How and where to add on when you need more living space


Gwen Manchion and her husband faced a growing dilemma. With two young children, the couple badly needed more living space than the 1,050 square feet in their two-bedroom cottage in West Seattle, which was built in 1939.

For Manchion, buying a larger home wasn’t an option. “We loved the lot and neighborhood and didn’t want to move,” she says. That left two choices: expand the first floor or build up.

Manchion decided she didn’t want to give up any of the lot’s grassy lawn — her kids’ play space — or tear down an outdoor shed to make way for an expanded home footprint. So she chose to add an upper floor and worked with Edmonds-based architect Blake Fisher to come up with a plan.

Following Fisher’s design, Manchion’s contractor removed a covered parking spot and remodeled the garage, then built an 800-square-foot second story onto the home. It included a new primary bedroom with an attached bath and small balcony, as well as a jack-and-jill bathroom between two small bedrooms. 

Not only did the homeowners gain more space, but they now enjoy peekaboo views of Vashon Island and the Olympic Mountains from the top floor. 

Are you feeling like it’s time to grow your home with a remodel, but can’t decide whether to build up or out? Here’s a general exploration of what’s involved, and which type of addition might be best for your needs. 

Building up 

Nazim Nice, the principal architect at Seattle’s Motionspace Architecture and Design, says the floor plans of many traditional Craftsman homes in and around Seattle lack a primary bedroom suite with functional features like an attached bathroom and walk-in closet — something desired by owners and buyers alike. Homes with three bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs are also highly coveted, he says. 

Creating a three-bedroom, two-bath combo is usually best achieved through a second-story addition, he says. “If you can get to that configuration, it’s a good thing for resale,” Nice says.

Adding a second story can double your home’s footprint, says Leslie Eiler, design manager at CRD Design Build. And, as Manchion learned, it can also provide previously unseen views and preserve yard space.

However, second-story additions tend to involve intensive, invasive and expensive work. The additional weight of an upper floor requires structural support. The architect must find a workable location for a staircase to access the new level. And to merge the two floors, the builder often must remove and replace siding and the roof.

A temporarily roofless home has its own unique challenges. If rain or wind damage occurs, for instance, it may require some unplanned repairs on the first floor. “A second-story addition often ends up turning into a whole-house remodel — but the home looks like a new house when done,” Nice says. 

Homeowners on smaller lots — think Queen Anne, Capitol Hill and Madison Park — may discover that building up is their only option due to city codes around setbacks and lot coverage, says Max Portnoy, a partner at Axiom Design and Build. 

Typically, a single-family home and its associated structures like sheds and elevated decks cannot cover more than 35% of a lot in Seattle, Fisher said. Each jurisdiction has different zoning codes, which regulate things like setbacks, building height, lot coverage and impervious surfaces.

Costs tend to be around $700,000 and up for a second-story addition, Eiler says. That does not include expenses associated with moving out of the home for 4–6 months as the heavy labor proceeds. The entire project, including design, permitting, engineering and actual work, takes around 12 months, he says. 

Building out 

Adding on horizontally rather than vertically can be a simpler and less expensive way to add square footage to a home. And if the lot’s size permits building out, a ground-floor addition can also involve the existing kitchen, dining room and living room, pros say.

“It’s common to add onto the house’s rear, rearrange the kitchen into an open plan that’s oriented toward the back of the house, and create a natural connection to the backyard deck or patio,” Eiler says.

The cost of a first-floor expansion depends on the work being done and the finishes selected, Eiler says, but it usually starts at around $400,000. Adding a primary bedroom is usually the least costly add-on, and a new kitchen is the most expensive. 

In most cases, a ground-floor expansion will take slightly less time to complete than adding an upper floor and may not necessitate moving out of the home during construction.

Excavation and concrete work is costly, Nice says, and prices have escalated dramatically since the start of the pandemic. For that reason, an increasingly popular option is to build out, and then build up.

“If you’re going to put in a foundation for an addition, the structural design isn’t greatly different whether it’s a one-story addition, two-story or even three,” Nice says. “It can be more cost-effective to distribute the foundation’s expense over more floors, and you get more bang for the buck.”

Next steps

If you’ve been considering whether to build up or out, explore both possibilities with an architect or design/build firm. Key factors to consider include your home’s age, square footage and lot size, along with your budget and goals. From a design standpoint, there will usually be a few different options to explore, Portnoy says.

After working with the architect on a design, Manchion says she and her husband consulted with three contractors before deciding who to hire for the work. They also brought in a structural engineer, who helped retrofit the home for the second story. The process took about 12 months from start to finish. With the work confined to one side of the house, the family could live in the other half for most of the project. For three months, they moved in with family members.

“I had been told to tack on more dollars and time than anyone says at first, so I wasn’t shocked by [the final cost],” Manchion says. “But if you live through the remodel, you end up with things you want, in the style you want. We definitely made the right choice.”


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