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Renovation Solutions: Wall thickness can be used as design tool

Published: Friday, Oct. 12 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Last week we discussed interior views — the views we see from room to room inside our homes. One important aspect of these views is the wall in the rooms themselves. Wall thickness actually impacts the look and feel of the house. Many people associate thicker walls with sturdiness, permanence and a time when homes were beautifully crafted and built to last.

Older homes (built in the 1920s and '30s) have thicker walls than today’s homes because of different construction methods. While some homes from this era were framed out of wood studs with some kind of exterior siding, the more elegant homes generally used brick. Back then, the masonry was structural, meaning the home had double-wythe masonry walls. These walls were composed of two rows of masonry side by side, called "wythes." It may have been both the inner and outer wythes were brick, or sometimes the inner wythe was concrete block with the more decorative brick on the outside. In either case, the inner wythe was covered in some way, either by plaster placed directly on the masonry or by wood strips that held up lath which was then covered with plaster.

The end result of this type of construction is a 10- to 12-inch thick wall. Because masonry homes were considered upscale, we grew to associate thicker walls with luxury and gracious living. The downside of these all-masonry walls is that we have learned that they are not desirable in earthquake country; they are strong for gravity loads, but weak when it comes to seismic/lateral load considerations. Therefore, we no longer use double-wythe masonry construction.

Today, residential construction methods involve framing a house with wood or metal studs, which range from 3½ to 5½ inches wide, resulting in a much thinner wall. However, you can still create thicker walls and/or creatively design a space to have the appearance of thicker walls to attain the feeling of solidity and sustainability you sense from more historic homes.

There are several ways you can use walls in home design. Diversifying wall thicknesses is one of them, and walls can create focal points and add variety as you differentiate one space from another.

To create a stud wall that is thicker than about six inches, you need to double up on the studs. This does not require extra sheetrock, but doubles the cost of framing material and labor which makes this a seldom-used option. A more common approach is to give the impression of a thicker wall without going to the added expense of literally constructing one. One way to do this is to wrap the end of a wall around a run of narrow shelving built "into" the thicker-appearing wall. (The shelving is actually set against the thinner stud wall, not built into it.) Since the overall wall thickness we are going for is around 12 inches, you can see that the shelves cannot be more than 6-7 inches deep.

You can create the impression of a thicker exterior wall by adding closets or cabinets around a window, perhaps adding a seat below the window. By adding soffits above the window seat and the cabinetry, you continue the implied line of the wall to the ceiling, creating an illusion of a continuous thick wall.

A truly thicker exterior wall has the potential of dramatically impacting the natural light in a room. A window set into a thick exterior wall gives a stronger contrast between the area surrounding the window and the adjacent wall surfaces. In addition, setting windows to the outside of a thicker wall results in a wider than normal windowsill. This draws attention to the thickness of the wall and can be used as a plant shelf or a place to display decorative items.

While there are some lesser-used construction methods (such as rammed earth or straw bale construction) that inherently produce thicker walls, one other approach possibly applicable in a remodeling situation is adding rigid insulation boards to the exterior of your house. This is done to increase the energy efficiency of your building envelope at the same time you are trying to give your house a whole new look. For instance, if you want to change your '70s yellow brick rambler to a coastal cottage style using cement fiberboard shingle siding, you may want to beef up the walls with that added insulation while you are at it.

Good design results from careful attention to many details and concepts. We may take the walls in our homes for granted, but their placement and size have a lot to do with the way our homes feel and function.

Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the principal architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at renovationdesigngroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@renovationdesigngroup.com

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