planning your perfect extension
So you think you want to extend, but is it really the best plan of action? In the first part of our new series, we look at why you should assess every available option
Is extending really the best option for you?
Extensions are expensive, disruptive and risky. You will be instigating a major building project, probably for the first time, and dealing with all sorts of decisions, regardless of how much trust you invest in a builder, that you are totally ill-qualified to take on. You’ll most likely be spending one of the largest sums you’ve ever spent on a project you know next to nothing about, and relying on a handful of experts to get you through.
So why put yourself through all that upheaveal? The irony is that for some people, an extension is a long way down on the list of most suitable home-improvement projects that they should undertake. For many, save knocking the whole house down and starting again, extensions should be the project of last resort – especially given all the above.
Do you really need to extend?
Let’s examine the basics. We extend when we quite simply don’t have enough space. But that raises a key issue, and highlights the main mistake that so many people make: is it additional space you actually need, or is what’s in your mind (an open-plan kitchen with living and eating areas overlooking the garden, maybe) a space that you can create from what you already have? The number one extension project is to create a bigger kitchen. Also, the biggest disparity between homes built before 2000 and what we want now isn’t the number of rooms or the size of the houses – it’s the size of the rooms, and in particular the size of the kitchen. Look at any home built before the 21st century and the rear flank kitchen just cannot satisfy our currently insatiable demand for the large, openplan living/eating space.
But let’s take another look at the floorplans of those houses. What’s that large (often larger) room next to the kitchen? The dining room, of course – invariably used as an office/storage space cleared out for a Christmas dinner. Then there’s the large lounge, often already ‘knocked through’ to create a large living space. Let’s then take a look at what the market demands – usually the homes created by developers. After all, despite it all, they’re experts in understanding consumer demand and creating homes built for it. The typical size of those homes is no bigger – arguably smaller, in fact – than the homes we have been building for decades and probably centuries.
Our families have shrunk, on the whole, over the years, but the number of bedrooms in our homes certainly hasn’t. There is no large scale shortage of bedroom space in our homes – certainly nothing worse than we had before. What
this points to isn’t that our homes have suddenly become much too small – it’s that our expectations of them have changed. There can be little doubt that the huge increase in the number of home extension projects over the past 20 years has coincided with the explosion in interest in home design – magazines, websites, Pinterest and TV shows, from Changing Rooms to Grand Designs. We are far more conscious of our homes now than ever before, and we all aspire to the type of spaces we see on TV or in our friends’ houses.
So, let’s get to the point. An extension should only be considered once all other options for remodelling the existing space have been dismissed. For the sake of £1,500-£3,000 per wall (removed, reinforced and made good), could your dream open-plan kitchen-diner be achieved more easily? Perhaps by opening up into the dining room and stealing a bit from the large living room, if you have one? If you need an extra bedroom, could you look at converting the loft space? It will almost certainly be cheaper than building new space.
If there is no way that you – or, preferably, a consulted experienced designer – can work out how to get you there without creating more space, then you’re on the path to extending. Thanks to the process of agonising over whether you really need to extend or not, the happy news is that you’re already on the way to creating a proper viability plan for your project.
create a plan
As anyone who works in almost any job knows, the use of targets, monitoring and performance indicators is one of the things we all have to live with and plan our working lives around. It’s hardly what we lie awake at night dreaming of applying to our home life, but stealing a little bit of this annoying office habit can work wonders for your home project.
Why? Because it helps to give your project a focus, and keep it on track – and you can use the targets you set as a guideline to assess every single decision against. What should those targets be? Well, you already have them, but the key is getting them down on paper. Clearly, some of them are going to be very pragmatic – how much you want to spend, for instance – but others, particularly the ones based on design, will be a little more abstract.
It’s important at this early stage to get them out and put them down on paper.
These are the things that you have in your head when you imagine the project complete – the reason you’re doing it. They’re often little lifestyle snippets, and might be one, some, all or none of the following: Family together in a large kitchen, you cooking dinner, the family eating
Lazy Sunday spring morning, drinking coffee and enjoying the sunshine
Getting cosy on a December evening
One of these might apply to you. It’s now time to go deeper into that mental image – what do you see?
If it’s the third one, is there a fire? A stove? How big is the room? If it’s the first, how does the family interact? Is there an island? Where do the kids sit?
Turning these abstract lifestyle-driven wishes into hard, practical illustrations of what you want to do in the home is the only way a designer can hope to create a home in which to do them – and to enable you to assess if the project is going to be a success or not. Every single decision you make, and how you assess the plans your designer creates, is going to be a factor of these initial aspirations – so get them down. The projects that end in failure – and projects fail for many reasons – tend to do so because they don’t have a clear set of priorities or a sense of what they’re trying to achieve. The best reason for bringing these aspirations into sharp focus is that they give you a chance to see if the plans you have allow you to get what you want. Where will you sit and have that Sunday 11am coffee, and what will you be looking at?
Upstairs, practical requirements like extra bedrooms are fairly straightforward to assess, but think a bit deeper. How big do the bedrooms need to be? Do they allow for wardrobe space, and ideally for some form of living space? Even children like to be able to sit in their bedroom and have a bit of time to themselves, so work out where a little set of chairs might go, for instance.
Ultimately, what you want to do in this early feasibility process is to work out whether the things that you want the house to do for you are best achieved by adding an extension, and if so, roughly what size of project this is going to be – or whether, in fact, you need to extend at all.