Does every home need a great room? Do buyers need, or even want, a dining room? How important is the kitchen, especially in a market like New York? Does it matter whether the ceiling is 9 inches high, or 8 inches high, or 11 inches high? While in our data-hungry age values tend to be calculated on a price per square foot basis, how those square feet are deployed is actually just as important as how many there are. Many properties with huge square footage still provide nowhere to comfortably settle in, while sometimes small homes and apartments can be enormously cozy and inviting. So what makes some layouts work so much better than others? Here are a few ideas.
First, let’s address the question of “wasted space.” During the 1950s and 1960s, no doubt the nadir of American architecture, architects and designers had the notion of efficiency clearly in mind. In those times, this desire for efficiency contributed substantially to the creation of unappealing spaces. Foyers were eliminated. Ceilings were lowered. Tiny walk-through kitchens entered the apartment design vernacular. Somehow the architects of that era contrived to make a two-bedroom unit feel less spacious than a prewar studio. While there is certainly such a thing as wasted space, the architects of that era misunderstood where it lay. Homes without a sense of entry tend not to feel welcoming. Apartments with low 8-inch ceilings create a cramped feeling even if the rooms lay out to a decent size. Many buyers continue to feel drawn to older homes (or new homes in which the architects have learned from older homes) because they so often lend a feeling of spaciousness even in small spaces by offering an entry foyer, or a hallway leading to the bathroom, or an alcove.
Where space often is wasted in the homes of today is in duplicating room functions. If you have a great room off the kitchen, will you ever actually use the living room? If you park in or next to the garage, then walk into the kitchen, will anyone ever enter through the front door? In the vast mansions being built today in Florida, or Aspen, or the Hamptons, the rooms are often so big and poorly laid out that it is inevitable that with time the owners will develop a routine which sees them using the kitchen, the bedroom, and maybe one or two other rooms. No one can effectively occupy 20,000 square feet! People, no matter how fancy they are, like to feel cozy.
What about curb appeal? If the façade of the home offers passers-by a view only of a front door (unused) and a double garage door, it presents a blank frown to the guest approaching from the street. The garage belongs at the back or side of the house, leaving the architecture of the front façade to create an invitation to approach.
Inside, an entry foyer should welcome new arrivals into the home. In the best layouts, rooms radiate off the foyer in a way which provides both reassurance and mystery. One finds oneself drawn in, both engaged by the public rooms which are visible, and simultaneously intrigued by the hallways or doorways leading to rooms which are not. While an enfilade of rooms, one opening into another, can be lovely, a railroad flat in which you see it all the minute you enter, is not.
I have read several articles recently about how separate rooms are making a comeback. People apparently no longer want their living room, dining area, and kitchen all to be combined into one large open space. They want to be able to hide their dirty pots and pans when friends come for dinner. (This of course doesn’t apply so much to most New Yorkers, who all want state-of -the-art kitchens with name brand appliances even though they never cook and use their ovens as sweater storage.) It’s a harbinger of the return of grace to floor plan design.
Finally, what’s up with the enormous bathroom craze? I understand the appeal of two sinks, a stall shower, and a water closet, but does the master bathroom need to be the third biggest room in the house? No one spends that much time in there.
Styles and tastes evolve. What seemed user friendly in 1960 may seem dated or unattractive today. Fundamental principles of good architecture always outlast fads. Smart room proportions, often based on the Golden Mean or 2/3 ratio, have resonated with home dwellers since Roman times. Similarly, a layout which both beckons the visitor in while providing tantalizing glimpses of other, not fully visible spaces, will always possess appeal. Some things don’t change.