots more in the book (many libraries have it); there may even be a website at this point.

I prayed hard about it; we drove our sweet architect to the brink of madness. Then we scrapped our old plans and never looked back, redesigning the space to subtract at least 1,000 square feet, of which we now use every inch (it is my casual observation that houses start to feel too biggish after about 2500 square feet but that’s just me; a lot depends on the design). It was difficult to explain to everyone, especially the architect, but we are very happy that we rethought everything. We were able to add some details that would have been impossible financially with the bigger design. Personally I would rather be squeezed together as a family a little tighter than spread apart. Growing up, one of my friends had a huge house and they could avoid each other practically all day.

I would say to Christie that she may very well end up going with what she has, but she should not be afraid to take a little more time to make sure it’s right. We found that a little more design creativity actually came out of limiting space. Another option would be to ask the architect to provide two phases of construction, with the first phase essential changes and the second phase non-essential space that may or may not ever be needed five years or so down the road.

There are lots of great resources online (see here, here and here) but what pops into my mind are a couple of architects who design “new old houses” – they look old but function for modern families. I would visit some sites and examine their floor plans to see if any hit home. Then show them to the architect. If he’s worth his salt he will care only about creating a home that his clients truly love. If he doesn’t maybe they do need a new one.

Buck writes:

Christie Jone’s architect has developed a plan that will increase the size of her house by one hundred and forty percent. I can imagine that he did so without her and her husband’s input. They should have had dozens of meetings and plan reviews and countless discussions. If not, the whole process was flawed from the beginning, and the architect has not served her well.

I’ve been building and whole-house remodeling for thirty years. It’s always an intensely collaborative process. When she says, “but there are now four bathrooms instead of two,” it sorta of sounds as if she didn’t expect the two additional bathrooms. Bathrooms and other mechanical systems are critical drivers of any design. That are not just design elements that are incidentally added, they are the bones of large remodels and often are the very reason whole-house remodels are undertaken.

“Fighting” your architect, shared misgivings by the clients, and the disconnect she describes, is good reason to find another architect. No range hood?

I’d suggest she find a design/build company, where everything is done in house. The first step is a feasibility study, where she defines what she wants and the designer adds value, improvements and practical solutions to her wishes. All of the large practical issues are agreed to before any permit-ready construction documents are prepared. The final permit drawings should be a formality with the layers of details and structural requirements. They will still be subject to change and tweaking, but should be substantially agreed to before they’re even prepared.

She’s going to have to pay her architect for the work that he’s done. Typically architects charge a percent of the build price, which includes ongoing management of the contractor. So she can negotiate what she owes if she ends their agreement.

When a whole-house remodel gets underway, everyone involved will be practically living together for many months. You have to have a good feeling going in. It’s more difficult than most imagine. Having as many doubts as Christie already has, is no good way to begin.

Buck adds:

A reasonable first step for Christie would be to show what she wrote in this entry to her architect.

Laura writes:

Thank you for the excellent suggestions.

Sibyl writes:

If Christie is committed to living her vocation as a housewife, and, I assume, plans to receive happily any other children God may send her, she should not worry that the house she envisions will be too big. Right now she can offer hospitality! Maybe commit one of the new bedrooms/bathrooms to guests. Perhaps she could host foreign exchange students, or host those in need. She could begin to imagine what sort of home arts she would like to learn, and save some space for the supplies and works-in-progress.

Living in a small house with numerous children offers many challenges. We live in a 1700 square foot house with six children. Our living room, which seemed so normal and cozy when we bought it 11 years ago (with kids age five, three, and one), is actually 12 by 12 feet, and the front door opens directly into it — no foyer! And our dining room, which is twelve by ten, must accommodate a table that seats eight: my husband and me, and kids ages 16, 13, 11, nine, six, and four. The second born, by the way, is more than six feet tall. There are three bedrooms, none bigger than the living room, plus a very small finished basement room. We live in the Upper Midwest, which means that about three months out of the year it is literally too cold to play outside. We homeschool the younger four children, and let me tell you, there is little like being indoors for weeks with so little privacy to drive everyone a little batty.

