By now you’ve probably examined a large number of magazines, books and on-line plans. Perhaps you’ve toured some model homes, gone on a local house tour or been shown around by a realtor. In one way or another, you and your spouse have begun to form opinions about the style, amenities and materials that you’d like to see in your new or remodeled home.

I’d like you to step back and consider something a little different. Beyond style, amenities, or finish materials there are some design choices that might add great value to your home. And they may not even be available in the production homes in your area. Whether you remodel or build, spend one million dollars or less than one hundred thousand, these strategies can add value to your house in terms of:

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  • Comfort and convenience
  • The ambiance of home
  • Delightful detailing
  • Lower monthly utility bills and other costs

1. A Smaller house: Perhaps you’ve read Susan Susanka’s The Not So Big House (Taunton Press, 2001) or seen one of the featured homes in Fine Homebuilding Magazine (Taunton Press). These, and many other writers, argue against the current national trend toward bigger and grander houses. Although the definition of ‘small’ will vary considerably according to individual needs, the concepts presented remain appropriate for all. These include:

  • Putting your limited funds into the details (energy efficiency, outdoor living space, finer finishes, and specialized, highly functional spaces) rather than extra square footage.
  • Focusing upon healthy, comfortable and beautiful spaces rather than huge spaces (remember, by opening the house up, a sense of sweeping, gracious space is still attainable – even in the smallest house).
  • Minimizing your maintenance and cleaning chores.
  • Possibly opting for energy conservation, solar heating or photovoltaics.
  • Simply saving money, both in immediate construction costs and on your monthly utility bills.

If you remain concerned that there won’t be enough space, consider other options you have:

  • Customizing different areas of a large space so that many different activities can happen simultaneously – and even support one another.
  • Designing for the activities that draw the family outdoors, into garden spaces or outbuildings built for special functions.
  • Including expansion plans from the very beginning of your planning.

2. Open Space Planning – Historically, the ordered layout of rooms and hallways in a house was directly related to the spanning capacity of the lumber that was available. Engineered framing components (trusses, TJI joists and laminated beams) have allowed us to open the house up in ways our ancestors could only dream of.

The contemporary trend is to seamlessly blend core household functions into one another. Much more efficient use is made of the space you have, because:

  • Hallways are kept to a minimum,
  • Some rooms can gracefully serve multiple functions,
  • Light and air flow freely through the core of the house,
  • Fewer walls will equate to construction savings.

And as a bonus, a small house can be easily designed to function as a much larger building. You might design the space:

  • Vertically – to add overview, scale and multiple functions.
  • With special niches, bay windows, and built-ins.
  • To orient toward daylight, the big view, or outdoor living space.

And remember, even in a remodel, walls can be readily removed and ceilings restructured in order to expand the core family areas.

3. Passive Solar – Are you still thinking that going solar means creating a funny looking house? So pseudo-futuristic, so 1970s! Actually, today’s passive solar home can look pretty much like any other contemporary home. The term best applies to a set of design strategies rather than a specialized look or structure. Consider applying these design ideas to your home:

  • Orient the longest part of your house toward the south.
  • Include the greatest number of windows on the south wall to collect the sun’s radiant heat through the winter.
  • Carefully size your roof overhangs to shade these windows from the summer sun but allow direct winter sunlight.
  • Provide some form of concrete or masonry mass to absorb and accumulate the heat of the sun.
  • Place windows and skylights to the north for ambient daylighting and minimize windows to the east and west.
  • Exceed prescribed insulation standards throughout the house.

These strategies can be professionally designed for optimal (and quantifiable) results or simply used as general guidelines in your planning. Either approach will help temper the household extremes of hot and cold, thereby reducing your overall utility bills. As a bonus, your house will be filled with light, the temperature swings in the house will be modulated and you will have the opportunity to introduce a variety of finish materials (rough stone, brick and colored concrete) into your home.

4. Porches – Everyone loves a porch, particularly in the southeast. For very little extra money you can add hundreds of square feet of living space that keep you up and out of the weather for much of the year. But did you know that historically, porches were added for other, very practical reasons? Before air-conditioning became available, the wide roof overhang blocked the radiant heat of the sun from directly entering through the windows. And these were usually long and low, double-hung units that could be adjusted to channel the cooling breeze into the house. The porch roof acted as a broad scoop which captured as much of the breeze as possible.

Today, the same airflow patterns can eliminate the need for A/C throughout much of the spring and fall (in the south). By specifically placing your porches to the east and west, the benefits of extra shade will enhance your HVAC performance throughout the summer, as well. And if you are concerned about opening the house to as much light as possible, do not cover the southern exposure. A smaller overhang there will block the direct sun (the summer sun arcs high in the sky through midday), and as a bonus you get passive winter heating, as described above.

5. The Mudroom: What’s so special about the mudroom? Actually, it can do many things to improve your life in your home. But it needs a sufficient allotment of space and it needs to be specifically designed for the functions performed there. The mudroom is (or could be):

  • The primary collection point for dirt, equipment, tools and clothing brought in from outdoors.
  • A storage area for coats and boots.
  • A landing place for hobby, gardening, grilling and other ‘outdoor’ supplies.
  • A tactical access point for all outdoor activities.
  • An efficient transition between conditioned air and the outdoors.
  • A half or full bathroom for use by those who are active outdoors.
  • A stopover point for someone unloading groceries and other items from the car.
  • The laundry area.
  • Your pet’s ‘bedroom’.

The point is: throughout the year, this room functions as one of the most heavily used spaces in the house. Is there enough space? Are there sufficient places to sit, to change, and to drop things off? Is the laundry actually big enough to allow for hanging, folding and storage? Have the finishes been well enough thought out that they can be kept clean? Is there a ‘walk-off mat’ that is large enough to catch all the effects of dirt, plants and critters as everyone enters the house?

This could be the best strategy for controlling and simplifying your family’s access to the outdoors.