Pre-Design: A Town Topics Column

by Lasley Brahaney Architects

QWe'd like to renovate our house but want to be prepared before we talk to a design professional. What should we do to get ready for that first meeting?

AYou’re wise to be as clear and organized as you can before you leap into a renovation project. I’ve heard people complain that home improvements that were originally modest in scope had mushroomed into jobs that had become unwieldy once they got underway. There are steps you can take to keep some control of the process and not let it get beyond you.

Include all people living in the house who will be affected by the project. Have each person come up with a wish list of all the things he or she would like to see improved or changed. Now is the time to include big dreams as well as small, and practical changes that would make the house more workable.

Now hold a family meeting, combine the lists, and set some priorities. The top priorities should be the things that must be done and the lower priorities are the things that would be nice but aren’t necessary. Probably your new water heater will take priority over your teenage son’s bowling alley, but at least everyone’s wishes will have been heard.

Once the new priorities are set, those who are paying for the job should realistically consider what they are hoping to spend on the project. This should not be an attempt to estimate how much things will cost - that will come later and probably by others; rather, this is the time when you take a good hard look at your finances and at the house you are investing in. If you can establish early on a reasonable budget above which you wouldn’t want to go, you’ll be able to control the costs better.

Get a hold of the latest survey of your property as well as any drawings/blueprints that you have documenting the existing house. With these in hand, you won’t have to pay someone to redo work that’s already been done.

You will need to communicate to the architect what you like both verbally and visually. Get a folder and start filling it with images of things that you find appealing and try and think of what you like about those images. This can help you to clarify your own tastes and will be a tool that helps the designer know your stylistic, material, and spatial preferences. If you’re drawn to spaces that are intimate, home-crafted and cozy, you wouldn’t want someone proposing a soaring, two-story high classical rotunda for your new study.

Once the scope is established, you have a handle on your budget, and you have some site and building documentation in hand, you’re ready to set up a preliminary consultation. I guess there is one more thing you can do before you pick up the phone. It’s probably helpful to check some references. You can learn a lot about how things will go by talking to people who’ve been there already.