National Edition

How home design can foster family unity

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 13 2014 9:50 a.m. MDT

Zach Olsen plays cards with his dad, Jeff Olsen, while Aiden plays a game on his iPhone and his mother, Tonya Olsen, works in the kitchen. Family life has taken a casual turn. That latest trend in home design is an airy, open floor plan, with the kitchen, dining and living space apt to flow into each other. Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, in Bountiful.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Gina Tentzeras and her husband, Chris, sit beside each other on the couch, facing twin TV sets on the credenza, their young son between them playing a puzzle game on his iPad. They’ve outfitted this family space in their Fort Lauderdale, Florida, home for a togetherness they enjoy passionately: video games.

“It’s very much a bonding thing for us,” she said.

They both have demanding jobs, but for one hour at least three times a week, she describes it as “a high priority.” She already envisions Demetri joining them, describing how their toddler plays the games on his iPad “with a shocking amount of skill and efficiency for a 3-year-old.”

Most of the way across the continent in Bountiful, Utah, Tonya and Jeff Olsen enjoy family time in the 1960 rambler they renovated with such closeness in mind. He’s watching TV while she reads a few feet away. Zach, 15, and Aiden, 13, are there, as well, playing on their phones.

Families are congregating where members can hang out as a group even if they’re not pursuing the same activities. This casual turn in family life is reflected by the latest trend in home design: an airy, open floor plan with the kitchen, dining and living spaces flowing into each other.

While homebuilders and decorators report more families forego a formal dining room, that choice is not coming at the expense of togetherness.

The National Association of Home Builders survey last year found most prospective homebuyers considered table space to eat together in the kitchen “must have” (36 percent) or “desirable” (49 percent), said Stephen Melman, head of the association’s economic and housing policy group. “So 85 percent were saying they do want to eat together in a way.”

Melman believes the open-air designs of today may be even more family-friendly than older designs, creating “a lighter home where everybody is together and not separated off to individual rooms.”

“I think families tend to want to be together, certainly at home after a long day of work or school,” agreed Matthew Mead, nationally recognized home stylist, writer, photographer, lifestyle expert and magazine publisher.

Eating together

Kitchens are becoming by far the most important spaces in her clients’ homes, “the heart of the home where family and friends can gather to relax, work and play,” said Tonya Olsen, owner and interior designer for LIV Showroom in Bountiful.

Research says meals together are an important part of healthy adolescence. Children in families that eat dinner together most nights are significantly less likely to use illegal drugs, smoke or abuse alcohol. And kids who make it to 21 without using those substances probably never will, says research from the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Lori McClory and her husband bought an open concept home when their kids were little. The wide-open kitchen and dining room she once thought too noisy is now one of her favorite features. “We can talk with each other while putting the finishing touches on dinner, set the table and clean up after, not to mention over dinner,” she said.

Her kids are now 19 and 22 and usually away at college, but when they’re home in Grantham, New Hampshire, they try for dinner together at least three times a week, even if it’s “just a quick bite between all of us getting home from work and them leaving to hang with friends.”

Experts note families can mix up which meals they share, as long as there are lots of them, and get the same kind of results. You could eat together on the floor; it's not the "when" or the "where," but the "how." What's important is focused interaction, so turn off the TV.

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