The shrinking living room


"There's no doubt at all that today the living room is the dinosaur in new-home construction," said Earl Robinson, sales and marketing manager for Ryland Homes.

Well, not quite.

Living rooms are still around, but getting smaller as family rooms get bigger.

"Having done a lot of building in Baltimore and the Washington, D.C., market over the years, I've found that there generally is a hesitation on the part of builders, especially here, to go against convention and eliminate the formal living room," said Joseph Link, president of Marketwise, an Ellicott City consulting firm to the homebuilding industry. "From a market-by-market standpoint, Baltimore remains fundamentally a very traditional new-home market."

Bob Coursey, director of sales and marketing for Ryan Homes, agrees.

"Some things are very hard to give up, such as living rooms, even if they're not used that much," he said. "Most people have trouble giving up a room that has always been around - although in some cases, they have been able to let go of the living room concept."

At least one builder, the Williamsburg Group, came up with floor plans that did not include a living room.

"We played with the idea," said Harry "Chip" Lundy, president and chief executive officer of the Williamsburg Group. "But people really have to make a leap to do without a living room, and we haven't actually yet built a model that does not have a living room."

A 1999 National Association of Home Builders survey showed the living room wasn't yet an endangered species. Builders who responded reported that 17 percent of their two-story single-family homes had no living rooms; of that percentage, 20 percent were homes with less than 2,000 square feet; 15 percent ranged from 2,000 to 2,999 square feet and 11 percent were greater than 3,000 square feet.

According to Link, the homebuyers most likely to liberate themselves from living rooms are residents of Colorado, Arizona, and California. "Those are parts of the country where housing trends emerge," Link said. "And it's very rare to see a living room, even in the upscale, luxury homes market."

In the case of Delbert Adams, owner and president of Ilex Construction of Baltimore, who builds a good number of upscale houses, living rooms are the norm.

"If people are building a traditional home, there will be a living room," he said. "And if you're building a replication of a historic home, it will be there as well. Those who are building a Georgian home, or one that has architectural significance, will always have a living room."

On the other hand, if the style of the new home is geared toward families with children, the living room may be minimized or totally excluded, Adams said. "It's the family room, which then takes over that square footage from the living room."

"Younger people - those in their 30s and 40s - want their family with them when they're in the kitchen. And whatever it's called - family room, great room, whatever - there is a lot of casual dining going on here as well."

Anne Markstein, of Anne Markstein Interiors, says the end of the living room is not yet in sight.

"The older houses certainly have living rooms, rather than family rooms. People are doing a lot with family rooms and kitchens that include a hearth. That area is becoming more and more the central part of the house, but it rarely entirely eliminates the living room."

While life has become considerably more casual today than say, 50 years ago, some degree of formality is still needed.

"People need a presentable space for those they don't know all that well and people still want a place - especially if they have children - where they can entertain adults without the kids around," Markstein said. "I don't see living rooms going away, although some things do change, and they really are getting smaller - more like a parlor, which is a word I really hate."

But, it's a word that one hears a lot these days.

"In our smaller homes, we're making the living rooms smaller and calling them parlors," said Robinson of Ryland Homes. "On the other hand, it's a sort of flex room, one that can be used as an office or a study, in which case the new-home owners will request special wiring."

"Living rooms are a fact of life in every house, although not as a family area," said Larry Nordhauser, director of sales and marketing in the Contract Interior Division of Builders Design and Leasing in Gaithersburg. "It's really not that important a room, but everyone wants to have one - particularly when it comes time to sell a house."

Not surprisingly, much of these changes are dictated by the way people live.

"In some homes, the living room has disappeared as people have gone on to embrace the concept of a great room - a family-living room and, in some cases, dining area," Ryan's Coursey said.

If living rooms are shrinking, as Robinson observed, today's family rooms are expanding.

"A family room should be at least 10 percent of the overall size of the house," Robinson said. "In other words, a 3,000-square-foot house should have a 300-square- foot family room - it's the place where people gather to watch 'Survivor' or 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.'"

There are those who maintain that the furniture necessary to fill these rooms is also getting larger.

"I don't know if this is a chicken or an egg situation," Robinson said, "but the designers that I work with are into great big comfortable chairs. The new thing is a chair-and-a-half-chair chair, it's not a chair, nor is it a love seat."

But Nordhauser says furniture isn't getting larger. "We decorate for builders throughout the United States, and the scaling down of the living room and the greater-size family room hasn't affected furniture at all. The scale and size of furniture always remain the same."

Robinson said that, at least 80 percent of the time, this scaled-down room functions as a living room, while the other 20 percent might use it as a first or second office.

"If a house already has a den, that's where the office is likely to be," Robinson said. "But in houses where there are 2,000 square feet or more, or four or more bedrooms, the living room is still a room that people want."

Coursey speculates that the lessened importance of a living room is due to a couple of factors.

"People are spending more time in their homes and it's practical to do away with a room that's not used the way it once was," Coursey said. "People don't want to pay for heating and cooling a room that is not going to be used, nor do they want to have to furnish a room that's going to be empty."

Coursey adds that he is seeing an increased demand for studies, libraries, and morning rooms. "There's also a push for increasing the space in the areas of the home that are used more frequently," he said.

Of course, driving these changes are clients.

"I was working with a client whose architect had a plan to change a 10-year-old house, saying: 'Let's open all of this up,'" Markstein said. "To the architect it sounded great, all big and open, but in real life, there's also a human need for comfort and coziness and small spaces.

"And most everyone needs a place that is private and quiet, where he or she can get away from the rest of the family."

Still, that feeling of open space is a trend that remains popular.

"It all started about eight or 10 years ago," said Lundy of the Williamsburg Group. "The family room is a place that's very open and has a lot of light. I just don't see these rooms changing and going back to where they were 20 years ago, when the family room was just a small room off the kitchen.

"This is the room where people spend time. It's comfortable, informal, well-lighted and invariably has a television."

He does find that family rooms probably are of less importance in senior or empty-nest residences.

Not only is the family room a place for the clan to gather, it's also a place where family members can get away from the rest of the neighborhood.

"Often, the great room is located toward the back of the home where there is more privacy," Link said. "I think there's another trend toward enlarging the kitchen and breakfast nook - these now have grown to be areas of considerable size."

He added that entertaining is more informal today and guests generally don't think twice about congregating in the kitchen.

"For the casual meal, you go to the kitchen," Link said. "For the formal meal, you go to the dining room. Most people still want a formal dining room. But entertaining today is very free-flowing."

The living room may be less important, but the dining room remains, he says. "The dining room is still going to be around," he said. "It's for formal entertaining, for Thanksgiving and Christmas."

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