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How to Start Your Home Renovation

Design Plans

You’ve probably been thinking about your renovation for years, now how to actually begin? Start by knowing what you want. Spend some quality time with your household members and really define what you need in your home, write it all down. And then maybe some quality time with an accountant or financial planner to decide how much money you can spend.

Once you know what you want and what you can afford, should you call a contractor first or an architect?

I asked Walter Russell of Home Sweet Home Builders, a full-service construction company focusing on residential remodeling, based in Woburn, Mass.

Call either an architect or a contractor, he said. Soon enough, you’ll need both.

“As an architect, you go into a space and you look at the potential of it. As an expert, you know what might be possible and what might not be possible,” Walter told me. “And when I go into a space, I’m thinking budget – is this within their range?”

Ideally, you should bring the two together early in the project. “Without both, you won’t get an accurate representation of the project, either the scope or the cost.”

Set your scope

Whether you start with a contractor or an architect, it’s time to get a professional opinion about whether your hopes and dreams are realistic. An architect will work up a vision of what can be done and a scope of work, and then the contractor will be able to give a rough budget number based on that.

The scope of work also includes the methods to be used. For example, if you’re concerned with the environmental impact of your renovation, ask your potential contractor and architects if they’re knowledgeable and interested in working with you on sustainability.

Good designers and builders will listen to what you want, but also know how to explain to you the available options, including those that you might not be familiar with. Now’s the time to make sure you’re comfortable working with your architect and contractor, and if not, keep looking- there are many to choose from.

Set your budget

Your designer and your builder need you to be honest about how much money you have to spend.

“Without knowing what you can afford, we can’t really have a conversation,” Walter told me. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and money to start designing a project that’s going to be out of your price range. “Before they invest five, ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollars into the process of building a plan set, they need to understand where this might take them” in terms of total cost”

If your contractor tells you that your dreams will be more expensive than you had dreamed they’d be, then it’s time to reconsider the scope.  You’ll need to reduce the scope or expand financing options.

Plan carefully

I’ve had clients who came in asking for a master suite and a new kitchen but then threw their whole wish list into the project, just to see what it would cost. But that’s a risky strategy. In my experience, it’s hard to cut things out of the scope once you’ve made them real by putting them on paper – or in three-dimensional renderings.

If you try to put everything you want into the plan when you know you can’t afford it, you’re probably setting yourself up for unnecessary disappointment.

You need a master plan that details what’s possible in the space and what the maximum scope of the project could be – what the house and your budget will allow. Having a realistic plan will also help you build a good relationship with your architect and contractor.

Walter said, “A lot of my initial questions when I meet a homeowner are about how prepared they are, how far along are they in the thought process. Do they have plans? If a customer has a plan set, I know that they’ve put the work in.”

Walk don’t run

“I think that the biggest mistake that homeowners and younger contractors get into is that they rush into projects, they don’t plan it through the planning and scheduling processes that need to happen,” Walter said.

No planning out your renovation is like not reading through a whole recipe before you start a new dish.   You’ll get halfway through before you realize you need six eggs that you don’t have. Then it will take all afternoon to make something that should have been much easier. Don’t take that risk on the much bigger scale of your home renovation.   Take your time and be sure you know what you’re doing before you begin.

To hear more of my conversation with Walter Russell, including some ballpark prices for common projects, and mistakes we’ve seen other people make, please check out the first episode of my renovation podcast Talking Home Renovations with the House Maven:

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Before You Design Your Addition

Before you design your addition/renovation, become familiar with these basic code issues and design considerations.

If you’re designing your addition or renovation yourself, there are basic code issues and design considerations that you need to keep in mind. Look to the International Residential Code for specifics (Building Planning, chapter 4) and to the Massachusetts amendments. 

The following is a list of basic code issues that come up in the course of a typical project:

  • Hallways must be at least 3 feet wide and 7 feet high.
  • Stairs in Massachusetts must have a minimum tread of 9 inches and an 8 ¼-inch riser.  The headheight over the entire stair must be 6’8” minimum.
  • The minimum size of a bedroom is 70 square feet, with a minimum of 7 feet in one direction. 
  • A room under a sloping ceiling must have all of the required floor area with a ceiling height of 5’, and at least 50% of the required floor area must have a ceiling height of 7 feet or more.
  • A loft accessed only by a ladder cannot be considered anything other than storage.
  • Habitable rooms must include windows. The area of the windows must equal 8% of the floor area for light, and 4% of the window area must be operable or mechanical ventilation will need to be incorporated.  


