The big move-up house – giant spaces between us?

BY KAY SEVERINSEN

A growing family needs room. That’s the thinking behind the move-up house. At first we buy what we can barely afford, then the family grows. Equity builds. OK, used to build.

But still we need more space. The eat-in kitchen has no counter space. We need a fourth bedroom, a home office, a third garage space. We think we need these things and we go looking at the big move-up homes.

If we can make the dollars work, we find one or build one, and we make the move. But bigger is not always the answer to our space needs. And sometimes I wonder what all that space does to family dynamics. Perhaps someday, sociologists will study this and tell us what we already instinctively know – humongous houses can make families remote and disconnected from each other.

When our family of five lived in a 1,200-square-foot split level, I always knew what the kids were doing. If they weren’t right underfoot, I could hear them, and with a little dancing around, I could usually see them, too. But the kitchen was impossible and the neighbors were troublesome, so off we went to a bigger house with a nice, big remodeled kitchen.

And in the new house, which was actually a rather ordinary 2,200 square feet, I seldom saw the kids. Teenagers now, they could burrow in their rooms up on the second floor, while cooking and other chores kept me downstairs. More than once, I called them to dinner on their cell phones. Oh, yes, you’ve done it, too.

And more than once, I have emailed my husband in his upstairs office – from the family room. Oh, what have we done!?

Gale C. Steves, author of a new book, “Right-Sizing Your Home: How to Make Your House Fit Your Lifestyle,” might say we could do with a little less space between us. We just need to make better use of the space we already have.

“I have been looking at this for a long time, even in the mid-eighties, when people started building ego homes,” she explained when she was in town for the Kitchen and Bath Show. “More space doesn’t mean you live better. You need to have rooms that function.”

With the economic downturn, many people are finding they just can’t finance a larger home, and have to make do with what they already have. Instead of complaining about your home, Steves suggests a carefully laid plan, each step illustrated with color photos.

Among her ideas:

* Do a space audit by measuring your rooms. Then think about what the rooms are used for, and what they could be used for. Instead of calling a room by its traditional name, (i.e. living room) call it what you actually use it for, or could use it for. (i.e. actual use: furniture museum; possible use: music room.)

* What kinds of space do you actually need? Could the seldom-used dining room double as a home office with different lighting and furniture? Could a wide hallway double as a study hall if it had a desk and a kid’s computer? If your kitchen had more usable cupboards could you get by with less square footage? Steves recommends getting a good friend to help you sort out what you want from what you need.

* Can the clutter. I cannot count how many times I have seen people move because they needed room, not for themselves, but for their stuff. In places where domiciles are very small, people have to constantly reclaim their limited space from their stuff. When I interviewed a New York City author last year about how she found an 800-square-foot condo for her family, she said she now has room for 10 pairs of shoes. When she buys an 11th pair, one old pair has to go.

* Use the space you have very well. Look for existing wasted space, such as that triangle of storage possibilities underneath a staircase, or the space between wall studs behind a bathroom door.  If you are going to remodel the kitchen, consider changing the heights of things. Why can’t the dishwasher be elbow height? The oven, too. If you are tall or short, countertops can be of different heights to accommodate your comfort.

* Steves offers a know-thyself room analysis for each part of a home, and helps readers know their own user style. She also offers diagrams that explain how much space different kinds of furniture need. You need a minimum of 36 inches between a kitchen island and the cupboards across from it, preferably 48 inches. You’ll need 42 inches of clearance between a door and the nearest piece of furniture.

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