Kenny Neighborhood Newsletter – Growing and Aging in Place

Retooling Ramblers and Other Mid Century Dwellings for Today’s Needs

Laura Bischoff hears from a lot of Kenny residents who struggle with the layout of their houses. As a Kenny resident and interior design professional, Laura is frequently contacted by prospective clients who are challenged with the space constraints of the postwar ramblers and bungalows that are predominant in Kenny.

“People don’t actually hate their homes,” explains Laura. “Often people may feel they’ve outgrown the confines of what they intended to be a ‘starter house,’ and they’re torn between their desire for more space and their desire to stay in Kenny.” Last summer’s Kenny Neighborhood Newsletter told the stories of several neighbors who chose to expand and remodel their homes rather than move to larger-footprint houses in the suburbs. Laura feels her job as a designer is to help a client determine how to best make their house suit their needs – an approach that often stops short of a major remodel. “It’s often possible without making huge structural changes. Some do-it-yourself projects with lighting and cabinetry,combined with smart furniture choices, can really revitalize a space and make itwork a lot harder for you.”

“Sometimes the hardest part of any project for many homeowners is simply getting started,” Laura says. “An easy place to begin might be hiring a designer for just a few hours to walk through your home with a fresh pair of eyes-mapping out many possible ideas along the way. We are in the solution business and have probably worked with spaces similar to yours. But you don’t always have to hire a designer to make meaningful changes. Get ideas online, buy some software or talk to a builder or an architect. Or simply invite a trusted, objective friend over for a cup of coffee or glass of wine and see what ideas you may generate on your own.”

Laura stresses the importance of trying to reduce your “stuff.” “In smallhouses try to change your thinking from ‘what do I need to get rid of’ to ‘what can I give away.’ That minor change in outlook will greatly change your outcome.” I tell clients to try to give away one third of what’s in their cabinets and closets. I could do that right now in my own home … and I’m a designer! Asking yourself what you cando without is the first modification to make – and it’s free.”

When Laura meets with a client, they always start with a master plan walkthrough and brainstorming session. She explains, “The focus of our initial meeting is to discuss what they would want to do in the room if they could. What is it that’s not working for them? You can’t redesign a space until you’ve first defined what you want it to do.

”Defining what you want a space to do hinges on a few factors. Obviously, the size of your remodel budget is critical, but the ages and makeup of people in the household are important factors, as well as the amount of time a homeowner is planning on staying in the home. “Lots of clients say they’d love to grow old in their homes if they could just manage to survive the small space while raising a family.”

Laura counsels families with young children to try to bear down and get through it. “When you have young kids there are just a lot of extra items in your house, and it feels like you have no space. I have clients who want to create a huge budget to blow out the back of their house for a family room and kitchen expansion. I say ‘Just be sure it’s necessary. Your kids are going to be out of here in 10 years.’ To them it seems like a lifetime, but they quickly discover that in reality it’s nothing!”

Laura stresses that this is a time when effective storage is most critical. Some of her recommendations:

• Create storage options that allow kids to help pick up and understand where everything goes. Hooks, open shelves and baskets strategically placed make it easy to get things in the right place.

• Use loft, trundle and captain’s beds to reclaim floor space in kids’ rooms so they serve as play, sleep and study spaces.

• Don’t allow your living room to be dead space. Make it the new family room and stay upstairs. (More on that later.)

When young kids aren’t part of the picture, homeowners begin reevaluating their living spaces, taking the opportunity to redecorate and buy furnishings that are a little nicer, in part because they’re a little less apt to be ruined by the youngest members of the family. (Author’s note: My fiancée notified me that because she has two teenage boys we are still in the “we can’t have nice things” phase. Be aware that the release point into the “now I can make my space my own” phase varies from family to family.)

“Most of my clients express that they want their living spaces to flow together more effectively rather than being a series of disconnected rooms or cordoned off spaces,” Laura notes.

“There are some cost-effective nonstructural changes you can do yourself, or with quick help from a handyman, that will really help tie things together.”

