Most of us are living in homes that are smaller than we would like. Shoebox-sized flats and shared children's bedrooms have become the norm. Those wishing to stay in their current location face three options: fork out a fortune and move to a larger house; extend the property you live in; or transform your house to maximise existing space.
- © G Jackson/www.arcaid.co.uk
We all need an exercise in space training. Re-organising our living accommodation is the cheapest, easiest and, unsurprisingly, the most common form of project undertaken by homeowners.
A recent survey by Architect Your Home shows that 39 per cent of the 500 homeowners interviewed had reconfigured the rooms in their house, compared with 17 per cent who had added a single-storey extension.
The great thing about reconfiguring existing space is that there is a range of options available, some of which take very little time, cost minimal amounts of money and can be done without planning permission.
'The key to success is to maximise the size of the rooms in which you spend most time'
Quick fixes include adding clever storage solutions, investing in multi-purpose furniture and making small structural changes. Removing a chimneybreast, enlarging doorways and fitting sliding doors, for example, can make a huge difference.
Even wise decorating choices can make a home feel instantly more spacious.
Those looking for more dramatic transformations and with bigger budgets can re-arrange the internal layout of their home. For these projects it is advisable to employ an architect, as their training and experience will often result in more imaginative and practical solutions.
Knocking through the kitchen to connect it with a dining area and creating additional bathrooms are the most common projects undertaken.
But some home-owners completely gut their properties, introducing radical new layouts and materials.
"I have been to some properties where you think it's going to be a typical house and when you open the door you're blown away because its something entirely different to what you're expecting," says Tom Tangney, a partner at estate agent Knight Frank.
The cost and time involved in transforming existing properties depends entirely on the extent of your project. While buying furniture could be done in an afternoon, an entirely new layout could take six months. The value added to your property will also depend on the changes made.
Additions such as in-built storage will attract buyers but won't add thousands to the asking price.
Open-plan kitchen/diners are high on purchasers' wish lists, while, according to research by the Nationwide building society, an extra bathroom adds at least five per cent to property values.
Radical transformations are more risky. "It's quite brave because you are making a statement and you do tend to limit your buyer base," says Tangney.
Whether you are making minor changes or embarking on a major project, the key to success is to arrange the space around your lifestyle and maximise the size of the rooms in which you spend most time. You'll be amazed by how much of that valuable space you can claw back.
All change, please
Should you be considering ambitious alterations, it is worth consulting architects as they can estimate costs and will often add an exciting dimension to your plans. Those on a tight budget can consult one without hiring them for the entire job. The price of five to 10 hours of work to get the opinion of a trained professional is well worth the investment.
The cost of projects varies considerably but compare favourably with adding a loft, basement or back extension. Remember that if you are knocking down walls, you will need to pay labourers for the demolition work and removing the construction waste.
Bear in mind also that fixtures and fittings can add a considerable amount to the final bill. Selecting standard, mass-produced products will help keep the total down.
Alterations can affect the saleability and value of the house but this depends on a number of factors. It's worth researching through local estate agents whether similar alterations in neighbouring properties have boosted their value. Most areas have a ceiling price, which will be hard to beat, no matter the amount of changes you make.
It is also important to keep the number of bedrooms proportional to the living areas. If you convert a bedroom into a home study, for example, it would be wise to ensure that a future buyer can easily undo any alterations.
Finally, many estate agents will value a house by the number of rooms rather than the square footage, so completely opening up an interior may have a negative impact on the selling price. Open plan kitchen/diners have proved popular in the recent market but be warned that a radical scheme will limit your buyer base.
© Michele Panzeri
Rules and regulations
Generally, you do not need planning permission to carry out internal alterations but the first thing you should do is contact your local planning officer to check. With listed buildings, consent must be given for any alteration that may affect a home's character.
This mainly affects alterations to the property's external appearance, such as changes to doors, windows, roofs and porches, but it is always worth checking before embarking on any changes.
Conservation consent (for properties in conservation areas) is similar but is subject to rules laid down by the local council rather than the law. To check whether similar properties in your area have run up against problems, download committee reports from your council's website.
If your project affects any wall, floor or ceiling of an adjoining property you must get a Party Wall Agreement. This involves informing your neighbours in writing at least two months before work begins to get their written consent for the project.
If it is a leasehold property you may also need permission from the freeholder.
All projects will require building-regulations approval. Your electrician or builder can obtain approval for minor works, such as moving light switches that need rewiring or installing an extractor fan in the kitchen but for larger projects you will need an architect to draw up project plans to send to the local council for consent. This can take up to five weeks and involves an on-site inspection.
You will also have to pay a fee in proportion to the cost of your project. For a project costing between £2,000 and £5,000 you are likely to pay roughly £250.
To find out more about building regulations, visit the Communities and Local Government website at http://www.communities.gov.uk.
