Making Every Inch Count in a Small House
For the Concord Cottage, the TOH crew figured out how to make the most of a small space.
The 12-foot square living room addition is small, but a French door with sidelights, plus large windows, makes it feel bigger.
A few years ago the barn behind Janet and Jeff Bernard's house in Concord, Massachusetts — the site of a 2003 TV project — seemed an unlikely candidate to become a house. For one thing, it was small, with a footprint of just 20 by 26 feet. For another, it was too much like, well, a barn. Inside the 1894 outbuilding there were no interior walls except for a
former horse stall in one corner.
Enter Holly Cratsley, the architect who was given the mission of turning this brawny little building into a comfortable in-law cottage for Janet's parents. With the upstairs earmarked for the master bedroom suite, everything else — the kitchen, living room, dining room, and powder room — had to be shoehorned into the barn's existing first floor. Even for a retired couple with modest space needs, that was a tall order.
Tom Silva, Norm Abram, and Kevin O'Connor install a double window that will open up the living room addition.
Building an Open Plan
Cratsley's first challenge was creating as much new space as possible while adhering to the town's building code, which limits expansion on such historic structures to 20 percent of their "volume," or cubic footage. Adding dormers to open up the second floor added a few cubic feet, so Cratsley had space left only for a 12-by-12-foot addition downstairs — just enough for a cozy living room.
Her second challenge was how to create distinct areas without losing the open feeling of the barn. Resisting the urge to add interior walls is a good idea in any adaptive reuse — the conversion of a structure not originally built as a home, such as a school or a barn — says Les Fossel, who specializes in restoring historic New England barns and homes. "People walk into a barn and they love the big space, and say, 'Wouldn't that be wonderful as a house?' Then they start cutting it up into tiny spaces."
Cratsley's solution was to split the floor plan down the middle. In one half she grouped all the small but essential spaces — entrance foyer, coat closet, half bath, stairwell, and boiler room (since there's no basement). The other half is an integrated kitchen and dining room, the two areas separated by an archway and a half wall topped with sliding windows that lend visual interest to the area while subtly connecting the two rooms with light.
"An open plan is the best way to give the illusion of more space," says Cratsley. So to further avoid a "rabbit warren" effect, she specified pocket doors for the transition from the dining room to the new living room addition. "Most of the time the doors will be open — and invisible," she says. The doors also add flexibility, allowing the living room to double as an extra bedroom.
Richard Trethewey shows Norm the advantages of wall-mounted heating units.
Expanding the View
Another measure Cratsley took to make the cozy cottage feel more expansive was to create a window plan that brings the outdoors in. New larger, energy-efficient windows brighten the space on the front and sides of the house, replacing small awning windows. Small windows were common in old barns because windows were expensive, caused drafts, and could injure animals if broken. Cratsley also brought more light into the house with architecturally appropriate dormers on the front and back, and a skylight hidden on the back roof where it can't easily be noticed.
But to keep the barn's charm intact — an important consideration for Cratsley and the homeowners in blending the cottage into the neighborhood — some of the new windows are be the same small size as the original awning windows, mainly in bathrooms and utility spaces. In addition, TOH general contractor Tom Silva's crew duplicated the original exterior window trim details, such as the whimsical scroll brackets that support the header caps.
Such details give old barns their identity, says TOH master carpenter Norm Abram. "A good conversion will give a barn new life but also retain its character," he says. In Concord that includes the original sliding barn door, which went back on the gable end (albeit as ornamentation) with two new windows cut in to bring in more light. Initially Norm thought he'd have to build a facsimile in his shop, but on closer examination he was impressed by the original door's sturdy mortise-and-tenon construction. "It's well made and needs nothing more than light sanding and a coat of paint," he says. "Why try to duplicate it?""
HVAC Systems for Tight Spaces
The final challenge of fitting all the necessities into the barn's small space fell into the laps of TOH general contractor Tom Silva and TOH plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey: how to incorporate heating and cooling systems without crowding the already cramped rooms. "With no basement and very few interior walls, ductwork wasn't an option," says Tom. That ruled out using a forced-hot-air furnace as well as a conventional central air-conditioning system.
Instead, Richard brought aboard some slick new gadgets. To cool the rooms, he chose a split system, which has an outdoor condenser and a wall-mounted unit on each floor. A compact, wall-mounted condensing boiler provides both heat (via radiant flooring on the first floor and baseboard radiators upstairs) and domestic hot water. "In the past, designing these small boilers to stay quiet has been an issue," says Richard. "You've got all this flame with a small amount of water, so it's like a tea kettle." Condensing boilers are highly efficient: They capture extra heat from the water in flue gases, which would normally be lost up the chimney. To do this they actually have to operate at a lower temperature. As a result, says Richard, "this unit is about as quiet as a refrigerator. It's a whole new way of thinking about boilers, because you really can put them anywhere."
Where to Find It
Nashawtuc Architects, Inc.
Halvorson Design Partnership
Our thanks to:
Andersen Windows Inc.
Mr Slim Split Ductless Systems
Wall-mounted condensing boiler:
Viessmann Manufacturing Co.