One of the slickest displays on the floor of the International Builder's Show here recently was Whirlpool Corp.'s Family Studio, a room that conferred a whole new look -- and role -- on the humble laundry room.
Instead of a workaday washer and dryer tucked unobtrusively into a corner of the basement, Whirlpool put a sumptuous but cozy laundry room front and center, with honey-colored maple cabinets hiding expensive convenient appliances grouped around a granite-topped island.
Whirlpool, the nation's largest appliance manufacturer, was pushing its new laundry appliances: a dry-cleaning cabinet, an air-drying closet, a sink that gently agitates hand washables and a built-in ironing station. And as part of the sales pitch for this top-of-the-line equipment, the company was promoting the concept of a laundry room that doubles as a crafts center, a homework station for the children, a room to wrap gifts -- yet another place for the family to hang out in the house.
Other appliance makers at the show also featured high-performance models with sleek designs for the often-overlooked room where we wash our dirty clothes.
There is no question that we spend a lot of time where our washers and dryers are. Thirty-five billion loads of laundry are done each year in the United States, according to research by Procter & Gamble Co. The average American woman spends between seven and nine hours each week doing laundry, the research showed. Each person in the United States generates about a quarter ton of dirty clothes every year.
So it makes sense that we value our laundry rooms highly. In a 2001 survey by the National Association of Home Builders, laundry rooms ranked as the top item consumers desired in their homes out of 92 features.
But do we really want to linger with our dirty clothes?
"People spend a ton of time doing laundry," said Mara Villanueva, brand manager for Whirlpool Corp. "They put laundry in, they go do something else, they come back, they go do something again, they come back again. We thought of a concept where they could do other things in the laundry room while they're doing their laundry. So they're not constantly being pulled away."
Villanueva said Whirlpool research showed that many consumers are unhappy with their laundry rooms: They find them too small, too disorganized and with often no room to air dry clothes, set up an ironing board or even fold laundry.
Kelli and Mark Ball bought the new laundry room idea -- and the Family Studio for their new 15,000-square-foot house in Carmel, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis.
"I love to wrap presents," Kelli Ball said. "It'll double as a wrapping room." The Balls also built a laundry chute from the children's upstairs playroom area, where the clothes are deposited in a basket in a cabinet above the washer in the laundry room.
"When you've got kids, you're always in the laundry room," said Ball, who has 7-year-old twins and does all the family laundry. "I see that as an area where we can all hang out and not be in anybody's way. And even though a lot goes on there, it'll still look nice."
Not all appliance manufacturers are so sure.
"Nobody in our focus groups is telling us they want to spend more time in their laundry rooms," said Kristi Lafrenz, a brand manager at Maytag, another appliance powerhouse. "They want to spend less time there. They're looking for products that cut their time in the laundry room."
Builders tend to agree.
"Our buyers aren't coming in asking for larger laundry rooms," said Cory DeSpain, head of the Maryland and Virginia division of Toll Brothers Inc., a luxury homebuilder. "They want the square footage where it's enjoyable to be. They spend their money on the kitchen, the master bathroom, the family room."
What consumers do want, builders and remodelers say, is a laundry room on the main floor of the house. Few builders put the laundry room in the basement anymore, once the traditional home of dirty laundry. And a trend that started a few years ago to put the laundry room upstairs near the bedrooms has not proved popular with home buyers. (Do you really want to smell detergent when trying to fall asleep?) In most houses being built today, laundry rooms tend to be near the kitchen, or between the garage and the kitchen, sometimes combined with a mudroom.
Sean Degen, director of product development at Pulte Corp., the country's largest home builder, said what home buyers are looking for in their laundry room is plenty of convenient storage space.
"We don't usually see a desire to make it more of a destination room," Degen said. He said the only exception to that were buyers in active-adult communities who purchase a smaller house and often use the laundry room as a hobby room for grandchildren.
So new laundry rooms, no matter how small or where they are located, often offer built-in storage. Even in modest new homes, laundry rooms include cabinets, sinks and shelves. And as the house gets bigger and more expensive, the laundry room gets bigger and better too, with all built-in cabinetry and shelves and utility closets.
But making the laundry room a destination and spending thousands of dollars on new appliances is another matter.
"The average consumer does want a laundry room," said Gopal Ahluwalia, head of research at the National Association of Home Builders. "But will they spend $5,000 furnishing it? I don't think so. It's a matter of price."
Ahluwalia said the up-market buyer of homes priced at a million dollars and above might buy the new appliances, although builders and remodelers doubt it.
"Most people living in a two-million-dollar house don't do their own laundry," said Mark Richardson, president of Case Design/Remodeling Inc., the largest remodeler in the area. "They send it to the cleaners, or the help does it. It's so cheap to get a shirt dry-cleaned."
And for the average consumer, a lot of the new products are out of reach. The dry-cleaning cabinet, for example, which is an appliance that deodorizes clothes but does not clean them, retails for about $1,000.
For those who are remodeling their houses, a laundry room re-do usually comes after all the other projects are done.
"As people go through their to-do list, they get to a point where they say, 'What's left over?' and that's the laundry room," said Richardson. "They're so enthused about renovating and changing their house that they get to the laundry room too. Every inch of the house is designed now."
Rhonda Gaynor just re-did the laundry room in her 25-year-old Colonial in Potomac, combining it with the mudroom leading out to her garage.
"Now we've got shelving behind the washer-dryer, a rod overhead to hang clothes, a broom closet and a coat closet," Gaynor said. "We did it to add storage space and to give us more space to move around in. Not for anything else."
Gaynor said that with two school-age children, though, she does end up spending a lot of time in her laundry room: "Like it or not, it is a destination."