Years ago, while writing All the Money in the World,* I got a chance to interview architect Sarah Susanka. She’s best-known for the “not-so-big house” series of books.
Her main message is that instead of going for a huge house, people might be happier in a well-designed, slightly smaller one, with the extra money going into details that delight. She lamented how much money gets wasted on rarely used formal dining rooms, exercise rooms, formal living rooms, guest bedrooms and other square footage inflators. I noted that this might be true, but that presumably many of the folks hiring a star architect penning best-selling books didn’t have to worry about such things. Susanka agreed, but said that even her clients with unlimited budgets “like their houses better when there is an everyday use for every space.” Indeed, the goal is to “use every square foot every day.”
These words were ringing in my ears as my husband and I then proceeded to purchase our house. Moving from a city apartment to the suburbs, we had no idea how much space was right, and our new house did have some of those rooms that Susanka mentioned as problematic. We did some renovations at the time, and over the last nine years have done some bigger projects. We were expecting our third baby at the time; we’ve gone on to have two more. With the most recent one’s arrival, I’ve been thinking about our house and our use of space as we’ve pondered whether we can stay in this home or need to move or renovate or what. I’ve realized that with our family of seven, and with our lives, we have pretty much hit Susanka’s ideal. We use (almost!) every room every day.
That usual unused space — the home office — gets used 40 hours a week in my case. We put built-in bookcases into what would be the formal living room, and it has become the library. This is where people go to read while others are watching TV in the family room. The piano is there, so it gets used for daily music practice. We have extended family gatherings over meals in the dining room, but in between those times it has become the official homework table (the kids don’t have desks in their rooms), as well as the game and puzzle room. Some kid may also retreat in there with a device while others are in the family room. With five kids, the need for space to retreat — while still being near everyone else — comes up a lot!
The guest bedroom is my husband’s office. My husband and I have also realized that, deeply as we love each other, we don’t always sleep well in the same bed, and so it winds up as sleeping space too with reasonable frequency. The basement is in daily use as a playroom. It also has both a treadmill (which we use) and a gaming computer plus X-Box and whoa…do those ever get used! (Not always just by the children).
This leaves one small side room in the basement that does not get used. Theoretically with a lot of work it could be a bedroom but…not really. At the moment it’s storage.
Anyway, as I’ve been looking at house listings I’ve realized that ours does work pretty well for us. If we stay here the kids will be sharing bedrooms, but I could probably figure out some bedroom designs that will allow for privacy while maximizing shared space. That, at least, would be a lot cheaper than moving or renovating…
Do you use every room, every day? Are there spaces that you have converted to be more useful? I realize this is definitely a suburban issue. When we lived in a NYC apartment we most definitely used every inch every day. Indeed, many of us using the exact same inches is one of the reasons we wound up moving….
*Also known as the book of mine you are least likely to have read….
24 thoughts on “Every room, every day”
One thing I haven’t seen you write about with the housing thing that is a clear effect of the spread of your kids is the impact of the older ones moving out. You have a 12 year-old so presumably he is going to college in about 6 years. You will only have 5 kids at home for a limited amount of time which probably makes a new house/move/etc. less worth it. I’m the oldest of 6 who went off to college when the youngest was four. My younger sister was moving into my room as I was packing up to leave. (Astonishingly, my mom still lives in the same house where we all grew up by herself now.)
One thing my parents did on a temporary basis was put a wall in the large basement room creating a 5th bedroom that my brother used for several years. The light switch was still on outside of his “bedroom” but otherwise it worked.
@Dominique – that’s funny about the light switch being outside the bedroom! I guess in a pinch it can work!
We have 4 children age 12, 9, 6 and 4. We live just outside NYC in a very high cost area. We have made a conscious decision to have less house, but also less commute. We have less space, but we get to enjoy it (and our kids) more. This does mean we use every space. We have a basement playroom/family room. Our sunroom has a small TV and the piano in it and thus doubles as den and conservatory (my kids do practice their instruments daily). Our formal dining room is also our kitchen table and homework space. Our formal living room is a place to read and one corner has (tastefully stored) blocks and magnatiles that get daily use. We do double up on bedrooms. We have 4 bedrooms and 7 people (our family of 6 and an au pair). My daughter and the au pair have their own rooms but those rooms are quite small. One of the larger rooms is shared by all 3 of my sons. We use a do-not-disturb sign to allow my almost teenager to find some quiet time away from siblings in the afternoons. We also really don’t keep toys in bedrooms, just books and beds. Could we use a few more square feet? Maybe, but we don’t need it.
