What stresses you out everyday? If you were designing a new house, what would you change to alleviate this? These questions were posed during a roundtable discussion last month with the designers and staff of Design Basics, one of the nation’s largest home-planning services.

The responses were instructive. House size did not seem to make life more or less stressful. Nor did the presence or absence of various features, appliances or finishes. The designers and staff said that in their own lives and in the comments and complaints they receive from homeowners and home builders, the biggest stress inducer was inadequate storage. Our houses have gotten larger, but so has the number of our possessions, and the amount of storage in most new houses has not kept pace.

The need for storage was not simply having a place to put everything, however. It was perceived as a way to bring a calming sense of order to households that are constantly coping with the external pressures of contemporary life. Many, if not most, households are juggling full-time jobs, commuting, kids activities, fitness and sports, and the occasional social event.

For households with school-aged children, the number one stress and storage gripe is the household’s entry and exit maneuverings, which nearly always occur in or near the laundry room next to the garage, where everyone goes in and out. The flash point is not the piles of dirty laundry facing the parents after a hard day’s work, though this can be a downer. It is the routinely chaotic departure in the morning, in the rush to get to school and work. By the time everyone is out the door, the entire household is exhausted by the daily search for shoes, boots, gloves, lunch boxes, school books and the paper that was supposed to be signed and turned in a week ago, while tripping over the soccer cleats, ice hockey equipment, field hockey sticks, tennis racquets, ballet slippers, and dirty towels.

A garage entry foyer with cubbies for each household member to stow outerwear and backpacks so that these things could be easily found in the morning would have a calming effect. A big closet for sports equipment and another for the adults’ coats would increase it. Adding a place to dump briefcases, sort mail, charge cell phones, and keep the household’s digital camera, which is frequently wanted for family outings but often misplaced, would lower the collective family blood pressure even further.

The empty nesters in the Design Basics discussion said they would also welcome the garage foyer concept because the irritation of misplaced important papers, cell phones and digital cameras occurs in every household.

Not surprisingly, the desire for order extends beyond the threshold, but in newer houses that don’t have living rooms, this is harder to achieve. Excising the rarely used formal living room in favor of a bigger family room – a debate among architects, builders and home buyers that’s still ongoing – has seemed sensible. But its turns out, the excision has a downside. Parents with small children said that when the whole family hangs out in the family room, toys and clutter are constantly underfoot. After a hard day’s work, the parents need calming order, not disorder, and no one wants company to trip over Lego pieces or sit on a headless Barbie.

One suggestion was adding a large pantry-type closet in the family room closet for storing toys. If this is accompanied by a household rule that every time you take out a toy, you have to put one back, the kids could develop the admirable lifetime habit of putting things away. At the very least the closet would provide a place where toys could be stashed before the company arrives. Another suggestion for keeping toys out of the way was a bank of base cabinets along one wall and allocating one to each child.

Another possibility suggested by a parent with young children was to bring back the living room in a different guise and a different spot in the house. Instead of a formal entertaining room for the adults by the front door, make it a kids play room where the toys would be kept and put it next to the family room. That way the parents can keep an eye on things while having some time and space to themselves to decompress after a grueling workday, and everybody is in the same area of the house, if not the same space. If the playroom has a TV, the kids can play Nintendo on it while the parents watch their programs on the family room set. 

Alternatively, the toys and kids could stay in the family room and the parents could use the adjacent room for their getaway, decompression space and furnish it in some way that is soothingly calming. One participant, who spends all day at the office talking with people in business meetings and conference calls, said this has particular appeal because she really needs such a place to “de-stress” after a long workday.

The master bedroom is another place where homeowners sense clutter-induced stress. Almost all new houses today have large master bedrooms; many of them are cavernous. But, often as not, clothes, shoes and whatever folks had in their pockets the night before get strewn around. Waking up to a mess and a temporarily lost wallet or car keys starts the day on a bad note. But, if the dressing and undressing activities were removed to a separate dressing room created by shrinking down the bedroom, all the clothes would be out of sight, the sleeping area would be more restful, and the day would begin well. Equipping the dressing room with ample closets for hanging garments, shelves for folded garments, and drawer storage for socks and underwear, and creating obvious places to put things also makes it more likely that wallets and other essentials would not be misplaced.

Some complaints were also voiced about today’s open floor plans. With fewer walls in the main living areas, a smaller house feels bigger. This always looks great in a furnished model where no one lives, but in real life it means you can walk in and see the clutter everywhere. No homeowner wants this on display. Retaining the open feeling, but strategically placing more walls and adding raised counters in the kitchen to hide the pile of dirty dishes in the sink as the day goes on, would be a boon.

Most of the proposed stress reducers were practical. But the participants agreed that there was one extravagance that would increase the chances of starting and ending the day on a good note – a television for the master bathroom. It can be installed behind a one-way mirror and turned on by simply touching the glass. If appropriately located, the screen can be seen from the sink or tub. You can watch it as you shave at the sink in the morning and as you luxuriate in the tub after a long day at the office.

Questions or comments? A home-building story you’d like to share? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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