Adding on to your home is one of the most rewarding things you can do –– and one of the most challenging.
cheryl gerber photographs
Driving by my childhood home the other day, I noticed a big change. The owners of the house, which the disaster of ought-five had hit hard, lopped off the entire back third of it. Here was another of those erasures to which many of us have become accustomed in recent years. With the demolition of neighbors’ houses, the house where I spent the first several years of life and the school I attended, I’ll have to rely more on my shoddy memory to picture the setting of childhood.
Witnessing the void left by the latest erasure gave me particular pause, not because the rear portion of that house had been integral to it –– but, on the contrary, because it was an addition. It had been the biggest mark our family made on the house in nearly two renovation-frenzied decades there.
The space my parents dreamed up was a large extension of the upstairs living quarters, creating a master bedroom, bathroom and study, with a loft reaching up to the cathedral ceiling. On the level below it, they converted part of the garage into a laundry room. After the carpenter roughed in the structure, my brothers and I became our dad’s unwilling apprentices, hauling sheetrock up the narrow stairway, hammering plywood down, sanding the built-in bookshelves in the study for hours on end, and painting and repainting the walls.
When it was all done, I could walk through a doorway at what used to be the back of the house into the enchantment of a new world. A world that we created. A world that we lived in.
A world that doesn’t exist anymore.
As I drove on, I comforted myself with the thought that the present owners must have in mind a plan for some new space –– maybe a brand-new addition –– that is better-built, more attractive. It then occurred to me that of all the possible improvements you can make to your home, none is more satisfying than adding a new space.
Of course, it’s also a very big deal. David Noggerath, the owner of Brandon Construction Co. Inc., has presided over a number of additions in his quarter-century of home construction. He says anyone considering an addition must begin by defining objectives: Is it out of necessity? Is it to increase the value of your home? Or is it just to enhance your lifestyle?
Then there’s the realm of the possible. Noggerath says that many people look to add space because they live in older houses not designed for today’s space-hungry urban dwellers. Unfortunately, those old houses often sit on old lots.
“Most structures are built for the space that exists,” he says. “Most homes occupy everything back to the back setback in historic areas.” Setback requirements often prevent further expansion of the house’s footprint. And even where they don’t, Noggerath says you might “shoot yourself in the foot” by gobbling up precious yard area on
an investment in living space.
Going vertical poses its own set of challenges. Height restrictions might come into play. Aesthetic issues may arise. But the problems associated with going vertical are mainly of the engineering variety, Noggerath says. Houses tend to be built to bear their existing weight. To go vertical, you’ll have to hire an engineer. The workarounds they might recommend, such as foundation upgrades, can become cost-prohibitive.
Naturally, cost should be a major factor in decision-making. From an investment standpoint, an addition becomes harder to justify the farther that construction costs per square foot creep above market costs per square foot.
The type of room makes a big difference in cost. A kitchen requires intensive electrical and plumbing infrastructure, meaning a lot of man-hours in reconfiguration and a big investment in the materials needed to provide utilities. A bedroom, on the other hand, is a simpler and cheaper affair. For that reason, Noggerath says, most of the additions he has done over the years have been for bedrooms or bigger living areas.
The foundation of the addition affects cost, as well. Noggerath says that a basic, straightforward slab-on-grade addition will cost between $100 and $150 per square foot. For a raised addition, you need to factor in about one-third more cost just for the foundation.
Finally, tying into the existing building may pose challenges, increasing costs. You need to create a smooth and level connection between the existing structure and the new one, with rooflines that connect and drain properly.
Sometimes, Noggerath says, unpleasant surprises await when you open up a wall in the existing space.
Depending on what you have in mind, you may need to contact an architect, an engineer and a licensed contractor.
“Go about it the right way,” Noggerath says. “It doesn’t cost anything to get a consultation from
And with the right advice, you can make sure the addition you’re contemplating doesn’t someday become a subtraction.