January 3, 2017

4 Tips to Make Your House’s Irregular Floor Plan Work For You

Toolkit Irregular Floor Plan Richardsonian House Exterior

photo by: Jeffrey Beall/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

The small skylight above the eyebrow dormers of this Richardsonian house show that the uppermost floor likely went through a change in use.

The quirks and individuality that make us love historic houses can also sometimes be difficult to adjust to when we’re used to living in a more modern space. False doors, irregularly shaped living rooms, and awkward bathroom additions can present challenges when working through a decorating scheme, renovation, or reuse project.

Some architectural styles were intentionally designed with irregular floor plans, including Gothic Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Bungalow.

Atypical floor plans can be pretty interesting too. Thomas Jefferson’s closet was in a nook above his bed. Mount Vernon’s exterior is asymmetrical because George Washington was more concerned with the interior layout. John Tayloe III built his house in Washington, D.C., as an octagon. While these spaces differed from typical building patterns, today we celebrate their imagination and creativity.

With the above examples in mind, we’ve collected a few tips on how to make your irregular floor plan work for you, instead of against you. That way, you can appreciate the quirks of your historic residence without all the headaches.

1. Forget the ideal of “perfect.”

Historically, structures were designed based on loose sets of building patterns and the experiences of their craftsmen. There was no guarantee quirks would be eliminated from the building process. Today, however, we design and build according to standardized practices, patterns, and materials. And often, we can work with the contractor or architect to make sure every space, design, and detail to make a perfect home are included.

If you don’t know how to use the room in your house originally built to hold enough china for a Downton Abbey-sized dinner party, don’t be discouraged. That kind of individuality cannot be replicated—and why would you want it to be?

Buildings today are rarely utilized for the same purposes. Barns make great tool sheds today, carriage houses easily fit a car or two, and larger structures are often converted into guest quarters.

The unique part of living in a historic structure is that you can see evidence of past tenants, including the changes they made, subtle or otherwise. That is a special characteristic you cannot design in a new house.

Toolkit Irregular Floor Plan Octagon House Drawn by William Thornton

photo by: LC-USZC4-1568

The floor plan for the Octagon House (c. 1798), was designed by Dr. William Thornton, first architect of the U.S. Capitol.

2. Exercise your creative side.

Determining where to place a modern kitchen in a two-over-two Federal can challenge your creativity. Can you add a compatible addition? Could you partition one of the existing rooms to build your kitchen? Likewise, a large space originally built as a ballroom could be converted quite easily into two bedrooms by building a partition in the middle (if your Board of Architectural Review gives you approval, of course).

Thinking of multiple options for layouts can yield interesting results, and you may realize it’s less of a challenge to adapt your historic house for modern living than you thought.

3. Follow established patterns.

If your house is protected with an interior easement, or if modern safety requirements don't allow for it, structural changes to your floor plan may not be possible. If this is the case, think how past owners would have used the spaces in question.

You may not be used to having a master bedroom on the first floor, but in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was quite common because the room multitasked as a social space in which to entertain guests.

As another example, you likely no longer need the room originally intended to support the needs of hired help. You could consider using the space as a bedroom, perhaps for a child who doesn’t require a lot of space.

Some merchants’ houses during the 18th and 19th centuries had offices in the front part of the house to entertain business partners and the public. These spaces are often generously sized and opulent to a level that would indicate their wealth and impress a guest. Consider using this type of space as a modern home office or as a common room for friends and family to gather.

Toolkit Irregular Floor Plan Winchester Mystery House Irregular Roofline

photo by: Konrad Summers/Flickr/CC By SA 2.0

The famous "Mystery House" in San Jose, California, has an inventive interior, with stairs leading to ceilings and multiple secret passageways.

4. Furnishings can make a difference.

If you’re used to open floor plans, but you own a Queen Anne that has enough twists and turns for you to get lost a couple of times a day, focus on the interior decorating to create an aesthetic you prefer. A wall color that extends from one room into a hallway, for example, unifies the spaces, rather than separating them.

Likewise, a small room can seem airy, rather than cramped, if you replace a couch with two chairs, or replace the dark colored rug with something brighter or more neutral.

If you own an Arts and Crafts style home, adding compatible Stick Style furniture will unite the space with the soft furnishings, creating a comfortable environment rather than one that is aesthetically jarring.

Consult with an interior decorator, who can present you different ideas to make your space work.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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