What describes a great house? It looks good and makes you feel good when you're inside it. It is energy efficient and comfortable. And it facilitates frequent casual interactions among family members.
This last qualification may seem to be such a statement of the obvious it's not worth making. But as our houses have become bigger with more rooms in the shared public area and more bedrooms and bathrooms in the private area, family life has changed. The daily familial interactions that characterized American family life in a smaller house in which everyone was within talking distance of each other are no longer the rule.
Why does this matter? Frequent interactions are the essence of family life. They make us feel good and help maintain household cohesion. Even more important, through the thousands of interactions that we have with our children from infancy to adulthood, they learn a crucial life skillhow to get along with other people.
When children are young, family members will have plenty of contact with one another, whatever kind of house they live in. Very young children require constant supervision. Somewhat older children can play by themselves, but most still want to hang around their parents or caretakers. As the kids approach adolescence, however, they begin to want more independence and most will fan out into the rest of the house. Once those hormones kick in, they can become famously uncommunicative, often reclusive, and many prefer to stay in their own rooms. You can't force them to talk or to spend more time with you.
Points of contact. But the odds are in your favor if you have built "points of contact" into the design of your house so casual interaction and the occasional longer conversation are embedded in the fabric of your family life. When such interactions are a part of the daily routine, they are more easily carried over into your children's teenaged years when you are eager to stay in their loop and they give every indication of wanting to keep you out of it.
For example, instead of placing the stairs in an entry foyer that no one usesnearly universal in two-story housesmove the stairs to a place where everyone congregates such as the kitchen. Every time your teens pass through you have a chance to catch their ear.
Locating all the bedrooms on the same floor provides another opportunity for casual conversation between parents and teens. The parents, with an eye to their own aging and perhaps a desire for peace and quiet and more privacy, may want their bedroom on the first floor. But if you do this, you may be regarded as an interloper every time you climb the stairs and approach your teenagers' bedroom area. If they spend most of their time there, you will be out of the loop.
The space that connects the bedrooms can also be a point of contact. Instead of a three-foot wide hall that funnels the household in and out of bedrooms, create a larger area onto which all the bedrooms open. When the kids are young, it may become a favorite play area because it's in the middle of everything. When they're older, it can become a spot for endless extended telephone conversations or reading and provide yet another opportunity for a casual encounter between a parent and a teen.
Even the use of a bedroom as a home office will increase familial interactions. If you choose the bedroom closest to the kids' bathroom and leave your door open, you'll have an opportunity to talk every time your teens pass by, as I serendipitously discovered in my own house.
Limiting the number of rooms in the public part of the house increases the likelihood that the family members will congregate in the same spot. If you have only one television and you put it where you want the household to come together, the likelihood of the family actually congregating there increases exponentially.
Some families find the television intrusive and purposely want to keep it out of a family room area. For such households, a separate television room adjacent to the kitchen/family room puts the family in the same part of the house, if not in the same room.
Tension busters. While families need to spend time together, each member also needs to a place for solitude, where he or she can shut the door and tune out the hubbub. The private sanctuary can be an actual room or a designated spot"my corner of the bedroom," "my closet" or even "my space under the bed." The most important aspect is that it be recognized and respected by the other family members.
In the public area where the household congregates, clutter will inevitably accumulate, but it can be kept to a tolerable level if there is adequate storage. For example, some combination of a closet, base cabinets and book cases in the family room can accommodate all the different items your kids will bring in as they pass through various stages from blocks to Barbies to board games, books, CDs and blankets and pillows for watching television in maximum comfort.
Comings and goings. Every house should have a place for the sendoff and the return. If the architect is inspired, this area might be uplifting and energizing for family members as they sally forth for work or school at the beginning of the day, then at the end of the day, change tacks to become a nurturing and embracing space through which everyone passes as they reenter the refuge of home.
But at the very least, the early-bird launching pad that becomes the evening landing pad should have plenty of storage for seasonal outerwear, sports equipment and a place for the incoming mail. More often than not, however, new houses have a sizeable formal front hall that lacks adequate storage and is in the wrong place for daily use. Most families routinely enter from their garage, often passing through a laundry room and kitchen before they finally reach the front hall. In many cases, their path through the house is marked by a trail of coats, backpacks and mail. To help alleviate this situation, when budget and space allow, many architects and home builders have added a second foyer at the garage entry.
A simpler solution would be to merge the two entries into one so that whether you enter through the garage or the front door, you end up in the same spot, which should have sufficient storage to hold all the outerwear, sports equipment and whatever else a family routinely brings into the house and needs to stash in the entry. A bench would be handy and a cleverly concealed recycling bin for the unwanted junk mail would be a big hit. Should visitors see an errant boot or glove or two, it will convey the message that real people live there.