The floor plan of this 1990s house had an 1890s layout.

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New room for living

  • Article by: Jim Buchta
  • Star Tribune
  • March 15, 2006 - 11:10 AM

The facade of Frank Zink and Katie Resch's 11-year-old St. Paul house blended into its centenarian neighborhood, but the floor plan was no match for their modern lifestyle with a dog and two small children.

The floor plan of this 1990s house had an 1890s layout plucked from an era when houses were designed for families with cooks rather than families that cook -- a conceit that has been repeated even in much more modest abodes.

But while many of today's home buyers are charmed by the aesthetics of antique houses, most favor a big kitchen and casual eating area over a maid's kitchen and formal dining room.

"Open planning, which a lot of people are interested in today, works well for the way people really live," said Todd Hansen, the Minneapolis architect who was commissioned to help rescue the couple's design-challenged house. "People want to be in the same space as the person preparing food and supervising homework."

Inside the Zink/Resch house the foyer, study and dining room were connected by a long, dark hallway that led to a small combination family room and kitchen at the back of the house.

Zink, who works at home occasionally, appreciated the private study, but not the formal dining room, which was being used as a playroom. And the combination family room/kitchen at the back of the house? Not so great.

Adding space wasn't an option.

There was no room to expand to the side and not an inch to spare in the small back yard. Zink and Resch weren't willing to sacrifice green space for living space.

The solution?

Reconfigure the existing floor plan, add architectural details that increase its livability and bring in more light through the south-facing windows.

"People should try to think outside of the box, but in this case thinking within the box creatively is what helped create the solution," Hansen said.

Here's a glimpse of what Hansen did to transform the October Home of the Month from a traditional problem into a modern delight:

5 ways to make a great room great

Eliminate rooms that don't get used. Todd Hansen removed two walls that separated the dining room-cum-play room from the family room to create a larger family gathering space and dining area. When Hansen removed those walls, he had to replace their structural function with a column that does double duty: it holds up the second floor, but it also anchors the corner of the family area. Transferring the weight that used to rest on those walls to a single post required additional support in the basement under that new post.

Define your spaces. While open living spaces are popular, they can lack intimacy and shape. The sitting room and kitchen, for example, have coffered ceilings that subtly outline the shape of the corridor, living room and kitchen.

"It gives a sense of scale to the ceilings so it doesn't feel like they go on forever," Hansen said. "They articulate the size of the room and that lends more intimacy and makes it feel more comfortable."

The beams are not a symmetrical grid. One runs along the length of the bench, another runs along the edge of the corridor, and a series of beams cross them at equal distances, giving greater weight to the center of the room.

Hidden storage. Open floor plans can make houses feel more light and spacious, but they also can rob you of storage. Hansen designed a built-in bench that's more than 30 feet long and does triple-duty as banquette seating for the dining area, a window seat in the sitting room and loads of drawer space for toys and more.

Built-in cabinets surround the sitting area around the fireplace, and Hansen extended the depth of the kitchen wall to accommodate more built-in storage and display cabinets in the dining area and kitchen.

"In a way, the whole room is a cabinet lined with storage elements and multipurpose pieces," he said. "If we tried to accommodate an equal amount of storage in furniture pieces it would look like a furniture show room because there would be so many individual pieces."

Increase natural light. The house had plenty of windows along the south side of the house, but not much light made it into the house because the rooms were closed off from one another. By opening up the old dining room into the family area, Hansen was able to double the amount of light coming into the family's primary living space. On the back of the house, along the kitchen wall, he made the windows bigger and installed new patio doors. Blue paint and white trim, rather than the natural wood that's used at the front of the house, help maximize the feeling of lightness and brightness.

Create a hierarchy of spaces using the size and scale of each room to convey its importance in the layout. In the old floor plan the combined size of the office and formal dining room was twice the size of the family area. Hansen shifted the emphasis to the family area by doubling its size, creating a feeling that's "generous and comforting."

Jim Buchta is at

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