In the course of touring new houses I see all sorts of design features–good ones, great ones, anomalies, and some that are not so great.
For example, the cabinet in a laundry room that conceals a pull-down ironing board, surely one of the dumbest design features ever. When a male columnist raved about what a handy thing this would be to have in your house, I knew that he had never ironed a day in his life. While it is true that machines have taken the drudgery out of many household chores, and ironing today is not like it was 100 years ago when you had to heat up the iron on a wood stove, dampen the clothes before ironing them and hope that you didn’t scorch anything, ironing remains an odious task, and no one wants to be stuck in a cramped laundry room for several hours a week doing it. The only way to make ironing half-way palatable is to set up the ironing board in front of the television, which will be a much more pleasant place to work because it is always in one of the nicest rooms in the house.
A slightly less dumb feature is the kitchen drawer front that pulls out a concealed ironing board. Ironing in the kitchen is certainly more pleasant than doing it in the laundry room, but it’s not as nice as the television room. On a more practical note, you can never have too many drawers in a kitchen–keeping the drawer as a drawer will be more useful in the long run.
Another dumb feature is open wine storage in a kitchen. Heat causes wine to age prematurely and become undrinkable, and cooking activities make the kitchen one of the warmest rooms in the house. Storing wine in an open rack above the refrigerator–which might seem a sensible place for things you don’t use everyday–is even worse because most refrigerators give off heat as they cool the foodstuffs kept inside. The newest refrigerators give off far less heat than ones that are 10 years old, but still enough to ruin a good Bordeaux if you leave a bottle above the fridge for very long.
The best place to store wine is one that’s cool and dark. A basement is fine, as long as you don’t put your wine next to the furnace. If you don’t have a basement, store your wine under your bed or at the bottom of a closet–just make sure that it’s not next to a heat duct or water heater. And don’t hold onto that special bottle of champagne, waiting for the truly special occasion. Unless you have a wine cooler–a refrigeration unit with temperature and humidity calibrated for wine–you’re tempting fate to keep a bottle more than about 12 months.
A questionable design feature that is ubiquitous is the two-story foyer. Along with huge soaking tubs and his and her vanities, this one appeared initially in high-end custom-built houses, and now it’s standard fare in nearly all price ranges. The two-story foyer is strongly favored by builders because it makes a house appear bigger and creates a very strong first impression for a potential buyer. It will also impress your parents, in-laws and friends the first time they visit. But over the long haul, you will get much more mileage by capturing that volume and, depending on how big it is, turning it into an additional bedroom, bigger walk-in closets for the front bedrooms, or even an additional bathroom.
You can still have an extremely attractive single-story entry foyer with a wood or tile floor, a great color for the walls and an eye-catching piece of art. When it comes time to sell your house, any real estate agent worth his or her salt will be pointing out the extra space on the second floor that none of the other houses on the block with the two-story foyer can boast.
Another questionable design feature seen in many high-end houses is a huge master bedroom replete with columned entries and worthy of King Louis XIV of France, who famously welcomed a crowd of courtiers into his boudoir every morning to observe him greet the day. Unless your lifestyle is similar to the Sun King’s, a generous sized bedroom–16 feet by 20 feet (or 320 square feet) will provide ample space for a king-sized bed with side tables, an entertainment-center cabinet to house a television, dressers and a reading chair with an ottoman. And, you will have a much shorter walk to the bathroom if you have to get up in the middle of the night.
Some of these large master bedrooms include an alcove that can be used as an adult hideaway or a home office. If you plan to use it as an office, I suggest reconfiguring the space to create a separate room because in most cases, a home office is a work in progress, and an eyesore that you would rather not see as you begin and end your day.
A frequently observed design anomaly: the front porch. Once functional, its value now is largely symbolic. Front porches were common all across America, but as air conditioning became widely available in the years after World War II, people stopped using and building them. Then about 15 years ago, front porches began to reappear in traditional neighborhood design developments, often called TNDs. To enhance a spirit of community, the houses in TNDs are close to each other and to the street, which TND proponents regard as a “communal living room” and not merely “a conduit of traffic.” The front porch was added to the mix to induce casual contact between neighbors (another notable feature of TNDs, which is also thought to enhance community, is rear garages accessed from a rear alley).
The front porches have proved to be so popular with buyers, however, they have been added to new houses in every sort of new community, TND or not. The porches are often too shallow to be functional, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Useful or not, homeowners like the porch because it evokes a sense of “home sweet home” so powerfully, and real estate agents across the country like the porch because it enhances resale prospects.
In the collective consciousness of American homeowners, I suspect that the front porch may soon be right up there with window shutters. Originally functional, these were once hinged and moveable. A window could be covered with a solid wood shutter to keep wind out; louvered wood shutters kept out the hot sun while letting cooler breezes in. Today shutters are vinyl, nailed in place and not nearly big enough to cover a window, but most people clearly feel that windows are naked and a façade is incomplete without them.
The design blooper I see most often is the location of the master bathroom windows for the increasingly popular first-floor master suites. For privacy, the bedroom itself is usually on the back of the house. But the bathroom can end up on the front where the huge window by the soaking tub (which always seems to come with a large window, no matter what) invariably becomes a prominent architectural feature on the façade. It can look great from the street, and you can cover this big opening with shades or blinds, but most people would, I think, prefer to take a bath in a place that is less public, especially when the house is close to the sidewalk or the window is close to the front door.
Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.
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