Adding Character to the 'Box'

supercat_gardenerApril 29, 2007

A lot of smaller modern homes seem to be basically a "box", a ranch or in my case, two boxes, stacked one over the other....a raised ranch. There are no nooks or crannies to tuck furniture or artwork in and no nice architectural details. To top it all off, the whole main living area is under 850 sq. feet and the living room, kitchen, and dining area are all open to each other. Friends say the house looks great since my extreme budget makeover of last year, which included wood floors throughout, and new countertop, backsplash, and recessed lights in the kitchen. I also splurged on a new sofa and dining table. Still, the house remains a "box" to me. If you have a boxy home too, how have you managed to add character and what in particular do you feel has had the most positive impact?

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From the outside, it's the landscaping that can make or break a house. It can turn it from a "box" into a charming home -- you don't see the box aspect any more. There's a small home in my area that I always make a point to look at when I pass -- took me a couple of years before I noticed the house itself was nothing was the total picture that was charming.

Inside, the wood floors sound great. We did that too, and have a few antique pieces scattered around. We also like handcrafted things and original watercolors. We like to visit art fairs, open studio tours, etc. Original art can be a lot less expensive than some people think. And plants always help.

My 2 cents. :)

    Bookmark   April 29, 2007 at 10:36PM
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emagineer are right. It is entering one's home that seems to change the feeling of a "box". My deal right now is not having a dining room. Never thought this to be an issue, but eating is in the kitchen (not open, it's own separate room) with a nice size table. But I can't seem to get comfortable having guests eat in the kitchen.

One of the things to make your rooms less boxy is to incorporate different heights of furniture. A nice bookcase, armour, etc. Areas that make you look up rather than straight on. And furniture at angles will make a difference too. That said, I'm still working on rooms to cozey up.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2007 at 8:25AM
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Some good ideas here re: original art and different heights for furniture. I'm going to try and do this with an armoire in the living room. I want to place it in a corner, but have some concerns with the wasted space. As I'm sure you all know, every inch counts in a small space. I have to laugh when I read decorating magazines that advise you to pull all your furniture away from the walls. If I did that, you'd have to crawl over it to get anywhere in this house!

    Bookmark   April 30, 2007 at 9:38AM
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We changed out the moldings in the master suite-lette in our 1994 generiCape and it's absolutely amazing what getting rid of the builder-grade economolding did. Most newer houses that aren't $$ custom houses skimp on the moldings, and bulking them up makes a truly dramatic difference even to little rooms. It doesn't need to be expensive either, our MBR/BA moldings were built up out of inexpensive dimensional lumber and cheap stock molding from the home improvement store. We had planned on extending this alteration throughout the house but are selling instead.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2007 at 7:10PM
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Thanks for reminding me...I had thought about doing molding. This house had none when I bought it. When I re-did the kitchen, the contractor added an attractive molding and extended it out to the hall a bit at my request. It would really make a difference if the whole house sported molding. I was under the impression it was expensive, but maybe I should talk to the guy who did the work about a less expensive option as suggested by johnmari.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2007 at 9:26PM
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Have you thought about adding niches between wall studs (by knocking out wallboard between them) and building frame boxes to fit, into which you can put art, or spice racks or many other items?

    Bookmark   May 1, 2007 at 7:09AM
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We intentionally designed our small house as a "box". My wife is quite good as an interior decorator, and we kept most of the contents of the 3,300 sq ft house we vacated 4 years ago. She has plenty of pieces with which she can perform her magic, including mirrors, paintings, lamps,.....things. In no time, she'll have this house looking very pretty. We just now transported the first truck and trailer full of furniture and stuff. The master suite is laid out (looks good), and we are working on the selection of pieces for the big room. As you can see, this big room contains the kitchen, den and dining room. The dining table is in the front corner of the room (table is still upside down). The front entry foyer is in the distant left of the 2nd photo, and that's where I will hang the chandelier (in a few days). Obviously, we are not big fans of bump-outs/nooks/crannies, as we feel they make the utility of floor footage less efficient,.....and raises the cost of contstruction.
BTW the house is designed for just the two of us, and we'll eat most of our meals either at the island overhang (3 stools on far side) or on the big/high coffee table in front of the sofas (and big TV). The French doors lead directly to the side covered porch, where I will place the BBQ grille and fish fryer.
These are the "before" photos of the big room, and are taken from the kitchen-to-garage doorway (the garage is rear-attached).

