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Designing Minds 13: Design Brainstorming

Over the years I've noticed a number of fairly simple ideas tend to crop up in successful remodels, be they big-bucks, no expense spared jobs or owner-built budget projects. The beauty of these principles is that they can be applied to just about any house or space.

Make use of cubic space. Most modern houses have either flat 8 - foot ceilings or a cathedral/open beam ceiling in the living room and/or master bedroom. There's other ways to use cubic space to enliven your interiors. One trick is to delineate spaces, such as dining and living rooms, by making ceiling in one of the spaces 9 feet tall instead of the standard 8 feet. It costs a bit extra for longer studs and a little more drywall and plywood, but these basic materials are cheap.

Eliminate interior walls. If you have a small floor plan, you can make your house seem much bigger by eliminating walls and using less claustrophobic methods of delineating spaces.

In small plans, you can use the change in ceiling heights to establish "rooms" while still retaining an "open plan" spaciousness.

Another method is to build a low wall or storage cabinet between these common areas in place of solid interior partitions.

Keep rooms spacious. Plain square footage like bedrooms is relatively cheap to build; although we say a house costs $100 per square foot, in actual fact the kitchens and baths may cost $200 to $300 per foot and the bedrooms only $60 per foot. The major expenses are plumbing, wiring and fixtures, not plywood and drywall. It's better to have a few rooms of appealing size rather than lots of small rooms.

Design in lots of storage. Nothing defines the modern era more than the fact that we all have many belongings, and most house designs simply don't account for this. Although they eat up square footage, generous closets, pantries and storage areas are essential to keep clutter under control.

Provide an inviting, properly scaled entry. Entries are often picked as a place to cut because they seem like ""wasted space.'' Nothing could be further from the truth. The entry sets the tone for the entire home.

You don't need a giant entry, just one that is appropriately scaled to the size of your home. Plenty of natural and artificial light is a must; if you add a short wall between the entry and the living room that makes people go around the wall to see what's there, it adds an interesting bit of mystery.

Humans are curious animals, and if we see everything in the house as soon as we step in the door, there's no sense of exploration or mystery.

Keep the kitchen functional. Don't make the kitchen either too big or small; make sure there's lots of storage and electrical outlets, and a shallow pantry for storing foodstuffs. Deep shelving just allows items to get hidden; old walk-in pantries had narrow shelving to avoid this problem.

Provide dramatic lighting. Cheap light fixtures— for instance, fluorescent tubes— can be extremely effective if well-placed. A length of simple 1X8 fir can be used to create a light soffit, hiding a fluorescent bulb and diffusing its light down against a wall. Architects spend a lot of time designing lighting, knowing that it can dramatically change the mood of a room as daylight shifts to artificial lighting at night.

Depending on room usage and time of day it is used, lighting can either be directed against walls, up at ceiling, or down at the floor. Each creates its own mood. Electrical outlets and junction boxes are cheap compared to light fixtures.

Add as much natural light as possible. Windows are expensive, but natural lighting often makes the difference between a comfortable home and a dreary one. To keep costs down but still have lots of glass, consider splurging on one or two dramatic ""centerpiece'' windows in the living or dining rooms.

If at all possible, orient the house so the morning sun hits the kitchen (that is, a western exposure).

Use wider, thicker, more massive wood trim. After World War II, millions of houses were built with minimum wood trim. One inexpensive way to add depth, value and interest in your home is to buck this trend towards minimal trim. Wood molding is cheap and easy to install: consider using a wider, thicker baseboard, or even crown molding at the ceiling/wall line.

Another popular trim technique is to soften the drywall corners by using a rounded corner bead instead of the sharp 90-degree corners. This is especially effective if you have curved surfaces such as rounded corners on kitchen counters or doorway arches.

Make use of wall thickness to add solidity and mass. Thin walls, like thin trim, seem cheesy; thick, massive walls and trim seem substantial. By adding several 2x6 or even 2x8 walls in the interior, you can create this sense of substance. One way to highlight this sense of depth is to create niches in these thick walls by the entry or between dining/living rooms. Art objects or house plants can be placed in these deep niches, as can indirect lighting. Using 2X6 or 2X8 studs instead of 2X4's is a very cheap upgrade.

Another trick is to use pocket doors instead of swinging doors in tight spaces or small rooms like bathrooms. When they're installed in 2X4 walls, these doors seem flimsy; by framing in a thicker wall for pocket doors, you create a stronger, more substantial feel.

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