Planning a Thoughtful Renovation in Somerville

home architectureHome redesigned by Bill Boehm. Photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

A stronger economy coupled with a tight housing market means more people in Somerville are choosing to stay in their homes and renovate rather than move, according to local architects.

Homeowners who love the area recognize they’re financially better off investing in their property and modifying it to fit their evolving needs, says Aimee Zaslaw of JAZ Design, a residential remodeling company in the Greater Boston area that works with many Somerville clients.

In this market, improvements will yield a return on investment and possibly even more, she says.

“There are areas like Davis Square where you could put $600,000 into your home and still make a profit. People are fighting to be there,” Zaslaw says.

Before diving into a renovation project, however, consider reading up on advice from local architects on the best ways to maximize your space and avoid hassles that come with home improvements.

Making Space

Before thinking about adding to a home’s footprint, local architects advise residents look to their attics and basements first.

Adding dormers—windows that project out from a sloped roof—to an attic is a great way to open up the space, says Somerville architect Jai Singh Khalsa of Khalsa Design. Similarly, adding lightwells makes a basement more usable, he explains.

Basement windows have to be large enough for a person to crawl out of in order to qualify as a point of egress under the building code, says Edrick vanBeuzekom of Somerville-based EvB Design.

“In basements, often what we’re doing is making a family room or a playroom or a home office or a workshop,” rather than a bedroom, he says. Mechanical systems like an energy-efficient ventilator can help homeowners meet the light and air requirements for those kinds of uses, according to vanBeuzekom.

An open concept floor plan is also a popular option for homeowners who want to create a more spacious feel without adding square footage, explains Bill Boehm of Somerville firm Boehm Architecture.

But knocking down dining and living room walls risks creating a “generic open space,” without specific zones, he says, making it hard to figure out where furniture should go.

Built-in shelves and drawers, a partial wall, or a vaulted ceiling can help distinguish different sections of the space, he says. By hanging a light from a vaulted ceiling, “suddenly it feels like this is the dining room,” says Boehm.

Boehm and his colleagues look to European designs for inspiration for optimal space utilization, he says. They design many family bathrooms, where a shower and toilet are placed behind a pocket door with double sinks on the other side. This design can decrease the need for multiple bathrooms.

“You have someone inside using the shower and someone outside brushing their teeth,” Boehm explains.

Homeowners should also consider what they can live without, says Christopher Chan, of Chan Mock Architects. He suggests removing seldom-used chimneys, and vanBeuzekom offers up reclaiming a sun room that’s not insulated by weatherizing it.

Multi-use furniture, like a table that’s used as both a desk and a dining room table, has become more popular too, says Annie Mock, Chan’s partner. One of Mock’s clients combined their kitchen island and dining room table to make space for an extra large dinner party, she says.

Timing and Cost—Don’t Get Fooled by Reality TV

The continuing popularity of design TV shows, where homes are seemingly transformed over the course of a weekend, has fostered unrealistic expectations, says Marc Maxwell of Somerville’s Maxwell Architects.

“DIY shows are not our friend,” he says. “They make [renovating] look impossibly simple, inexpensive, and quick.”

While his firm gets calls from clients all year, vanBeuzekom says the best time to start plotting a renovation is the fall. Contractors make plans to work in the best weather—in spring and summer—and their time fills up quickly, he says: “By January, you want to have your contractor lined up.”

Don’t get seduced by the internet either, Maxwell cautions. Ordering materials online doesn’t pay off if the parts arrive broken, are the wrong size, or too heavy for the homeowner to lift, he says. Instead, it’s better to trust the professionals on your renovation team.

It’s important to consider moving out for any work beyond a small addition, and to have room in your budget, he advises.

“Renovation is painful. It takes more time than you think and it takes more money than you think,” Maxwell says.

Rather than having an architect draw up plans that fulfill your wishlist but don’t fit your budget and then get disappointed, vanBeuzekom advises being realistic about what you can afford before the drafting begins.

“In general the rule of thumb is around $250 a square foot for a renovation. It depends on the level of quality and type of builder. $300 is not unusual anymore,” vanBeuzekom says.

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Zoning and Permitting

Somerville residents should keep the permitting process in mind when considering the timeline of a renovation, architects advise.

“Even if what you’re doing seems very reasonable and minor, you’ll be asked to apply for a zoning variance,” Boehm says.

Under the current zoning regulations, the vast majority of renovation projects require permission in the form of a variance from the city.

“It’s rare to have a project that doesn’t need a special permit or a zoning variance,” says Maxwell.

“Generally, it’s a three-to-six-month process to get a zoning variance,” says vanBeuzekom. “That really sets your project back a chunk.”

This summer, Somerville’s Board of Aldermen will vote on a new zoning ordinance that will change which renovations would need approval from the city. Whether you should wait to see how the vote shakes out or jumpstart renovations now depends on the type of project you’re considering, says Chan.

Under the proposed new code, “There are potentially some renovations that are going to be easier to do,” he says. Smaller projects like expanding a dormer or finishing a basement wouldn’t require a special permit, thereby speeding up the process, he explains.

Currently, the approvals process is “needlessly complex for simple changes that do not impact neighbors and fit seamlessly with the existing structure,” according to the planning department.

But while the permitting process can be a “real headache,” Boehm acknowledges that “the planning staff and the zoning process is clearer and more straightforward and friendlier than in some of our neighboring towns.”

Make Nice with Your Neighbors

After determining that your renovation will need a special permit, it’s time to involve your neighbors in the process, says Boehm.

The city notifies neighbors within a close radius, generally the surrounding houses, of renovation plans and invites them to a hearing, he says.

“Neighbors have quite a bit of say in what’s allowed and what is not allowed,” Boehm says.

To avoid potential lawsuits, the city tends to err on the side of the neighbors, he explains.

“It’s surprising how many times you think ‘this isn’t going to bother anybody,’” but it does, Boehm says. “It can really throw a wrench in the works.”

If neighbors voice opposition at a hearing, the zoning board might tell a homeowner to come back in a month or two for a second hearing, according to vanBeuzekom.

By talking to your neighbors early in the process, you can potentially negotiate with them, Boehm explains, noting that getting a letter of support from them is even better than having their tacit buy-in.

Another way to keep on good terms: Collect your neighbors’ emails and offer to keep them updated on your progress and upcoming work that will generally affect their quality of life, Zaslaw advises.

This story appears in the Arts & Architecture issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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