    Bookmark   May 1, 2007 at 2:10PM
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Lucy, I didn't really think of adding niches between studs, except in the kitchen so that I could set the fridge back a few inches more to make it even w/the counter.
Willie, how many sq. feet do you have in your house? I would love to see pics of it when your wife is done working her magic.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2007 at 9:34PM
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The heated/cooled area is 1,720 sq ft. We attempted to achieve a big-house perception by making the master suite big and comfortable, and by having this open "living room". The entry foyer is of modest size, and so is the front bedroom (her quilting room) and #2 bathroom. But, from the outside it looks like a bigger house, due to the covered porches and the large rear-attached garage. Basically, we set out to design the smallest house with the highest livability index possible, for two people. Yet, my wife will be able to have club meetings and accomodate 20 people easily. The porches, the big garage (960 sq ft), and the attic storage (with 2 heavy-duty drop-down steps) truly adds a bunch to our quality of life. This total combination keeps our property taxes and utility cost to a minimum.
Yes, I will post more photos as we go, interior and exterior. Thanks

    Bookmark   May 2, 2007 at 8:03AM
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Speaking of adding exterior "character", I found a photo of the Dixie-Pacific railings/balustrades which shows the front porch style that my wife wants to achieve. Being from the South, she's always wanted this "look".

From this:

to this:

    Bookmark   May 2, 2007 at 8:37AM
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Very nice. And how fortunate you are to have all that storage space. Looking forward to seeing your progress...

    Bookmark   May 2, 2007 at 8:43AM
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We designed our little "box" with a dedicated entry area (however small). Yesterday, I hung the small crystal chandelier, and my wife has kept me busy hanging pictures. The interior decorating is not done yet, but she's made a dent in it (she likes a bit of a retro look).

    Bookmark   May 13, 2007 at 3:58PM
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There are some realy good thoughts in the above posts. Whether you are lucky enough to have interesting nooks or not, beauty, comfort, and style, are all related. Don't forget the "box" shape is often the most efficient use of space which is a GOOD thing as far as making a small home a comfortable place to be. I think that when adjoining areas in a small home are very different in style and colour it can make the spaces seem choppy, and this happens a lot with smaller homes as through the years owners with different style preferences remodel parts of the house, then sell and move up, on, whatever. I don't know if this applies to you but thought I'd add it in here because I've seen it so often. We once bought a place that had four different wall coverings in the living/dining area alone. Wood panelling, cork, wallpaper and painted dywall( we removed the wallpaper and cork and painted the wall and panelling different shades of the same color). When the furnishings, colours, and floor coverings are the same or closely related the adjoining areas of the house seem to flow and the unified space appears larger. Whatever style you like, it is best if you like it enough to let it predominate throughout the entire house.
Something that has not been mentioned yet is light. If there are areas that tend to be dark during the day you may want to consider adding light, especially natural light, where you can. We added solatubes in a dark hallway and in an interior bath. It wasn't that expensive and made a dramatic difference. My sister added a small additional window in her dining area, also a big improvement.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2007 at 6:28PM
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measure_twice ...GOOD thing as far as making a small home a comfortable place to be...

And the 1720 sq ft mentioned by willy_n for two people seems HUGE for our family of four and some dogs, so it really depends on your viewpoint and what you are used to. :) No criticism of willy, his place looks wonderful!

I think a raised ranch is one of the better designs to evolve this past century, taking advantage of better foundation materials to make possible below-ground living.

