Every home builder is keenly interested in the opinions of potential home buyers. Many run focus groups to help them figure out what the next new thing that will translate into zillions of sales will be. But the builders never talk to the buyers’ children, even though their opinions can greatly influence a purchase.

Until now. Before a single line was drawn for the 2004 International Builder Show’s Ultimate Family Home, the sponsors of the project–Builder and Home magazines, Los Angeles-based Pardee Homes and the Newport Beach, Calif., architecture firm Bassenian Laggoni–actively solicited the opinions of children age 8 to 16 in focus groups. To keep things grounded on terra firma, there was also a third group of parents who were not related to the kids.

Some of the kids’ ideas were pure fantasy–an underwater house with a garage where you could park your submarine, for example. But their main message was surprisingly succinct: Our lives are hectic and often chaotic. The people in our family are always going off in different directions–to soccer practice, dance lessons, school, mom’s job, dad’s job, golf and tennis, to name just a few items on the weekly docket. We want a home with a place where all of us can be together, and a place where each one of us can be alone.

What they got was a house that offered all this and then some–5,300 square feet of house for an estimated value of $3 million–with gathering places inside and out, a personal, private retreat for each family member, and plenty of diversions should anyone tire of togetherness or solitude.

In line with the kids’ priorities, much of the first floor of the house is given over to a family-activity wing, which includes the kitchen, a breakfast nook and a family room. It sounds like every eat-in kitchen/family room out there in suburbia, but two things are different. First, there is also a “home management center” nook, which has the only two computers in the house so that mom and dad can monitor the kids’ computer use and have a place to pay family bills. Then there is the cruciform shape of the space, which solves a design issue common to big houses with big rooms.

More often than not, the kitchen-family room area in a big house is a great big box with all the activities lumped together. It looks cavernous without 40 people milling around and feels uncomfortable when only family members are present.

In the Ultimate Family Home, however, each activity in the family-centered area has its own clearly defined area that is appropriately scaled for the number of people using it, whether a few or a lot. The nooks for breakfast and the home management center will only hold four or five people. The much larger family room with its higher ceilingcan accommodate four or five lounging teenaged boys or a standing room-only crowd watching the Super Bowl on the 64-inch rear projection television screen. Likewise with the large kitchen that has an unusually long island running down its center. When the family entertains, guests can stand around it and nosh without bumping into each other. For day-to-day living, the kids can sprawl all over one end of the island doing schoolwork, while a parent fixes dinner at the other end. Since the sink faces the homework area, the parent who is cooking can easily chat with the child doing the homework.

With all the activities behind the house, parents and kids may not spend so much time together. Diversions for the younger set include a tree house surrounded with mature palm trees (including one that is growing up thru the middle of the structure) that looks like it was lifted from a Disney set for the Swiss Family Robinson movie. The kids also have a water slide for the swimming pool that is carved out of a faux red rock formation. Anywhere else this would be over the top, but in Las Vegas, the faux rocks actually mimic the local desert landscape.

Mom and dad’s backyard diversions include the swimming pool, a hot tub, an elaborate outdoor kitchen and barbeque grill, a covered loggia area with a large plasma TV screen plus two monitors connected to the six-camera home security system, and a faux red rock grotto with a fire pit for those rare romantic evenings when they’re home alone (not too likely with all these goodies that will be a magnet for everyone in the neighborhood). 

Another gathering spot is the garage. The generously sized third bay is air conditioned and outfitted with a work bench area and a plasma television screen because both girls and boys in the focus group said they liked to hang out with their dad while he worked on the family car.

The three bedrooms above the kitchen-family room wing provide plenty of privacy for each family member, but solitude was not the only agenda here. There’s a bit of indulgence and fantasy for everyone in the family. The parents have both a fireplace and a plasma television screen in the bedroom area of the master suite and a large, opulent marble and glass tiled bathroom that appears to have been lifted from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

The son can hang out with his friends in a third-floor crow’s nest with windows and views in all directions. When they’re not studying the mountains in the distance, they can watch television on yet another plasma television screen suspended from the ceiling (altogether there are four plasma television screens in the house).

The daughter has a hideaway room next to her bedroom that is entered through an Alice in Wonderland-style mirror that is actually a door. The room is equipped with video karaoke equipment that will be used by all the aspiring rock singers in the neighborhood. I predict that the kids in the family will fight over this one, but it may eventually prove to be a godsend for their parents, should one or both kids start a rock band and need a place to practice. However, if this does come to pass, the parents will likely have to add soundproofing. This wasn’t built in because the parents wanted to be able to hear younger children calling for them, Pardee marketing executive Kathy Hilty said. 

The Ultimate Family Home as built is unlikely to be replicated. Not only does it have a lot of luxuries that most families could not afford, the footprint of the house requires a large lot (this one is ½ an acre). But the essential part–the family’s gathering area on the first floor and the bedrooms cum personal retreats upstairs could easily be adapted to building sites elsewhere. Eliminating all of the first-floor wing except the formal dining room that most families want for special occasions–that is, eliminating the formal entry and living room, study and guest suite–and scaling down the rest to about 3,500 square feet of living area would still be plenty for most families.

The most important take-away idea from the Ultimate Family House, however, is not the house at all. It is the realization that our children are wiser than we think with priorities that belie their youth. They had plenty of fanciful, razzle-dazzle ideas, but the two items that topped their list of must have’s were surprisingly simple: a place to spend time together as a family and a place to be alone.

Queries or questions? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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