The House Transformed

The Wall Street Journal's
Own Magazine
June 2010

Forget the preconceived plans. Combining rooms, eschewing unnecessary amenities and making space for holiday sleepovers -- today’s designers are building and renovating homes based on the lives of the people who inhabit them.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

Fat was once a sign of prosperity, butterfat being entirely too rich for the poor.  And then the Duchess of Windsor proclaimed that we could never be too rich or too thin.

Being pale was also most fashionable, and then Coco Chanel flashed a body bronzed on the Cote d’Azur and...well, we should all have bought stock in Coppertone. 

Just such a revolution is beginning to happen with home design, spurred by a wobbly economy but goosed by factors as diverse as the aging of the baby boomers, environmental sensitivities and the blossoming of the digital age.

As our lives are changing, so are the ways we use our homes.

New Think on Traditional Spaces
"When you consider new ways to use traditional spaces you have to shake off the past a little bit," says celebrated interior designer Skip Sroka, who recently combined a dining room with a family room for a brood of six.  "We took this big old dining room and deformalized it, putting in a rusticated table. Let the kids scratch it! It will look even better."

"Combining rooms is uptrending,” he says. "People are more real about how they use space."

"With today’s energy and construction costs, families can no longer afford the luxury of maintaining an unused room, says Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB). Although it’s worth noting that rooms do go in and out of style. 

"The living room was once a vanishing breed," he says. "People would give up the living room for other space in the house. Now we find the dining room is the quasi-formal space."

While many realtors and builders say that home buyers recoil at the notion of a home without a formal dining room, particularly at the upper end of the price spectrum, others consider it a rarely used relic that's only considered essential for holidays, celebrations, and the odd family dinner.  

Can you have it both ways?

Sroka recently combined a library with the dining room for a couple "and it made perfect sense. They wanted a library and knew they wouldn't get much use from a dining room so now they have a nice joint room."

The library does naturally lend itself to combining with music and dining, quiet chat and contemplation. But with the Kindle the iPad and the computer, do you even need it?

"My partner and I always use the library for planning and for serious conversations, says Sroka. And guests gravitate to it because it's so cozy.  “I've got to tell you, the library is one of the most used rooms in the house." 

It's also multi-purpose. The walls of Sroka's library are alder wood, inset with framed and studded leather panels. Two of the panels are engineered to pop open and reveal a pair of desks. The panels just as neatly pop shut, creating secret offices for himself and his partner.

Some multi-tasking rooms defy tradition, creating customized spaces that ignore labels and embrace the owner's individuality. 

A fortuitous leak inspired architect and design columnist Judith Capen to combine a kitchen with an art studio in a Capitol Hill townhouse. This early retiree discovered a love of sculpture and had taken to working in the kitchen where there's water and excellent light. With little space for expansion, typical of the Hill's older homes, combining the two rooms was a clever solution.

For another client, a talented painter (but uninspired cook) who likes to chat with guests or watch TV while she works, Capen suggested "she stop kidding herself that she'd use the dining room and turn it into a big studio."

Combining rooms does not mean you lack space. Interior Designer Anthony Browne's splendid residence in northwest, newly listed with Tutt, Taylor  Rankin, Sotheby's International Realty borders on the palatial. Built in 1892 as the carriage house for the historic Fraser mansion, the property includes a living room that spans the entire width of the property, a paneled library, four bedrooms, a roof garden, a koi pond, and a 1,300 bottle wine cellar.  It also happens to feature a mirrored English conservatory that does double duty as a particularly glamorous dining room. 
Perhaps the ultimate blended space is another property on offer by Sotheby's. Absolutely avant garde -- that ultra rarity for Washington the living room, dining room and kitchen of this ultra-hip Penn Quarter home appear to seamlessly flow and float to the upper level bedrooms via a cantilevered wire-railed staircase that climbs to a sky lit sky box offering gorgeous city views.  

The Home/Office Convergence
Perhaps, more than anything else, the computer is influencing radical changes in the way we live. "Someone could move to Montana and be doing what they were doing in Seattle," remarks NAHB’s Melman. “Today, if you're not entirely telecommuting, it's likely that at least part of your work time is home-based.”

For some, the sofa has become the home office. "So many people have laptops that an office has become anywhere you can sit or loll," says Capen. "Most people, especially the under-forty crowd, prefer the sofa for lap-topping."

Holding a computer in your lap is, Capen says, "a move away from traditional uses of space. If pretty much everything is stored on your laptop, you don't need so much of an office."

