Sunday, February 1, 2009

the design process

The design process below is specific to our own basement, but may be used as a general guideline for any project.

First, we established and prioritized our goals (or scope or program) for the project. This ensured focus during design and discouraged scope creep. Our goals were simple: we wanted two bedrooms, a family room, one full bath, finished laundry room, wine cellar, wet bar and unfinished storage. We did not want the spaces to feel like they were in the basement, so natural light and air, quality materials and detailing were important. We intended to stay in the house well-after the remodel, and viewed the project as a long-term investment. We would live in the house while the construction took place. The project needed to be code-compliant and city-permitted.

Second, we had in mind a budget, or an amount of what we wanted to invest. The budget flexed during design as options came and went. The budget informs what is possible, the level of finishes and attention to detail, and refines the project scope. If you intend on staying in your home for a long time (i.e. at least ten years) and your budget does not allow for the entire project scope to be executed at one time, consider phasing the project into manageable chunks or wait until you have enough funds. In this type of scenario, any remodeling should be viewed as a long-term investment; the worst thing would be to cheap out in order to do the whole project and then be unhappy with the design or material palette.

Third, we measured the entire house, top to bottom, inside and out (see above). This included all site elements, secondary structures and utilities. From this data, I produced the as-built drawings (see below); that is, the plans and elevations of the house and property as they stood before any work was done.

Fourth, I laid out several schematic options investigating how the rooms might fit in the given space. I used the structural bays, existing window locations, chimneys and utilities to define and locate the different spaces, and the layout easily fell into place. In general, it’s best to create simple spaces with a logical flow.

To make the most of the natural light, the bedrooms were located to the south at the existing windows. A single “wet zone” was created by stacking the baths, then placing the laundry and wet bar close by. To avoid large thermal swings, the wine cellar was not positioned at an exterior wall but at the interior. The unfinished storage went next to the cellar to operate as the thermal sink. At the center of the basement is the family room which functions as the “hub” for all the activities on the lower level. The main issue was the existing stairs; although the width and rise and run were grandfathered in (complied with a previous code), the head height was a bit too low. I reconfigured the stairs and in the process gained more kitchen storage. This layout will go through one more interation before construction.

We discussed the pros and cons of each scheme, then selected the layout we liked best. I refined the design by investigating different details, materials, finishes and fixtures. I visited local showrooms often. I consulted structural engineers, HVAC specialists, carpenters, painters, cabinet makers, metal smiths, stone fabricators, flooring specialists, plumbers, electricians, window and door manufacturers.

Last, I tighten up drawings and specified all details, materials, finishes and fixtures. All site, demolition, framing, finish, mechanical, electrical and plumbing plans, elevations, details, interior elevations and perspectives were drawn and notated. All finish and fixture schedules were completed. The whole design process took 2-1/2 years, worked on at night or on weekends and holidays.

Normally, the design process for a project of this scope would be 4-6 months. Although even this may seem long to some, the time and effort spent thinking through the entire project, selecting all finishes and determining the details before the contractor starts will result in a cheaper, better executed, more refined project with a shorter duration and less headaches. Or at least we hope it will.

Tune in next time for interviewing the contractors!

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