Knocking down internal walls
Many period properties are congested by corridors and suffer from impractical layouts. By knocking down some walls and introducing new materials, such as glass, you can gain valuable square footage and transform the quality of your living space.
When reconfiguring internal partitions it is essential that you identify load-bearing walls. First, tap on the wall in question. Hollow walls are not likely to be load-bearing. Next, follow the wall to an upstairs room and, if possible, check the floorboards.
Floorboards running parallel to the wall tend to indicate a load-bearing wall whereas those running at right-angles to the wall are more likely to indicate a partition wall. If in any doubt, remove the floorboards to see which walls are supporting joists.
© G Jackson/www.arcaid.co.uk
An architect or structural engineer can confirm your findings. If you are moving a load-bearing wall then the job will be more complicated as you will need to install a RSJ (Reinforced Steel Joist) to support the load above.
Once you have removed a wall you can still partition spaces using visual tricks such as lighting, a changed floor surface or an archway. You can also use furniture to create segregated spaces. The back of a sofa, for example, can demarcate a circulation route through the living area.
Remember also that there are alternative options to removing a wall entirely. You could replace the wall with a panel of reinforced glass, which will visually connect two rooms while maintaining a physical separation.
"Glass gives you a great opportunity to bring more light into the home," says designer Oliver Heath. You can even use reinforced glass for landing and staircases. "Even in Victorian houses they drew in light from a top level window and allowed this to bounce down the stairwell through little glass panels. The more light that's allowed to filter down and around, the better."
Alternatively, replace the wall with a half-height wall or a counter. You could also open up the space but install a large sliding door, which gives you the option of partitioning the room for more privacy.
Heath does have one word of warning. "You should always be aware of acoustics when removing walls," he says. "Once you have more than one person living in an open space it can cause friction."
"Storage can be very important in one- and two-bedroom flats and it is one of the things buyers look out for," says Tom Tangney of Knight Frank.
"Clothes storage is the most important. Other items such as books can be stacked neatly, whereas putting away clothes keeps the property tidy and makes the space look bigger. You should reap the financial benefits of installing storage when you sell."
There are numerous options when it comes to storage, including free-standing furniture, such as sideboards, cupboards and book shelves, or furniture that incorporate cavities or shelves, such as a coffee table that doubles up as a magazine rack.
The most effective solution is in-built storage units. "Built-in storage is definitely the most efficient use of space," says Oliver Heath of Blustin Heath Design. "It allows you to extend the cupboards right up to the ceiling and exploit as much of the available space as possible."
A good carpenter will be able to knock up all kinds of inventive shelves and cupboards, and costs can be minimalised by opting for MDF. "I would recommend formaldehyde-free MDF because it is less toxic and better for the environment," says Heath.
To maximise the storage potential of your home, exploit every scrap of unused space. Alcoves and awkward areas under the eaves in attic rooms are great for shelves or cupboards, as is the wedge of space beneath the stairs. You can even build a bespoke staircase with drawers in the treads. The unused area above doors is also a good place for storing objects that you don't need on a day-to-day basis.
Seats with hinged lids and storage underneath are perfect for bay windows. Take a good look around your home and you'll be amazed by how much dead space there is to colonise.
© DRDH architects
The way you decorate and furnish a space will have a big impact on how spacious it feels. To create a free-flowing space, visually connect adjoining rooms using similar materials for the floors and walls. Keep the colour palette pale so that light bounces off floor and wall surfaces and back into the room. Bolder colours should be limited to signature walls. Mirrors also create the illusion of larger rooms and reflect light.
Expose as much of the floor as possible to enhance the sense of space. Replace radiators with underfloor heating, or if this is too expensive, replace bulky radiators with slim vertical models. You can also replace skirting boards with a pre-formed metal bead that will make the floor seem larger and the walls taller.
Select furniture with legs rather than skirts, or pieces that can be suspended off the floor. "If you illuminate furniture from below, it will make the space feel even larger because you can see further underneath," says designer Oliver Heath.
The golden rule is to avoid clutter, so select furniture carefully. Dual-purpose furniture now comes in a whole host of guises, from beds with TVs in their footboards to sofas with bookshelves built into the backrest.
"Think about a boat, where furniture has multiple purposes," says Heath. Fold-up furniture is useful, too, with many varieties of tables, chairs and even beds that fold up into wall units now available. Check out the models at The Wallbed Workshop and Clei.
Finally, arrange furniture so that it does not block doors or windows. "The further you can see through a space the larger it will seem," says Heath.
* Architect Your Home: 0800 849 8505
* Blustin Heath Design: 020 7739 6416; www.blustinheathdesign.com
* The Wallbed Workshop: 020 7924 5300; www.thewallbedworkshop.co.uk
* Clei: 020 7590 3088; www.clei.co.uk