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Fit to Please
How to ensure your new home functions well for you and your family


August 2018

I have a friend, Frank, whose front door opens into his kitchen, which features a tear-shaped bar, a large table with seating for eight, a fireplace and more. “I think traditional homes are designed backward,” he says. “The kitchen is the heart of the house. It’s where I spend most of my time with my family, so I want it to be front and center, not hidden behind the living room.”

Frank is an engineer by trade and a craftsman at heart. He knew what he wanted and personally designed his home to fit his lifestyle. For the rest of us, though, it’s usually not so easy. When it comes to planning for a new house, how do we design it to fit our personal needs? Matt Retzak of Bartelt. The Remodeling Resource says answering that question — and answering it correctly — is the key to being happy in a home.

“Character and style are always important, but most important is always lifestyle,” says Retzak. “How do (its residents) live? How do they want their home to work for them on a daily basis? It’s important to discuss their family size, routines and activities. If a beautiful home doesn’t function well for a family and how they live, the results can be disappointing.”

Pete Feichtmeier of Colby Construction says the first thing a client should do is make a list of priorities. “That is what we try to focus the process on. Everyone’s lifestyle is different, and exploring various options together will help direct the design,” he explains. “Some families place a greater emphasis on large gourmet kitchens, others spend a lot of time outdoors and want screen porches, (and) for some a priority can even be having laundry room capacity.”

For Jeff Horwath of Jeff Horwath Family Builders, the function of the home begins with understanding its lot. “Sometimes there are choices to be made as to house placement and the customer’s preferences as to sun, views, grades, basement exposure, etc. Also, the lot shape and width, in particular, may have a major impact on what we design,” he says.

One aspect that should not be overlooked is storage. Although this detail is less glamorous than tile or countertop selections, it is the foundation of a well-functioning space, and the needs will change with each individual. “A house must work for the client,” says Retzak. “There needs to be enough room and storage in the kitchen, in the mudroom and in the bathrooms — the hardest working rooms in a home.”

Retzak says there are some basic rules that apply across all projects as far as storage and closet space are concerned. “But lifestyle is definitely an important factor and plays a huge role in the planning process. For example, a walk-in pantry is great for an open-concept kitchen, where cabinet and counter space may be limited,” he says. “Another example for families would be to have a small walk-in closet in a mudroom space to supplement lockers or cubbies, for out-of-season coats and shoes. Storage can be more customized to accommodate hobbies, kids’ sports, etc.”

Plan ahead time-wise too. The new home won’t be ready tomorrow, and once you have it you’ll probably want it to work for you for years. Life changes, and so do our needs. “Our process will typically take three to eight months to design, one to two months to bid/permit, and 12 to 16 months to build,” says Feichtmeier. “Homeowners should plan for however long they think they’ll stay in the home. Do they plan on downsizing after the kids are out of the home, or will they stay? For example, if they think this is their ‘forever home,’ they should consider aging in place. Perhaps they want to have the master suite on the first floor.”

Be comfortable with your needs from the very beginning. Horwath says he has seen plenty of customers who began down the wrong path and hit a dead end in the design. “They’re usually frustrated with the lost time and money that they spent pursuing the wrong avenue with someone who didn’t have the ability or practical insight to bring it together for them,” he explains. “Often they’ve wasted six months or more going in circles. I’ve looked at plans that were supposedly done by professionals, but didn’t make sense — halls too narrow, rooms integrated weirdly, lack of sunlight, lack of privacy, lack of storage, expensive to build, and just not attractive or flowing at all. And they were not planned to fit the client’s needs. In the end, that is a recipe for an unhappy homeowner.”
This story ran in the August 2018 issue of: