A year after moving into our newly remodeled house, I’m happy to report that just about everything turned out as we imagined it. We love the open first-floor plan, and the natural light is refreshing (particularly after spending 17 years in a row house with windows on just the front and back walls). The interior trim is elegant, the colors work, and the decision to extend hardwood flooring throughout the first floor rather than introduce a second flooring material was a good one. The triple-glazed windows and foam insulation kept the house comfortable on even the coldest winter nights. And adding a garage around back, just steps from a new mudroom at the lower level, proved to be a good solution to the problem of getting in and out of the house during the six-plus months in Vermont when shoes are covered with either snow or mud.
Living In Imagined Space
All elements of a design are put to the test when the clients first reoccupy a renovated space. In the first weeks and months after moving back in, every experience with the new surroundings poses a question about how well reality measures up to imagination, how faithful construction is to concept. It is perhaps the most critical phase in any project, one that can either validate the designer’s vision and the craftsman’s skill or uncover their shortcomings.
As most designers have learned, the difficulty lies in the ability of the homeowner to imagine the space, to envision the final product before it is built. I’m convinced that floor plans are not really much help to the average person, who typically does not have an aptitude for translating two-dimensional representations into 3D “objects.” The go-to solutions when I was in the business were perspective drawings and physical models, both of which have been all but replaced by software that creates 3D images of hypothetical spaces, complete with material textures, shadows, and reflections. And as virtual and augmented reality tools continue to evolve, homeowners are increasingly able to envision how a space will look and even experience how it will feel to move through it.
Still, no amount of modeling, virtual or otherwise, can solve some problems. A good example is moving the laundry out of the basement (or the garage in slab-on-grade houses) to a space closer to the bedrooms. Resistance to this idea is fueled by a failure of imagination, but also by habit and by fear—fear of plumbing in general and of leaks in particular (irrational, given the potential for leaks in all of the other fixtures in the house) and, perhaps more powerful, fear of change itself. Yet once people have had an opportunity to live with a laundry adjacent to a bedroom or bathroom, they rarely consider any other option.
Walk This Way
One issue that remains at our house is what to do with the walkway from the street to the front door (there is no sidewalk along the street). The cement keyhole pavers installed by the previous owner have sunk several inches below the level of the lawn and don’t drain well. That presents an obstacle to the lawn mower, and leads to a mined field of anthills and puddles in summer and slippery ice patches in winter. Even before we moved in I knew I had to either replace it or get rid of it. But which would it be?
After a few months, two observations gave me my answer. First, I noticed that the mail carrier walks from the front door of the house next door across the lawn to our front door, and from there across our lawn and driveway to the next house. Second, I noticed that people who came to visit often parked in the driveway and walked across the same bit of lawn to the front door. In fact, I often did this myself.
These observed behaviors led to two decisions. When we built a stone retaining wall along the driveway, we included a bank of steps at the spot where the mail route crosses into the driveway, from which I am now laying a stone path to the front door. More recently, we’ve decided to remove the front walkway altogether. The driveway, the stone wall, the steps, and the stone path all send the same message to visitors: Enter Here.
Whether it works or not remains to be seen. But at least the mail carrier will be happy.