Architects use one word to describe nearly everything, including houses: design. The term conveys a lot of information, but the average person who tries to understand what is meant when a house is described as “well designed” is in the dark. Is the house considered well designed because it has a great floor plan and traffic flow, judicious window placement, a great and unusual look, or for some other reason?
A more understandable term for judging houses is “livability.” When you study a builder’s furnished model or a resale house in terms of how you would live in the space, you will figure out if it works for you. You’ll also begin to understand what passes muster with an architect, because a house with a high livability quotient is generally well designed.
A “livability test” does not require a detailed examination of every room and closet, but you do need to pay attention to the spaces where you will spend the most time. For most households, this will include the eat-in kitchen/family room, a feature of almost every new house built today and of most built within the past 30 years.
The most common kitchen/family room configuration is a small dining area nestled between larger kitchen and sitting areas at each end of a rectangular room that runs across the back of the house. At first glance, especially if the kitchen is drop-dead gorgeous, you may think you’ve found exactly what you are looking for. But take a longer look, and imagine how family members would interact in the space.
As you place people around the room, you’ll realize that some spaces can be tailored to your needs simply by moving the furniture — but the kitchen counter layout and the food prep/clean up area — where you might be spending several hours every day — are fixed. When you stand at the kitchen sink, are you in a far corner, facing a window that overlooks the back yard? This will be awkward if you are trying to help an older child with homework and impossible if you need to keep an eye on younger ones playing on the floor in the family room. From this position, trying to converse with a spouse stretched out on the sofa in the family room area will be challenging.
In newer houses, you’re more likely to find the food prep/sink area at the side of the kitchen near the family room. In this position, the multitasking family chef will be facing the adjoining spaces, which facilitates supervision of small children and conversations with other family members.
If you conclude that the overall organization of the kitchen/family room in a particular house will work for your household, take a closer look at each functional area. For the kitchen, the most important issue is meal preparation. The sink and food-prep area may be in the perfect spot for conversing with family members in other parts of the room, but the stove and refrigerator are so awkwardly placed you’d be crossing the room 20 times to put a meal together. Another sticking point is often the size of the food-prep area. If it’s too small (less than 30 inches wide), this will be a constant irritation, especially if you often cook with someone else. And then there’s storage. In many newer houses, the kitchen/family room area feels more open because the kitchen has fewer cabinets than usual, so make sure there are enough for your needs.
With the breakfast area, the main issue is the size of the space. Is it big enough to accommodate your table and chairs? You won’t need a large area if you plan to have dinner in a separate dining room every night. But if your style is more informal and this will be your main dining area, make sure it’s big enough to accommodate special occasions for which you bring out the table leaves to host a large gathering. You’ll also need a place to keep table linens.
With the family room, the main issue is furniture arrangement. If there is a fireplace, it might seem the logical focal point. But, aside from your annual family Christmas picture, how often, realistically, will you be gathering around the hearth? You’re much more likely to gather around the television. So, as you imagine your family using this space, find the best spot for your TV and then try to determine if the rest of your furniture will fit. If your kids are young enough that you anticipate spending a lot of time on the floor with them, sit down on the floor and note the sill height of the windows. If they are too high, the space may feel uncomfortably “bottom heavy. ” Another detail to check: Is there a place to keep toys and all the other things your kids will bring in here as they get older?
With many people now working from home full time, a home office will be another place where people will be spending many hours every day. The main issues are the size of the room and its location.
In the mid-1990s, a popular floor plan put the study next to the family room. This location will be too distracting for serious work, but may be a godsend to families that want to segregate their TV from quieter pursuits.
An office on the other side of the house should be far enough away from noisy household routines, but you’ll also have to check the neighborhood as well. More than a few households have belatedly realized they live near a noisy school playground, in a flight path or close to a heavily used rail line.
If the house doesn’t have a designated office, can you use a spare bedroom or close off a formal living room with French doors and use that? As for size, you need enough room for a computer workstation, printer and fax machine, and a bookcase for reference materials.
A capacious master suite with a huge bathroom, sitting area, and a walk-in closet so big you could practice your putting in it can be compelling, but don’t let it be the decisive factor in choosing a home. Although you will be spending many hours there every day, for most of that time, you’ll be asleep.