Monday, March 2, 2015


One Sunday a while back, I dropped by an open house that had just been remodeled and put on the market. It was a speculative renovation, otherwise known as a “flip”. In keeping with the usual modus operandi of such projects, the builder had refitted the modest mid-Sixties Rancher with shiny granite counter tops, gridded plastic windows, glossy prefinished flooring, and so on. 

For obvious reasons, this isn't an actual photo
of the living room I'm describing.
In any case, this one has more windows.
This familiar slate of so-called upgrades, as painfully predictable as it was, wasn’t the real problem, though. The builder had also made some heavy-handed changes to the home’s original floor plan, evidently hell-bent on pumping it up to the overblown market standards of recent years. And here he made a classic amateur mistake: So busy was he swaddling the place in glitzy finishes that he completely overlooked a number of eye-popping flaws in his “improved” design.

The worst of these errors was the layout of the entry and living room--probably the very last place you want to screw up a house. The builder, convinced that a really huge living area would impress potential buyers, had combined the former living room and master bedroom into one gigantic rectangular space with--drum roll please--no windows at all. Oh, the front door (which led directly into the room, another no-no) did have some glass in it, but this only captured the feeble light from a shadowy, roofed-over porch. Rather than the effect of extravagant space the builder was after, his living area felt more like the rumpus room in a church basement. 

You don't have to go crazy with
glass, but for heaven's sake,
at least allow people to see outside.
(Image courtesy of
 Interior Gallery Design)
Compounding the error, he provided an elaborately-appointed kitchen completely open to both the living and dining rooms--but also lacking any windows. In fact, the only direct light in the whole vast space came from a single sliding glass door in the dining ell.

For the builder to presume that his open floor plan would miraculously allow him to make do with the light from a few distant windows was a blunder of epic proportions. For one, building codes have minimum requirements for window size in habitable rooms, and I doubt that he satisfied even those rock-bottom standards. 

More importantly, though, windows have a purpose beyond just providing adequate light--otherwise we could fit every home with artificial lighting and call it a day. When humans occupy an enclosed space, they have a very clear psychological need to see natural light, not to speak of some sense of the world outside. Hence, any purported living area that lacks windows inevitably feels oppressive and claustrophobic.

The lesson is simple: If you’re remodeling, don’t miss the forest for the trees. Lavish materials and fastidious detailing are fine, but by no stretch of the imagination can they compensate for a fundamentally defective floor plan. Therefore, approach any architectural problem from the broad-brush aspects that really matter--the things that will make the place livable, like solar orientation, circulation, and convenience--and satisfy these fundamentals before fretting over details of color and finish. Otherwise you may end up as this builder did: With a very fancy mess, but a mess nonetheless.

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