Article by Julian Owen

How we use the space in our homes changes as our lifestyle develops and evolves over time. Assuming that you will live in your newly renovated or self built home for many years to come, you are in a good position to allow for future changes before construction work starts. It is not expensive to build in flexibility that will save money later on if alterations are needed.

Changing Demands of Family Life

The kind of changes that are needed over time are not often catered for by volume speculative house design, where it is assumed that people will simply outgrow the house and move on. With your own project, you can be more forward-thinking. When you are drawing up a brief for your project it is important to consider how long you hope to live in your new home and try to predict how your family life is likely to develop.

Young families tend to need fewer bedrooms and an open plan Kitchen/Living/Dining space so that children can be easily supervised during day-to-day activities running the home. Once toddlers and their friends are active, safety is an important feature so door latches and safety glass (required by building regulations) are essential. Split stable doors, which have a top half that can be opened, leaving the lower section in place as a barrier are a useful feature, especially to provide fresh air in the summer without giving small children access to the garden.

Teenagers need some independence and tend to spend a lot of time in their bedrooms using computers and other appliances such as MP3 Players and hi fi. They will need separate rooms if possible, and also plenty of space to for friends as well as all their possessions. Bathroom space will become critical, especially for girls although to correct the stereotype the relatively recent trend for ‘male grooming’ is increasing use by boys as well. Downstairs, open plan may work well for Kitchen and Dining areas but a separate Living Room will be essential as a parent’s refuge. Sound insulation becomes important.

Once the children leave home, space demands on the house will be relaxed but allowance will probably be needed for their intermittent return, eventually with families of their own that will need to be accommodated. Often this stage is the point when a couple will downsize by moving on to a new home, or even repeating the self build experience.

Although you may be fit and well when you conceive your project, if you expect to be in a home when you are older there are some features that will make a big difference if they are allowed for in the design. Even if you are fortunate enough to live into old age with your own health intact it is likely that you will have friends or relatives who will not. Your parents may become infirm and many people, when faced with the option of a care home, prefer to create dependent relative accommodation – more colloquially known as a ‘granny flat’ – to allow a very elderly relative to live a partly independent life whilst being cared for and monitored by the family.

In these situations, wheelchair access to and around the home becomes critical. Altering a typical house can be expensive, but if you allow at the design stage for wider door frames and corridors, plenty of space in ground floor WC with the capacity to be expanded to a bathroom along with minimal level changes into and around the home, the expense will be minimal. If you really want to future proof against you or your partner becoming wheelchair bound, allow space in the stairwell for a lift or at least ensure that the staircase itself is the right design to fit a chairlift.

Work and Technology

It is generally accepted that in the future more and more of us are likely to be working from home, either full time or part time. This means that if you don’t at the moment, you should allow for the possibility that you will do one day. This may need no more than the inclusion of a Study or area in one of the other rooms to be designated, unless you expect to have visitors connected to your work. It will not go down well if they have to walk through the kitchen or up to your bedroom to discuss important business.

Predicting technological innovations is harder. Not so long ago forward-thinking self builders were including runs of CAT 5 cabling all around their rooms ready for use in home computer networking. Although still useful because they deliver speedy connections, the development of wireless networking has made this unnecessary for most families. Current trends suggest that in the not-too-distant future more homes will be run by their own pc which will be used to control heating, lighting, appliances and home entertainment. High-spec houses already use this technology, and as the price comes down more of us will want this convenience. This can be allowed for by placing service ducts in the walls and floors and positioning vertical ducts that run the full height of the house in central areas such as the stairwell.

Design Tips

Structure

Rather than using every internal wall to support the floor or roof above, create long clear structural spans that will allow the walls to be easily demolished and repositioned. Build walls that you expect may have to be changed from lightweight construction, such as stud partitions. This will make internal re-planning easy and cheaper in the future. Always build in sound proofing to lightweight wall using sound absorbing mineral wool quilt.

Layout

Allow for plenty of space in bedrooms, particularly if you have a young family that will produce teenagers, ideally with en suite bathrooms, but at least space for a washbasin and mirror in each room. Downstairs there should be plenty of space in the WC and wide corridors if you expect to have to accommodate wheelchair users or partially disabled. The staircase should not be designed to the building regulations minimum, because older people prefer more shallow steps, ideally with a landing halfway up to take a rest. Allowance for a lift in the stairwell is worth considering.

Services

Aside from providing accessible ducts for future technological innovations to be fitted to the house, the other big services consideration is drainage. If you have to alter or add to the underground layout, this can be very expensive, or even impractical because of the excavation that will be needed. However, if flexibility is allowed for during construction the cost is relatively low. If you are particularly forward-thinking but money is tight at the time of building you may be able to at least ensure that extra underground drains are laid ready to be tapped into later. Or there may be enough in the budget to include above ground connections up to the corners of any rooms where you hope one day to add en suite bathrooms or even a kitchen for a granny flat.

Landscaping and Approach to the House

Although the inside may be your main preoccupation, don’t forget to consider the space around the house as well. This can be particularly important for disabled, infirm or wheelchair-bound visitors and occupants but also anyone trying to get a pushchair or double buggy laden with children and shopping from the road, into the house. This means ensuring that the access routes from the car or road is ramped, without ideally without any steps. The current building regulations already require that there is no step up into the front door, but if there is a porch or lobby area once you are inside should allow plenty of space to manoeuvre.

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Copyrigtht Julian Owen, not to be reproduced, copied or distributed except for personal or education use