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Robust remodeling: Bigger isnt always better
After picture: When we removed the walls around a kitchen to create a better connection with the adjacent dining and family rooms, the whole space felt much larger even though we didn't add any square footage. - photo by Kevin Bunnell

When it comes to home remodeling, we stand by the saying: “Bigger isn’t always better.”

We have said it before and we will say it again: Good home remodeling is about function and design, not about size. We have seen small homes with much better style and function than homes with double the square footage. For instance, adding a large room on the back of your house may make you feel like you are solving space issues in your house. However, if there are still problems with the design/function of the rest of your house, additional square footage may not resolve the core issues of your home.

“Bigger is not always better” has been our message since we started Renovation Design Group more than 10 years ago. Smart redesign that stays within the footprint of your house can be less expensive than a large, “big box” addition and can have a big impact on your lifestyle.

During the past few weeks, we have been delving into a recent research study, "Transforming the American Home." The study shows that of the 200,000 respondents, 76 percent who remodeled stayed within the existing footprint of their home. This led the Houzz researchers to also conclude that “bigger isn’t always better.”

One of our role models in architecture is Sarah Susanka. She developed the Not So Big book series featuring such titles as "The Not So Big House" and "Not So Big Remodeling." These books are based on her architectural theory of keeping the scope of the project smaller with creative and smart design while taking the money saved and using it on finer finishes. This makes the space more functional and more beautiful without having to make it big. Basically, Susanka says finding the sense of home has more to do with quality than quantity.

We completely agree. It has been exciting to see more people — according to the Houzz survey — grasp this concept. A relatively minor remodel or small addition can result in a significantly improved house design. Often homeowners can’t see past the existing walls to even imagine a different floor plan and design; they just know they need more space and that for some reason their house isn’t working for them anymore. An architect with "fresh" eyes can present options and solutions most homeowners (and contractors) would not see.

A key issue for making an existing house function well is the circulation pattern of the home. It is always a problem when people have to cross through one room or area to access another. (These are the rooms in which we find it difficult to arrange furniture because they are functioning as a hall instead of a room.) If you can resolve the flow issues, you will have a home that will feel and function as a much larger space, even though the size has not actually changed.

Some design solutions may involve moving walls, doors, windows or even stairs. Such alterations may seem drastic to the homeowner, but one such change can be the key to all the other functions falling into place. For instance, struggling to work around a totally misplaced stairwell can be equivalent to the "tail wagging the dog." No matter how you try to modernize the home’s style, if the house does not circulate well, it will neither function properly nor feel comfortable.

The other syndrome to avoid is putting "lipstick on the pig." This refers to replacing and upgrading finishes without dealing with the underlying issues of the home — namely, the way the home flows and functions. If your kitchen is nothing more than a glorified hall with appliances in it, no amount of new cabinets or granite countertops will fix the problem. Unless your goal is to have a better-looking problem, you need to dig deeper and address the underlying issues before you focus on finishes.

Finally, if you are contemplating adding a room, make sure of two things: First, there must be a logical and sensible way to access the room.

Look at the circulation in the house before you consider anything else. Second, make sure the addition is proportional to the existing house and its infrastructure.

By this we mean, don’t add a huge family room off the back of your house if you have an 80-square-foot kitchen that can’t support a family or gatherings in a room of that size. You must begin your design process by looking at the house as a whole. Be sure you focus on changes that will have the greatest impact on the way your family functions and on your lifestyle.

While a house can indeed be too small, it is also true that it can be too large. With careful and thoughtful design, you can choose to make your home comfortable, beautiful and functional instead of massive. Bonuses associated with a smaller house include less to clean, less to heat and cool, and less to pay taxes on. Truly, bigger is not always better!

Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the principal architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at Send comments or questions to