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Built-in cupboards create storage space in some of the most unlikely places


We have seen the future, and it is built in.

That's right -- built-ins. Storage for every conceivable object from clothes to televisions and VCRs, from linens to linguine.

Storage can be a serious problem in old houses, many of which were built without any closets at all. If they have nooks and crannies -- space at the end of a hallway or under the stairs -- there may be places to tuck storage units away.

But in houses where the original rooms are square or rectangular, with multiple doors and windows, finding room for storage can be a real problem.

When we toured houses in a historic neighborhood recently, we found a number of clever applications of built-in storage. Most were in fairly narrow rowhouses, where front and back walls are usually occupied by doors and windows, and the longer side walls are blank.

Such houses are a real problem when it comes to storage, because anything built along a side wall reduces the width of the room. A room that's only 11 feet wide to begin with gets pretty narrow when you add closets 2 feet deep on one wall.

But here are three of the nifty ways we saw to use built-ins to add, rather than subtract, space:

*Angle the front surface. In one narrow house on the tour, a bedroom had an entire wall of storage that was angled from the front corner out 2 feet, then ran straight for several feet to contain a closet, then was inset to about a foot, for a tiny bookcase, then angled back out for a "media center," then angled sharply toward the side wall, to accommodate a corner fireplace.

It worked because even though it made the room narrower, the various angles and the variety of horizontal and vertical lines broke up the space and led the eye into all sorts of corners. The resulting storage was intriguing as well as useful.

*Use the hallway. In an especially long rowhouse, the ceiling over the dining room had been removed to create a dramatic double-height space. But upstairs, a long "gallery" hallway had been left on one side. It was lined with book shelves and storage, including a niche for the owner's collection of antique woodworking tools.

*Use the walls. In a total renovation of a former warehouse space, the wall between the kitchen and a hallway was extra-thick. It was just a plain wall on the hallway side, but on the kitchen side it had counter space in the middle and two built-in pantries on either side.

All these applications were somewhat modern; that is, they tended to use sleek European-style cabinets with flat panel doors and streamlined hardware. But there are applications for built-ins that are especially suited to older house styles.

Randy has been working on a storage project for a 100-year-old Dutch colonial-style house in a historic neighborhood near Baltimore.

Although the rooms are spacious, there aren't enough closets, and there's no storage. The solution: Window seats.

The house has two window alcoves that are perfect places for seats with lift-up lids for storage. Each seat is more than 8 feet long, and each will have two doors in the top. The units have to be sturdy, so the homeowners and their active boys can sit or stand on them.

Randy made the frames out of poplar, a hardwood, and found birch veneer plywood that is exceptionally strong but presents an attractive exterior for painting. The tops will be 3/4 -inch tongue-and-groove floorboards over plywood, to match the existing floor.

The existing baseboard molding will be duplicated across the front of the seating units, which contributes to the built-in feel.

Because of the details, when the seats are finished, they'll look as if they've always been there.

Whether the storage is Euro-sleek or countrified, modern or old-fashioned, the point is that once it's in place, it should perfectly match what's around it. It will either disappear or fit right in.

Next: Building with software.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun. If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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