Could the “lawyer foyer” become the post-mortgage-meltdown equivalent of the avocado-green kitchen?

Some indicators are pointing that way, as more homeowners realize that their expansive suburban homes — with the likes of two-story foyers, cathedral-ceiling great rooms, and rarely used breezeways — can be noisy, costly to heat and cool, and too extravagantly spacious not to slice, dice, and repurpose for more practical use.

This summer, for instance, a family in Charlotte, N.C., recaptured the unused air space of their double-height great room when they hired  Case Handyman and Remodeling Services to convert it into a 300-square-foot office. The cost was about $40,000 — roughly half what a same-size addition would have cost, says Brad Little, president of Case Charlotte.

“Do the math on the cost and the additional square footage they picked up, and the return on investment is a no-brainer,” Little says. The project led to several other leads involving similar homes in the same neighborhood.

Peter Hoey

The trend affects large older homes as well. In St. Louis, designer Tricia Sinn of Sinn Design Build recently talked a client out of a $500,000 two-story great room addition (largely to get her kids’ hockey gear and schoolbags out of the way) in favor of a $450,000 whole-house remodel. “She didn’t need an addition; she needed a reorganization,” Sinn says.

Shortly after the project was completed, the client sold the house for asking price. “It’s a terrible market here in St. Louis, and they sold it the first day,” Sinn says. “If you start fixing the objections to older homes,” such as choppy rooms and uninviting formal spaces, “then they are a great value.”

As for the newer “McMansions,” Sinn has never been a fan. “There’s no way to make a two-story window look good,” she says, especially with the insulated shades the St. Louis winter demands. The character and quality of space, not its quantity, is the emerging mantra.

In central Florida, buyers perceive breezeways and soaring ceilings as “a negative — a waste of space,” says Allison Stewart of Florida Pines Realty. Huge windows must be tinted, to mitigate the oppressive Florida sun, and then there’s the simple matter of too much together time. “More and more people want privacy and a kid-free zone.”

“It’s a price-driven market,” Stewart says. And if two otherwise-identical homes were priced comparably, one with an office and one with a two-story foyer, “the home with the office would attract more interest and likely sell faster.”

But these projects aren’t always simple. The existing walls and footings may not be strong enough to carry the extra load of new floors, for instance, particularly in new production homes built to bare-minimum standards. In the Case Charlotte great room-to-office conversion, Little hired an engineer to evaluate the space, and then installed piers, laminated beams, and 18-foot-long wood I-joists to support the new room.