A Room of One's Own

'Escape' rooms offer a retreat within the home where you can go just to be yourself.

April 25, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Ostensibly it's a home office. But when real estate agent Eva Higgins decorated the small room in her Mount Vernon townhouse, she painted the walls pink. The baseboards are faux-finished to look like green malachite. The children in the nostalgic photos are her brother and herself. She thinks of it as her escape room.

"No one else can come in, and no one can use my computer," she says.

With a husband, two sons and exchange students living in the same house, "I needed a little femininity," she adds to explain the color scheme.

More and more hassled Americans are finding they need a room like hers. It might be called a study, an exercise room, a studio or an area to practice yoga, but its most important function is to provide someplace to be alone. To think. To recharge the batteries.

A couple of years ago, a film came out called Panic Room, a paranoid thriller. In it Jodie Foster buys a Manhattan townhouse with a little something extra: a bunker-like room with a reinforced steel door and its own ventilation system.

Today's hideaways are the psychological equivalent of the panic room, a place where harried homeowners can leave behind the stress of their busy lives and the demands of their families.

"It's a 'get away from the children' room," says Debbie Travis, host of Debbie Travis' Facelift on Home & Garden Television.

Her mother, she says, used to lock herself in the bathroom at least once a day. The escape room is simply a more civilized way to deal with the need for time alone.

Sometimes children aren't part of the equation.

Consider the couple who are looking for a house through Hill & Co., the real estate company Eva Higgins works for. He wants his own study. She wants her own study. He wants his own shop area. She wants her study far enough away so she can't hear the noise from the shop or the TV in the family room.

"People are looking for retreats," says Higgins, "but it's not going to be easy" to find their dream house.

New American home

Of course, even for middle class Americans, it's often more realistic to ask how and where they can carve out any space for themselves, let alone a separate room. There are plenty of people who have to put their treadmill in the dining room; they aren't debating what to do with an extra room.

But the fact of the matter is that in the last 30 years American families have grown smaller (from 3.1 to 2.69 people) while their houses have gotten bigger (from 1,500 square feet to 2,330 square feet), according to the National Association of Home Builders in Washington.

Partly, of course, that's the "if you can afford it, flaunt it" theory of home buying. But it's also because they're getting more protective of their own private spaces.

Americans are buying bigger houses these days to meet two needs, says Gopal Ahluwahlia, staff vice president of research for NAHB. They have living needs -- a place to sleep, a place to cook dinner -- and "lifestyle" needs -- that hobby room, for instance. The trend to nesting has accelerated the demand for separate rooms for everything from coin collecting to meditation.

"Are [escape rooms] on the increase in larger homes?" asks Ahluwahlia. "Definitely yes."

Anna Devoe has a sewing room in her Annapolis home because she feels she wouldn't sew as often if her two sewing machines weren't always set up.

But it's also "my idea room," she says. "It's a creative room for me," a place where she has her books and her desk as well as her sewing area, and a cork board where she pins up plans for sewing and gardening projects and clippings from magazines.

"I guess my family knows when I'm in there I want that quiet time," she says.

Retreat from family

If you think it's mostly women who need a retreat from the demands of family life, think again.

James (Jay) Dillinger, senior designer at Louis Mazor in Baltimore, has found that many male clients he works with ask for a room away from things. "Guys want a library or study," he says.

Dillinger has found that large homes often have an odd room too small to do much with, and these make a good wine room -- the perfect guy retreat.

"It's not a den or a family room," he says. "They paint it a mellow color, keep their collection of bottles and maybe a fridge there, sometimes have soft music, and chill out."

The designer recently -- and inadvertently -- created his own escape room when he redid his den. "I meant for it to have a TV, but I didn't put it in because it was so peaceful."

As for new homes, "more and more people are asking for a room they can have as their own," says Ahluwahlia. This, he adds, is in spite of the fact that the open floor plan with its flowing spaces, exposed kitchens and family rooms is as popular as ever.

"It doesn't have to be the opposite of openness," says Barbara Wilks, who recently won a national American Institute of Architects award for residential design. "I do think there's a need for spaces for retreat, but they could be a little loft overlooking an open space."

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