The Upstairs That Wasn’t

You know, Moe, my mom once said something that really stuck with me. She said, “Homer, you’re a big disappointment.” And God bless her soul, she was really onto something.

– Homer Simpson

Fixing up an old house is fun, invigorating, frustrating, and enraging by turns. Right now, we’re in a frustrating phase with regard to a major project for Chez D’oh. We’ve yapped quite a bit about our potential upstairs remodel, but to summarize:

  • We live in a story-and-a-half bungalow.
  • The upstairs half-story is semi-finished as one big room.
  • The insulation and natural light up there leave much to be desired.
  • The main goal is to convert this loft space into a bedroom and office area with a small bathroom.
  • The area is very closed in, so another goal is to have sight lines to the outside (potentially by adding a dormer, but possibly by just adding roof windows).
  • We want to do this work concurrently with replacing the roof, which needs doing soon.

One view of the fabulous loft as seen last autumn.

We hired an interior designer to make up plans for the big transformation. We like this person, and worked with her before on our kitchen, where she showed great insight and helped us transform the space. We highly recommend working with an interior designer, and still do…but it didn’t go perfectly this time.

The Kev and I spent substantial time refining our remodeling goals to make sure they were reasonable and easy to understand. We also made a list of our ideas to run past the designer.


A draft of our notes for the designer meeting.

The designer brought back plans that stayed within the existing envelope of the house, but did manage to include a work space, bedroom, and bath. Skylights were added, but they did not achieve the goal of having a view to the outside. The skylights were also mainly in less-used space–inside the bathroom and the closet. But the plans tapped into some attic space to give us an appealing small library at the top of the stairs.

Plan complex

Over the winter, we had several builders come by to bid on the project. The first three all found fault with the plans. Specifically, each one independently said that the library area wasn’t possible because the existing roofline was too low (unless it was a crawling library, which honestly would not be the worst thing imaginable), and that the bathroom would not work as planned for a variety of plumbing and roofline reasons. Two mentioned HVAC issues. All three steered us toward a dormer.

Adding a dormer is a bigger project, and therefore in a builder’s interest to sell! But I was concerned about the consistency of the issues that were raised about the plans. I went back to the designer with the comments and asked for her input. She said she would be happy to adjust the plans with our chosen builder, and suggested that I contact a couple of construction companies she had worked with in the past.

We met with these guys and thought both companies were good options. But both of them had the same problems with the plans. One of them, though, had some interesting ideas for how to adapt the plans, including adding a smaller dormer than we had considered. He was willing to work with our designer, or to have someone in his office modify the plans; he would provide us with an estimate we could break down in several different ways. He was thoughtful and thorough and gentlemanly.

Then he rang the next day to offer his regrets that he would not be bidding on the project because his other job sites this season were on the other side of town.


We needed to take a step back. I went back to the designer and worked with her to negotiate a fair fee for the value of the work she’d done (in other words, less than what she invoiced), received copies of all the plans and measurements, and closed the file. We left the relationship on good terms, but we did leave.

So. We have plans we can’t really use, no designer to fix them, and no builder in any event. I’ve been shopping our homeowner’s insurance, and that’s teaching me that this roof needs to be dealt with, at least from an actuarial perspective.


It’s disappointing to be no further along. We’d waited a very long time to address the upstairs because we wanted to get it right. We were READY TO GO, but we’re back at square one.

It can either be a buzzkill, or it can (also) be a learning experience.

  1. Psyching Ourselves Out. We talked ourselves into liking the plan we received because it met most of our goals. Instead, we could have asked the designer to go back and do another iteration that satisfied all of our requirements. We might be further down the road that way, even if there were other problems with the plan.
  2. Deferring Deferred Maintenance. Although our roof is not in dire shape (no leaks, for instance), we should have started earlier on the planning if we wanted to coordinate maintenance with another project. It’s going to be tricky if we start having a roof problem before we can pull the trigger on skylights or a dormer.
  3. Building a Network (of Builders). We used a shotgun approach to find the builders who bid on the project. Ideally, we would have been gathering personal recommendations and maybe meeting a few people far ahead of the need for a quote.
  4. Communicating Goals. The way I remember it, we were very clear about what we wanted out of the design, but judging by the outcome, we weren’t clear enough about the need for more light and views in the plan. In future, I’ll remember:

Tell them what you’re going to tell them

Tell them.

Tell them what you just told them.

Some good lessons there. It’s mainly a buzzkill, though!

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