I parked my car near a newly constructed house in a barren development and stepped into a very cold January afternoon. It was a Friday, and I could tell that the builder’s office receptionist was eager to end the week. The months of January and February are traditionally the busy season in the home-building business in North America, since people tend to buy houses for summer occupancy. The number of sales during these months determines the year’s overall activity. So designs are rushed, finalized and made ready for buyers to see and purchase.
From inside the office I could hear one end of a heated telephone conversation. It sounded as if Jack, the builder, was in the midst of an argument with his banker about interest he was being charged on a line of credit. He wasn’t likely to be in a good mood when he saw me.
The call finally ended. Jack stepped out to instruct his secretary, noticed me, and asked me to come in. He was an experienced builder who built primarily for the move-up market—those who had sold their first small house and were buying a bigger one. He referred to his homes as Buicks: large, comfortable, yet not too expensive. This time though, he was about to start a housing development made up of entry-level homes that would appeal to young couples with a modest income. I’d been recognized for my expertise in designing affordable housing, which Jack wanted me to apply to this project.
After a brief greeting, Jack cleared his wide desk as he pointed to my roll of drawings and said, “Let’s see what you have for me today.” I unrolled the plans, and began to describe the layout of the two-story-plus-basement townhouse I’d designed. I animated my description by walking him through the unbuilt home as if he were a visitor. He listened to my explanation, cutting me off at times when he thought I’d taken too long. It felt as if his mind was still in conversation with his banker.
“What’s the unit’s overall area?” he asked. I told him. He pulled out a smartphone from his pocket and punched in some numbers. “Too expensive,” he said. “I’ll have trouble selling such a product in this site.”
That took the wind out of my sails—I’d been hoping to get his approval so that I could prepare the construction documents. Now I might have to begin my design all over again.
“What can we take out to make the home smaller?” he asked.
There was silence. Sitting there, mulling over the plans, we pondered which functions we could do without. “I can shrink the kitchen and the main bathroom a bit,” I proposed.
“You’re kidding. Kitchens and bathrooms are my real-estate agents,” he said.
“I can reduce the parents’ bedroom area,” I offered.
“The parents are paying for this home. Don’t start with them,” Jack responded quickly. “Maybe you can shrink the living room and knock off the dining room,” he suggested after a moment of silence. “In our home,” he continued, “hardly anyone ever sits in the living room, and the dining room is never used.”
“What about holidays and family gatherings?” I asked.
“What’s the point of keeping valuable space for events that take place only once or twice a year?” Jack said, dismissing my argument. He glanced at his watch and suggested that I reconsider my design and we meet the following week.
On the drive back to my office, I reflected on Jack’s comments about the living and dining rooms and his suggestion to do without them. Are these rooms really needed?
New lifestyle trends have shifted traditional family schedules, and for many people today, it’s hard to find time for a formal meal in the dining room on a weeknight. Setting the table, carrying the food there, taking time to discuss the day’s events, cleaning up and moving to the living room for coffee and dessert while listening to music—that all seems like an evening from a long-gone era.
In his book A History of Domestic Space, Peter Ward points out that the living room, which was also called a parlor, salon, sitting room or front room, was once the place where the family met acquaintances and presented itself to the outside world. It was the home’s most public space. This was also the room in which a family would display their material accomplishments and treasured mementos. Paintings, family heirlooms, silverware and photos were hung on walls and put in glass cases. According to Peter Ward, a piano was also common in middle-class homes in Europe and North America: It was a mark of culture and a signal of wealth. Musical and vocal talents were highly valued, and playing for guests was part of formal hospitality. Extended family members or visitors would gather after dinner to chat, play cards and listen to music played on the piano.
The dining room likewise used to serve a formal function. Its seating arrangements signified the family’s hierarchy; the two heads of table had more comfortable chairs than the ones alongside. In the 1960s, family dinners provided an important social function, creating a formal setting for family exchange, reflection on the day’s events and a forum for a get-together. More than just a room to house the table and chairs, the dining room became a bonding place. Families would discuss—or often debate (this being the ’60s)—important matters before Dad handed over the car keys to a teenager of driving age after dessert. At family gatherings, guests would continue to sit long after dinner ended to talk, giggle over photos or simply catch up with the events of each other’s lives.
The mid-1980s saw families and lifestyles transform. Households became smaller and children grew up. It became hard to fill up the empty chairs around the Baby Boomers’ tables, and thus the dining room’s decline began. Its former glory was restored only a few times a year, its charm being revisited on Thanksgiving, Christmas and other special occasions.
The use of space at home has also become gradually more decentralized. Do we really need to retain a separate room for an occasion that may occur only once or twice a year? Shouldn’t the current trends dictate a new priority list in how homes are used? In many homes today, the dining room has taken on new roles: kids use the large table surface to do homework; Mom or Dad sets up a computer in the corner to run a freelance business; receipts and bills litter the table at tax time. With the increase in the number and nature of tasks that a modern family has to perform, the dining room often becomes, at least temporarily, a substitute for a study.
The living room has experienced a similar fate with the rise of informality. A regular weekday or weekend visit by extended family or acquaintances became a rarity. As the price of sound systems and televisions went down, they appeared in several rooms, and no longer did the family need to gather in the living room for entertainment.
The composition of a typical household has also changed. Families made up of stay-at-home mom, working dad and two or three kids no longer dominate the demographic pie chart. The share of what demographers call “non-traditional” families in the population has grown. There are more single-parent families, more same-sex couples with or without children and more singles than there used to be a decade or two ago.
In the future, with expected growth in apartment living and the shrinkage of the average household size in the city, small will dominate. The introduction of micro-units (less than 50 square meters [500 square feet]) in cities like New York, London and Vancouver marked the disappearance of the dining room and the slashing of the living space. In addition, coffeehouses styled to look like a living room with sofas and fireplaces have become the meeting place of choice for younger apartment dwellers.
Yet, living and dining rooms still play an important role in the lives of residents. They are as much social and cultural icons as they are functional spaces. As my conversation with Jack the builder demonstrated, both the social perception of and economic justification for a formal living or dining space is undergoing re-evaluation. But as current lifestyle trends result in greater family seclusion, it’s important to have uniting symbols.
The dining room represents such a space. Whether it’s once a week or several times a year, eating there can put people in a festive mood. Wearing our Sunday best and eating comfort food off the “good” dishes in a formal setting constitutes a ritual we should not abandon. On special occasions and holidays, it’s the room where relatives from near and far congregate. Like the best suits we don for special occasions and jewelry we wear once or twice a year, the dining room is a space to keep. And even when it’s not being used, the formal setting, with the table in the middle and chairs all around, sends a clear message about the institution of family.
The living room should continue to play a similar role. After-dinner conversations in a relaxed setting—such as sitting in an armchair or on a sofa while listening to quiet background music—is a sign of civility we seem to have lost. Both living and dining rooms can be gathering places for families. The spaces could be transformed, perhaps, but their original purpose should remain intact: comfortable rooms that provide a transition between the world outside and within.
Back at the office, I unrolled my drawings again and thought about what Jack had said. I saw his point: too large a home would be too expensive and wouldn’t sell. So I decided to shrink all the space equally but keep, albeit transformed, the living and dining rooms. Luckily, he saw my point.