Raymond Sutch remembers the reaction when he and his wife, Carol, first stepped into the two-story family room in what is now their home in Grasonville on Maryland's Eastern Shore: "We loved it. Those tall ceilings and that wide-open space was so impressive. That was what sold us on the house."
Since that initial "wow," though, the couple has learned a few unpleasant truths about such soaring, wide-open rooms. They have learned, for example, that it is awfully difficult to heat a room with an 18-foot ceiling. They have learned, too, that even the quietest TV set will send noise barreling to bedrooms that overlook a wide-open family room. And cleaning such a space? That's another challenge.
"You needed an 18-foot ladder just to clean the windows," Sutch said. "It wasn't practical at all."
Late last year the couple called in a builder to eliminate their house's two-story family room. The process was simple: In two weeks the builder, by adding a floor and some drywall, had drastically lowered the room's ceiling. And the Sutches had a new recreation room complete with pool table and about 350 new square feet of living space.
"We love it," Raymond Sutch said. "It makes such a difference. I use that rec room a lot."
Sutch isn't unique. Builders and real estate agents across the Washington area, and across the nation, say that more homeowners are replacing their two-story family rooms and foyers with extra living space, by lowering the cavernous ceilings and adding home offices, bedrooms, playrooms or rec rooms.
The reasons are the same as those mentioned by Sutch: The drama created by soaring ceilings is impressive, and is often a main reason why people purchase a specific house. But such grand rooms are impractical. That space under the sky-high ceiling is wasted, after all. And heating such rooms can prove both challenging and expensive.
It's no wonder, then, that Tim Champion, owner of Stevensville, Md.-based Champion Improvements Inc., has within the past year been called in by two homeowners to create extra rooms out of two-story family rooms.
In the first job, Champion turned the unused space into a bedroom. The second job was building the Sutch family rec room. Neither job was difficult: Each took about two weeks, and each gave the homeowners an extra 350 to 400 square feet of living space.
"Those high ceilings are a grandiose kind of thing that may help sell a house, but it's like buying a car with a CD player that has a six-CD-changer in the trunk. How often do you use it?" Champion said. "After you spend a little time in the house you realize you can really use the extra space that a new room would give you."
Nationally, Laura O'Neil knows home trends. She is the home design editor with Better Homes and Gardens, and from her magazine's office in Des Moines she commonly uncovers changes that are just starting to take hold.
And the trend of transforming the extra space of two-story foyers, living rooms, family rooms and entryways is one that is growing, O'Neil said.
"People are realizing that bigger and taller are not necessarily better," she said.
Fueling this movement is the increased desire of homeowners to live in cozy, well-defined spaces, O'Neil said. Two-story rooms may look impressive, but they can actually be intimidating and cold, she said.
"People want that warm feeling when they walk into a room," O'Neil said. "I like this change. I like it when architects design more comfortable things, when they create rooms that really fit the way people live."
That last point is key, O'Neil said. Some homeowners are turning away from two-story rooms because of the many everyday problems they pose: They're hard to decorate. They're hard to heat. They're noisy. It's hard to clean those far-off corners. Smaller rooms make more sense because they don't come with these same problems, she said.
Boyce Thompson, editorial director of District-based Builder Magazine, said this move back toward smaller, more manageable rooms and away from soaring spaces started four or five years ago in California, the way so many trends do. It is now working its way across the country. Builders today are being challenged to create drama in more creative ways: Rather than simply building a two-story entranceway or family room, for instance, builders and architects are turning instead to creating flexible living areas, Thompson said.
While builders in recent years almost automatically turned to soaring spaces to create drama, there are other, more practical ways to do the same thing, Thompson said. One way a builder can do this is by giving people a long view through a house out its back windows and onto a porch that looks like an extension of the home, he said.
"Homeowners want surprises when they turn a corner," Thompson said. "People are choosing to bring their living areas down to a more human scale. They are putting in defined sitting rooms where you can pay the bills or play the piano. They are adding second home offices or a conservatory. People are now buying houses that have more defined spaces rather than that totally open floor plan. They want rooms that they can do different things with."
