When asked to design a house for a family, most architects and home builders tend to focus on pleasing the folks who are footing the bill — the parents. But when the kids are asked to contribute their ideas, the end result is often enriched, several architects and a production builder said in recent interviews.

When Los Angeles-based Pardee Homes took on the challenge of the “Ultimate Family Home” show house for the International Builders Show in 2004, the firm took the unprecedented step of holding focus groups for kids. Not knowing what to expect, they found the kids to be both practical and imaginative, offering ideas that enhanced the design of the house, said Pardee executive Joyce Mason.

Realizing that older and younger kids would likely have quite different things to say, Pardee arranged for two groups, one for kids 12 and under, and one for teenagers, Mason said. To inject some “terra firma thinking,” the firm arranged for a third focus group of parents

While the parents were predictably practical, Mason said the kids could let their imaginations run wild, suggesting things like an underwater house with a garage where you could park your submarine. But, with surprising consistency, the same things topped their lists — “secret underground passage ways” and “space to get away from annoying brothers and sisters.” 

For their IBS Show House, Pardee included two “secret places,” a simple one that spoke to a child’s ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, and a second one that left less to the imagination. The boy’s room had a 6-foot-high bed that offered lots of opportunities to create secret places underneath by strategic draping of bedspreads and blankets. The girl’s room had an adjacent, highly decorated secret room that was entered through an Alice in Wonderland-style mirror that was actually a door.

The refuge from annoying family members was a crow’s nest that popped through the roof. Attractively designed with windows and views on all four sides, it undoubtedly would serve as an occasional hideaway for the parents as well, Mason said.

On the practical side, none of the kids were interested in a big bedroom.

When Pardee asked the kids about their favorite places in their own houses, some of the answers revealed a child’s often-poignant perspective. One girl liked her family’s garage best — not because she was a mechanical prodigy but because that’s where she hung out with her dad. In her house the garage was decorated to be an inviting space.

While a garage workshop often tops the wish list for adult men, Mason said the firm never imagined that they would hear it from a child. For the IBS house, one bay of the three-car garage was closed off by a sliding glass door and air conditioned. It had a finished floor, comfortable chairs for kibitzing kids, a large, wall-mounted plasma television screen — it was after all, a show house — and plenty of room for dad to work on his car.

While Pardee’s focus group with kids was a first for a production home builder, Santa Barbara, Calif., architect Barry Berkus said that these days many of his custom-home clients invite their children to make suggestions. Although the parents sometimes fret that their children’s fantasies will be extravagant and expensive, Berkus said the kids’ ideas are usually simple and easy to execute, and they’re almost never things that the parents or he would have suggested.

For example, in one family two brothers wanted to go back and forth to each other’s room through connecting closets. Dark and hidden from view, the closets quickly became a secret, favored place for games in which a cave, a tunnel or a hidden room figured prominently.

For a family with boys who were crazy about sports and wanted their own locker room, Berkus outfitted a large space between their rooms with real lockers, which held all their toys. When they played together, all the toys were out on the floor. When they were done, all the clutter went back into the lockers.

Berkus said his most unusual request came from an aspiring astronomer who wanted a ladder to a roof hatch, so that he could climb out and look at the stars. Berkus designed it and said that the family never had any problems.

While many parents may look askance at the very idea, Warren, Vt., architect John Connell said that in his observation when a child wants to do something like this, he will figure out how to get up on the roof one way or another. But, if the parents are able to embrace their child’s wish and get involved, they can provide it in a safe way.

Connell, who is also the founder and director of the Yestermorrow Design/Build School, said that when he’s designed things for kids, safety is usually not a central issue. Rather, the challenge is to provide just enough to ignite a child’s imagination without smothering it and to make it simple enough to meld with a child’s changing interests — last month he liked pirates but now he’s riveted on intergalactic space travel. The parents may think that a richly detailed, built-in bed that looks like Captain Kid’s is very clever and just what any kid would want, but Connell said a child will be just as happy with a simple raised bed that has some steps or a ladder, cubby holes, and a built-in light.

Some childhood interests do not change, however. As Pardee Homes discovered with their kids’ focus groups, secret rooms and hidey holes are perennial favorites with kids. Connell said he’s designed several that were accessed by a sliding bookshelf. “It’s easy to make and for a kid to have a whole part of his room come apart — it’s a thrill,” he said.

David Sellers, another architect in Warren, Vt., brings a very unusual point of view to designing rooms and houses for households with children — that of the children themselves. Observing the obvious that is nearly always overlooked by architects, he said children are short. This puts them at a disadvantage in a typical house because it is sized for adults.

Sellers said this insight occurred as he designed and built his very first house nearly 40 years ago for his brother who had two small children at the time. Seeing that the kids couldn’t even look out a window without someone holding them up, Sellers designed a series of little windows “the size of a kid’s head, 6 by 6 inches square” so that the kids could look out as they crawled up the stairs. The windows were an immediate hit and for years afterwards the kids still looked out the windows that were “designed just for them.”

For the same house, Sellers used wooden milk crates to make a wall between the kids’ playroom and a bathroom. He brought in about 20 crates, let the kids stack them the way they wanted, and then bolted the crates in place. On the playroom side, there was a climbing wall with plenty of places to perch and plenty of recesses to hold toys. On the bathroom side, the crate-created recesses had a practical application — the household used them to store towels, toilet paper and toiletries.

For his next house, Sellers built a small “run up wall” by sloping one end of the living room floor at a 45-degree angle. When the kids ran across the room, they got enough momentum to make it up the inclined floor plane and reach a loft space, which Sellers described as “high enough and big enough for 8 to 10 kids to crowd in and watch the adults below.” The loft, which soon became a favored spot to play and read, could also be reached via “the world’s first indoor climbing wall,” Sellers said.

Sellers’ sense of playfulness appealed to the parents as much as it did to their children, and it quickly became a signature of his work, which has covered a wide range of unusual projects. He is currently working on hospitals and health clinics with Patch Adams, a nationally acclaimed physician who believes that the curative power of laughter and joy is as strong as that of conventional medicine.

Questions? Queries? Katherine Salant can be reached at www.katherinesalant.com.

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