Cutting a large room down to size

October 14, 2006|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Universal Press Syndicate

While volumes are written about how to live large in small rooms, relatively little attention is given to the flip side of the issue -- finding ways to achieve some sense of intimacy in spaces that are just too big.

The truth is that excessively spacious rooms can be every bit as aggravating as rooms that are too little. High and mighty rooms have their own set of shortcomings.

For one thing, they can be expensive to furnish because so much furniture is required to fill them up. They can be difficult to light properly. They can even produce conversational echoes.

Worse, rooms that are too big can inflict emotional distress on their occupants. It's not easy to cocoon in a room that has the proportions of an airplane hanger. Distant walls and high-flying ceilings might be great for accommodating a crowd but totally unsuited to coddling a couple.

Though dazzling to behold, large rooms can make people feel small, isolated and exposed inside their own homes.

Open floor plans can compound the problem. A family room-kitchen-dining room combination can wreak havoc on the notion of privacy. Family togetherness is one thing, but if you can't talk on the telephone because your youngsters are playing video games and your spouse is practicing the piano, then the floor plan is seriously flawed.

Still, home buyers gravitate toward houses with expansive rooms and lofty ceilings. Remodelers spend millions to knock down the interior walls of older homes. The quest for roominess seems almost universal. But there can be too much of a good thing.

It is possible, however, to tame too-large spaces without putting the walls back up. If what you really want are open and airy spaces that feel cozier, consider the following tactics.

In a large living room, family room or mega-master bedroom, subdivide the space with multiple furniture groupings. Create two or more intimate arrangements.

For example, place a sofa and two chairs in front of the fireplace and another pair of chairs and a skirted table in front of the bay window. In a big bedroom, cluster the bed, dresser and chests of drawers at one end to make space for a writing desk or a love seat and table at the other end.

Alternate flooring materials to distinguish one zone from another. If remodeling or building, consider using one pattern of wood flooring in the living area and a second compatible pattern in the dining area.

If you're only redecorating, an area rug can accomplish the same thing. Even if the flooring is the same in adjacent spaces, a rug in one area can keep the overall space from seeming too big.

Install columns or wing walls to subdivide a large space. Along with furnishings, a pair of columns on either side of a large room is a visual signal that one end of the room is devoted to one activity and the other end to another purpose.

Like columns, wing walls are implied partitions that jut out from opposing walls just two or three feet, leaving a large opening in the middle. They're often used between kitchens and family rooms or between living and dining rooms.

With either technique, you don't lose dimension, but you create the impression of smaller, friendlier spaces.

Change ceiling heights or floor levels to break up a large space. A one- or two-step difference in floor levels can make one large space feel like two. Dropping the ceiling in a dining area can distinguish it from an adjacent living area and create a cozier atmosphere for meals.

For a large room with a cathedral ceiling, install ceiling beams. There will still be an abundance of impressive space overhead. But the beams will make the space feel more comfortable, more human-scaled.

Divide a large space with pocket doors or French doors. You can have all the openness you want with the doors open. But you can also have visual and acoustical privacy by closing them.

Such relatively minor modifications can give you open, airy and light-filled spaces, but also emotional coziness without confinement.

To eliminate the need to make structural adjustments, though, give some serious thought to the issue of spaciousness before you buy a new home or remodel an old one. Ask yourself just how much space you need to satisfy your dual cravings for roominess and intimacy.

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