  • Every bedroom in a single or two-family home must have a secondary means of egress. This could be a door or a window.  Massachusetts code allows a window with a 5 square foot opening, 21” x 24” minimum clear opening. The maximum sill height of this window is 42 inches. This is to allow the firefighters to access the room with their equipment in case of emergency.  In most cases, a non-compliant window will be allowed to remain in an existing bedroom, but check with the inspector to be sure. 
  • Bedrooms in a basement are tricky due to egress requirements, see above.  The required window must have a window well that is big enough for the firefighters to use in case of emergency.  If a basement is mostly below grade you will likely need to dig out around the bedroom window.  

Third Floors

  • Third floor renovations can be complicated and the regulations vary from town to town. There are restrictions on what can be built on the third floor — usually, 50% of the area of the second floor may be developed on the third floor. The area is calculated using space of a certain height, which varies from 5-7 feet to all useable space. 
  • Restrictions on dormers vary from one town to another, so check local zoning before planning. 

A bathroom CAN open onto a kitchen, but it just feels gross. 

In my interactions with people designing their own spaces, I’ve heard all of those issues come up.

Besides being aware of all these rules, here are some bigger picture questions to ask yourself as you’re beginning to design your addition:

1. Think about your furniture and where it will be able to fit in your renovated rooms. Be sure to examine bed placement in a bedroom, including the width of the bed and the nightstands.  Ideally, you will be able to fit a king-sized bed and two nightstands against at least one wall in the room.  

2. Think about the adjacency of rooms and their uses. How will you and your family be using the spaces? People dream about open plans, but what are they like in reality, and how well would they fit your situation? Keep in mind that life can change a lot in five or ten years. Kids get older, for example. 

3. Speaking of getting older, if you plan to stay in your house for a long time, think about making it easy for people with limited mobility to live in or visit your home. Look into Universal Design, a process of inclusive environmental design that strives to make spaces as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, without the need for special modifications or assistive devices.

4. Finally, if your home is a condo, your project may be more complicated, or not allowed.  For example, you are probably not going to be able to build an addition onto your space. Making structural changes or moving a toilet may impact other units. Check your condo rules before you start planning your project.

When you consider all these basic code issues before you start designing, you will have a smoother, happier renovation.

Not sure how to add all these codes into your dream renovation? I offer a free Project Coaching Call! Contact me to set up a time for our call:

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Kitchen designs

A potential client recently asked me to send her photos of kitchens that I have designed.   I could do that, but I don’t think the photos tell much of a story about me and my design process.  I generally leave all finishes and cabinetry choices up to my clients rather than choose those details for them.   I create the spaces in which their kitchens exist, and I definitely have advice about how I think the kitchen should be laid out, and what kind of cabinetry goes where.  I’ve been thinking about this recently.  Why don’t I choose everything?  I guess I attract a do-it-yourselfer kind of client who tends to know what they want better than I do- they know where they want their spices and how much recycling they would have and what kind of doors they like and how much they are willing to pay for custom features, etc.  To me it makes sense to cut out the middle woman (me) and save money on my fee by doing it themselves.  I help people decide how much of the wall their tile will cover, or what size tiles to place where,  but to me which tile they choose is completely up to their taste.  Sure, I could help them and sometimes do, but generally there is help at the tile store for people trying to coordinate the backsplash with the stove wall with the floor tile.  They may see something that they fall in love with when they are there at the store which they would miss if they left it up to me.  I don’t mind.  I have gone tile shopping on occasion and I enjoy that process, but to be honest that does add to their overall soft costs and I am happy enough to save them that money.

Then how do I communicate my kitchen designs to someone who is contemplating hiring me to design their kitchen space?  I decided to use before and after drawings to illustrate my points.

I work in Massachusetts, where somehow people lived for many years with these kitchens that are full of doors and circulation paths, with no room to the sides of the stove and even the refrigerator in another room.  My clients have gotten tired of living that way and call me for help.

Kitchen A is a great example of the very small kitchen that could barely function with one person it it, had very limited counter space and a bathroom that opened directly onto it.  If nothing else, that bathroom had to change. That is the one thing I just will not allow in my design, a kitchen with a bathroom opening directly into it.  We once rented a house with a toilet in the kitchen with a partition around it.  No.  I had that removed.

Back to kitchen A- the solution there was to expand the kitchen into the adjoining transitional space and push the kitchen out a few feet into the back yard.  We were trying to open up the kitchen to the back yard and to a deck while allowing some space for lounging in the kitchen, an island with stools, and a connection to the eating area in the dining room.  The half bath moved to the other side of the kitchen but with the door in what felt like a small hallway or transition space, rather than opening directly onto the kitchen.  To the right of the refrigerator (“R”) would be a large pull out pantry area for food.  There were upper cabinets to the right of the stove for dishes, easily accessible to the dishwasher.

