In Design

Adding Character to a New Construction Home.


Last year my sister-in-law reached out to me to come up with some plans for her new family home. She was looking for a cottage look—whites and creams mixed with warm wood tones, built-ins, exposed beams, and most importantly, a cozy fireplace.

The problem was, her new house has none of those things. It’s what you would expect from a newer construction home: popcorn ceilings, carpet, vinyl tile, dated ceiling fans, and a “baby jail.” Wait, what?img_3579-copy

Yes, this split-level has an interesting feature that has been dubbed the “baby jail.” The living room shares a wall with the family room below, and someone thought it would make sense to open up the wall between them. Maybe a good idea in theory, so you could keep an eye on the kids. Problem is, there are balusters across the whole thing (probably for code/safety reasons), so when the kiddos are playing downstairs, it looks a bit like a prison. Pretty nice compared to the potato cellar my grandparents had for naughty kids.

Anyways, that was my first recommendation. Get rid of the baby jail because 1) it’s obviously strange and oh-so-unattractive and 2) we’d prefer not hear those rugrats down there from the living room anyways.existing-images

Here’s a rough drawing of her existing main-level plan:

 And here’s what my sister-in-law was looking for:

“We’d ideally like to add an addition off the living room, maybe 300 sqft or so as shown in my pencil sketch.” sketch“But if nothing else, we want to knock down the kitchen wall and add an island and hardwood floors. I wonder if we could do the interior first and then the addition in the future or whether we’d just need to save and then go for the whole thing. It probably depends on where the fireplace goes. Oh yes, and definitely want to add in a gas fireplace. With the current floor plan (no additions) it could go in the corner of the living room. With the addition it could go on the far wall and be floor to ceiling which would add a nice focal point with the open floor plans. But, that would be a lot of money.”

“As for the ceiling, it’s currently popcorn, and I’m torn between a white beadboard look with recessed lighting or a plain ceiling with a dramatic wood beam or two. This is where you come in!”

“It’s a small place which is why ‘modern cottage’ seems like the way to go in my mind. I’m looking to make some strategic improvements for impact, like updating the flooring and ceiling and adding a fireplace, and then doing some more basic improvements elsewhere.”

I’d like the kitchen to be white with a butcher block countertop, or maybe it’s just the island that has butcher block and the perimeter counters are soapstone?”

After doing a video walk-through on FaceTime since I hadn’t been to her place before, I then put together a concept for her. I first wanted to show her what she could accomplish using her current floor plan, and not adding on to the back of the house.


Here was what I proposed to her:

  • Create a real foyer. This is super different than what you have, but I think it will be really nice. All you do is create a wall where the stair railing currently is. This puts all the stairs in a separated area from the main living areas. You also walk in to a pretty light fixture and art/mirror wall. The ceiling here would be the existing 11′-6″ height.camia-main-level-sketchupbirdseye
  • Take out the silly closet. Relocate it to other side of foyer.
  • Leave kitchen layout alone, but add island where existing closet is. You can have a couple of counter stools. If the wall is load-bearing (which it might be, given that it is directly below the roof ridge), you can leave the wall and it’ll still feel open.camia-main-level-sketchupscene-4
  • Apply shiplap material on the walls. I would apply it around the outside kitchen walls so you see it from all living spaces. Same with outside foyer walls so you see it on living area wall. See this picture for what shiplap is:


  • Apply beams and T&G on ceiling where it is sloped (living and dining room). Paint white, like this:


  • Remove the baby jail and add pretty fireplace instead! Add built-ins to the left of the fireplace. Stone will be pricey so I recommend doing a painted trim surround instead. The island material can mimic stone instead.camias-house-drawings-schematic_sep-26-2015_page_2
  • Add hardwood flooring throughout.
  • Add new pendant lights. One over dining table, one over the island, one one in the foyer.
  • Add sconces on either side of new hutch in dining room.camia-main-level-sketchupscene-5
  • Shift the dining table towards the living room. This gives you nice traffic flow from kitchen out to deck without bumping into table.

