Creating space for nesting

November 18, 2006|By Bill LaHay | Bill LaHay,Universal Press Syndicate

Opening the front door to dinner guests or partygoers is one of the fun rituals of homeownership, and who doesn't want to create a little grandeur for visitors to enjoy?

Even if you're not out to impress anyone, it's nice to have some wide-open spaces where people can spread out and circulate, and the most common public areas in a house - the entry, living room and great room - are often designed to offer just that opportunity. But for most of us, these "social" circumstances represent a mere fraction of the time we spend in our homes, and it doesn't make sense to create spaces that work only when entertaining.

When that happens, an impulse to indulge in a good read or a quiet conversation leaves you with few alternatives aside from retreating to a bedroom or that small table in the corner of the kitchen. This just creates a different kind of imbalance, one that equates privacy with isolation or even punishment.

Because spaces such as bedrooms and bathrooms need to remain private in nature, the surest way to create or restore that balance between solitary and communal urges is to introduce pockets of shelter into larger, more public areas of your home. Large older homes that haven't been thoughtlessly renovated typically have several of these features.

Alcoves, window seats, exterior bump-outs, fireplace inglenooks, even stair landings with built-in benches - these all represent subspaces that provide a high degree of psychological comfort. Situated mostly at the perimeter of large common spaces, they are natural nesting areas that individuals instinctively seek and inhabit, providing a degree of solitude or privacy while leaving the possibility of social connection intact.

Unfortunately, the cost-cutting mindset of production homebuilding and the demand for impressive features have combined to erase this nuanced comfort from the typical modern home.

The quiet drama and interest created by offset or stepped transitions from one space to another add labor and materials costs, and when real estate brochures routinely promote square footage and vaulted ceilings, it's hard to make a convincing case for deliberately compressing some spaces in a home. But if you want comfort and character for everyday living, small can be beautiful.

Aside from building new with a customized design, the most obvious route to this interplay of public and private spaces is to retrofit a home with the features mentioned above. But this often involves making significant modifications to the home's structural framework, especially ceilings and exterior walls.

If budget limitations, local building codes or other restrictions prevent major structural modifications to the house, similar results can be achieved by altering only the interior layout. Flanking a sofa or seating group with built-in bookcases leaves the wall itself undisturbed but creates a shallow niche, with the bonus of additional storage space.

Even furniture groupings and portable room screens can informally define an enclosure that functions as a subspace in a larger room. As long as you convincingly make the suggestion to the eye, the brain fills in the rest, so extensive or well-defined structural changes aren't always necessary.

For the decorative details, rely on soothing colors, subdued lighting, inviting textures and fabrics and other elements that contribute to the comfort factor. Then the next time you want to retreat to a cozy spot, you won't feel like you're being sent to the corner.

Home-improvement editor Bill LaHay has more than 20 years of experience in residential remodeling. When he's not writing about the subject, he can be found in the shop making furniture or renovating his 1904 Iowa home.

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