@Gillian – in the grand scheme of things, I think the “less house, less commute” idea is a good one. I keep thinking about a statistic from a time study of Los Angeles families about how few minutes the adults spent in their yards. It was something like 15 minutes a week. And this was in LA where it’s not snowing and cold! The kids only spent about 40. How many parents bought themselves daily 40-plus minute commutes in order to have a yard…that doesn’t get used?
You seem really happy with schools and the community and really busy with 5 great kids. Moving doesn’t seem worth it. Didn’t you hire a professional organizer when you lived in NY with 2 children? The idea of hiring professional help to maximize your current home is a good one.
It wont be long until your children head off to college. Even before then, older high schoolers spend more & more time away from home.
Believe your at the maximum occupancy window for the next 3 years or so. You’ve made it this far and seem darn happy and successful.
Good luck to you, whatever you decide.
@Ann – I do think I will hire a designer who specializes in kid bedrooms to really do those shared spaces up well. Whatever we spend on design/furniture/paint/etc. is going to be less than moving or renovating. And I do think a pro could figure out a way to maximize the space.
We were in a 2-bedroom house until 4 years ago. Originally that meant three kids (two boys then a girl) in the same room but then we added an egress window so the boys could move to the basement. Our new house has the same number of square feet, but it is put to better use. We now have three bedrooms all upstairs, a living room, a nice kitchen and dining room, and a family room. The two boys share a room. We also homeschool. But during the day or evenings everyone seems to find space if they want to get away – bedrooms, living room, family room, etc. All of our space gets used every day and I like it that way. My parents have a formal dining room, but they entertain more than once a week so it gets used. They also have guest bedrooms, but again, they love hosting family and friends who travel through their area so it is worth it to them. I look at people with larger houses than ours and just think of all the extra cleaning such a house would require! I agree with others – this max capacity will only be for a handful of years and then your kids will begin to leave the nest, especially if you love your schools and other activities.
@Tana – we do like our area and our schools, so I’d only be looking in this district (and in fact, in our elementary school’s zone) anyway. But yes, the more home, the more space to maintain. Not just cleaning – more bathrooms means more potential plumbing disasters…
Eh don’t move. Your oldest will be out of the house in 6 years and then your baby will be 6. In 8 years nobody will need to be sharing a room since the oldest two will be gone. It sounds like there are rooms that get lighter use, or aren’t “necessary” strictly speaking, but you like them so, eh. For instance, why can’t the kids read in their bedrooms if it’s loud? Aside from the piano, that’s the only use for the library. Or you or your husband could give up an office and use a neighborhood coworking space or the basement. I recently felt quite effete when looking for a house in Ann Arbor. I said we “needed” four bedrooms because my husband needs an “office” (which he sleeps in as well) and of course we have an au pair who has to have her own room. I’d love to be able to share a room with my husband, but he farts and snores and gets up at 4am. So, no.
@Omdg- yes, some people are not great bedmates! It is true that the kids will start moving out in time, so the room sharing won’t last forever. Hopefully my eldest doesn’t feel too screwed over by that.
We have 5 kids, ages 12 to 20 months and another on the way. Right now each kid has their own room, and with the arrival of #5 we even converted the laundry room (with windows) to a bedroom to keep this in place. Good sleep beats almost anything. Alas, we have used almost all our reasonable space as bedrooms, so the plan is for the 8 year old and 20 month old to share, with the knowledge that in 5 years our eldest will be in college. We have our 1 TV in the living room, and eat a family breakfast and dinner in the dining room everyday. Our “extra” spaces are a gym/guest room (used daily for workouts by 1-4 of us), my husband’s office (used daily), and a basement playroom (also daily use and where we keep the big toys, pool table, trains, etc). More so than the space, I’d say the most important parts that make our life work are having 2 dishwashers, 2 washers and dryers, clear expectations and chores for kids, and plenty of paid help!
We’re in the midst of planning a big move and it’s amazing to see how many houses will have weird wasted space. We’re looking to go from a very packed 2,000 sq feet to somewhere in the 4s and many of the houses we’ve looked at wouldn’t really give us that much more daily space. I suspect our future Dining room will become a music room and formal living to be a second office or library. But there is certainly a case for more space! I’ve been an “under buyer” for too long and we’re looking forward to a game room!
