Volume XIX, Issue 15
I have X-ray vision. When I visit a property, I don’t see the walls. I just see the way it’s supposed to be, not how it actually is. I’m not sure why that is, or how I acquired such a “talent,” but I can only guess it comes from my past training and experience in graphic design. Like designing an ad or brochure on the page, so is fitting the pieces of the puzzle together to create a floor plan that makes it really livable.
That’s the 3D part of the puzzle, however. Just making the puzzle pieces fit on paper in one dimension doesn’t ensure that the plan is functional. You have to imagine the way you want your own lifestyle to fit with the way the rooms flow, their size and configuration. I am not an architect, but might have made a decent one if I’d studied it. Instead, what I have are many years of experience watching what other designers do wrongly…and most often don’t even realize it or they think their ideas are correct.
Very recently, we discovered an apartment under renovation by the seller who was also a marchand de bien—or developer. It wasn’t on the market yet, but our search consultant uncovered it by chance. Located on a Paris market street on the 5th floor in a solid brick building with two balconies, both south-facing, we knew not to waste a moment for fear of losing it. Our designer, Martine di Mattéo, and I ran to see it on behalf of our clients and immediately discovered a very gross design flaw.
The entry to the bathroom was from the separate kitchen. And not only that, when the door opened, the first view was of the toilet. I almost yelped, but with a certain amount of calm, trying not to totally offend the developer, all I could utter was, “Absolutely not!”
Can you imagine? You’re in the kitchen cooking and your food is smelling yummy, then someone else living with you exits the bathroom after having used the facilities…and what comes wafting out? Yep, you can imagine the disgust. Had he thought of this? I guess not. He said, “It was a choice I made.” To which I replied, “Yes, and it wasn’t a very good one!” (The best bathroom designs are when the sink and mirror are facing the entry…so what you see is pretty!)
Our clients offered the seller a price to buy the apartment with a contingency to stop the work immediately and let Martine take over and fix the bathroom entry along with a slew of other mistakes he’d made—particularly in the design of the kitchen which needed a more intelligent layout to create more storage. By changing the entry to the bathroom from the hall using a pocket door, the wall he had used for the door becomes a better use of space in the kitchen, so it will all work out fine with this new arrangement. Of course, the marchands de bien don’t care about doing things “right” as long as the work is “cheap” and they can make a good profit.
I see this all the time, particularly in Nice where there are scores of marchands de bien who buy up estate properties that haven’t been touched in years, “white wash” them for resale, then flip and sell them at a high price. They tend to slap up a kitchen against one long wall without thinking for a moment that it might not be functional or would eat up the entire living room in a way that makes it hard to arrange furniture or make you feel like you’re living in the kitchen.
They tend to use very contemporary fixtures, cheap tile that has neutral tones in the bathrooms and kitchen, flimsy doors and eliminate details that would add charm, but cost them money, such as molding or wainscoting. They love to lower the ceilings and add spot lights—the kind that make the space so bright you need your sunglasses indoors, can’t be dimmed (because a dimmer costs about 100 euros to install) and are near to impossible to change when the bulbs burn out.
These properties make my blood boil. Our clients end up paying a pretty price for something that needs a complete rework. And it’s all because they don’t think, or care, or are greedy about their profit. And they do well in spite of their failings. Sad, but true. We prefer our clients to buy “a wreck” at a low price and do the renovation work themselves…getting it right the first time around.
I visited a property this week that I wrote about yesterday in a Nouvellettre®—a property that has tremendous potential as a Fractional Ownership property, located one block from the sea on a pedestrian street. It is currently an 85.5m2 two-bedroom apartment with a double séjour, one bathroom with a shower and a large separate kitchen at the end of the apartment. The views of the sea are from one of the bedrooms and a window in that same bedroom was sealed up. I often wonder who thinks of doing such things—sealing up a valuable source of view and light, for what? Space to hang art, a spot to place a piece of furniture…what could they have been thinking?