Thompson said he expects more homeowners will turn away from two-story rooms. He has seen this in the Washington region already. Builders here are reacting quickly to clients' shifting needs and are open to creating floor plans that don't include the two-story foyer or family room.
This doesn't mean, though, that soaring ceilings or two-story living rooms will become extinct any time soon. There are cases where such magnificent spaces are called for, Thompson said.
"A beautiful two-story entry foyer can still impress. If you have a home on a magnificent lot and you have an opportunity to put a grandiose two-story family room facing that wooded lot, then that can be very impressive," he said.
Homeowners shouldn't worry that converting a two-story family room into a smaller family room with an office atop it will hurt their profit come resale time. Leslye Edwards, a real estate agent with Prudential Carruthers Real Estate in Hamilton, in western Loudoun County, said the extra living space created by such a change will more than offset the loss of visual drama.
"People are always looking for that extra space," Edwards said. "The more usable square footage, the better. I know buyers who shop specifically to avoid the two-story ceilings."
Count Edwards, in fact, as a fan of smaller, more practical rooms. She has purchased one of the lots in a new community to be built in Round Hill, the Woodlands at Round Hill. Rather than go with the two-story foyer the builder offered, Edwards has elected to use that space instead to create a princess suite -- a bedroom with private bath and dressing room -- for her daughter. "She didn't want to share a bath with her brother," Edwards explained.
Dan Stone, an agent with Re/Max Allegiance in Alexandria, lives in a Fairfax County house with a two-story family room. And while he likes the way the room looks, he admits that it's not very practical. He has the TV problem, for instance: He can't sit in his family room late at night and watch TV without everyone in the house being kept awake by the same program.
Stone said that builders today are getting more creative. Many, for instance, are creating drama more practically by offering higher ceilings throughout a house. Instead of an 18-foot family room, builders will include 10-foot ceilings throughout the entire first floor, Stone said.
Stone agreed with Edwards that eliminating a two-story foyer or living room will have little impact on a home's resale value.
"Really, you have almost a 50-50 camp on this. I have some people who won't even look at a home if it doesn't include a two-story family room. Others won't look at a home if it does have one," he said.
Carter Morrow, a builder based in Round Hill, is a strong advocate for smaller, more practical living spaces. While avoiding two-story rooms, Morrow, owner of Bay Homes, creates drama more subtly: He will vary ceiling heights throughout a level, for instance, offering, say, a nine-foot ceiling in a house's kitchen and an eight-foot one in the breakfast nook right off it. Ceiling heights might stretch to 10 or 11 feet in the master bedroom.
It's a philosophy similar to that espoused by some of the most popular home design books of recent years, architect Sarah Susanka's "The Not So Big House," and its similarly named sequels. Those books maintain that comfort and high-quality design are more important than sheer size.
As the costs of building continue to rise, big empty spaces make less sense than ever, Morrow said. He recommends that home buyers instead spend their money on nicer finishes and details.
"The idea is to get more functionality out of a room and to create a human-scale environment," Morrow said. "It's about creating smaller, cozier areas. Builder models are very impressive when you first see them and their two-story family rooms. But those are not livable rooms. You have to deal with the temperature changes, the amount of light, the noise, the lack of privacy. It's not a human-scale room."
To support his point, and his theories, Morrow said, he observes the way people react as they move through a house. At parties, he said, people will first be wowed by a two-story family room. But after remarking at how impressive the room is, they will most likely congregate in the kitchen or dining room, rooms that are more pleasing because they are built on a smaller scale.
"People gravitate to the areas that feel comfortable," Morrow said. "I always ask people if they really want one of these two-story rooms or if they just think they do because it's what's been in every new home they've seen."
Morrow's message seems to be spreading. Just ask real estate agent Stone what he thinks about his own two-story family room.
"I have to admit, this room is kind of stupid," he said.