Almost any large room will seem like a great space for entertaining, if the party occurs at night and the place is jammed with people.

But the same space in the cold hard light of day can be a different proposition altogether, and that’s what you will live with on a daily basis, said Michael Sloan, an architect in Millbrook, N.Y., an area where many people from New York City have weekend houses and frequently entertain in them.

Without a big budget, Sloan said, “you will be in a big, bland, vanilla box.” Even worse, he adds, homeowners who have the big spaces complain of their impracticality. The space is hard to clean–who has the equipment to get dust bunnies off a 16-foot-high ceiling, for example? The big party spaces are hard to furnish because you need oversized everything. When you have a large party, the sound generated by 50 people talking at the same time reverberates off the walls, which can make it hard to hear what the person right next to you is saying. The final kicker–it’s hard to feel cozy on those cold winter nights in front of a fireplace that is centered on a wall that is 20 feet long.

Another downside of a big party space can be the social dynamics of entertaining in it, Sloan said. In a big space, people tend to be more spread out. To engage someone in conversation, you have to take the initiative and seek them out. If the guests do not know each other well, there can be more than a few awkward moments.

By contrast, in a smaller house when the party sprawls through several rooms and people are closer together, casual encounters are easier and more interesting discussions evolve.

“As you pass through a doorway and hear something interesting, you can just join in without feeling like you’re intruding,” Sloan said. “When you’re sitting with someone at the bottom of the stairs and a guest is trying to squeeze by, they often end up talking with you. And with only eight or nine people in a room instead of 50 or 60, you can always hear what everyone is saying.”

Why do clients hanker for the big spaces, then? Sloan said that they come in having been to some great parties at their friends’ houses. They want exactly the same thing or something even bigger because they plan to entertain on a larger scale. They insist on a 20-by-40-foot room without realizing that “without 50 or 60 people socializing and bringing it down to scale, it’s a very big room.”

In fact, Sloan said when it comes to big rooms, scale can trip up clients in a number of ways. First, there is the perception issue. Most people have a hard time understanding exactly what they are asking for. It’s hard to have a feel for how a space correlates with the numbers–what does a 16-by-20-foot room or a 20-by-40-foot room really feel and look like–until you have looked at a lot of big houses. Size is not the only thing. Clients also have to understand that the same space can look and feel dramatically different, depending on the time of day and the number of people who are in it.

Then there is the money issue. Big rooms need big budgets because everything must be scaled up. This might seem like a statement of the obvious, but it escapes most homeowners, Sloan said. The ceiling must be higher so you won’t feel like you’re in a bowling alley. The windows and doors must be bigger and you need some sort of skylight to throw diffuse daylight to the back corners so that the room won’t feel dark and gloomy. Sloan said he usually suggests a simple clearstory, though a cupola can also work, if it’s compatible with the style of the house and the budget is big enough.

The cost of the detailing also trips up clients, Sloan said. The trim that looks fine in their current house with 8- or 9-foot ceilings will be lost in a large room. Instead of a modest 6-inch single molding, you need at least a 12-inch built-up one, and you need a lot of it in a big room. For clients seeking a more rustic look, exposed trusses are another possibility for a large room, and one that can bring down the scale so that the room feels more comfortable when only family members are in it. Exposed beams will also work, but in both cases, all that exposed woodwork that adds character must be high quality to look right. Reclaimed wood from the depths of Lake Superior or from a dismantled European country house can be stunning, but most people can’t afford it.  

If a discussion of scale and cost do not persuade the clients to downsize, Sloan draws up the sketch that most bring on their first visit to his office. When he points out that they will be walking 33 feet from their refrigerator to their sink and even farther than that if their meal preparation requires something from their pantry, the clients quickly grasp the downside of the big spaces and readily agree to something smaller, say a 20-by-20-foot party room instead of one that’s 20 by 40.

A 20-by-20-foot party room is still big, however, and making it compatible with the adjacent area can be challenging, Sloan said. One hundred years ago big houses had a third-floor ballroom devoted exclusively to elegant entertaining. Today’s home entertaining is decidedly less formal, and the party area will invariably serve double duty as the household family room adjacent to the kitchen and breakfast area.

To produce a sense of intimacy in each area, each one needs is own scale. While the cathedral ceiling in the big party/family room might be as high as 16 feet at the roof peak to make the room look right, carrying it through the whole area would be a mistake. Most people do not like to cook under a soaring ceiling, which makes their kitchen feel like it’s part of a display in a kitchen cabinet dealership, Sloan said.Instead, the ceiling should be 9 feet, or at most 10. The ceiling in the breakfast area where the household may have most of their meals can be the same.

The flooring is another way to give each area its own identity, Sloan said. For example, you could use a darker-stained hardwood in the family room to bring the scale down and a lighter hardwood for the breakfast and kitchen areas. The floors can also be differentiated by the size of the planks and the direction of the planking.

Walls would certainly differentiate each area, but because the eat-in kitchen/family room is where most families spend most of their time, they want to be able to see each other, even if the person at the fireplace is too far from the person at the sink to easily converse. A simple 3-foot-high knee wall can work, though if the space is large Sloan said he uses bigger elements, such as columns and shallow arches, to divide the space.

Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at


Send tips or a letter to the editor to or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 124.

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