All of that said, we do find ways to cope. But if we were blessed with the ability to add more space and functionality when our kids were little, we would have jumped at the chance. As it is, we thank God constantly that we have what we do — we know families with as many children who do not own their homes but are renting, and we know others who are in good sized homes but sorely wishing there were more kids to fill them. All said, this isn’t meant to be a complaint, but to reassure Christie that enlarging her house will be useful down the road, and may even become tools for charity right now.

Kimberly writes:

I have three toilets to clean and I hate it. It’s not that I mind the actual toilet cleaning, it’s that I never can seem to manage to do all three in one cleaning swoop. That third one always has to be done the next day for the sake of time, which is annoying. Since bathrooms are so yucky, it always feels best to get them all cleaned at once, wash the rags in hot water and bleach, and jump in a nice hot shower. I have three little boys who still miss the toilet. Maybe Christie could handle four better than I can handle three, but I know I certainly would NOT want four bathrooms! I don’t want three.

Jaako writes:

I’d like to point out few things to this subject. First, regarding the renovation of an old building, my opinion is that it should be done “respecting the age and style of the building”. I think this a good advice considering the general atmosphere of this rather conservative blog:)

As I don’t know how the exact plan it’s impossible to comment it in detail. Anyway, old buildings are usually beautiful and personal and the lady in question seems also to have a personal connection to it too. So if the plan means that this old building would look totally different after renovation, I’d take another look at it before starting the job. It’s possible to renovate it so, that house preserves it’s old appearance and still add modern room plans, extra insulation etc. I know that often people have regretted too big changes to an old house later on. Also, the new addition could be designed so that it really fits to the appearance of this house and the whole neighborhood.

As to the question of size of plan, I’d say from my experience that there is plenty of room for downsizing. We live now in roughly 1400 square foot house with four children and we fit here very well. I do plan to add some 600 extra square feet when the children grow bigger and need more private space. As previous commenter here pointed out, extra room means often extra work. It also means extra costs in building phase, extra costs in warming and cooling at summer and finally extra time for cleaning etc. So a house of that size might be best for you if you can afford it but the size really should come from you, not from architect. How much do you really need?

As to the architects, we built a new house for us and tried to use an architect in the beginning. It simply didn’t work as she basically refused to listen to us when we said we don’t need that much that or keep it cheaper etc. In the end we made the general plan by ourselves and it worked fine.

Paul writes:

In my profession as a lawyer, I lay it on the line to clients.  It is assumed the poster is an above average middle-class family rather than an upper middle-class family.  If the poster were upper middle-class, I would not see the point of asking unless gluttony was the worry.  So here goes.

Cut your losses with the architect.  Somehow he got grandiose ideas.  Consider having him scale down the home to 2,000-2,300 square feet with two and a half baths and configure it to allow for an addition should the need arise.  Asking for 4,000 square feet has a low probability for success.  Contending four bathrooms might be needed is asking for a devastating cross examination.

Any fool can make a dollar, but it is the wise man that can save the dollar.  Four thousand square feet is twice the size most above average middle class families reside in even if they have five children.  (Cities do vary widely though.)  Death, illness, job loss, job relocation, or much higher energy costs could be just around the corner.  Real estate deflation has been here for years, and if Obama has his way, a depression is a reasonable risk just around the corner too.  Obama has also floated the idea of a value-added tax, something that Obama’s rich (that is, 4,000 square-foot-types) will need to swallow.

I had a girlfriend who was raised with four surviving siblings (two females and two males) in a cheap ranch-style home that was about 1600 square feet.  (Her also pretty older sister was killed in an auto accident on her way back to college before I knew my girlfriend.)  There were only two bathrooms.  She now is married with three grown children, whose weddings I attended, and has never expressed a single complaint about her former home.  I could go on with similar examples.

No range hood with a lot of home cooking going on is, well, gross to many people.  I personally demolished my kitchen ceiling and wonderful range hood and replaced it with a micro because I don’t cook often and wanted to open up the small kitchen.  I carefully disconnected the fluting, left the hole in a hidden cabinet top, and Sheetrocked the entrance.  Then I could explain to a future owner that the system could be easily re-established by a plumber and a carpenter.  It was great fun.  I have been renovating since I was a young boy.

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