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A historic home with a second story addition that, while bold, suits the home.

Custom Residential

Questions to Ask Yourself About Building a Second-Story Addition

Adding a second story to your home can be a great solution when you want to stay in your house but need more space. Once you’ve decided to build up, though, the decision-making isn’t done. What questions should you be asking yourself before you commit to a second-story addition?

August 20, 2020

We’ve written before about what to consider when choosing where and how to build an addition to your home, but deciding to build up is only the tip of the iceberg. There are so many cascading decisions that go into a home addition. Before you get overwhelmed, though, we thought it would be helpful to walk through some of one client’s journey from deciding to build a second-story addition, to seeing it through to construction.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The first question you should answer if you haven’t already is, does it make sense to build a second-story addition on my house? This particular client came to us with a love of older houses and a great location. They knew they wanted to stay in their adorable older home and evaluated plenty of options before deciding that adding up was the best way forward.

A historic black and white photograph of a single-story home. It's viewed from the street and situated slightly up on a berm.
Looking Back

It’s always fun when you can snag a historic image of your home. Sometimes it’s the best inspiration for taking your house into the future!

The Canvas

Their existing home was in a style relatively common in Seattle’s older housing stock. Typically, these homes have around 1,000 square feet on one level, a leaky basement with ceilings just shy of 7' tall, and plenty of character. The living spaces are often grouped along one wall and the bedrooms and bathroom hug the other side of the home. They’re all a little different but have enough similarities that many of us in Seattle have an awareness of them and a general admiration for the scale they bring to a street.

The Dream

The first decision for this client wasn’t necessarily about how to add up, but in what style. They loved their older home and really wanted any addition to stay true to its character. Often, we will explore an aesthetic direction with clients early on because there are a lot of different options available when you’re doing as much work as an addition. In this situation, however, the aesthetic direction was clear, and the goal was to enlarge the home in a way that made it feel like it had always been that way.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Does it make sense to build up on my home or does another type of addition suit my needs better?
  • What do I love about my home that I wouldn’t want to have altered with an addition of any kind?
  • Is there a style or aesthetic I love or am I open to to the possibilities?

Look at the world around you.

On a project like this, we get inspiration from a variety of places. Good ol’ books, looking online, sketching from ideas that have been rattling around in our heads, or, in this case, from examples in the real world.

A view of the yellow home with a second story addition from the street. It's at an angle and the large trees in the front yard are prominent.
The “High Waisted Wally”

The box-on-box approach isn’t always right for a second-story addition, but changing the siding material and color halfway up the second story both celebrates the addition and keeps it from feeling too overwhelming from the street.

The Inspiration

There are some beautiful old homes on Capitol Hill, which, for absolutely no good reason, I call “High-Waisted Wallies.” They have a transition band halfway up the second floor that does a wonderful job of eliminating the visual perception of stacking a box on top of another box (a pitfall of some second-story additions). We knew within the first 30 minutes of looking at the drawings that recreating this high-waisted band would be a great solution for this second-story addition.

Going through the iterative design process of sketching, getting critiques from our team, and then sketching again, we were able to present several options to the clients. Although this is rare, the original idea was the clear winner: High-Waisted Wally it was. This option worked well here because it didn’t try to reduce the bulk of the new addition, but celebrated it in a grand way. It also meant relatively straight-forward framing on the upper floors and the possibility for a large attic space, which is a big win for storage.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Are there houses in my neighborhood or city that I love and can draw inspiration from?
  • How might an addition change the character of my home?
  • Do I prefer an addition that stands out or one that blends in?

Make a plan that works for you and your lifestyle, but don’t forget the fun.

Alongside the aesthetic exercise, figuring out the floor plan was critical to ensuring the addition worked. Floor plans are a little like a puzzle where the pieces can change size and shape. For me, when I look at rooms, even ones that open up to each other in a more modern-open way, I generally feel adamant that they have corners to them. The wonderful people I work with are probably tired of me saying, “rectangles, rectangles, rectangles,” but I think there’s a strong emotional response to clean and simple rooms with corners. These can certainly open to each other with nice framed openings, but understanding where one room ends and another begins helps organize the space.

A close-up of a home with a second-story addition. The addition is highlighted by siding that goes almost all the way up to roofline, but stops just short.
Looking Outside the Box

All the extra space gained on the second floor allowed this client to perfect the areas their home already had, like adding this shady porch off their kitchen.

The Must-Haves

For this project, the clients really wanted a closed-off kitchen with easy connections to new family and dining rooms. Adding a big covered porch at the back helped create a connection to the yard, as well as a dry spot to sit when the sun isn’t shining (it’s Seattle, so, most of the year). Understanding the layout of these high-priority spaces helped us find a way for the staircase to easily line up in the position of a former bedroom and created an opportunity for a wonderful foyer space.

The Surprises

Upstairs, we were able to layout four generous bedrooms and two bathrooms, including a primary suite. One of our strongest beliefs about residential design is that if you go to the trouble and time of designing something custom, it should be worth it! We’re big fans of making each room have something special. It could be a recess for a treasured piece of furniture, a vaulted ceiling, or, in this case, the two children’s bedrooms opening up to a loft in the generous attic space. Everyone loves lofts and it was an easy win.

The Compromises

While the existing foundation was (and usually is) adequate to support the weight of a new floor, it became clear that the benefits of a new foundation with higher ceilings would really allow for future expansion, and would ensure these clients could stay in this home for years to come. Since they were going to the trouble of a huge home project, even with the added cost, the clients also felt these changes to their basement were worth it.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What are your must-haves? Do you love an open concept or would you rather keep some spaces compartmentalized?
  • Dream big. What special features, spaces, or surprises would you love to have in your home?
  • What are your boundaries around scope creep? Are there things you might learn during design or construction that would be project deal-breakers?

Don’t forget the finishing touches that will make your new spaces sing.

These clients are avid do-it-yourself-ers and were not only excited to help source vintage fixtures, lights, and trim but knew they could frame out the basement themselves over the years as time and budget allowed. Sweat equity is one of the best returns on your investment and this particular client was especially suited to taking advantage of that. Plus, sourcing beautiful old fixtures to include in a relatively new home isn’t just a great way of tying the new structure to the past in an authentic way, it is inherently sustainable.

A detail shot of the exterior historical elements on the roofline of the yellow home with a second-story addition.
Details Matter

If you want your second-story addition to match the historical character of your home, an architect who specializes in historic homes can help you find the right details to make the new match the old.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • How involved are you willing to be in the construction of your project?
  • What part of design do you think is the most fun? Where would you be most willing to put your time and energy?
  • Are you open to getting your hands dirty with construction or would you rather let a contractor handle everything?

Deciding to go down the road of adding a second story isn’t easy. There are a million little decisions along the way. This client, because of their love of craftsmanship and actually doing the work, probably has years left to get every detail right and every trim board installed. What they have, though, is a home that fits beautifully on the street and fulfills their wishes and dreams. They’ve even mentioned receiving thanks from their neighbors for building a home that feels right for the neighborhood. For us, that's proof-positive that taking the time to get the details on the exterior right, and focusing budget on the things that matter to a client and the integrity of the home, is always the right decision.

Like all the best projects, whether contemporary, traditional, or transitionally somewhere in between, these clients set clear goals and a mission for the home. The end result is something that they’re proud of and a home that stands out as one of my favorite projects to have worked on.

Would you like to read more from the team?

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