In no particular order, here is a list of kitchen considerations that are illustrated in kitchen A’s before/proposed drawings.  I answer all of these questions with each of my kitchen designs:

  1. Consider the connection to the exterior from the kitchen.  What should that relationship be?  Is it a main entry to the house?  Casual entry? How much of a visual connection is desired? Will the entry be used frequently in the winter?  How important is an air block?
  2. Where can the first floor half bath go that will not open up onto the kitchen?
  3. Where will the dishes be stored, and where is that in relation to the dishwasher?
  4. If the dishwasher or oven doors are open, can people still circulate in the space?  The oven door isn’t likely to be left wide open, so the dishwasher door is more important to me.
  5. Where will the dry goods be stored?
  6. Where will the not used very often items be stored?
  7. Are there at least 14’ of working space on the countertops and island?

(more to follow in subsequent examples)

Kitchen B

The owners of kitchen B were looking for a large eat in kitchen with a family room combined.  Their existing kitchen was mostly circulation and difficult to work in with more than two people.  When an addition is built for a new kitchen, what happens to the old kitchen? In this case we filled the area with a relocated half bath and a larger mudroom.  The kitchen had limited upper cabinets and a pull out floor to ceiling pantry in two locations.  Additional kitchen storage (for seasonal and infrequently used items like the deep fryer or apple corer, etc) was at the bottom of the basement stairs.

The dashed line between the kitchen and the family room indicated a beam in the ceiling which is anchored on either side by half walls with built in shelves.  The two spaces are open to each other with a fireplace and bookcases built into the wall opposite the kitchen.  The kitchen has a wall of windows facing the garden, and the booth at the end of the family room is also surrounded by windows.

The dots indicate circulation patterns.  The original kitchen was hampered by a door to the dining room, to the mudroom, and to the basement stairs. The proposed kitchen would keep people passing through out of the production area.  The living room was opened up with pocket doors to the family room allowing for circulation around the core of the house or the possibility of closing of the living room for separate functions.

8.  How will the new kitchen improve circulation in the house?  How can circulation be directed away from the working areas in the kitchen?

Kitchen C

The owners of kitchen C decided to expand the rear of their house 5’ across the entire width.  They did not want to eat up too much of their backyard with their addition.  While some of the decision for this move was to benefit the second floor, the main concern was the expansion of the kitchen. The extra space allows for an increased mudroom and a direct path into the kitchen from the side door to the driveway.  The stove and the sink are separated out and each has a working area on either side.

9.  Allow for at least 9” on either side of the stove (absolute minimum).

10.  Where will hand washed dishes dry?

Kitchen D

In designing kitchen D I had to stay within the footprint of the existing house while enlarging the kitchen and making the exiting space in the family room area more functional.  The solution was to steal some room from the bathrooms on the left to gain an additional 2’ and to add a booth to the family room area to allow for casual dining for a family of 5.

11.  What is the relationship between the kitchen table and the dining room table?  Are they too similar and therefore redundant?

We solved this problem by choosing a booth which is the opposite of a formal dining table. There is some seating at the island as well for keeping the cooks company.

Kitchen E

Kitchen E is similar to kitchen B in that they wanted an addition of a kitchen and family room area.  Their kitchen was also replaced with a mudroom with a short hall between the dining room and new kitchen with countertop and cabinets along the hall, almost like a butler’s pantry. The addition was also an attempt to improve the circulation of the house.

12. Is there a possibility to open up one wall with windows while filling another wall with upper cabinets?

Kitchen F

The owners of kitchen F were closed off from the outdoors in their small circulation filled kitchen located in the center of the house.  They, too, wanted a kitchen/dining room/family room that focused on the rear yard.  They opted for no upper cabinets in the main space, a beautiful blue stove and a large pantry with countertops and upper cabinets.  While people would need to cut through the kitchen space to get to get back, their impact on the people working in the kitchen would be minimal.

Those are a few examples of recent kitchens that I have worked with clients to improve in small or completely new ways.  Most kitchens deal with the same group of issues, as described above: Sharing the space with other cooks and guests, view to the outside, access to the outside and to the dining room, counter space, circulation, eating area, combination of living spaces and gracious living.  Kitchens are no longer hidden away spaces where one person toils alone, they are now the hub of the home where family and friends come together.