Thursday, October 23, 2014

Someone Else's House 2.0


Photo courtesy Flickr

Examining a twentieth century interior with sixteenth century eyes disappears problems like opponents in a computer game. An acquaintance is contemplating using her Fifties tract house for home craft production. Her stepson visits now and then, so a dedicated guest room is in order. The house is a classic example of affordable veteran’s housing. Originally it was a one-story symmetrical concrete block unit with a simple roofline set on a concrete slab. Concrete floors injure backs, but synthetic foam shoe soles remediate the difficulty, as will resilient foam shop mats and carpet pads. Over the years, remodeling and additions morphed half the building into a small but relatively complex accumulation of rooms and traffic paths.

As is, the place is comfortable but a little awkward. Like most post-war housing units, it is remarkably efficient for the number of square feet it contains. A few superficial changes in the way the rooms are used would add up to major remodeling for peanuts. Fifties houses were rendered obsolete by the bulky appliances and longer, lower, wider automobiles that accompanied the cheap resources and mind-bending prosperity of the Sixties. Current small space and green design brings the original good sense back to the original housing. It’s crazy to ignore an unfashionable North End suburb with low taxes that is eighteen minutes by frequent bus from the heart of downtown and direct connections to the airport, train station, and all ferries.

A classic European principal room housed the hearth with a private sleeping area for the dominant couple in one corner. Anglos used four-poster beds with heavy hangings. On the Continent, sleeping cupboards were common. The original garage of the tract house in question was enclosed and transformed into a living room that opens on to an enlarged kitchen. One end of the living room opens into a large storage area, some vestige of a previous closet/entry structure. It would be trivial to set up the master bed in this ell, and it would be luxurious to sleep in sight of the hearth. 

The arrangement would save heat. A simple spring-loaded curtain rod would support ready-made tabbed velvet window hangings. A short hanging on a lighter rod set over the first would conceal tabs and secure the space from drafts. The archway between the living room and adjacent kitchen could also be simply curtained or screened to provide additional privacy and conserve even more heat. Curtains seem expensive but are cheaper and more flexible than structural work. Aluminum-shaded shop lights come with large clamps that do a good job of holding heavy hangings, like wool blankets. It’s cost effective just to shuck the clamps free of the sockets and shades. The clamps fit over adjustable, spring-loaded curtain rods. The roof over this section of the building needs maintenance. It might be that leaving the ceiling open would simplify repairs and add the dignity of open beams to the main hall. Hall it is, although small. English hall houses were often no more than two hundred square feet and housed many people.

Redefining the master bedroom into a master suite would free the space in the original structure to turn on a dime. A cement slab is an ideal floor to support high-tech epoxy-coated adjustable storage racks on heavy castors. The units are not cheap, but they replace the “house carls” or domestic roadies of the Middle Ages, who stood by to set up and take down production and meal arrangements as the needs of the household demanded. They also did the housework. Central storage liberates an interior from the clutter that inhibits flexible command of the space. Cubic inches ain’t cheap-concentrating storage is the way to make them earn their keep.

The original front door of this house opened directly into the living room. That space now functions as a generous passage, a perfectly reasonable and efficient way to take advantage of what it has to offer on the way to the kitchen, bath, and workshop set deeper into the structure. It could also serve as a waiting area and holding space for freight, a traditional way to use an entry when most production took place under a private roof. 

The entry traffic pattern zigs and zags, but the angles are good places to set whatever is being toted from place to place in the interior. A traffic engineer would call them switching points, a good spot to set a chair or small table. To the left of the entry are several sleeping rooms, just waiting to become far more than places for individual hoards. The front room has good daylight and is well-situated to become an office and consultation space. The current master bedroom might well be dressing room central, storage central, and extra sleeping area via the right sofa. Mobile storage racks can be curtained to serve as room dividers. A third room could be reserved for guests. 

I find it helpful to separate personal storage from sleeping quarters. Doing so makes it easy to accommodate visitors without disrupting my morning coma and work routine. Empty or nearly empty storage space in a room allows it to expand or contract with varying demands, eliminating much of the stress of change.

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