Great Room Expectations

The "great room" seemed a design novelty when it debuted in the late 1980s, with a name that evoked visions of medieval castles and dimensions that often seemed similarly historic. Since then, this combination entertaining and relaxing space has evolved into a home building staple, designed for hospitality as well as the latest electronic toys. Now, builders say, the great room’s growing prominence in a home’s overall plan is spawning new design trends that could, themselves, become tomorrow’s design standards.

When talking about great rooms, one first must be clear on what, exactly, a great room is, because the phrase describes different kinds of space in different economic and geographic markets, architects and designers say.

"In production housing, a great room means something different than it does for us," says Gina Spiller, a designer with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Calvis Wyant Luxury Homes, who notes that production homes in her market include kitchens in the entertaining and dining space — a plan she says is rarely seen in her area’s custom homes.

For Santa Barbara, Calif.-based architect Barry Berkus, AIA, however, great-room planning begins with the kitchen, which can become the design centerpiece of the project.

"Almost every house we do now, there’s a kitchen component," he says. "What’s happened in the last 20 years is that your cabinets have become furniture and the appliances have become commercial. The kitchen is really an exposed piece of architecture."

Is the living room dead?

In some areas of the country, the rise of the great room means other, more formal spaces are getting smaller. For example, the demographic of Spiller’s Arizona buyers is pushing away from formal living rooms.

"There’s a definite buyer profile for a great room," she says. "The majority are empty nesters, and for most of them it’s a second home. Most of the time it’s just the two of them, and there really isn’t a need for a separate living room and family room."

In fact, in some areas, the phrase "living room" is disappearing entirely from the house plan. "What we’re not using anymore is the term ‘living room,’" says Jorge Garcia, AIA, chief executive officer of Stuart, Fla.-based Garcia Stromberg Architecture. "What we’re doing more than living rooms, programmatically, is the parlor."

A Garcia Stromberg parlor is really a transformed foyer, enlarged to include seating for, perhaps, predinner cocktails. In the Midwest, Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Orren Pickell Designers & Builders also is moving away from the concept of a formal living room, combining this space with a library to create what the firm calls a "living library," according to Jason DeBaker, associate principal.

"It carries a formality," DeBaker says. "But it’s still warm enough and soft enough to use every day as your library or home office."

The great room may be replacing the living room in many cases, but not formal eating areas, architects and designers say. Though the design community has long predicted the dining room’s demise, many high-end buyers appreciate the tradition of a formal setting for special-occasion meals.

"The people that still live formally are, many times, more mature," Berkus says. "They’re dragging a lot of furniture with them, and a lot of habit."

However, designers aren’t always sizing these formal spaces for maximum-capacity scenarios — instead, they say, the great room can provide an overflow option for especially large events. Both Orren Pickell and Garcia Stromberg have created floor plans that place the formal dining room either adjacent to, or across a roomy hallway from, the great room. In these cases, homeowners have extended tables across the spaces to meet periodic large-group needs.

Viewing pleasures

One commonality across regions and markets is the importance of windows to a great-room plan. With land prices climbing, home buyers want great vantage points for enjoying what can be multimillion-dollar views.

"In general, the main thing clients are looking for is views," DeBaker says. "So we do a lot of glass. With a 9-ft. ceiling, we’ll give them 7 feet of glass."

To draw the eye out past the windows, DeBaker might incorporate French doors to a formal terrace, with sculpture that can become a visual focal point for guests both inside and out. That terrace’s paving stone might also be incorporated into the great room’s fireplace to provide even greater ties between interior and exterior spaces.

Blending indoors and outdoors is particularly important in Calvis Wyant’s Arizona designs, Spiller says, given the area’s temperate climate and active, outdoor lifestyle. She describes one recent project, in which the firm carried the open-truss system supporting the great room’s ceiling beyond the exterior wall to support the roof overhang that shelters the surrounding patio. Additionally, Spiller says, her firm’s designers will sometimes carry interior stone or tile flooring out to the terrace to create a more seamless blending of space.

Seamlessness is also a design goal within a great room’s interior. However, architects and designers say they also have to work to accommodate the multiple functions this room now performs.

"It has become a combination of living room, rec room, breakfast room and dining room," Garcia says. "One of the biggest challenges we face is how to (design) so it doesn’t look too segmented. It’s almost the same challenge we face when we do a restaurant that can seat 200, but off-season will only seat 50."

Garcia Stromberg uses material, varying floor levels and space configuration to create the sense of individual spaces within a larger whole, Garcia says. Incorporating varied lighting scenarios also can help create a sense of intimacy with small groups in a large, open space, he adds.

Some designers are including offset spaces — Calvis Wyant calls theirs "hearth rooms," while Orren Pickell uses the term "keeping room" — that are connected to, but separate from, the great room. These areas might include a fireplace that shares the great room’s chimney, along with some comfortable seating, for morning coffee or an end-of-evening drink.

Berkus says he likes to incorporate smaller nooks and alcoves within the overall great-room plan, to provide an opportunity for retreat while maintaining a visual connection to the larger area. But he says remembering the room’s function as a gathering place is crucial to designing a space that’s inviting and not overwhelming.

"Overwhelming has to do with scale," he says. "The great room is not about scale; it’s about functions. A lot of people think bigger is better, (but) you’re not making a big box."

An evolving presence

As the great room moves into its 30-something years, electronics are playing a growing role in its plans, experts say. The biggest technology addition recently has been the big-screen plasma television. Many firms are revising typical designs to accommodate this new high-end necessity.

In Calvis Wyant designs, plasma units are often housed in custom cabinetry adjacent to the fireplace, and Spiller says the company has revised cabinet specifications to accommodate the television’s dimensions. In Orren Pickell’s plans, the television often takes a place of honor above the fireplace, where prized artwork might have hung previously, DeBaker says. He says his company has come up with ways to hide the mounting mechanisms in stuccoed or wood-framed niches — the trick in such schemes is to provide enough air circulation to ensure the television doesn’t overheat.

Berkus, too, sees a growing interest in including the latest technology in the great room. But he sees this demand as part of a broader social desire for greater interactivity, rather than as a fad-driven exercise in gadgetry one-upmanship among high-end homeowners. And, he says, it’s this desire for interaction that makes the great room so important in today’s home designs.

"I think the most important thing is encouraging social interaction and being able to entertain people in many ways," Berkus says. "Everybody’s looking at screens all day and not interacting. So that’s what you have to encourage — interaction."