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Considering Reappropriation

The term “reappropriation” won’t be found in the dictionary. It is a way to call attention to how living space has considerably changed to meet the needs of the modern American family. I have been involved in the remodeling industry in the upscale northern suburbs of Chicago for the past 35 years. When I first started, handymen could fill most of the remodeling needs when renovations were simple and geared toward maintaining rather than expanding a home. Since I got into the business, needs and desires have evolved dramatically.

Most of the housing stock in the northern Chicago suburbs along lake Michigan was built between 60 and 100 years ago and the basic first-floor plan of a typical 2-story home consisted of a living room, dining room, kitchen and perhaps a den or library. It would not be unusual for the majority of the community space to be used for the living room and dining room. This formula worked for the American family for the past few hundred years. When those homes were built, how one lived and entertained was very different from today.

A real shift took place in our client’s requests in the early 1980s when the building and renovating boom began in earnest. They wanted more living space and more room to house all the new ways we were able to entertain ourselves.

Then and Now

The term “great room” was born and the demand for bigger family rooms, master suites, exercise rooms, media rooms, home offices and kitchens really took off. All the new technological gadgets and devices drove the change and became instant necessities. At the same time, the idea of the home as an investment drove demand for more square footage and fueled my industry’s growth. Now as I look around the north shore, it is rare to find an older home that has not had a room or two added to fill those requirements.

On the emotional level, we began to face a whole other range of issues as life’s pace quickened and required more of our time and energy. Creating balance and order while being bombarded with all the different schedules and accommodations became a growing challenge for every family.

I read Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock, in the early ‘70s about how the acceleration of technological advances were going to have profound effects about how we live and cope. As human beings, we have psychological limits and would be overwhelmed. It is clear this rate of change in our culture and society throughout the past 35 years has had dramatic effects on family life and has redefined the requirements for personal and community space in our home.

When I was a child, there was one TV with four stations for the family to share and I had my AM/FM radio or 45s to spin. Now, practically every room has a TV or computer monitor, there are 400 stations to choose from, the Internet and who doesn’t have an iPod, iPad, Nintendo or Wii? As a result, the traditional American home is going through a metamorphosis. The changes in needs and requirements brought on by the technological advances on the one hand and the increasing stresses of everyday life on the other are forcing us to rethink how we use and value space.

Paradoxically, as all this additional square footage is being added to homes for more entertainment space, I believe people actually are entertaining less. It seems the additional space provides room for family members to disperse and entertain themselves. The modern American family does not spend Sunday morning sharing a newspaper in the living room or a conversation at dinner about their day. If family members are in the same space, they are present physically but each to their own device or interest because we have technologically based options to pursue whatever we want individually.

Wining and Dining

The room where this has had the most impact is the kitchen. It is the room that gets the most use for the family, as well as casual entertainment in a relaxed setting. Twenty-five years ago one could spend $30,000 to redo a kitchen. Now one can spend that much for just the appliances and then not even cook. When I accompany a perspective buyer into a home, the room that often has the most influence on their decision is the kitchen. As it has become the most important room in the home, it has also become the most expensive to redo. It defines who we are; it is a status symbol.

The kitchen holds our collective attention longer than any other room. Meal preparation often is a shared responsibility and a time when family members have an opportunity to talk about their day before everyone goes in their own direction. It is the logistic and communication center for the family, the brain that houses the chalkboard where schedules are shared and shopping lists are kept. It is the place for coffee, TV, reading the paper and opening mail. It is the neutral ground where friends and family can share food and conversation and a place where everyone can truly feel relaxed. That’s why everyone always ends up in the kitchen.

It is the most important room in the home and everyone wants it larger for all the aforementioned reasons. The most transformative element that has helped this change is the kitchen island. It has greatly increased the floor space dedicated to the kitchen and made the space multifunctional with areas designated for cooking, preparation, seating, and other family activities such as hobbies, homework, computer space and TV. Consequently, everyone wants to grow their kitchen space.

One can certainly add an addition; however, we have expanded kitchens by incorporating adjacent space. For example, many homes were built with back stairs that today are not necessary. This is a great way to pick up just enough room to make a big difference. Additional floor space can come from a butler’s pantry or a breakfast room, laundry, a closet and even incorporating the dining room in part or whole. Reappropriating space without adding on is becoming accepted by more and more clients as they reflect on how they really live and value square footage.

Nowadays, the opportunity to prepare a meal and dine at a specific time seldom fits the average family’s schedule and consequently the formal dining room does not get enough use to warrant the square footage it takes up. Even in the most gracious of homes when I ask how often it is used, the answer is “not as often as we would like” or “not as often as we once did.” The trend to incorporate the dining area into a grander living space that gets daily use will continue as walls that once separated rooms come down to create open living spaces that are more casual and relaxed to reflect the changing American lifestyle, as well as to maximize useable and multifunctional space.

Living Space

The living room also is being reassessed in many client’s minds as the American home continues to evolve. In most homes, it has become a room to walk past or through to get to the real living spaces. For the average family, it is a room that is nicely decorated, but seldom used. The other day a client who had just purchased a home overlooking Lake Michigan called and said, “I want to change the living room into a family room so when I come home and relax I can enjoy this room that has a great view.” He wanted a large enough space for his numerous kids and grandchildren who often visit because this grand traditional home did not have a family room.

On some projects we have carved out space from an oversized living room to benefit every day uses: a larger foyer, a gallery, powder room or office. The space once dedicated to the living room might now accommodate a sitting room, library, home office or study.

It is evident that the American home is going through a transformative process as we realign our needs with the realities of modern life. During the great room boom, additions were being added without rethinking the existing spaces. Now, as we shed the notion we grew up with that traditional homes need to have compartmentalized spaces for specific tasks, we will free ourselves to live more comfortable lives in our older homes. The kitchen and all its many functions will lead the way. Dining spaces and living spaces and how they are used will evolve, but slowly, as it is often difficult to accept change to deeply rooted traditional beliefs.

To sum it up, perhaps “reappropriation” may never be accepted into Webster’s, but the ever-changing ways we live, work and play will force us to rethink how we design and remodel our homes.