If you could pull back the curtain and see how most of us really live, truth be told, our houses are a mess. Clutter is everywhere. Backpacks, coats, boots, tennis racquets and junk mail pile up at whichever door we use most frequently to go in and out. Mail and magazines have migrated into every living space. We have no time to clean it up, but even if we did there’s no place to put everything — especially those bulk purchases from Costco that save money but won’t fit anywhere.
Is there a solution out there?
Builder magazine’s Reality House, a show house at the International Builder’s Show in Orlando last month, suggests that there is. Double the amount of cabinetry that most builders supply, put it as close to the family entrance as possible, and almost everyone can get on top of the clutter issue, said Memphis architect Carson Looney, who headed the Reality House design team.
Locating storage at the family entrance is critical, Looney emphasized, because when you put it there, you can capture all the stuff that family members bring into the house before it gets scattered and mislaid.
To capture everything that comes into the Reality House, Looney provided two family entrances, one for unloading groceries and bulk purchases and one for everything else (there is also a formal entry on the front of the house). Tucked under a porte cochere on the side of the house, the “food stuffs” entrance is a short haul from the everyday kitchen and pantry, as well as the occasionally used butler’s pantry and caterers’ food prep station.
The other family entrance is 75 feet farther down the driveway in athree-car garage that has plenty of room for lawn equipment, sports equipment, bikes, garbage cans and whatever else the family wants to put in there.
Just past the garage entry into the house, an alcove drop-off for coats, backpacks and muddy soccer cleats is prominently positioned. To keep the mud off the furniture, dirty soccer uniforms can be immediately taken off and put in the washer in the laundry room across the hall.
Turn a corner and you find the home office. Not an office where a family member might run a business, but a place for household business — sorting mail, tossing the junk items in a recycle bin, paying bills and keeping household files. Though magazines, some catalogues and newspapers will migrate into the living areas, this looks like a foolproof arrangement for containing and recycling most of the 500 pounds of paper that come into a typical four-person household every year.
Pass a set of back stairs next to the home office and you’re finally in the center of the house, an eat-in kitchen/family room that overlooks both an outdoor pool area and a manmade lake surrounded by palm trees.
Here you begin to observe another phenomenon about this house. Although it is big — the total square footage is 5,370 square feet — it has a “small house feel,” especially in the main living area. While 25 or 30 people can easily mingle here, and you could get another 50 if the guests spilled over into the outdoor area around the pool, the heart of this house will still feel comfortable after the guests have all gone home.
Dispensing with wowing features like two-story spaces and walls of glass, Looney gave the ceiling in this rather large 42-by-26-foot spacejust enough height to avoid the sensation of feeling like you’re in a bowling alley. He created the illusion that the space is smaller than it actually is by differentiating the kitchen and family room areas with a large cased opening and different ceiling treatments. These details are so subtle, the homeowners won’t even notice them. They will just sense that an overstuffed chair in the generously sized family room area is a fine place to curl up with a book or drink a cup of coffee.
The house also “lives small” because the interior views are short. You can’t see through spaces to other spaces, an optical illusion that is often used to make a small house feel bigger. Even more important, all the main living areas are adjacent. You won’t be walking through big empty spaces and feel like you’re living in a museum every time you go from your bedroom to the kitchen, a major complaint of people who live in big houses, Looney said. Instead, the master suite in this house is just a quick trip up the back stairs, and the formal spaces that are not used everyday — a dining room and a large gallery area at the front door — cannot be seen from the family room area.
The master suite is as well organized as the living areas below. From the back hallway you can enter the master bedroom area directly or take a detour through a closet/dressing area and coffee bar. With this arrangement, a spouse who has to get up early can get ready for work without disrupting the sleep of the spouse who leaves later. Another plus with a separate dressing area: a man will unload his pockets there and little piles won’t appear all over the bedroom, and clothes won’t pile up on the bedroom floor.
While everything in the Reality House works at the Big Picture level, some details might grate on a daily basis. For example, the huge plasma television screen in the family room can easily be seen from the kitchen, but whoever is cooking won’t get to see much — the sink faces the side yard and the huge professional-sized stove faces a wall. The 7-by-10-foot, grand piano-shaped island may be great for guests to mill around at parties, but it’s so big, much of its surface is unreachable and unusable and the seating area is too far from the food prep to allow easy conversation with the cook. The floor area in the well-equipped laundry room is too small to sort loads for washing and there’s no place to air dry the 40 percent of the laundry that most households do not put in the dryer. Last but not least, I predict the master suite coffee bar will be underutilized. Waking to a coffee aroma sounds fabulous, but in a busy household, who will keep the refrigerator stocked, deal with the dirty dishes, and schlep the orange peels, juice containers and coffee grounds to the garbage downstairs?
Would the Reality House suit every family? Interestingly enough, its design was based on interviews with eight intergenerational families who had recently bought new houses that did not meet their needs. Were these eight families to tour this show house, they would find that the architects got many things right, especially the storage. But the designers failed to address a critical privacy need that differentiates these families from other households — a private socializing space apart from the main living area where each generation — teenagers, parents and grandparents — can entertain their friends. For these families, the much maligned and often underused living room would have done the trick.
The private spaces in this house are the bedrooms. Not only are they separated from the living area, they are very separate from each other. Though this arrangement does not suit an intergenerational household, it’s perfect for a newly formed stepfamily with his and her children. Each child needs a place to call his or her own while slowly adjusting to their new circumstances, and the parents need privacy to build their own relationship.
The most important takeaway lesson from the Reality House, however, is not which type of household is most suited to its design. The lesson for all the home builders who saw it at the International Builders Show is that Looney’s organizing strategies could be adapted to any house, even one that is half the size of this one.
Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.
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