Home Renovation Ideas: How to Make an Old House Feel Open, Airy, and New

Elissa Morgante, AIA

Elissa Morgante, AIA
Founding Principal at Award Winning Chicago Architects, Morgante Wilson

Sep 6, 2017 - 5 min read

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Home Renovation Ideas: How to Make an Old House Feel Open, Airy, and New

Build new, or renovate your existing older home? It’s a question our clients often ask – and it can be a difficult question to answer. For some of them, happy memories make a house worth updating as their family changes and grows. For others, it’s all about location – which can make even a disappointing house worthy of renovation. That was the case with a Morgante Wilson project recently featured in Luxe magazine, which holds some good lessons for anyone considering a remodeling. This month, we explore several ideas for renovating your older house:

How would you describe this house when you first saw it?

It was a brown brick, center hall colonial built in the 1920s. I wouldn’t say it was ugly, but it had zero curb appeal. It was also very gloomy inside, largely due to a misguided renovation that incorporated a lot of dark, heavy wood.

On the plus side, the house had a very gracious living room and was on a beautiful piece of property close to Lake Michigan. Our clients loved the location but hated the house, and were reluctant to buy it. I told them I was sure we could completely transform the house into something bright and fresh.

Clearly, you did!

It’s interesting, because the footprint didn’t change all that much yet the vibe of the house is completely new.

How did you achieve that?

This renovation project involved a significant gut job. The shell of the house remained, but we changed quite a bit inside. There’d been a fireplace blocking the view to the backyard, so the house lacked any sort of visual connection to the outdoors. We changed that by removing the fireplace, and installing a Nana wall that completely opens the house up to the backyard, literally as well as visually. We incorporated recessed, motorized screens in limestone piers so the back of the house can become like a big screened porch. It totally changed the way the house looks, acts, and feels.

We also got rid of a long hallway that led to a bunch of small rooms such as a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, pantry, and tiny mudroom. We took them all away, and created a big kitchen and dining area out of all those smaller spaces.

So, the house isn’t any bigger, it’s just smarter?

Exactly! A lot of older homes are chopped into cramped, dark spaces that don’t function very well. When you lose all those walls, you often end up with a decent amount of square footage you can turn into truly usable space that really transforms the way you live.

What did you do to make the house feel so airy?

Well, we didn’t raise the ceilings, I can tell you that! They remain at their original 9-foot height. But they seem taller because the house feels so much lighter now. We replaced all the dark, heavy wood that was there. We also added big windows; all that glass really opens up the space. We also decided not to use upper cabinets in the kitchen, which is always a good trick for making a house feel bigger and more open than it really is.

No structural changes then?

Not really, though we did open the staircase all the way to the third floor and put a skylight in it, which brings lots of natural light into the center of the house.

It’s easy to see the house has plenty of curb appeal now.

It sure does. We did a white glass garden trellis-type entry in place of the old arts and crafts style entry that was there before. This sets up a much brighter, cleaner entry experience and makes you anticipate something fresher inside.

One of the simplest and most dramatic changes we made was to paint the brick. That, along with replacing the old dormers with more attractive versions, made a huge difference. I always tell people, never underestimate the power of paint!

Or MWA’s ability to transform an old house into something truly new-feeling!

That’s our bread and butter, so I’d tell anyone thinking of renovating to give us a call. They might be surprised by what we can do.

Elissa Morgante, AIA

Elissa Morgante, AIA

Founding Principal at Award Winning Chicago Architects, Morgante Wilson