Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time. It's time we gave this some thought . Buckminster Fuller

In 2014, a group of UCLA researchers published a book called “Life at Home in the 21st Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors.” As the title suggests, the authors went into the homes of 32 middle class, Los Angeles families. The book compiled both visual and statistical data in an effort to get at the heart of how people actually live in the 21st century. In one section, the authors took a deep look at how the families used their homes. They created a graphic of the use-patterns of one family. The graphic shows the movements of the family on their first floor during weekday afternoons and evenings (lead researcher Jeanne Arnold reported that the family’s patterns were representative of the other families as well). Each red dot in the graphic represents 10 minutes spent in a particular location.

A very clear pattern emerged in the graphic, namely the family only used a small portion of their available floor space. One commentary approximated that of the first floor’s 1344 square feet (1540 including porch), 528 were used regularly (around 39%).

Anecdotally speaking, this family’s patterns are pretty normal. Most families spend a disproportionate amount of time in the kitchen and family room. They spend very little time in the formal dining and living rooms.

Based on this hard and soft data, one might ask, why do we design homes where less than 40% of the space is used with any regularity? And really, this question only hints at most home’s inefficiencies. It leaves aside spaces like bedrooms, garages, basements, porches, and yards—some of which might go weeks without use.

These are spaces that we pay for with our rents, mortgages, and property taxes and HOA dues. They are space we decorate, paint, heat, cool, dust, vacuum, mop, and think about. In other words, these spaces have very high costs, paid in time, money, and headache. If we don't need or use them, why do we keep building them?

Designing for Use

While achieving 100% use is not realistic, we might start asking how we can make the spaces in our homes more usable and efficient?

These are questions that guide URBANEER when we engage any project. For example, when we began designing the URBANEER Bungalow I wrote about in my last post, my team—that includes my wife Brenda, a talented designer—began with the question, how do we actually use our living spaces?

One of the reasons homes have become so large in the last 10-20 years (the average new single family home was over 2,700 square feet in 2015) is because they were designed around features with more perceived value than actual value. It is perceived that having a formal living room is a valuable feature, when most people don’t actually use them. It is perceived that having a fifth bedroom is useful, when most people seldom use more than three.

What Brenda and I found was that the bulk of our activity centers around the kitchen, and more specifically, the kitchen island. The island is the way-station between the kitchen and the family room. It’s where all roads converge. URBANEER thought it so important, we are developing a product based on our current height adjustable island that allows it to do double or even triple duty as a dining table or desk, as well as featuring integrated power to support technology.

Unlike the home featured in the graphic, we designed the bungalow’s main floor to have a large, multipurpose space with an open floor-plan kitchen. A prototype island bisects one half of the room, providing room division, seating, and workspace. With this open plan and URBANEER’s space optimizing furniture, the room can act as family room, dining room, and living room.

Opposite the kitchen, a moving wall runs along ceiling mounted tracks (construction shot above). The moving wall features storage and a fold down dining table for more formal dining. Behind the wall is a murphy bed, so when the wall is pulled out, the main room can also be used as a proper guest room.

Off the main room on the ground floor is a small room that features the URBANEER murphy bed sofa; this enables the room to act as a den when no one is staying over. While it’s great to have guest bedrooms —especially with older children like Brenda and I have —keeping a room around that’s occupied 10% of the year, at the very most, is not terribly efficient.

The rest of the house is similarly designed for maximum use and flexibility: there’s a compact upstairs “master” bedroom (it’s the size of many modern walk in closets) and a multipurpose basement with a murphy bed that can support additional guests.

We don’t necessarily expect every room to be used all of the time —we still sleep at night and go to offices during the day (though I’ll be more likely to work from home). But by right-sizing our home, adding home furnishings that provide maximum flexibility and that can adapt to the stages of the day —lounging, entertaining, working, etc —and even stages of one’s life, we can create homes where there are a lot more red dots than empty spaces.

If you’re a homeowner or developer looking for ways to increase the percentage of used space in your home or project, call email URBANEER at info@urbaneerspaces.com or call 616-432-6525. 

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