We do use all of our space, with the exception of our guest room, every day. I already know our house will be larger than we need once the kids are grown – but I can’t even think about that at this point in the midst of all of the crazy!
And I’ve read All the Money in the World!
I like this theory especially applicable for bigger fams. Our formal “living room” is actually a playroom with Lots of toys. But that allows for the family/TV room to not house toys. You bring one in, you bring it back out. Works decently well. Upstairs bonus room is for legos and blocks.
It does make the mortgage feel worth it when you get to use most of the square feet! Better value ROI!
We made 3 bedrooms in our basement when our sons wanted their own space. We are reworking some of the basement now to add a 3/4 bath and beverage center. One boy has moved out, and his room is now a more comfortable office for me. However, I expect him to boomerang home a few times in early adult years as apartments are so expensive. Finished basement rooms add value to your home because some day someone has to sell the house. You can live in your house while work is being done in the basement.
I love Susanka’s work, and the idea of using every room every day. My family is at the other end of the timeline that yours is in. Our son has moved out, and we still have our 4-bedroom home, but we use almost all the rooms almost every day. One bedroom is my office, and I work at home as a freelancer, one bedroom is a guest room/exercise room that is used frequently, if not every day. We host all family holidays, and use our formal dining room for that purpose (and it’s where I do jigsaw puzzles). We do have a couple of rooms that don’t get used, our son’s bedroom and bathroom, but we also have three aging parents between us and the possibility of having to take one of them in. We’re debating the merits of selling our large house with its higher taxes and homeowners association fees and downsizing, or keeping the house with the idea that we will take in one of those parents. There are also many things we love about the house and neighborhood that it’s a hard decision with no obvious clear choice.
We have a 4000 sq foot house that we built, but I wish we had put in a guest bedroom. We tend to have house guests frequently and then I have to put them in a kid room and put two kids together. We have 3 kids and 4 bedrooms. We have a huge basement playroom that the kids love and I kind of hate because of the mess. I wish we had just built the main living room/kitchen bigger but that wasn’t possible.
I really am just looking forward to when the kids move out and we can move to a nice condo instead. Mine are 14, 12, and 6 now. Thinking of downsizing when the two oldest move out.
Just chiming in to say that I read that book upon its release and just checked it out again from the library this week! I think it is my favorite of yours.
@Chloe – aw, thanks! Please tell people about it!
Laura, long time reader! I’m looking for a replacement kitchen table that can also double as a homework center. I love the rustic/farm look but many of those are rough surfaced, which doesn’t work well for homework. Did you buy yours online? Might you have a link or manufacturer/name you could pass along?
We custom-ordered a glass top for our table. My husband was skeptical, but it has worked out great.
@Kate – I did buy it online – it’s the Coaster Coleman table and chairs. Humorously, it is sold at wildly different price points, so I’m glad I figured that out! I haven’t assembled the table yet, just the chairs. The table will have some small divots which might not work for homework, but that’s what our dining room table or kitchen counter are for…
Interesting! I’m in a different life stage than many here – single-ish, no kids, in the city. I have what feels like a lot of space – living room, dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms. I obviously use the living room and bedroom 1, and I typically eat in the (casual) dining room, even if it’s just me.
My guest room isn’t used much – it has a futon and desk, so it gets used for guests every so often and 2-4 days per month when I work from home. When I bought the condo, I thought it would be a stretching/yoga room as well, but as it turned out I prefer to do that in the living room.
But even though I don’t use it every day, I CHERISH that extra space – being able to host guests from afar means so much to me that it really doesn’t bother me that it’s often just sitting empty for days on end.
We’re in Switzerland, where space is at a premium. It always amazes me how many people on International House Hunters want the extra bedroom for a guest room. Our solution is sofa beds. We’ve got four — lounge, play room and each of our two kid’s bedrooms. One used to be in my husband’s home office until they swapped rooms (and nobody wants to move really heavy furniture). Overall I think our use of space is good, and now I’m again (after reading this) starting to think of further optimization potential, e.g. the play room is a bit in a transitional phase (kids are 11 and 13), the husband’s office gets heavy use but not necessarily a lot (one day a week plus one-off admin sessions) and I work from the kitchen table one day a week.