I understand the objection to seeing the kitchen when you have dinner guests. Still, I think you are better off with solutions based on furniture and wall coverings rather than adding bump outs and dips to the structure. All those structural things are usually found in houses that have been added and added to, of dubious construction over the years, like the New England "big house, little house, long house, barn". My opinion, anyway.

Yes, a niche is do-able on a curtain wall (between rooms not an outside wall), and you can google for niche inserts.

OTOH, you can use free-standing decorative screens to partition areas. We have a carved folding screen in our little livingroom that hides the 2 doors to the backyard and to the garage.

If guest are seated in your open DR, you could put two vases of tall flowers on your counter to screen the kitchen. Or take advantage of the arrangement and server buffet style, using the counter to set out the food. That is a logical use of the arrangement, so it would feel "right" to your guests. Anyway, your good hospitality is the best decoration.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2007 at 10:21PM
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"Anyway, your good hospitality is the best decoration."

Amen to that. :)

    Bookmark   May 14, 2007 at 2:04AM
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"Big house, little house, BACK house, barn." Have lived in two, chopped up into apartments as is very common here. :-)

Supercat, I don't suppose you've seen the site Split-Level.Net already? There were quite a few ideas there for jazzing up a split/raised ranch. I was sent the link recently by someone who felt insulted by my assertion that a certain split my DH pointed out was ugly. :-)

    Bookmark   May 15, 2007 at 2:01AM
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In trying to be objective, I'm curious about the way one's outlook changes with age, with respect to the visibility of the kitchen. Is it due to it being a matter of questionable taste, that some of us do not want the kitchen to be visible? Does how you feel about it depend on the class of visitors who might arrive at your house? Does it depend on how attractive your kitchen is, or are all kitchens unattractive? Or, does it simply boil down to how much money you can spend on your house (and related costs).
In our case, it's almost all of the above. Heck, if we had plenty of dough, we would probably design a bigger house, with more rooms, and a kitchen which was not as visible as the one in our new small house. Our house fund was set, we HAD to build the most livable and attractive house within our budget. And, it wasn't just the build cost, it was also the total monthly cost of supporting the house (taxes, insurance, upkeep/maintenance and utilities). It's a good thing we didn't have to impress anyone, 'cause it's what made us go ahead with the efficient layout of the big room, containing the kitchen and the "den" and the dining area. The incorporation of a quiet Vent-a-Hood, and the outside BBQ grille/fish fryer keeps those objectionable cooking odors from invading the living space.
My wife can accomodate all the members of the two clubs which she belongs to, and I can accomodate my fishing and racing friends. We really don't have any need for formal gatherings. Time will tell, but so far we are very happy with our big-room layout.
Our biggest problem is "letting go" of all our big-house items which simply do not fit in our small house.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2007 at 11:51AM
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We tend to entertain IN our kitchen, but we only have small get-togethers w/ family or close friends. The kitchen is the hub of our home; the living room seems to be a sterile place to display antiques. Our next house will (hopefully) be better structured to accommodate our particular lifestyle. Our next house (about 2-3 years away) will probably be about 1200 sq. ft., so the design needs to be efficient.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2007 at 5:38PM
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Wow, I thought this thread died awhile ago, and was pleasantly surprised to see more thoughtful responses today.
Merry Ann, light IS important in a small house, and that's why I added the skylight to the kitchen and also had a window put in the bathroom. The rooms really opened up with the addition of more light.

Measure Twice, I actually have an almost 6 ft.-tall "minature" palm tree between my dining area and living room, which helps define the spaces. And it's nice to hear form somebody who thinks a raised ranch is a good design!

Johnmari, I'm familiar w/the split website. I visited it a long time ago before it was complete and kept checking back for months eager for good ideas. While it does offer some good solutions and advice, I was hoping for a little more. There's so little out there pertaining to raised ranches, that I think I just get get enough.

