Remodeling vs Building New: Which is Harder? – Board & Vellum

Ask an Architect, Custom Residential

What’s Harder: Designing a New House or Remodeling an Existing Home?

By Jeff Pelletier
May 29, 2018

Remodeling versus building new.

This is one of the questions I get the most when I’m at a dinner party and people want to know what it is like to do what I do for work. To be honest, I think that the question is a little odd. One isn’t necessarily more difficult, it is just different. Just like you can’t pick a favorite child, I don’t pick a favorite type of house to design. You may have seen my previous post on how we start up the design of a new home. After I wrote it, I realized that the flip side would be useful, too. So here’s a bit of a companion piece on how we start up the design process on a remodel of a home. Many of the same rules apply to both new construction and remodels, and I haven’t listed them twice, so make sure you read the other post, too.

Where do you start when designing a home remodel?

  • Run a zoning check. In addition to the normal zoning and code review, I also see if there are opportunities to expand any existing non-conforming parts of your home. In Seattle, we’re allowed to sometimes add on to a home in a way that wouldn’t be allowed on a new home because existing structures can sometimes be grandfathered in. It often can make the remodel vs. new question more interesting.
  • What is the style of the home? With a new home, we can look to a lot of different sources for design inspiration. With a remodel, there are simply fewer options that can work. You can certainly change the style of a house, depending on how extensive a remodel you are doing, but there are often greater limitations. Take a look at some of the factors that go into a second story addition, for instance.
  • What isn’t working about the current home? Often times, clients will think they need more space to solve a design problem. But sometimes, just re-imagining the space you already have can be the answer. In our Woodinville Pivot project, for example, there really wasn’t any space to eat dinner. The great room was an awkward size and configuration to layout a combination dining and living room. But, instead of adding more square footage to the home to grab space for a dining area, we converted an adjacent and under-utilized office into a cozy dining nook.
  • If you do need more square footage, where should it go? While we certainly look at solar access, often times, where you can remodel is limited. Early on we’ll want to explore the options and help narrow down the approach.
  • What is your budget? Adding on a very small addition can often be extraordinarily expensive. This is where a normal cost-per-square-foot pricing strategy falls apart. Adding on 25 square feet for a powder room, for instance, simply isn’t going to cost you the typical $400 per square foot that we’re seeing on residential construction right now. Think carefully about where you are adding on and how to best use your budget. And, if you have the freedom, you’ll find that there isn’t much cost difference between pushing out the whole back of your house 10 feet versus 11 feet, and that extra foot will give you a whole lot of extra square footage.
  • Think creatively about sustainability. Quite frankly, to make an older home really sustainable, you have to do a lot of work that often isn’t in the budget. We advise taking a careful approach to a remodel and thinking judicially about the return on your investment. Obviously, there are great returns on insulating your home, upgrading your windows, and getting efficient lighting, plumbing, and other systems in your home. But stripping everything down to get the house fully air-tight can often be just too much to handle. Work with your design team on creating a tailor-made approach that is best for your house and your budget. And remember, remodeling means you’re sheltering the embodied energy already put into making the house in the first place.
  • Find the special elements and celebrate them. Simply, your house should make you smile. There are likely some details that already do that and a bunch that don’t. Celebrate the ones that do and make more of them. Aim to remove all the parts that are sad and depressing, that’s the great part of a remodel.
  • Make your floor plan “sing.” This is such a dumb little phrase that I always say, but your floor plan should sing. What the heck does that mean? Sometimes there’s just an option that works. Doubt is removed, it seems obvious that this is the right solution, and everything comes together. There’s always that point in a project and you have to commit to getting there.

A remodel can be incredibly challenging or very simple to design, there’s no real predictable way to figure that out without delving into it. I do know, however, that they are worth it. You’re preserving a piece of history and helping unravel the oddities that make a house less desirable and therefore breathing more life into it. There’s a thrill to solving a problem and even though it brings unique challenges compared to a new house, it can absolutely be just as rewarding.

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