You don't even need a sofa if you can pack up the laptop and head to the coffee shop for some parallel play with fellow scribes and home-based workers.

"A hundred years ago, Mark Twain did all his writing in the gazebo out back," says Mehlman. "If he were around today where would he be doing this? Why pay a fortune for a room when you do all the work at the kitchen table?"

Baby boomers remain traditionalists when it comes to home offices, at least those who have joined the ranks of the "ambiguously retired that continue to consult or freelance," says Capen.

For them, a home like one recently listed with Sotheby's would do beautifully with a first floor master suite with an adjacent office that multi-tasks as an intimate sitting room. Built by award winning design-build firm, Morris Day, the stone and stucco and shake home is wired for work as well as play; in addition to high-speed internet, every room is wired into a state-of-the-art sound system controlled from your laptop or iPhone.
Others, who are retiring or in a ”job transition” are discovering or reigniting their passions for painting, photography, quilting and music. They're frequently looking for dedicated spaces where they can nurture their creativity.

"In the higher end of the market place, people are willing to give up the dining room and living room -- but then they want a room for this and a room for that. The result being that houses seem to be getting bigger," says Montana-based architect Andrew Korth, who serves on the American Institute of Architects Residential Advisory Group.

"All that stuff that happened in the garage and basement?" he notes, "Those spaces aren't good enough anymore for those who have reached a certain station in life."

While couples might be willing to share some parts of the house, they each want their own offices -- and if one has a room of their own for some special interest, the other feels entitled to equal square footage.

For example, Korth has one client that wants a laptop in a kitchen island, but also "wants a home office adjacent to the master bedroom, a fly-tying room, and a music room for his collection of guitars and mandolins." His wife, meanwhile, wants her own room that serves as an office but is also used for gift wrapping.

Empty Nesters and the Full House

Not every one is looking for more rooms. Turnberry Tower in Arlington, Va., has particular appeal for empty nesters who are happy to give up home maintenance and hour-long commutes, but do not want to sacrifice space, closets, security and , most of all, privacy. 

The residences, sleek and contemporary in style, range in size from 1,300 to over 5,000 square feet and feature direct elevator access to most units, "It's like walking from the garage into your house," says vice president and sales manager Dan Riordan. "It's as private as you can get."

The 247 spacious residence enjoy panoramic views and an array of amenities that includes an indoor swimming pool with hot tub, a fitness center, a social room, a theater/screening room, a business center, concierge service and 24-hour valet. 

Whether condo or Colonial, there us a home to suit at any age and stage, While many homes downscaled from the height of the building boom, "there will alwaysbe a place for people who want large houses," says Sroka.

While rooms are being combined and many homes downscaled from the height of the building boom, "there will always be a place for people who want large houses," says Sroka. 

Grandparents are building the biggest homes," he says. "They want the whole family together. 

Andrew Porth agrees: "An empty nester couple might not need the four or five bedrooms – but I see them building for all the kids and grandkids that all visit once a year." 

"I see a lot more planning for grandkids, with or without their parents," says Capen. "Grandkids coming to visit for a week or two on their own, or the whole family visiting at Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays."

Those visits, she says "mean having enough bathrooms and 'sleeping opportunities,' places you can sleep even if it's not a proper guest room." 

A four bedroom home on Dulaney Drive in McLain that is now offered by Sotheby's was built to accommodate that extended family visit, with plenty of formal and informal space to suit the quiet -- or the rambunctious. There are four bedrooms for the kids and their kids and a luxurious second floor master retreat for the parents, with his and hers baths and a large studio for practicing arias or the tango in private.

Vanessa Massaro, director of sales for Creighton Farms, the splendidly upscale community in the heart of northern Virginia’s horse and wine country, sees another trend. "Right-sizers," is what she calls empty nesters that are among those building homes in the luxury gated club community. "They're coming from a 40 or 50-acre estate home and want to stay close to family, children and grandchildren – and don't want five or six bedrooms, three is sufficient. As long as there is a home office."

They want modern kitchens as well, having typically left a dated one behind. And it has to be open to the family room, she says: "everybody by now has learned that everyone hangs out in the kitchen. It has become the entertainment space."

The Uncluttered Kitchen
Kitchens are as fabulous as ever, but sometimes they’re more like fabulously designed and equipped vestigial organs: wondrous to look at, but little used – at least for their intended purpose.