You can elect to not do the dividing wall between the foyer and the living room. It’s my personal preference though and my recommendation to improve furniture layout in the living room.


I told her that without altering the ceiling or the kitchen, she could really do a lot. It’s all about knocking out that closet, and adding  few new interior walls. The kitchen cabinetry could be updated later if she wanted to.

Here was the concept board I put together.

How to add character to your home

I also showed her an alternate option where the foyer opens directly into the living room instead.camia-main-level-sketchup1This gives more closet space and direct views to the living area when you walk through the front door, but creates a smaller foyer and leaves you with less seating and art wall space in the living room.

I could only get a 3′ opening, so it was not as large as I had initially thought. But it is still a nice option.

Here is a view towards the foyer from the living room.camia-main-level-sketchupscene-8
And from the dining room.camia-main-level-sketchupscene-7View from kitchen showing more closet space created in the second option. Another plus.camia-main-level-sketchupscene-9

My sister-in-law loved the design. It gave her everything she was looking for, and didn’t involve adding on to the house.

But. What if she did add on? She was still interested in seeing that option that she had initially sketched because it would give her a lot more space and a larger kitchen/island. But yes, be significantly more expensive.

So I put together four other drawings for her to look at. In all of them the addition is the same: 14′-6″ x 16′-6″ (240 s.f.). The difference in each of the drawings was how to best re-arrange the current spaces to fit her lifestyle, preferences, and budget.

So, first, I went off her original sketch, but I was then curious about what to do with the current living room space once the addition is added. Take a look.



In this first option, the kitchen layout is pretty much the same as she currently has it, but with a new range incorporated into the new island and a slightly longer wall to the right of the sink to support the larger island. The island is oriented where it is because you really want the range opposite of the sink. It doesn’t work well to rotate the island the other direction because then your distance to the refrigerator wall gets to be too far. This island is great and the kitchen is spacious in this option. However the dining room shrank just a bit. The coat closet could either face the foyer or the garage door side; whichever is preferred.

Now, on to a variation of this option…



In the second option, I provide an idea for how to use that living space. It could be a flex guest room/office with french doors that help to add light to the kitchen/dining areas and are similar to the new patio french doors in the addition. It would have a closet, so it would be adding value to her home with an additional bedroom! In this particular option I left the kitchen layout exactly the same as what she has just to show the least expensive solution. This resulted in a slightly smaller island. This means the dining room is slightly larger here than in option 1. This also shows a foyer that is opened up a bit more, facing the kitchen. I told her that is she likes this option, I would then suggest possibly adding windows where the hutch wall is to bring in more light.

Alright, now we’re on to option three where I present a more expensive option. Ready?



Here, I’ve totally moved the kitchen, gaining a mudroom and laundry area off the garage using the existing kitchen. Nice, huh? You get a beautiful new living room addition, a fantastic new, open, and very bright kitchen, and a large dining area with a possible wet bar built-in. You could even keep the linoleum floor in the laundry, reducing the hardwood flooring some. I like that the foyer is spacious here too.

And finally, option four, a variation on option 3.



In this last option, the laundry/mud room is not connected to the foyer like in option 3, but as a pass-through room from the garage to the kitchen, which I know some people like. It changes the kitchen layout, but you still get a very functional, spacious kitchen. We’d still have to play around with what happens in the dining room/hutch wall. And maybe the french doors go off the dining room instead of the addition, where the existing window is.

My favorites? Option 2 and 3.

Her response? “You’re friggin’ awesome.”

Yeah, I know. 🙂

Sadly, in the end, she actually didn’t end up moving forward with the renovation. She’s now moving to a new house because of some controversy with her kids’ school—it was built on an old toxic wasteland or some nonsense.

Her new house is another split-level with another “baby-jail” like feature. So, stay tuned folks!

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