Open floor plans, where one room flows seamlessly into another, have been de rigueur in new home construction for nearly a decade.
But how do you take your grid-like Cape or boring center hall Colonial and turn it into one of these?
Renovate to liberate -- that's been the popular way to convert isolated rooms and cramped spaces to open, light-filled places.
Homeowners for years have been removing walls to create large spaces for entertaining and family time.
"Anything to provide areas for interaction amongst the family members," said Renee Rewiski, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and editor and publisher of Remodeling News in Ramsey, N.J. "That's what's in right now."
Architects and contractors say there's no limitations to what can be done, but add there are ways to foresee problems, and factors that can impact cost and aesthetics.
Foremost when envisioning an open floor plan is hiring an architect to determine which walls carry the weight of whatever is above and how to redistribute it.
If the walls that the homeowner wants removed are load-bearing, then the new design needs to find ways to carry the weight of the higher floor or floors and the roof -- things that only an architect can do.
"You have to calculate weight loads," said Tommy McDevitt, president of McDevitt Construction & Remodeling LLC in Lincoln Park, N.J., "and [local] building departments won't let contractors calculate that."
Franklin Lakes, N.J., architect Richard A. Bouchard says a system of wood or steel beams needs to be designed to handle the weight and avoid possible structural problems.
"Maybe you can't shut doors on the second floor, or the floor upstairs now has a slope to it," he said. "Those things are hard to correct, so you really have to design these beams correctly the first time."
To obtain permits, homeowners need to file architectural plans with local building departments.
Have an easy house style?
Any wood-frame house can be opened up, says River Edge, N.J., contractor Tim Wallace of Wall Co. But an open floor plan that includes an addition can be more challenging with certain house styles, such as Tudors that have exterior brick walls with mortar and unusual angles.
Bouchard says his current project -- a ranch in Glen Rock, N.J. -- is particularly easy to open up.
"By reconfiguring the whole roof, we were able to eliminate the need for a [load-bearing] beam because it was a ranch and had nothing above," he said.
With their large floor plans that allow for larger rooms, Colonials are also considered to be easy.
"It depends on the type of home and how much room are you looking for," says contractor Tommy McDevitt, president of McDevitt Construction & Remodeling LLC in Lincoln Park, "and what kind of openness."
Without a doubt, he said, split levels are the most difficult because the rooms people want to connect are on different levels. About all that can come down are the walls between kitchens and living rooms, he said.
A general rule of thumb for the cost of such renovations? "The bigger it gets, the more expensive it gets," McDevitt said. "Most people want more room, not just an open floor plan."
He says his renovation projects have run from $10,000 to $200,000. Opening up one room and taking down a non-load-bearing wall, or one that just divides two rooms: $3,000.
Removing those load-bearing walls means replacing them with new weight-loading beam configurations. The more you want to hide them, such as into the ceiling above, the more expensive that is, McDevitt said.
Richard and Barbara Daidone's old, cramped kitchen in their Haworth, N.J., home didn't fit Barbara's dream kitchen idea. Plus, getting to the kitchen required going through an unused room.
Wallace worked with an architect to remove six walls, move a half bath, convert the unused room into the main kitchen area and take down the wall dividing it from the family room.
They raised ceilings, opened arches in the wall above a second work area so it has a view of the dining room and sliding doors, and redid the laundry room.
The eight-month project revealed significant, costly problems that needed correcting, such as rot in walls and floors that required rebuilding the laundry room, upstairs bath and the staircase. Those and other problems, plus costly cabinets, high-end appliances and other aesthetic decisions, made the Daidone's original $150,000 budget jump to "well over $200,000," Barbara said.
But the result is a showcase of a main floor that is organized, easy to walk through and open.