'Big house, better house' is so 2007

It doesn't take a McMansion to have the perfect space for family interaction.

America's housing bust is forcing many families to downsize their living situation. Losing a home or squeezing into a much smaller one is a painful experience, but one silver lining may be that it's pushing us to consider just how much house we really need.

After years of obsessing about improving our house, many of us are now reflecting on what makes a home. Previously, we may have considered space purely in terms of square feet: the more, the better. Now, we're thinking in terms of how space affects relationships: What types of space foster close family ties?

Part of the problem is that recent home design trends have encouraged isolation. The McMansion boom mainstreamed such "special spaces" as a recreation/playroom, a solarium, a master bedroom suite, and big decks and patios. These luxuries became practically de rigueur in an era that promoted homes as showcases of prosperity. Meanwhile, within the home itself, parents installed televisions and computers in bedrooms. Children often have both in their room! Such design, coupled with busy children and even busier parents, has conspired against quality family interaction.

The image of the family gathered around the fireplace in the parlor or living room after the evening meal for conversation and games is perhaps a comforting image associated with old movies and television shows such as "The Waltons." In other words, an era that most of us did not witness personally.

Do families gather in the home anymore? If so, where? A few years ago, a graduate student named Allison Miller and I (a professor of design and environmental analysis) developed a study to answer that question. What we learned is that family togetherness is more a function of what's going on in a room than the room itself. And we learned that even quite modest homes were sufficient to promote quality family time.

In our study, we examined low-middle to middle class families living in a small urban community in upstate New York. We asked families to keep a diary for a month, and note where family members gathered and what activity they were engaged in.

These notes revealed that the primary spaces for parent-child and child-child interactions took place in the kitchen and eating areas, followed by combination spaces such as a living room/dining room/kitchen area. The activities in these spaces included sharing a meal, talking, doing homework, and doing household tasks such as laundry, preparing a meal, and cleaning up after a meal. Often one or both parents were involved in household tasks while also having a conversation with a child or helping with homework.

And yet, when we shared with families our analysis of their own diaries, some were surprised that most of their interaction took place in the kitchen and eating areas. Indeed, most identified a family room as an ideal space for interaction. Perhaps the family room, as distinct from the living room, which has come to be a more formal space in many single-family homes, is a romanticized space where we envision gathering around a fireplace even though the reality might be very different.

If this limited study is any indication, then it suggests that homes with many specialized spaces will not necessarily increase family interaction. To be sure, family members need privacy and time (and a place) away from one another, so having sufficient space is important. But it doesn't take a McMansion to do this.

What seems to be essential is dedicating a space for families to share a meal, which we found to be perhaps the single most important thing that families do together. Designing and dedicating a welcoming place to prepare and share a meal is essential. Meal time is when important conversations take place and children and parents share their lives with one another.

This recession is compelling parents to consider what is most critical for family well-being. If parents have to work longer hours just to afford a bigger house – or a new entertainment room – how much time will they spend in the home? What will this mean for the quality of family life? Are we working harder to create spaces that actually isolate our loved ones?

The families we interviewed wanted combination spaces (kitchen/dining/living areas) that were flexible enough to allow families to be together doing a variety of activities and to be able to hide, when necessary, some of the clutter of meal preparation and cleanup.

The concept of the family hearth is really not that old-fashioned after all. Families need to eat together and talk and help with homework and just enjoy one another. The design of the single-family home does not need to be elaborate to provide this type of space.

Lorraine E. Maxwell is a professor in the department of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University.

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