If you are looking for a new home, there are many considerations to take into account beyond the most obvious elements of location, price, looks, square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and garage space before you decide whether this house is “it.” Or, even if you live in a house that you like but it doesn’t quite meet your needs, an architect, besides being someone who has a good eye and sense of design, can help you navigate these more practical and functional aspects to creating a house that you love.
Here are the top 10 questions you should ask:
1. Is there insulation in the walls, ceilings, and floors? If so, what kind: cellulose, Fiberglas-batt insulation, open-cell spray foam, closed-cell spray foam, rigid insulation, etc. What “R” value does the insulation have? (The higher the better.)
2. How old are the windows? Should they be replaced with energy-efficient models? What is the “U” value (a measure of energy efficiency) of the existing windows compared with new? (The lower the better.)
3. Are there zoning restrictions you should know about in case you want to make changes? Here are some terms you may need to consider, and they vary by city or town: lot coverage, lot line setbacks, floor-area ratios (gross square footage as a percentage of lot size), open area, average building height, and average grade.
4. Are there new building code regulations that could affect the cost of renovations you may want to do? For example, wall R-value requirements have increased from R-13 to R-19 in recent years.
5. Will you need to redo the electrical service? Doing a renovation or an addition is a great opportunity to design a new lighting layout using energy-efficient LED bulbs. The lighting industry has come a long way in developing LED bulbs that mimic our old favorite incandescent ones in color of light and shape. The advantage of the LEDs over the compact fluorescent bulbs? Not only are warmer colors possible, but the lights are now also dimmable and can be disposed of in the regular trash, unlike the fluorescents.
6. Is the house in a 100-year flood plain? If so, any additions to the house would need to go through the local conservation commission before a building permit can be issued. An architect can help coordinate the process and get the right consultants to help with this, including a site surveyor, a civil engineer, and possibly a wetlands consultant.
7. If on-site runoff retention is required, a civil engineer will be needed to design a plan. An architect can coordinate the engineering design with any potential addition to the house.
8. Are there structural limitations? Often homeowners want to know about “bearing walls.” Usually, with the help of a structural engineer, just about any wall can be removed. The architect can work with the structural engineer to balance structural needs with visual and architectural needs. For example, if a beam has to go below the ceiling, perhaps it can be made into a design element as part of a coffered ceiling or a soffit (lowered ceiling) over an intimate window seat.
9. Energy usage: What are the energy costs? Should you change or upgrade the systems? Check out the Mass Save (www.masssave.com) website for tips on saving energy in your home and possible rebates for certain home-energy improvements.
10. Site considerations: Is the driveway/parking/entry experience one that is safe, expedient, and pleasant? How would you get groceries into the house? Is there a side entrance that lets you get into the house with protection from the elements? How do you want to use the outdoor space? Is there a safe play space for children? Can you readily see and get to children quickly in an emergency? Are there things that can be done to the site to create wonderful outdoor spaces in which to dine, entertain, or relax? If you are adding on, this is an opportunity to create outdoor spaces that further enrich your day-to-day life.
Life is short; why not create the home that YOU want?
Chris Chu is an architect in West Newton who specializes in residential design. Send questions to Address@globe.com.