Home additions: What you need to know

Home additions: What you need to know
Architect Eli Northen poses for a photo near a home on Wingate Road in Baltimore He designed the addition for the home. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Whether it's a mudroom, bathroom, bedroom or closet, an addition can add aesthetic, functional and even monetary value to a home. But the trick is to make the new space fit with the rest of the home.

To do that, homeowners should consider scale, proportion and materials, says Eli Northen, a licensed architect and owner of EN Architects in Baltimore. The University of Maryland, College Park graduate and adjunct architecture professor launched his company in 2014 after years of working on everything from small residential projects to large academic buildings.
He talked to Baltimore at Home about how to create a fitting addition — and get the most for your money.

What are some of the best ways to make an addition feel like a natural, cohesive part of the home?

The wrong way, in my opinion ... is to try to fake old architecture. To try to do new, ornate fake architecture typically looks like a cartoon of old architecture. To me, it’s less about trying to pretend we’re living in the 19th century and more about understanding scale, understanding proportion, understanding materiality. Sometimes an addition just wants to be a simple piece that highlights the existing building. We work on projects where we’ll make the joints of the glass align with some other parts of the house. Even though it’s glass and it’s kind of contemporary, it fits within the lines of the house. And the scales of the openings are scaled appropriately.

What are some of the most creative or successful additions you have seen?

There’s a firm out of England called McLean Quinlan [Architects]. In my opinion, they have mastered the London townhome. They understand that the front of the London townhome can be a very stately, 19th-century piece. But oftentimes, the back of the London townhome is open and airy and light and modern. The two are very well balanced and not at odds at all.
Locally, there’s a nice little home in Washington, D.C., by David Jameson. It’s a beautiful glass corner addition that works within the existing rowhouse. Marching along, you see all these brick and stone row houses, and then this glass piece that fits in there. It’s different material, but it works very well with everything else.

How can homeowners get the most bang for their buck when it comes to an addition?

One is to bring out a licensed architect and a contractor at the very beginning. The conventional older wisdom is that you design everything, get it perfect and then you bid it out to a bunch of contractors and go with the lowest price and that’s going to get you the best bargain. That is false. Architects understand pricing, but not the same way contractors do. So you’ll get all the way to the end of the project, and you’ll realize it’s over budget. And then you have to hire your architect back to redesign it. [A contractor hired early on] can start pricing out even the schematic work. All along, you have a sense of what the price is. You can start whittling it down and start taking things out.
Some contractors will also let homeowners buy a lot of things directly. Everything that goes through the contractor is going to be marked up 20 or 25 percent. If you buy it directly and handle that transaction, make the phone call, order it, get it delivered, you are saving 25 percent.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face when designing an addition?

The obvious ones are time and budget, because everybody has a budget. And everybody wants it built yesterday. … Sometimes budget can be a powerful tool in making things better because it will force us to economize things and look for creative solutions we might not find if [clients] had millions of dollars to spend on an addition. It’s an inhibitor, but also sometimes it’s an opportunity.
The other thing that hits us over the head is, with existing construction, there’s just unknowns. Inevitably, you will open up the one wall you wanted to take down, and that’s going to be the wall that all your plumbing stacks run through. Suddenly, you have a $5,000 plumbing change order.