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One Small, Happy Family

How do you plan the perfect living space for people you haven't met?

Quick, what does a family need more: a gourmet kitchen or a great room with homework space? A paneled library for a thousand-book collection, or a state-of-the-art media room? A formal dining room for elegant entertaining, or a comfortable family room for rough-and-tumble play?

Needless to say, it depends. Every family is different, and a home renovation needs to be tailored to its own needs and tastes. That's why so many projects start with homeowners sitting down at a table with an architect. The owners may have been dreaming about this project for months or even years, and it's critical to transfer their thinking to the space planner who can turn those dreams into a reality. A good architect will grill them thoroughly on the way they live, what they want and need from their home, and what features and amenities are important to them. The result should be the right number of bedrooms and closets, a kitchen that serves the family's needs, and a layout and floor plan that makes their house a comfortable and natural place to live.

In Carlisle, of course, we're the homeowners — but this will never be our home, so we had to imagine our future owners before we could renovate a house for them. After all, how do you turn a 150-year-old house and barn into a home for a modern family, if you don't know who that family is?

Enter Jeremiah Eck, of Jeremiah Eck Architects, Inc. The author of the 2003 book "The Distinctive Home: A Vision of Timeless Design," Eck has a smart and sensitive approach that seamlessly blends floor plan, neighborhood, exterior face, and interior details into an integrated architectural statement. He's no stranger to This Old House (he designed the Timeless Home in Atlanta), and we had every confidence he was the right architect for this job.

We spent a lot of time with Eck and his partner Steve Mielke, the project architect on this house, debating what "our" family would be like, and what they'd want in their new home. Families that move to Carlisle tend to be fugitives of a sort — former urbanites looking for a more tranquil life. They don't necessarily crave glitz and glamour, but they do want a good layout and modern amenities along with Carlisle's space, safety, and comfort.

As a picture of the future homeowners started to emerge from our discussions, we got a better idea of how to design a house for them. We decided our family was a couple with two children, which meant a minimum of three bedrooms. It also meant a master suite with lots of closet space, a separate bath for the kids to share, a powder room for guests, a sizable kitchen and dining room, and convenient laundry facilities.

This couple likes to entertain, so the living hall would have to be substantial. They'll be big fans of the outdoors, and we imagine them cooking and living outside all summer, so we'd want to give them a landscape that will draw them out to the backyard ? where they'll find privacy for themselves and safety for the kids. A screened porch would let them enjoy outdoor dining even when the mosquitoes are biting. And they'll no doubt have a full complement of sports equipment, from bikes to balls to skis, so they'll need a garage big enough to fit it all, along with an SUV or two.

As clear as we were about our little family of four, we knew they'd have needs we couldn't anticipate. In an ideal world, then, we'd leave a bit of unfinished space somewhere in the floor plan, so our family could put the finishing touches on for themselves.

"It's a tough layout," Eck concedes as he peruses the property, which extends from the old barn at left to the main entrance on the old house some 75 feet to the right. "There's so much space here, and there's no easy way to get from one end to the other." Integrating that old house with a new center ell — and with newly converted living space in the barn — would be job one.

Eck began with the room most people consider the heart of the home: the kitchen. In its current incarnation, the kitchen is on the ground floor of the ell facing the backyard. That's a good place for it to be, and Eck decided early on to locate the new kitchen in about the same place. But the low ceilings have to go, and the room needs a greater sense of connection to that backyard. First and foremost, that means bigger windows on the view and a doorway providing access to the yard. Beyond that, it means replacing the two cramped floors with a single-story structure of the same height.

Once it was determined that the kitchen would stay in the center of the house, between the barn and the farmhouse, the problem remained of how to integrate the two. Where would the other rooms go?

The opportunity to create a state-of-the-art master suite in the old barn was mighty tempting, but we had to consider those future homeowners. Some people might love a house with a luxurious, private bedroom suite in an old barn. But our family, with their two young children, would surely not want a master suite that was so far away from the kids' rooms — in another building, no less.

Eck and Mielke approached the design challenge by dividing the house into "public" and "private" zones. With the kitchen destined for the center of the house, and the master bedroom needing to be close to the other bedrooms, it soon became clear that the old farmhouse would hold the private zone — the bedrooms — and the reconstructed ell and the barn would house the public spaces. A master suite would be added on to the back of the existing farmhouse. And in the old barn there would be not only a grand living hall as the centerpiece of the public zone, but also some unique use of space, including an innovative "barn court."

"The barn court will function as indoor/outdoor space," says Mielke. "There will be a sliding barn door, oversized, probably twelve by twelve. You can close it in winter, but in warm weather you open it and the inside space becomes outdoor space. You can just see the kids pulling their bikes in at the end of the day."

The former barn space will also include a bedroom and bath to supplement the three bedrooms in the private house. "We spent a lot of time debating the fourth bedroom question," says Mielke. Our family might be looking for a fourth bedroom, but not necessarily for a child. Locating it in the barn, apart from the other sleeping areas, makes the overall house plan more flexible. "It could be an in-law suite, an au pair suite, or a guest suite," he says. Eventually, it could even help the house grow with the family. "It could be for a teenager, depending on how much rope you're giving them," laughs Mielke, "or if they're in a band!"

With the zones established, Eck says it became obvious that the main entrance to the house needed to be relocated. The existing front door is at the far right side of the old house's formal Greek Revival façade, which makes it inconvenient to the public areas of the house and simply too remote to make it the main entrance to the new home. The original entry will remain, but as an auxiliary door. Eck will design a more convenient and gracious entryway between the kitchen and living hall, where it will more logically enter into a public area of the house.

After months of developing and refining the floor plans, construction is finally about to begin. While Tom Silva's team digs into the foundation, floors, and walls, we'll start working with an interior designer to establish the details of each of the rooms. By the time Tom has the structure sound, we'll be ready to start building a first-class interior.

It will be many months before we walk prospective buyers through the finished product and find out how well we predicted their needs. One of those families will no doubt turn out to be the homeowners we've planned for — our family! — and we can't wait to meet them.

For more information on Jeremiah Eck Architects, visit their Web site at