THE TRADITIONAL living room, one of the last bastions of formality in American homes, is headed for extinction, industry experts say, the victim of changing demographics and lifestyles.
Whereas 30 years ago most homes had a formal living room set aside for entertaining, that space has yielded to light-filled great rooms, larger kitchens and other spaces that are more informal and conducive to entertaining, or which better fit the modern homeowners' needs.
"People think the living room is too formal and a waste of space," says Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president for research with the National Association of Home Builders in Washington.
A survey in 2001 by the builders group found that a third of homes built that year had no designated living room. A consumer survey that year by the group showed that 40 percent of prospective homebuyers were willing to purchase a home without a formal living room.
One reason for the change is the increasingly casual - and hectic - lifestyle of the American homeowner. With a majority of American women working outside the home, the days of leisurely preparation for a dinner party - if they ever existed - have gone the way of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.
Now, partly out of necessity and partly by choice, the kitchen - once off limits to guests - has become the central gathering place for family and friends alike.
Susan Phipps, an office manager, student and mother of three in Harford County, says that when she and her husband, Joe, built a home in Street in 1994, they designed a great room in which they could combine several activities.
"The house that we moved out of had a traditional living room, den and kitchen," Susan Phipps says. "My kids were little at the time, and I spent all my time in the kitchen, so I was always walking around the door to see what they doing. I just felt cut off from them. I always knew that if we built a house, it would have one large room where we could watch TV, prepare a meal and be together."
Phipps said they chose their custom builder, David Stearns of Jarrettsville, after admiring a great room they had seen in one of his homes.
"That room sold me on the house," Phipps says. "And it's worked out nicely for us here, especially when we have people over."
Architect David Robbins, founder of the Ellicott City firm Architecture Collaborative, which designs up to 5,000 homes a year for residential developers, says that his new designs often feature combined kitchens and great rooms.
"Kitchens have become not only bigger, but also more show worthy, with center islands where people can sit around and talk while food is being prepared," he says.
Robbins adds that upscale decorative features, such as trim molding and window treatments, increasingly are common in kitchens, adding to their appeal as entertainment areas.
The living room's demise, some architects say, began in the 1950s with the advent of television. As televisions in the home became commonplace and then ubiquitous, homeowners sought a comfortable space away from the formal living room, where they could relax and put up their feet. They sought out casual furniture and reclining chairs, furniture more suited for daily use than the typical living room sofa and side chairs.
"The introduction of the family room ... meant that the living room never again got much use," says Karen Harris, president of Architecture Matters, a Denver architectural firm specializing in residential home design and renovation.
She views the evolution of the kitchen/great room as the next step in the continuum toward larger, more casual homes that cushion families from the pressures of the outside world. That's not to say homes have lost all sense of formality, Harris asserts, just that the darkened parlor with plastic sofa coverings isn't in vogue anymore and never will be again.
"What I see on the higher end is that people are still clinging to a place that's more formal and neat and clean, but it's usually the dining room," she says. And by far the most popular addition to older homes, Harris says, is a great room off the kitchen, sometimes with a new master bedroom above it.
That assessment is shared by Realtors such as Eric Pakulla, an agent with ReMax in Columbia, who says his clients are buying existing homes with an eye toward renovating them.
"Large dining rooms aren't popular anymore," Pakulla says. "And many of my customers are phasing out the living room in existing homes. Instead, they want the kitchen and family room combined. They want to see what their family is doing while they're in the kitchen."
On the design side for new homes, the trend is toward designing flexible space that can accommodate the increasingly diverse construct of American families and homeowners.
"We're seeing a lot of niche markets," Robbins says. "In the past there was a nuclear family, like the Leave it to Beaver model."
Now, however, homeowners are just as likely to be single parents with children, families made up of several generations, same-sex couples without children or aging empty-nesters. Some owners work at home, either part time or full time. All of them, Robbins says, have different needs, ranging from two studies on the first floor to first-floor bedrooms for parents or returning adult children to hobby rooms that showcase personal collections.
"We're calling the room [where living rooms used to be] a lifestyle space," Robbins says. "We're trying to infuse it with a new meaning that reflects the lifestyles of people buying houses. For example, we may put in French doors and call it a library."
One difference that Harris and Robbins note is that the space set aside for entertaining in homes today is less likely to be off the front entrance to the house, where the traditional living room was.
"All of the family rooms and great rooms tend to be in the back of the house," Harris says. People today tend to enter the house at the back, through the garage."
That, she says, imparts a more relaxed and inviting feel to the house, although she notes that it may have the unintended result of creating more pressure to maintain a clean and tidy kitchen and family room.
Perhaps surprisingly, what hasn't changed in all of this is the consumers' desire for more space.
Despite working longer hours, cooking fewer meals and having smaller families, Americans are buying and building larger homes. Thus, the desire to do away with the living room had little or nothing to do with space consideration. In fact, during the past 30 years, Ahluwalia of the national builders' group says, square footage in new homes increased several percentage points each year, with the current average flattening out at about 2,000 square feet last year.
Ultimately, then, changing tastes and lifestyles bear the responsibility for the demise of the living room. While myriad variables make it otherwise difficult to pinpoint exact housing trends, architects, industry experts and brokers are agreed on one: The living room is passe.