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Designing Minds 10: Well-Designed Additions

In these real estate-mad times, it seems as if many additions have been designed thusly:

1. Take a photo of the house.

2. Draw lines on the photo representing the setback and height limitations on either side and above the house.

3. Now build an addition that completely fills this maximum "box."

Ugh. Where's a bazooka when you really need one?

On an aesthetic scale of one to ten, additions of this type register as negative numbers--just how negative depends on whether it's next door to you or safely across town.

These "maximize the envelope" additions are enormously ugly for many reasons, but the most powerful one is that they are so obviously tacked on.

The reason such additions can so easily be identified as additions, after all, is that the proportions and detailing of the original house are ignored in the frenzy to add as many square feet as possible.

What is overlooked in the addition-on-steroids approach is that there are other ways to add value besides raw square footage. Imagine which house you would want to live in--one with a bloated designed-by- appraisal addition (""insert total square footage, multiply by $150,'' etc.) or one that:

1. has a functional floor plan that blends seamlessly into the home's existing traffic patterns.

2. respects the original house's style, character and materials.

3. has a mass that is proportional to the original.

It's not always easy to tie an addition into an existing hallway or door, but it helps if you can resist the temptation to make an addition's floor plan overcomplicated or busy.

It's also easy to make a mistake at the other end of the spectrum by adding a huge, "multi-purpose" room that ends up with no purpose at all. Have you ever visited someone's expansive no-expense-spared home, and found the kids and parents huddled in the small""den'' with the TV, pillows and scattered toys close at hand, while the vast living room sits vacant, as lifeless as a furniture showroom? Unless you entertain frequently, big spaces are rarely put to good use.

Making a good match with your home's character requires the seemingly obvious but often botched first steps of identifying the architectural style of your existing home, and noting materials or features that define the distinctive character of the original design.

In rare cases--for instance, a home covered with that distinctive glue- on fake brick siding--building an addition provides an excellent opportunity for changing the character of a (wretched) existing house.

In a more typical example--say, a rambling California ranch-style home from the '60s--than a low, broad-eaved addition with matching siding and modern windows would probably be most appropriate.

Another temptation that's hard to resist--but you'll be glad you did, maybe not now or tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life--is to go with faddish "improvements" (usually justified under the rubric of "updating the appearance") that don't match the original home's style. An example of this misguided urge to update would be using multi-pane French windows in an addition to a rancher. Even if you swap out all the existing home's aluminium-frame sliding windows with new multi-pane windows, the effect will be jarring; hey, ranchers don't need no stinking French windows. All they will do is date your addition like a time-stamp.

Even us non-architects can see the necessity of using the same type of window and roofing material on an addition, but the detailing of an addition can also echo important visual elements of the original home.

In architect-speak, details can be ""picked up'' and incorporated in the addition, visually linking the new with the old. Examples include handrails, window trim and rafter tail profiles.

While matching the existing home is essential, chances to heighten the drama and interest of the addition shouldn't be overlooked.

If setbacks or other limitations seem to force long, flat walls on you, for instance, you could break up that boring plane with indentations, which would not only create the potential for a more charming exterior, but would also provide opportunities for light and interest in the interior.

Last but not least, consider how a shiny new addition will look next to the existing house. All that bright paint and gleaming trim will tend to make the old homestead look a little tired by comparison. One way to avoid this ingenue/dowager syndrome is to set aside some of the budget to re-paint and otherwise spruce up the exterior of the old section so it matches the addition in freshness as well as character.

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