Dont sacrifice character when adding on

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September 24, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Joseph Metzler
Joseph Metzler

What would make your old home more convenient? A place for your refrigerator that isn’t in the back hall or a bit more counter space and storage in the kitchen? A bathroom on the main floor? Maybe a mudroom for boots and coats and recreational equipment? How about an informal family space?

Often adding convenience to an old home requires adding space. But adding space can also drastically change the appearance of a home and maybe even destroy its unique character. If you bought your old home even in part for the character, the last thing you want to do is destroy that character while adding convenience.

But you don’t need to choose between convenience and character. You just need to add to your home in a sensitive manner. Being sensitive means taking your cues from your home’s physical characteristics. But while sensitivity requires a unique response to every home, there are some general principles to consider that will get you started.

Match your home’s organizational logic

Does your home have a easily identifiable form? Is it a cube? A rectangle? Maybe with single-story appendages? Or is the form noteworthy for its complexity? Notice the form and organizational logic of your home. Once you understand it, make certain that anything you add is consistent with that logic. The simpler the original form the more difficult it becomes to add space without changing the original character. Follow the logic when you add on.

Minimize the size

The larger an addition, the harder it will be to integrate with the original house so keep your addition as small as you can. Sometimes you actually need less space than you originally thought. Keep the space down to the minimum you really need to meet your functional requirements. Instead of thinking of additional rooms, try thinking in terms of how much space must be added to a room to make it more functional. And instead of assuming a box when you need to add a room, think of tailoring the room to the furnishings you want to accommodate. Don’t add space that’s bigger than what you actually need just because the incremental cost might be relatively cheap. Building more space than you need costs you in other ways.  

Match the roof slope

There’s nothing that shouts “addition” louder than flattening the roof pitch on an addition. The roof shape is usually a primary source of character for a home and being consistent with that character usually requires matching the roof. Sometimes when multiple pitches exist it’s possible to match a lower pitch if the addition is kept small enough. Matching a pitch can be a particularly hard principle to follow on a one-story addition when the new roof will block existing second story windows. In general, lowering a roof pitch usually results in an addition that looks suburban.

Break down the scale

Given the size of many old homes, adding a room could easily mean adding an area that is half the footprint of the original home. The larger the addition appears, the more likely it will compete with the original house. But you can disguise the actual size by breaking down the scale. Do this by breaking down the form into smaller parts. You may find that offsetting a wall will allow you to break a roof down into two smaller parts and make the entire addition appear smaller.

Maintaining character while adding to an old house can be tricky. But being sensitive to the characteristics of the original home and paying attention so some general principles will make it more likely you can retain character.

Joseph G. Metzler is a principal at SALA Architects Inc. His old house blog can be found at ConvenientOldHouse.com.