Determining the Potential of your House

We meet a lot of potential clients who have been thinking about their houses for a long time.  Some are organized with lists and images, others less so.  But, the realization for us is that although we typically think the start of a project is when we go to look at the house, talk about the spaces and design potential – essentially the “interview”, the beginning of the design process is much earlier from the homeowner’s perspective.  Most homeowner’s have been thinking about adding, renovating, or knocking-down since before they purchased the property.  Let’s face it; it is fun to think about.

What is not so fun is when we find out that the project that the homeowner has spent so much time and mental energy thinking about is one that is not allowed under local zoning ordinances, or is impractical from a construction or budgetary point of view.  So, we thought we would write this article to give a roadmap of sorts on what we feel is an intelligent way, with practical advice, to start thinking about the potential your house offers.

First the fun part

The Image Library

One of the best ways to hone in on what you like and don’t like is to start an image library.  We suggest two types; a physical file and a digital file.  For the physical file, you can use a 3-ring binder, a file system in a file drawer, etc. - basically a physical mechanism for capturing ideas.  For the digital file, you want the same thing, just located on your computer.

For the physical image library, I would suggest organizing it into groups.  Some files can be for practical images such as decorative light fixtures or bathroom faucets that you like.  Other files can be more conceptual – I have a file of images that show different ways that light construction relates to heavy construction in ways that I find interesting.  One file type that I would recommend is a file just dedicated to images that convey a certain feeling – not something in particular in the image that you like or dislike, but images that just feel right/good to you.  These images typically come from torn out pages in magazines, newspapers, photographs (nothing wrong with taking a quick snapshot of a stone wall you like – I do), etc.

The digital files can be organized in a similar way, but these images will be captured from the internet, digital photographs, scans, etc.   There are a few online resources that are great to look thru. and are both image banks to go thru and are organized by theme, location, etc.  So, if you want to look at dining rooms, you can look at hundreds of them from portfolios of design professionals all over the world.  On you can even ask questions of the designers and oftentimes get answers either from the designer directly, or from some other knowledgeable person.  So, if you really like a showerhead in a bathroom you see, just post a question and most likely someone will know and give you the answer.  We use both platforms, but we have found that Pinterest is a little better in that you can create and share a private pinterest board that only you and I can see.  On some projects, I have many private boards so that we can stockpile case-study images of each room, for example.  You may be able to do the same thing on Houzz - I just haven't had the experience that I have had on Pinterest.

One word of caution when putting together the image libraries - it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you can pull a bunch of images and identify things in each image that you like and then magically they will go together to form the perfect space.  So, even if you like this floor, and that wall treatment, and this cabinet with that countertop, and don’t you just love this light fixture . . .the likelihood of simply putting them all together to make a successful space is low in our experience.  It just doesn’t work that way.  It would be kind of like saying that because each ingredient in my pantry tastes good, I can just mix them all together and make something great.

Instead, I like to think of the image library as a dart board where you can never actually see or explain the bulls eye, but the more darts you throw and surround it, the closer you can come to getting to the core of what you want in a potential project.

The Wish List

It is also important to define your goals and wish list.  And try to get as granular as possible, so instead of just thinking, we need a new family room, try to think about how you want it furnished, how formal/informal you would like it to be, adjacency and site lines (want to be able to see the fireplace from the kitchen?), how open you would like it to the kitchen, relationship to outdoor spaces, types of lighting, etc, etc, etc.

The Constraints

It is also important to know the zoning and building constraints of your particular property.  Locating a site survey of your property and determining the site setbacks help you not to waste time and energy thinking about this fantastic master suite that juts out 30 feet off your house, when you are only allowed to go out 10 feet by the local zoning ordinances.  Knowing the height restrictions and how they are calculated will let you know the feasibility of raising the roof to convert the attic into a finished space.   Are there wetlands on the property and how do they affect a potential project? 

How do you do this?  Well, first you need to gather the data on your house and site.  Obtain your survey, and/or go to the Building Department to see if they have any old drawings or surveys on file.  Then, you need to do some investigation into the local Zoning Ordinances and see how they apply to your property.  At a minimum you will want to know what zone your are in, the size of your property, the setbacks, height restrictions and any lot coverage limits.  Then, you want to stop into the Wetlands department and see if they have any information on your property.  Here in Greenwich, they will look at their Wetlands map to see if your property has wetlands or not.  If your house has a septic system, you will also need to review what the Health Department has on file.  I know, it's a lot of work.  Don’t want to do the legwork?  Give us a call we are happy to help. 

What to do next

So, you want to take your potential project to the next step, but are not sure about totally committing to doing a project for whatever reason (timing, budget concerns, etc).  Then it might be a good idea to hire an architect to do a Feasibility Study.  This will typically include some or all of the following:

Pre-Design Work

-Measure the existing house and draw it in CAD

-Obtain the current site survey

-Firm up the site constraints and identify any critical issues that might affect the project.

-Review image library, project goals, wish list, budgetary goals, current construction costs, design and construction schedules, etc.

Schematic Design Work

-Develop preliminary design diagrams

-Draw loose (hand drawn) schematic plans and elevations that show what the project might look like.

-Define an opinion of probable construction costs.

Once these pieces are in place, we have defined your goals and wish list, we have identified the site constraints, we have a clear sense of what the project might look like and feel like, and we have an idea of what it might cost and how long the design and construction process might take, you will be in a great position to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on a project, or possibly look for a new house, or just stay put.  And if you decide to move forward with the project, you will do so armed with solid information that will remove the fear typically associated with a construction project and be able to have fun through the design process.

UPDATE:  We have written a follow up post relating to this article - Avoid these 4 Mistakes when Collecting Case-Study Images.  Check it out.