Alan Karchmer

best feature: curb appeal

to do:

  • add family room
  • convertor add on to attic
  • enlarge entry

Ever since it rose to nationwide prominence as one of Levittown's main house types, the Cape's spare, one-and-a-half-story elevation has captivated home buyers. “People feel a Cape looks like home,” says Sarah Susanka, AIA, author of the Not So Big House series of books, who lives in a Cape herself. It may look like home, but the Cape isn't enough house for most people. “They're just small,” says Robert Gerloff, who's written booklets on remodeling Capes, ranches, and split-levels. “That's the biggest issue with them.” Charm goes a long way, but it can't get Cape owners more space for a combination kitchen/family room, more storage, and/or bigger bedrooms and baths.

One solution is to convert the home's half-story attic into a bedroom, which is easier to do on older Capes. “These houses worked much better back when we hand-framed roofs,” says Susanka. “Today we build with roof trusses, so you can't use the upstairs. The windows and dormers are there, but they're fake.” Washington, D.C., architect Stephen Muse, FAIA, often concentrates on enlarging the home's entry and adding a kitchen/family room and closet space onto the rear. “In a Cape you open the front door and are standing on the stair,” he says. “We take out the front coat closet and open up the sightlines through the house, which makes it feel larger.” Among many remodeling tips in her book Capes, Westport, Conn., architect Jane Gitlin suggests adding bookcases and cabinets to the living room to temper its formality, letting it function as a more flexible space.

A more drastic answer to tight quarters is to add a full second floor. Because postwar Capes tend to be framed using trusses, as Susanka points out, it's not easy to change the upper floor. “It usually ends up being cheaper to take the roof off and add a new second story,” says Gerloff. This method succeeds in gaining space, but it can make retaining the original home's curb appeal difficult. Keeping a steep roof pitch and adding dormers to the new second story are good options. And a Zen-like attitude of acceptance may be the best weapon Cape dwellers and their architects can have. “Cape Cods have low ceiling heights, sometimes even 7 feet 6 inches on the main level,” says Susanka. “There's not a lot you can do without massive surgery. You have to recognize that you will be sitting a lot, and let it be a house with comfortable places to sit.”

project: Rubin Residence, Chevy Chase, Md.
architect: Treacy & Eagleburger Architects, Washington, D.C.
general contractor: Design Build, Silver Spring, Md.
project size before: 3,270 square feet
project size after: 4,300 square feet
construction cost: $150 per square foot