Design for a Growing Family

Remodeling a home to expand with a growing family can be tricky. It’s important to look at where they are at now and to see where they’ll be in 10 or even 20 years. That was the task for GC/a Architecture of Arlington, Va. when it won The Grabman Residence project.

The Grabman’s were starting their family in this Virginia neighborhood and were quickly outgrowing their single story, Cape Cod home. They sought to open things up and get rid of the cramped feeling. And because buildable land in Northern Virginia is a rare commoddity for non-developers, people like the Grabman’s will commonly entertain dramatic remodeling projects just to stay in the neighborhood.

“One of the most important facts about this area is that most of the land is controlled by large developers,” says Matthew Guenther, principal with CG/a Architecture. “It’s hard to get just a single lot. Some people will buy a house and tear it down just for the land.”

Getting started

The goal for GC/a Architecture was to take this 2,442 sq. ft. home and add a garage; relocate and enlarge the kitchen; enlarge the family room; add a new, larger single deck; and add a new second floor with bedrooms, bathrooms and laundry. The result was a roughly $277,000 remodel to turn this into a 4,848 sq. ft. home.

“The home was very typical of the era it was built in,” says Guenther of the Grabman residence which was built around time of World War II. “They were built small and fast and tended to be two bedroom homes.”

Starting with this, Guenther and his team at GC/a Architecture had to find a way to take a very simple, traditional home and add very contemporary features. “Working with something that seems a little clostrophobic, we really had to give this look of openness which included the use of windows just to let in more light,” says Guenther.

Like a lot of clients, the Grabmans weren’t really sure what they wanted, except, more ­­— more space, more bedrooms, more light and more places to park a car. That’s where the architecture team really had to show them what was possible to get a sense of what the clients were really looking for.

“In our process, we tend to show them a lot of different options on a macro scale,” says Guenther. “This way we can show them what is possible. And it is easier for them to talk to us about what they like and don’t like. At that point, it’s our job to listen.”

After listening to the clients feedback and understanding what they want, GC/a Architecture took the plans and edited them to be more responsive to what the Grabmans were looking for. This includes going down to a micro scale and examining lighting, tile and other options as well as making recommendations to the clients to help them achieve the look they desire.

Examining the situation

A primary challenge for GC/a Architecture was to enlarge the house and at the same time respect the small scale and context of the established neighborhood. The solution was to focus on some traditional exterior design features of gabled roof and dormers; including a large front porch; trim and siding details; and a configuration of windows that would allow more light into the house.

According to Guether, the initial design phase included doing a field measure that is precise down to fractions of an inch. That is when they discovered that the house was not quite square. With these measurements the GC/a Architecture team had to look at the designs to figure out if the rooms were going to be large enough and if it would all fit.

“We wanted to know if our ideas would give the home character, both inside and out,” says Guenther. “We saw that the wrap around stair [picture on pg. 30] had the potential to let lots of light into the home. It was a great opportunity so we started there.”

Another challenge that the team had to face was respecting the structural limitations of the existing walls and footings while they added a new second floor. For this GC/a Architecture turned to innovative structural design. By dispersing the new loads, the side walls were set up to support the new second floor weight while the front and rear walls were designed to assist the roof loads. By utilizing long span capabilities of wood I-joists GC/a Architecture was able to avoid overloading the existing interior bearing walls.

“We really wanted to open up the space from the front door to the kitchen,” says Guenther. “But that idea doesn’t fit so well with the design of the house. So we used the bulkheads that drop down and different floor options to break it all up and differentiate the space, but still allowed it to be open.” This design allowed GC/a Architecture to take several interlinked smaller spaces to create the idea of a larger much more spacious area.

The homeowners helped with tying things together in this regard. Since one of the clients was originally from Argentina, she wanted to incorporate Artisan metal work, popular in Argentina, into the home. This was done primarily through many of the lighting fixtures and balusters used in the central main staircase.

The last challenge that had to be managed was getting the whole project done within the project budget. To accomplish this included strategic decision-making and deleting some aspects of the remodel from this phase of the project. One of the things that Guenther did to keep within his budget was to carefully pick the contractor.

GC/a Architecture worked with several different contractors over the years, but the team needed someone they could trust to give them the information they needed fast and accurately. Guenther settled on Emerson Contractors of Falls Church, Va.

The architecture team tried limiting changes to the existing rooms and structure to avoid major cost increases and was careful in the selection of materials and detailing to the project. Emerson Contractors was able to help them out with the process by giving input on possible structural problems and quick quotes on cost. This allowed the team to add and delete things according to price.

Unfortunately everything doesn’t always make the cut. To go along with stone detailing work on the new front porch and at the base of the house, GC/a Architecture’s original plans called for the same stone detailing to be done around the support posts on the new larger deck.

“Emerson Contractors told us we weren’t going to be able to use stone there and keep within the budget,” says Guenther. “But the Grabmans liked the detail and are having it done in Phase II of their project.”

The finished look

With every project there is the potential for problems with clients. With the Grabman’s it was especially difficult for them because as they were starting their family they also had to uproot themselves out of their home. Luckily for Guenther and his team the Grabmans understood the process and did what they could to keep things moving.

“Good clients make good projects,” says Guenther. “They did their homework and brought stuff to the table. There was synergy between the architects, builder and clients.”

In the end, the Grabmans got the openness they were seeking on the first floor, a new larger deck and the living quarters they needed for the family on their new second floor. With their remodel they can now park the car in a garage and don’t have to worry when extended family come to see their newest family members.

“They’re quite pleased with the finished project,” says Guenther. “They’ve included the house in a home tour and we’ve received several neighbor referrals.”


  • Cabinets: Kraftmaid
  • Front porch: Tendura
  • Deck: LP Weatherbest
  • Doors: Andersen and Simpson
  • Flooring tile/stone: Daltile
  • HVAC: Carrier
  • Insulation: Owens Corning
  • Roofing: CertainTeed
  • Siding: James Hardie
  • Windows: Andersen
  • Trim work: MiraTEC
  • Structural: Trus Joist