At Creighton Farms, the actual use of the custom-built kitchens is "all over the place," says Massaro.  "Some people invest a lot and admit they never cook, others are gourmet chefs. But regardless, they want eye candy in the kitchen. It's the signature look of a custom home; you've never seen this anywhere else before. It's conversational, it's interesting and it's beautiful."

Kitchens in Creighton Farms’ are as individual as the owners, reflecting the range of architectural home designs that include everything from English Manor to French Provincial styles. The 38 one-acre and 146 three- to seven-acre home sites offer dramatic views of woods, meadows, mountain ranges or the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course – an awfully pleasant vision to ponder when sipping that morning cup.

"The kitchen is my clients’ favorite room," says Korth. “The big kitchen with the deluxe appliances is "de rigueur," he says. "I haven't had anyone come to me and say, ‘I don't need much of a kitchen.’ "

Whether or not they need the kitchen, they do need a vast quantity of storage. "People tend to have a lot of stuff — accumulated over 20 years or more – to put in a kitchen: multiple sets of dishes, the duck press, the pasta maker, and weird small appliances. Unlike in a commercial kitchen, where it all gets left out, residential customers want things hidden."

A Look at the Nook

Korth is also seeing "lots of little kitchenettes popping up in my projects – in many cases they have supplanted the wet bar. People are putting them in guest rooms, master suites, rec rooms, and living areas. In many cases, this is where the coffee maker lives – freeing kitchen counter space from the related clutter."

"Nooks," mini-offices, are also gaining in popularity,  Sroka points out.
These are "very different from a home office, an entire space. This is more, ‘I want to keep an eye on the kids while they're on the Internet,’ or a place to check my schedule as I'm leaving the house," he says. 

And they're absolutely not in the kitchens. "People don't like the mess of the computer in the kitchen." Sroka's clients are "opting for a space that has a little bit of privacy, a lot of times around the corner from the kitchen – a private space not open to friends stopping over."

TV and video watching has likewise migrated from the home theater.  With flat screen TVs and sophisticated speakers and electronics, the movies have moved to wherever you happen to be.    
Sroka conceals client TVs behind folding panels and hinged artwork. "I love that they're putting them in living rooms, but I insist that they're hidden. TV stops person-to-person conversation."

His own living room television lurks behind "a beautiful old Georgian mirror, and in my bath I have a hinged painting so when you're in the tub you can open it and watch a show."

Getting a Grip in the Bath
Speaking of tubs, where have those splendidly sybaritic bath tubs gone? You remember...the family-sized sarcophagi with the jets for every joint, that you had to climb a flight of marble steps to reach ?

"The gigantic tub is gone. Over." says Vanessa Massaro. "If you've every owned one, it takes half an hour to fill. And to clean it?" her voice shudders in amused horror.

"People are transitioning to more elaborate showers, with waterfalls and Jacuzzi spray features, like a steam shower," she says. "Bath tubs are still important and there has to be one in the house for the kids, or for an owner that likes one, but more money is being spent on showers." 

Sroka, a co-chair of Washington's first sustainable design show house, is particularly concerned with water usage, "our most precious resource," he says. "Dual flush toilets are great, if everybody used one we'd save an unbelievable amount of water.”  

He urges a little less extravagance in the shower as well. "There was this craze for six body sprays and three shower heads? You needed to have shower drains twice the normal size and couldn't do them at all in apartments."

Beyond the difficulty of retrofitting for such fixtures, Sroka says:  "People wanted them but then didn't use them after the first month. "We discourage them, and encourage people to think of just two showerheads."

The Next Big Thing
Today’s newest trend? Skip Sroka says it’s the screened porch.

For many of a given generation, the space may be redolent with images of poufy blue hydrangeas and squeaky metal gliders with sticky vinyl seat cushions. Nonetheless, they have become the rage – although like many revived spaces, with a slightly more modern twist.

Sroka mentions gracious French doors opening from the kitchen; so theoretically, at least, a host can flow right out, cheese platter in hand.  "I find more and more people are doing them along with decks and terraces; that connection to the outside is so important."

"Everyone who lives in the tiger mosquito zone wants one," adds Capen. "It's another living/dining room off the kitchen or very close."

"Sometimes," she adds, "It's part of a fantasy about hot summer nights on the screened porch listening to baseball games. In reality, you're inside with the A/C watching sports on the big screen TV."

Stephanie Cavanaugh has written for the Washington Post, Washington, Maryland & Virginia Home & Design, Waterfront Home & Design, Washingtonian, and Smithsonian

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! Want a lot more! FAbulous writer!