But, it's only a dormer:
“But, it’s only a dormer!,” moans the exasperated homeowner as we stare up at the vintage Ravenna bungalow’s cedar shake roof. “How could it possibly be THAT involved…or THAT complicated…or, (pause) THAT expensive?” I look sympathetically at him and try to explain, very delicately, that there is no such thing as “only a dormer”. My words, I fear, are not registering. He is adding up the area costs in his head as I speak. Oh, oh. I’ve seen that look before. I reach out to steady him as he gasps, “But, that’s over $500.00 a square foot! How can that be…it’s, it’s… only a dormer!”
You may have gathered from the above that when I’m asked by a perspective client to check the feasibility of various home improvements, dormers rank near the very top on the anxiety scale, both for me and the client.
From the owner’s perspective, she is asking for a small improvement that will add space and value, inexpensively, to her under-utilized upper floor. This is understandable and reasonable since she has seen dormers all over the neighborhood, smiling benignly down from above, merrily housing expanded kid’s rooms, master baths or the Juliet balcony they lust for. It looks so simple.
From my perspective, as a residential architect, having
designed more than my share of these beasts, the story is a bit more
involved. Most of the homes I work on around these parts are pre and post
war Bungalows, Saltboxes and Tudors that almost uniformly are under-built
per today's seismic and structural building codes. They usually sport
existing 2 x 4 roof rafters, typically at 24" on center. Upper floors
joists are often also under built, typically 2 x 6’s if there was never
any living space upstairs, or 2 x 8’s if there was. New construction
situations are very different and a much less complex matter. A new
dormer on new construction is a no brainer. Those metal connections,
beefy floors and 2 x 12 rafters could hold up a swimming pool if asked
So, should you give up on that expanded master bedroom? Should you abandon any thoughts of ever having a bath upstairs? Not at all. Dormers really are practical solutions to many home owner’s space needs. You just need to understand that they may be a bit more involved than you first assumed. So, when I break the news, I hope to get a knowing nod of understanding rather than a glazed, unbelieving stare. Any anxiety, that way, can be minimized for both of us.