While old homes offer many things that contemporary homes lack – like great trim details, lovely old fireplaces and, frequently, woods that you can’t even buy anymore, they also lack something that modern homes tend to have in abundance…


Many old Victorians and Colonial Cottages around San Francisco (and the country) were originally designed and built as simple worker’s cottage 2BR/1BA homes with just 800 to 1500 square feet of space.

Master Bedroom with Windows

173 Downey Original "Master" Bedroom

There were no separate family rooms,
no big closets,
no laundry rooms and
no Master Bedroom Suites.

So what do you do if you own one of these charming old homes yet need a little (or a lot) more space and want to leave the character of the home largely unmolested?

Well, there are a number of ways to add on to an existing home without even changing the home’s footprint.


Most of these homes had basements with walkable ceiling heights, if not the full 8′ to 9′ that we’d want for a whole floor.  A little excavation, some foundation upgrading, a little framing, some new flooring, electrical, plumbing, sheetrock and paint and you can add a whole floor’s worth of space…sometimes as much as 1000 sqft. And this can be done without any substantive change to the exterior appearance of the home.

We did this at 173 Downey Street, converting an unfinished basement with a coarse subfloor over dirt into a 2-car garage, a wine room, a storage room, a full bathroom and two bedrooms with a garden deck.

Downey New Floor Plan

Downey New Floor Plan

ADD A STORY (or Storey for you English chaps)

Instead of going down, you can also go up.  Adding a story to a home is very do-able, but you have to consider a number of things first.

  • Would the added story make your home more like your neighbors or make it stand out more?
    (If the latter, you could have some unhappy neighbors on your hands)
  • Would the added story block any neighbor light or views?
    (See previous note)
  • Can you afford to move out during construction?
    (You may need to open up existing walls to add structural support for the new story)
  • The Dept of Interior Historic Preservation Guidelines dictate that additions to historic homes be clearly differentiated so that it is obvious, post-addition, what parts are original and what was added.
    (This means you shouldn’t plan to have your addition mimic the existing historic structure – it needs to be differentiated to some degree.  In this example, a simple Victorian Cottage at 313 Duncan Street added a  story that was differentiated not only by its contemporary style, but by a stark color change as well)

313 Duncan Old CroppedBefore

313 Duncan NewAfter

We also did this with our project at 394 Frederick Street…and we did indeed have to upgrade the foundation and open up the existing 1st and 2nd story walls to add structure to support the weight of the new addition.

Before Rehab

394 Frederick Before: 2 Story

394 Frederick Exterior with New Story

394 Frederick After: 3 Story


knee wallHomes with peaked gable roofs often had attics or small upper stories that were constrained in size due to the slope of the roof.  At some point in the room as you move out towards the outer walls of the house, the sloped roofline would come so low that you could not walk under it.  The common solution, back in the day, was to add what’s called a Knee Wall.

At right, you can see the framing of the knee wall and how the upper story floor now ends a good 5′ or so short of the outer edge of the house.

This space, between the knee wall and the roof is usually just dead, unused and unusable space, although sometimes cabinetry is built-in to the wall, extending into that space.

So how do we recapture this dead space?

One word.  Plastics.
No…sorry…that was a line from The Graduate that was stuck in my head.

I meant to say:


Berkeley Roof DormerA dormer is built into the roof of a home to add standing-height space where the sloped roof otherwise would come too low.  They were very common in old New England homes to add reading nooks or places to tuck a bed.

By adding one or more dormers, an unusable attic or small upper story can be made substantially larger.  Dormers come in a variety of different flavors – not all or which will be appropriate for any given project.

There are two TYPES of dormers and multiple STYLES.


Fine Home Building Roof DormerThe dormers above are roof dormers.  They sit fully on top of the existing roof, increasing standing height and sometimes adding windows and light in a portion of the upper story.


Fine Home Building Wall DormerWall Dormers extend all the way to the outer wall of the house, giving standing height to the entire side of the upper story to which they’re added.  If you use wall dormers on both sides of the gabled roof, you increase the standing height from one outer wall to the other, eliminating the impact of the sloped roof altogether and gaining substantial usable square footage in the process.

We used both roof and wall dormers at 173 Downey to great effect, extending the rear rooms of the upper story from 15′ wide to 25′ wide, adding hundreds of square feet to the upper story without increasing the footprint of the home.


The various styles of dormer play both to your homes’ architectural style and your remodel needs since not all dormer styles add the same quality of new space (i.e. the gabled dormers add their own challenging sloped rooflines vs. shed dormers with flat sloped roofs).  Craftsman homes tend towards Shed dormers and Colonial homes tend towards Gabled.  There are plenty of online resources to find out what fits your homes’ architectural style.  Go check ’em out.

If you don’t know your home’s architectural style…read this post first.

Dormer Styles