Trend watch: Great Rooms again

great rooms II.jpg

I am just back from a week of ethnographies in Toronto. Very interesting. Without betraying the interests of the client, I can offer a little more detail on the “Great Room” on which I posted several weeks ago.

The great room is fast becoming the idee fixe of the middle class home. People are opening the kitchen into a kind of family room, sometimes colonizing the dining room and/or the living room in the process.

The actual formality of speech, dress, meal time, and interaction has been going down in Western societies since the Victorian high water mark. To be sure, there have been several rear guard actions, with Martha Stewart and others fighting the good fight. But, in most households, formal living and dining rooms are archeological remainders. (They are actually sometimes roped off and removed from service, as Joan Kron demonstrated.) This means that living and dining rooms have been consumed more space and budget than they deserved. In a sense, the great room was merely an idea who’s time had come. (And for those of us inclined to marvel at how fast and responsive we have become as a dynamic culture, and I am one of these, the lag time here is something to think upon.)

But the great room is also a way of contending with our growing time poverty. Every one in the family is working harder, out of the home and in the home. We had to steal time from somewhere and we took it from the family meal. (Many families regard the Sunday, or Friday, dinner as an event long since passed.) The meant that the family was now spending less time together. Meal time was, after all, the highest quality time spend together. (Most families are not clear whether watching TV together counts.)

The great room is useful here too. It’s a “big box” that allows everyone to pursue disparate activities int the same place at the same time. They may only be in shouting distance of one another, but they are still in some sense together.

The great room is driven both by a need to recapture space for family use, and to create a “commons” for a group of people that is otherwise heterogeneous and potentially dispersive.

Does anybody know anybody who would be prepared to do a “back of the envelope” calculation of how many construction and furnishing dollars this trend has set in train?


McCracken, Grant. 2004. On Great Rooms. Here.

3 thoughts on “Trend watch: Great Rooms again

  1. liz

    I don’t know about “great rooms” — I do however have a clear memory of my dad (who was a small scale subdivision developer in the land of Eichler) squeezing every inch into the “family rooms” of the tract homes they were building in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Hmmn. I haven’t been inside an original Eichler in a long time, but I think they were marked by the open plan –read, great room — as a selling point. (more on Eichlers here

    very popular on the San Francisco peninsula)

    You know what is striking me about teardowns?

    One of the things I wonder about is the trend (again on the SF Peninsula) of squeezing a house onto the maximum square footage of a lot. This seems to be a clear value shift to me from the late 1970s/early 1980s (and earlier) — there IS no side yard or back “yard” — the distance from the house to the back lot line is about 20 feet maximum.

    Why would you buy a single family home if your privacy from the neighbors is so compromised? Why would you buy a single family home if there is no room for the kids to play?

    I can understand why a family would want more square footage of living space, but it seems to make the advantages of suburban living disappear.

    The spacing between houses is on the urban model, without any of the urban conveniences (like convenient shopping, walking distance to other amenities, etc.).

  2. jack Callahan

    In my (limited) experience with great rooms, which have been located in moderate-sized suburban homes, it seems that activities in the such spaces tend to be flawed. That is, the privacy and isolation required for reading, working and studying and the noise and interaction that are generated by conversation, play, television or music tend to collide, reducing the quality of both.

    An attempt to combine dinner for Dad and homework for Offspring while other Offspring watches Donald Trump fire people results in mediocre results for individual activities and no actual group activity.

    The choice between formal living and dining and Great Rooms is a false choice. A selection of casual options can be designed, in which noise-generating activities and private activites each have their place.

    And with regard to your end question, am I too cynical in suggesting that, rather than the trend setting in train construction expeditures, the desire for construction expenditures is a driver of this (and other) design trends?

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