The greatest textbook in the world for rehabbers isn't between the covers of a book: It's between the opening and closing hours of a neighborhood house tour.
You can be sure that someone has already found a solution for that badly placed stairwell, that awkward kitchen space, that absence of closets, that cluster of tiny rooms, that minuscule back yard -- it's just a matter of checking out their houses.
We recently toured more than a dozen houses in Ridgely's Delight, a resurgent downtown Baltimore neighborhood that's just a long fly ball from the city's new ballpark.
Ten years ago, the area was full of vacant hulks, bordered by warehouses and roads under construction. Today it's a vibrant, busy place full of great rehabs, with lots of trees and many elegant gardens. Almost all the houses in the neighborhood are rowhouses. We didn't get to tour every one, but we came away with six pages of notes on nifty fixes and clever arrangements of space.
Here are a few of our favorites:
* In a narrow house, niches were built into the walls to hold furniture. There are a lot of instances where the possibility for a niche might occur: in framing new walls, in closing up a door or window, in narrowing or eliminating a closet. The niches had an old-fashioned charm, but they also allowed fairly large pieces of furniture to assume a much shallower profile in the room.
* In a long, narrow kitchen, the room's doors were lined up to be opposite each other close to the exterior wall; that allowed a U-shaped kitchen and more counter and cabinet space than if the doors were randomly placed.
* Used everywhere, including bedrooms: French doors. They open space visually and allow light to get into a room from another source. They can be curtained, etched, or have mini-blinds for privacy.
*In a house where the front door originally opened into the street: a small interior vestibule with the door to the living room at the side. On the back, facing the stairs, was a small coat closet.
*Also everywhere: Tiny bathrooms tucked into unexpected spaces. One house had two of them, one just behind the entry vestibule (it faced the entrance to the basement stairs, but the gap between the bathroom door and basement door was closed off from the adjacent room with a French door); one tucked into a closet in a guest bedroom. (Building code requirements may dictate just how little space you can devote to a bath; check your local jurisdiction.)
*A glass-block wall with a curved end at one wall of a shower stall. It allowed more light and made the space look bigger.
*In a somewhat larger house, a more elaborate three-level bath, with raised platforms for the tub (up three steps) and for a toilet and bidet (up one step). Raising the fixtures, if you've got the ceiling height to do it, is a good solution to installing entirely new plumbing without disturbing the ceiling below.
*Pocket doors to save space. One clever use was in a bathroom, closing off an adjoining closet.
*Used everywhere: Mirrors to expand space visually. One small but elegant house had been turned around so the dining room was in the front (good use of space because the stairs narrowed the room); the kitchen in the middle, and the living room -- an addition -- in the back, opening to a small garden. Most of the kitchen equipment was along the wall behind the stairs, but there was a narrow center island with storage and eating space; the entire wall behind that was mirrored.
*The same house had a fireplace installed in an outside corner of the new living room. Above it is a niche that houses a television. When the TV isn't in use, a large framed picture conceals it completely.
*Attics opened with cathedral ceilings, dormers and skylights to make, in many cases, a fairly large single room with a dramatic ceiling. The rooms were usually used as bedrooms, though at least one was an artist's studio.
What impressed us most about some of the houses was the clever use of available space -- which generally meant tucking baths, closets, laundries and other 20th-century amenities into gaps, corners, closets and niches. Using existing space in a new way avoided having to make radical changes in the layout or structure of the house.
Such solutions make sense because they're generally less expensive than a major change, and because they preserve more of the historic character of the house. That, to us, is what distinguishes a sensible rehab.
Next: Structuring outdoor rooms.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.
If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.