This is actually my 2nd raised ranch home. My ex and I had one that was a little larger than mine and sported a little more character thanks to the cathedral ceilings and sunroom addition. When I went house hunting, I told my agent no raised ranches. Then the market started skyrocketing, I was outbid on two other homes (small capes), and I took this one due to the great location and overall discouragement. It just seems to be my destiny to live in a raised ranch!

    Bookmark   May 18, 2007 at 10:51PM
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I am older, and in probably my last house. I hate being able to see directly into the kitchen and always have, no changes in outlook at all. This is a less open floorplan than most but as supercat says sometimes it's just destiny. Sigh. I made my kitchen tablecloth as wild and wonderful as I could. I try to keep fresh flowers on the table (distract, distract, distract) but most everyone knows I'm inclined to leave the dishes, and trot off to enjoy myself. Sigh. The kitchen itself is actually quite lovely, it's the lack of a maid's quarters I truly miss.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2007 at 7:53PM
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My kitchen....and everything else but the right there when you walk in too. I tell myself it's more motivation to keep it tidy. There are times when I just leave it as is to run off and have some fun. But like merry ann, I'm older too, and IMHO, life is too short to worry about how the house looks 24/7.

    Bookmark   May 21, 2007 at 9:59AM
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Our kitchen is a wee tiny thing, not ready for prime time. Fortuantely, we do have a real dining room so there's plenty of space for a table for six. We've been remodeling the enclosed backporch/kitchen, and eventually, will have an area carved out for one of those vintage 1940's drop leaf kitchen tables and four chairs. Merry Ann is right about having natural light; we definately plan add a window on the west side looking out into the garden with a glimpse of the pond in the distance, which should keep it from feeling *too* cozy.

Willie, your garage is almost as big as our entire home. If you asked me, I'd say that at 1,720 sq ft, you don't have a big house perception, you have a big house. Then again, coming from a 3,300 sq ft, I can see where one might consider that to be some serious downsizing. ;^)

Personally, I love the fact that I can shut a door and close off our kitchen. Whilenaturally everyone loves the smell of baking bread and cookies and what not, I dislike the heat, steam and cooking odors wafting through the house and lingering on the furniture. In a home this size, being able to close off the "hot" room really does wonders for saving energy when you're trying to stay cool; for example, we had a whopping $68.00 electric bill last August. Currently, our kitchen is MOL standing room only, though there are a couple of chairs in case someone want to visit the cook. When we finish the remodelling, the new seating area will be in addition to the dining room, not in place of it. I picture it more as a nice spot to drink coffee and chat with a friend or linger over breakfast, than for entertaining a small crowd.

BTW, I like the wide brick steps; where do they lead to? Is that the front entrance or the back?

    Bookmark   May 24, 2007 at 5:02PM
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I think having the kitchen open to your living area is a location thing, primarily the western area of the states.

My small home has a separate kitchen and is the first time for this arrangement. I really miss the open concept. Parties were wonderful as guests could wander in and out as they pleased and the cook always part of what was going on.

I also think I spend more time keeping the little kitchen clean than the large ones in past. Perhaps due to having to put things away rather than a place for them at hand.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2007 at 6:50PM
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Still, I think you are better off with solutions based on furniture and wall coverings rather than adding bump outs and dips to the structure.

Another way to add a niche or alcove to a room, without major structural work, is to build inward alongside the space where you want it to be.

My current place, a 1980s condo, is a perfectly uniform rectangular box. But the dining room has a display alcove with glass shelves and recessed lighting. This was created by building a closet along the rest of the wall; the alcove is created by the absence of closet.

And don't overlook lighting to create depth and drama. If you use freestanding furniture for display shelving, consider adding lighting inside it. For a contemporary style, Ikea has a small lamp that is designed to be mounted to the top of a bookcase.

Here is a link that might be useful: Lamp

    Bookmark   May 25, 2007 at 11:58AM
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