Design Solutions For Homes We've Outgrown But Just Don't Want to Leave


February 04, 1996|By Rosemary Knower

The Great American Home. What's your image of it?

Twenty years ago, most people would have answered: square. Remember how, in the old days, Beaver and Wally came tracking in the back door to the kitchen, looking for cookies? And Mom was always there in a crisp apron, dispensing chocolate-chip comfort and good advice with equal ease, while Dad chortled charmingly from his easy chair?

The family had no real problems, and the house had no real surprises. It was a nice, dependable little box, with a central stairway hall, living room, dining room, bedrooms, bath and Fibber McGee closets, guaranteed to dump its contents on the person who opened the door.

Those were the days of the little square and they lasted a good long time.

Then came the '80s, when the average size of the American house took a quantum leap toward Big. Big rooms, big walk-in closets, big two-sink bathrooms, master bedroom suites the size of small apartments, and recreation rooms the size of soccer fields.

There was a place for the family to eat, and a dining room for company; a place for the family to sit, and a big formal living room for entertaining. And lots of other places behind closed doors.

The trouble was, all those dedicated spaces didn't provide a very good solution to living. They didn't take into account the new situations that were changing the American home forever. For starters, there were new family patterns. The yuppies started having babies, and the boomers found themselves with grown children or aging parents moving in.

There was a severe bedroom crunch, just when most of the bedrooms had been turned to places to house hobbies or work areas.

The astonishing rise in the home use of computers, big-screen televisions and exercise equipment meant all that stuff had to go somewhere. Televisions grew to a size that had people scrambling to find ways to camouflage the Cyclops and his pals -- the compact disc player, the tape player, the videocassette recorder, the speakers. Taken together, they formed a 4-foot phalanx of electronic ugly.

With a growing number of people working from home or at home, computers needed a designed space, instead of being placed on a table shoved into one corner of the family room. And to top it all off, the resurgence of gardening and a boom in backyard entertaining meant a lot of people wanted porches, patios and transitional spaces between indoors and out. They wanted to look at the leaves turning and the snow falling and to admire the bulb beds from everywhere in the house.

The big square began to bulge at the seams.

But how to achieve all those desired new spaces in the '90s without significant enlargement of the "footprint" (the space a house needs on the ground, which is one of the ways to calculate how much it will cost)?

Most of the big, desirable lots near working metropolitan areas had been bought up long ago. So many people found themselves with the same old box house, but on a lot they really liked, with mature trees and good neighbors. They started to think about renovation instead of trading up.

There were other factors, too, to be considered. The rising cost of construction materials meant more dollars per square foot, just when people were showing a preference for real tile, granite counters and cedar siding. Ecological considerations meant a lot of people began looking at their houses as places to engineer -- for better energy consumption, for better use of space, for a better planet ethic.

How to satisfy all these diverse concerns? How to solve the problems so they stayed solved, with flexible solutions for the changing family and its needs?

American architectural ingenuity to the rescue. If you can identify the problem, architects can solve it.

Dennis Wedlick, a Manhattan-based architect who designed the 1995 American Dream House for Life magazine, worked with averages in coming up with his award-winning design. Average size of the new American home: 2,100 square feet. Average cost: $150,000.

Mr. Wedlick is a fanatic about the multiple use of space. Every room in his house works hard. "One room can feel larger, and function larger, if it has the ability to borrow space from the adjacent room; if the perimeters of the room extend past the dimensional line to a visual point, such as a window, somewhere beyond," he says.

"The beauty of organizing the space that way is the house is most flexible. When it's just the immediate family, you can feel cozy and contained around the fireplace. But when it's a large party, the space becomes continuous. You can have many people in many rooms, but the whole house can be used as one big room."

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