We considered many different configurations which will relocate the living room/dining room/kitchen to the far end from which there is the view of the sea and converting the kitchen to a second bathroom with laundry room. Walls and doors will come down—the kind that can easily and legally be taken down: cloisons. A cloison is a dividing wall that provides no structural support. Structural walls cannot be tampered with without the permission of the copropriété (homeowner association), so we don’t recommend doing that if you can help it.
This places limitations on what is possible to do when rearranging floor plans. So, when I walk into a property, the first thing I verify are the structural walls…because they aren’t going anywhere. The second thing I look for is the evacuation pipes for the toilet. They aren’t going anywhere, either…except a short distance if you want to move the toilet slightly. You can’t simply add a toilet anywhere you like—unless it’s a sanibroyeur, an adaptable crusher that connects to a toilet designed to grind the toilet waste and evacuate the waste solution to the main drain via small pipes. This can work well when it’s the second toilet in the property, but not the only one!
Another big mistake I see all the time is the idea of the “en suite” bathroom. Sure, it’s a luxury to think that you need not even exit your bedroom to enjoy your private time in your bathroom, but what about other people living with you? Where are they going when they need the facilities in the middle of the night if they have to go through the bedroom to access it? I visited a property in the Old Town of Nice not long ago. The owner was very proud of his beautiful renovation, having added a sleeping loft to act as a second bedroom because the ceilings were so high. He was seeking an agency to list it for sale and offered it up to us. I was thrilled, thinking I had found a jewel.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case. The apartment was up 87 steps without a lift. The view of a massive roof below was not very attractive. The bathroom was “en suite” so one must go through the lower bedroom to get to it—although that could have been easily resolved during construction by making a door to the bathroom from the living room and rearranging the kitchen layout. There was a washer, but it hadn’t been incorporated into the cabinetry, so it was in an odd spot in the bathroom not looking very pretty. The low ceiling height of the mezzanine meant the space didn’t count as “Loi Carrez”(habitable living space) and an open beam could be a liability since I hit my head and got a splinter from it when I caught myself on it. Creating the mezzanine made the ceiling height in the lower bedroom also too tight and claustrophobic, as it did the bathroom, too. The design obscured the large window in the bedroom so it minimized the light and usefulness.
He had spent a fortune on a professional design firm, so the decor was lovely, but the mistakes were even more costly. His ability to sell this apartment at the high price he was asking will be difficult indeed. I was grossly disappointed and declined the offer to list it for sale.
When visiting properties, I always ask myself, “Where is the heart of the apartment? Where will everyone congregate.” Often with a star-shaped floor plan, where there is a large foyer and all the rooms radiate from it, people tend to gather in the foyer, rather than the living room. It’s as if the foyer becomes the living room! The key to solving that problem is opening the doorway to the living room as large and open as possible to be inviting and encourage the flow into that room. Too often we see small doorways which in past times allowed for a lot of people to inhabit one space and still have privacy. Our lifestyles have changed and we no longer need so much division. Instead, we want open spaces to feel large and breathe with life.
This leads me to another design flaw we often come across—where the light and views are obstructed by unnecessary walls and doorways. One of our clients is buying a penthouse with an extremely large terrace and beautiful views. When you enter the property, all you see in front of you is a closet. In order to see the views, you have to walk around it, go up a few steps to enter, first an over-sized kitchen and then the living room/dining room that is beyond in a smaller space. Instantly we recognized that the floor plan needed a reversal…one should walk in, immediately see the light and views while entering an inviting living room/dining room. The kitchen could easily take up the end and smaller space. We wondered who had thought of such a floor plan which seemed so obvious as a serious design flaw?
The point is this: you buy what you can’t change. Burn this into your brain when you’re looking at potential properties to buy and let us help you realize better ways of configuring the floor plan to maximize the space, the functionality and the sheer pleasure of living there. Take advantage of our X-ray vision!
The Adrian Leeds Group
Adrian points out a design flaw with Jack Newcastle, House Hunters International episode