• Remove heavy window treatments to simplify the space and draw attention to the natural light.

• Use a monochromatic wall color scheme in all open spaces rather than painting each room a different color. You can add accent color to individual walls, furniture and accessories to make the space come alive.

• In the finished upper floor of a 1-1/2 story home, use accent colors on both ends to bring the space in and make it feel less like a tunnel.

• Add interior and exterior glass doors to bring in and share more light. Exterior doors can have pull shades for privacy, and you can frost glass with an easy-to-use product that’s similar to contact paper.

• Eliminate wall-to-wall carpeting and use more area rugs. Rooms flow into one another better without flooring changes, and most post-war homes have nice hardwood floors beneath the carpet.

“When it comes to furniture in a small home,” Laura points out, “I first encourage my clients to stop battling wrong-scaled furniture. A lot of new furniture is large and overstuffed, which works fine in a huge great room but not very well in the living room of a rambler.” Some furniture tips:

• Reduce the scale of furniture and keep it low. In smaller homes, chairs and couches 30-33 inches high are optimal.Use curved furniture whenever you can. It adds community, improves flow, removes hard edges and fits tight spaces better.

• Add glass tables and Lucite chairs, which have less visual weight and give the illusion that a room contains less “stuff.”

• If you have furniture that you inherited or received as a gift that isn’t working well in your space, make an honest evaluation of whether its emotional value is greater than its practical cost.

• Use multitasking furniture and storage solutions. Ottomans can serve as storage, tables and extra seating. Stools that include under-top storage are handy, and they’ll travel all over your house wherever additional seating or storage is needed. This is particularly necessary with kids in the house.

• Choose and arrange your furniture for the way you’ll use it 95% of the time. You may host book club four times a year, but you don’t need a living room that can always seat 20 people. If you regularly host three other couples, a space that comfortably accommodates eight is a sensible goal. One admonishment Laura has for her space-starved Kenny neighbors: “Use your living room! If you’re not spending time in the space, think about how you can change its traditional, formal arrangement to work for your needs. Everybody goes to the basement to watch TV but with a flat panel display you can tastefully mount it or put it in a cabinet without making a TV the focus of the room. Don’t get a display that’s too big for a small room, though. It actually degrades your viewing experience.

“If lighting is an issue, consider adding overhead or sconce fixtures Ramblers offer easy access from the attic to add or modify fixtures and switches. Also, consider converting your wood-burning fireplace to gas. You can use it eight months of the year and get a heating benefit from the efficient new units.”Above all else, Laura has one small home mantra to which she always returns: Storage, storage, storage. “If your closets and cabinets aren’t efficiently designed, you’ll feel like you’re bursting at the seams. Gutting and redesigning your closets might be all you need to do to reclaim your space. If you don’t have a large budget, redo one at a time. As soon as you overhaul one closet, you’ll realize what a difference it makes and you’ll want to do them all.” Some additional storage advice from Laura:

• Consider removing existing closets and replacing them with modular furniture to give yourself design and architectural flexibility.

• Investigate installing custom cabinetry instead of big box store cabinets. Small houses benefit from custom solutions Do your homework and you’ll find many affordable local shops.

• Run cabinets to the ceiling. The extra 12-18 inches is significant and there’s

no benefit in letting it remain dead space.

• In the finished upper story of a 1-1/2 story home, build dressers and finished closets into roof pitches to avoid the need for furniture.

• Install hanging pot racks in your kitchen to free up critical cabinet space and add visual flair.

• Add pullout cutting boards or cabinets with drop lids to create extra kitchen counter space on demand.

• Use under-bed storage for offseason clothes or the set of your mother-inlaw’s china you just acquired.

As a designer, Laura has participated in a lot of remodeling projects that involve significant structural changes and acknowledges that nothing adds space like actually expanding a home’s square footage. “If you have the time and money and can manage the inconvenience, a major remodel is of course a great way to transform a small home. But I want to help my clients understand that they don’t need to break he bank or live in sawdust for a year to be able to make their small house work great for them.”

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