Renovation Solutions: Considering gathering spaces in your home

Published: Saturday, Dec. 28 2013 1:00 p.m. MST

The goal of a great room remodel is to arrange the circulation in such a way that residents and guests pass by the kitchen, rather than through it.

Annie Schwemmer, Renovation Design Group

One of the joys of the holiday season is getting together with family and friends. Determining where to hold the holiday party usually consists of evaluating the potential hosts’ gathering space.

What makes a good gathering space?

Architecturally speaking, the best gathering spaces have flow, order and connectivity. Gathering space is important in any home. It is a central part of everyday life as well as special occasions. Every home should be designed to accommodate the function of gathering.

Flow refers to the way things move into, through and out of a space. In other words, circulation is critical to a good design. This applies to many elements, such as light and sound, as well as the way people travel through a structure. There was a time in home construction when circulation space was deemed wasteful. Bungalows, for instance, are usually laid out so that one must pass through one room to get to another.

Our thought today is that circulation space is essential to a home that functions well, especially in the sense of being a good gathering space. A clear path through the home gives a strong sense of organization. We no longer favor dark and narrow halls as the style for these circulation paths, but the paths need to exist. Circulation can be delineated by columns, half walls, changes in flooring or ceilings, furniture placement — to name a few — but it must be designed into the home and clear to the users. For example, our goal is to arrange the circulation in such a way that residents and guests pass by the kitchen rather than through it.

On the most basic level, order means having a place for all our stuff. Architects go beyond this to use the concept of order to arrange spaces and forms to provide visual experiences dealing with rhythm, alignment and flow. It is the underlying order of a space that allows us to feel safe and comfortable there. People will gather where they feel comfortable, so it is critical to address this principle during design if you want to create a successful gathering space.

Connectivity is fairly obvious: Today’s lifestyle is far removed from the days when the hosts and guests socialized peacefully in the living room while the staff bustled about the kitchen and saw to the last-minute details of the upcoming dinner, which was served in the equally isolated dining room. Many of our homes built in days of yore still have this antiquated layout that makes entertaining challenging. In recognizing how most of us live today, we naturally want to connect the spaces relating to cooking, eating and gathering together as family and friends.

We have all attended gatherings where the owner has seating in the formal, beautifully decorated living room, but as the party evolves, it becomes apparent that no one actually sits in the front room. Everyone ends up standing in the kitchen, munching and talking. The kitchen truly is the life of the home. Its energy and action naturally pull people in with an invisible force as powerful as gravity.

A kitchen equipped with seating within earshot of the cook will not only make a better gathering space but also may save the sanity of the cook!

The great room concept creates an effective gathering space because it is a space designed to recognize and accommodate our natural tendencies to gather near the kitchen. We cannot deny that our noses will follow the smell of food or that our hearts are drawn to the sociality of eating.

While an open-concept design fits well with a less formal, more interactive lifestyle, there are things to consider to make sure that your great room really will be great for the way your family lives. For example, if you have young children, you have toys — which likely don't sit neatly on a shelf most of the time. If you have teenagers, they may not always want to gather with the family.

Even if you have an empty nest, your spouse may want to blend a smoothie while you are trying to talk on the phone. And your kitchen, no matter who you are, is not always immaculate with a vase of fresh flowers sitting on the gleaming granite island.

Good design can provide solutions to these issues. One answer may be to design the great room in such as way that the messiest areas, such as the kitchen sink, are not visible from the entry. Another solution may be to provide on the same floor a smaller, enclosed area — such as an office or study — where a family member can go if he or she needs privacy or just relief from the bustle of the gathering place.

You may also want to consider having a secondary gathering area, such as a family room in the basement, where young children can make a mess or teenagers can hang out with an acceptable level of privacy.

If you're considering a great room to increase your gathering space, begin by analyzing how your family functions, then allocating and arranging the space accordingly. A renovation that enhances and supports your lifestyle will embrace those who live in the home and the family and friends who gather there.

Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the principal architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at renovationdesigngroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com

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