Don’t be under any illusions: building or refurbishing a home is hard. It pushes you to the limits and involves stress, money anxiety, dust, grime and endless decision-making. In order to get through this demanding experience you’ll need to focus on the prize — the finished home.
It’s often good to imagine sitting with a coffee and croissant in a sun-drenched room, a huge family lunch on a long kitchen table, a house party spilling out through bi-fold doors into a laughter-filled garden. You will use this positive energy and excitement to drive you on. This is normal and understandable, but also dangerous: the events that the overstretched self builder or renovator can focus on are the fun times, which all too often results in houses brilliant for (Christmas) parties, but useless for a wet Wednesday in January and even worse with a herd of toddlers in the mix. After all, a house should be designed for life, not just for Christmas.
Why you Should Design for Adaptation
Given that the average self builder moves every 20 years (it’s 10 years for ‘normal’ people), and people doing major renovations to existing homes have similar longevity, you need to really focus on the house not only throughout the year, good times and bad, but also over a major part of your life. Think for a moment about how much your needs can change over that time; from a newlywed couple perhaps to having a young family with toys and washing everywhere, through to truculent teenagers locked away in their rooms, to being a couple again. That’s not to mention moving from fit late 40s right into frailer twilight years.
Good architecture is, in truth, the art of realism and good compromise. A well-designed house can flex to meet your current dreams as well as your lifetime needs. The key word is flexibility. By this I don’t mean weird architectural solutions or moving, sliding walls that are hardly ever used. I mean space that’s designed for a number of uses or configurations over time. It is important to leave as much possibility for change and alterations going forward because planning houses is a bit like going to war. One particular military quote springs to mind: ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.’ Whatever you think might happen in life, probably won’t. A flexible, lifetime home allows for the wonderful vagaries of life.
The Antiquity Suite
A ground floor room, sizable enough to accommodate bedroom furniture and with access to an adjacent bathroom or wetroom, is a key ingredient to the forever home. It may house a playroom, serve as a home office or a TV snug while children are growing up, but could also form an accessible bedroom in twilight years. Level access to a beautifully landscaped garden (as in image above) is optional, but a bonus.
The Flexible Ground Floor Room
A key idea that should be included in every house, because getting old is an inevitability, is a ground floor room that can start as a playroom or home office – whatever is needed now – and at a later date become an accessible bedroom suite. We call them ‘antiquity suites’ in my architectural practice.
The room needs to be planned as such that it will fit a bed, clothes storage and accommodate life for a person with reduced mobility. Crucially it needs to be adjacent to a room large enough and with suitable plumbing for conversion into a spacious bathroom. You don’t need to fit it out now or connect the rooms, just ensure there is a knock-out panel in the wall (effectively a doorway – ideally, wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair – that is plastered over) marked up very carefully on a plan for future use.
The ability to subdivide and reconnect children’s rooms is also essential. The comings and goings of children is usually the biggest challenge to the capacity of a home. Fixing a design for maximum occupancy, as most people do, inevitably leads to compromises in bathrooms, circulation and communal spaces elsewhere. I have designed houses where large shared kids’ rooms can be easily subdivided into smaller private ones as they grow, just by getting the electrics, windows, non-structural walls and knock-out panels for new doors in the right place. With a bit of simple joinery and plastering, one room can be transformed into two, and then after the little ones have flown the coup be turned back into one again. Also give consideration to the placement of bathrooms. If two or more children’s bedrooms share a bathroom, then positioning this room so that it could easily form an en suite when the accommodation is reduced, is a very good idea.
Dedicated areas which connect and flow into one another offer more flexibility than one large open plan ground floor space. Semi open plan spaces (as below, in this Baufritz self build), or open bookshelves and partial walls are ways of achieving this.
This floorplan (above, designed by oak frame specialist Border Oak) is exemplar in the art of connected spaces — a study (below) provides a link between the kitchen diner and sitting room; the office and utility/WC has potential to serve as a ground floor bedroom suite too.
Another solution: glazed doors in this self build (image above, the oak frame for which was provided by Welsh Oak Frame) visually connect the living room with the kitchen diner, but enable the living room to be shut off when in use.
Open Plan is Not Always the Solution
Getting the right balance in your living spaces is just as crucial and again this changes over time. Open plan has been en vogue for the last few years and part of that popularity is to do with ideas surrounding flexibility, but it is a false promise due to one main reason — noise. The idea that a massive open living space can accommodate groups of people doing different things is simply not the case. Young kids may trash these spaces in a split second and be incredibly loud all day, but at least they go to bed early. Older ones with their electronic devices and inconvenient late nights mean that what was once a dream of loft-style living becomes a noisy pain in the neck. Even without kids the fact that you can end up staring at your half-finished dinner and washing up, feeling lazy, means that the promise of open plan is not always as advertised.
While the recent hype regarding ‘the death of open plan’ is overblown, the days of the vast kitchen/dining/sitting room that takes up the entire ground floor, with a pokey loo and hallway, are going. Which is good news. Far more interesting and flexible is space that allows for moving between separate but connected areas that reflect different activities: this is where we watch TV; this is where we eat. I may be old fashioned but this stuff is important and open plan can be the enemy of harmonious family living. I heard the phrase ‘broken plan’ recently and it is a much more useful concept and gives a sense of distinct but connected spaces which are more robust in dealing with change.
Give Thought to the Structure
Finally and perhaps most importantly, going back to the idea of never knowing what life will throw at you, a robust, flexible structure is essential. It is all well and good planning to move walls and change things at a later date, but if there are lots of structural walls everywhere, building work begins to get difficult and expensive. Think about timber and steel superstructures to allow walls and floors to be moved with relative ease going forward.
The same is true for roof structures, which should be designed for future occupancy with minimal work. Think attic trusses, purlin roofs, as well as where stairs might possibly be positioned. This also goes for services. Changes to your layout and/or extensions get horribly messy and costly if you have to hack up the existing house to service the new space. This does require a bit of forward-thinking, but if you place a few ducts with drawstrings running back to your plant room – again note these on a plan – it can make future changes so much more painless.
Design For Future Conversion
Attic trusses tend to be more expensive than fink trusses in the short term, but enable a loft space to be converted into habitable accommodation if future needs require, without considerable structural work. This home office (above) features a pull-down double bed, doubling up as a guest bedroom.
I accept that planning for your current needs, the dreams that are vital to getting you through a build, as well as for a future which you can’t ever really know, is a tall order. However, with careful thought and design that accepts that a home is not fixed in time, a destination, but is an evolving entity, you can provide the flexibility needed for a home for life.