I often get calls from nice folks who’ve drawn up their own plans and want me to check them for problems. Some of these designs are wonderfully creative, yet virtually all of them are sabotaged by the same basic shortcomings: People never allow enough space for hallways, staircases, kitchens or baths.

Stairs are undoubtedly the biggest booby trap for neophyte planners. Even a relatively steep, straight stair climbing your basic 9-foot-high story requires a bare minimum floor area of 3 by 10 feet–and this doesn’t include the top and bottom landings or the thickness of the enclosing walls. L- or U-shaped stairs need even more room. Yet people routinely show me designs for second-story additions in which the entire staircase is miraculously packed into a linen closet. They’re usually crestfallen to learn that, in fact, the new second-floor bedroom they thought they were adding will only be replacing the one wiped out by the stairs.

Kitchens are typically overcrowded as well. The absolute minimum aisle width between facing countertops–even those on islands–is 4 feet.

Although this may seem excessive on paper, it won’t be once you’ve got doors, drawers and dishwasher racks projecting into the aisle, not to mention a few bystanders “helping” you cook. Nor should sinks and cooktops have less than 18 inches of counter space on either side–and again, this includes islands.

Even when they know there really isn’t enough room to accommodate everything they want, amateur planners will often try to cheat their way out of the problem by cannibalizing other spaces. Clothes closets are a common victim: Although they need to be at least 2 feet deep, people are always trying to whittle a few inches off them to buy space somewhere else. Forget it–jacket sleeves cannot be fooled by this strategy.

Other immutable rock-bottom minimums:

  • Foyers need to be at least 6 by 6 feet.

  • Hallways, like stairs, can be no less than 3 feet wide.

  • Walk-in closets need to be at least 5 feet wide for a single-sided arrangement, and 7 feet wide for a double-sided one.

  • Double lavatory sinks require a countertop at least 6 feet wide. Never mind those dinky 5-foot examples you find at the big-box store–that’s just wishful thinking.

  • Toilets should occupy a space at least 30 inches wide when between a wall and a counter, and at least 36 inches wide when between two walls.

  • Stall showers require a space no less than 3 feet square; tubs and tub/showers need at least 2 feet 8 inches by 5 feet.

  • Garages must be at least 19 feet deep inside. And don’t dream of trying to squeeze a furnace, water heater or washer and dryer into that minimum, either.

    When space is tight, both architects and amateurs can be tempted to fudge minimum dimensions by a few inches here or there. Don’t. In fact, it’s good practice to allow a few inches more than you need, since finishes, trim and unexpected errors or obstructions often conspire to nibble away precious room from a space that’s already squeezed. If you can’t accommodate the above minimums, you may need to rethink your wish list. Better to throw a few things overboard than to sink the whole ship.


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