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Some of the most common questions posed to architects

The writer created a coffered ceiling to hide a support beam.Shelly Harrison

As I write this column, 2015 is drawing to a close, and it occurs to me that even though the years change, some of the comments and questions I get do not. Let’s address them here.

Comment 1: I wish I could have been an architect, but I’m not good at math.

Well, as it turns out, being good at math certainly doesn’t hurt, but it is not necessarily the key to being a successful architect. What is? Partly it is having the ability to understand spatial relations and partly it is being able to solve logistical and design problems. That said, being intuitive, understanding another person’s point of view, is an asset for a good residential architect. When people say they want a 16-by-20-foot room, I ask what it is they are hoping to achieve. The dimensions are not the goal but should be a result of understanding the clients, the sites, and the constraints and then designing with the clients’ specific needs and wishes in mind.

Comment 2: I want to open up the kitchen to the dining room or breakfast area, but I think it involves a load-bearing wall.


This is almost always solvable by putting a beam across the opening and “posting” down on either side of it with guidance from a structural engineer. There are two questions that the architect and the engineer need to answer: Where should the ends of the beam post to the foundation or structural post, and can the beam be regular timber, laminated wood, or steel? Sometimes the beam will not show below the ceiling if it is not thicker than the ceiling/floor “sandwich,” meaning the ceiling, the space above it, and the floor above that. If the beam is in a location where it needs to be deeper than the ceiling but there is room above, the beam can be flush at the ceiling but “upstanding” above, usually in an attic or within a wall plane where it cannot be seen. If the beam must drop below, the architect can incorporate it into the design by coffering the ceiling using beautiful crown molding.


Comment 3: I want to sell my house at some point, but I don’t know whether renovating the kitchen or adding a bedroom would give me a better return on value.

Check with a real estate agent about your particular situation. Generally, however, renovating an outdated kitchen and opening it up to a breakfast area and/or dining room and increasing light and views would add greatly to the value of your house. The best part is, if you do it well before you put your house on the market, you get to enjoy it, too!

Chris Chu is an architect in West Newton who specializes in residential design. Send questions to