Three Deal Breakers in Home Design for Families

As a home organizer and a person with a slight home-design-ap-and/or-real-estate-listing addiction, I spend a significant portion of time observing home environments. And while I’ve enjoyed feasting my eyes on thousands of attractive, visually well-composed spaces, I often realize with dismay that they’d present problems to my clients rather than solve them. Gorgeous? Yes. Fashionable? Without a doubt. Functional and ergonomic? I’m skeptical. And set up to support families with young children? No cigar.

Sometimes young families won’t be aware of the design foibles until they move into a new home. That’s where I come in, to help them find solutions. But at risk of putting myself out of a job, I thought I’d take a step back in the process—to nip the most common problems in the bud. Here are a few tips for those of you renovating, designing, or building homes that might one day appeal to families. 

Photo credit: Kitten in Spaghetti

Photo credit: Kitten in Spaghetti

Deal Breaker #1: No Entryway

The entryway is literally the way into a home and it is a place that determines my behavior therein. Visual cues—like a closet, hooks, or a bench—signal where I’m supposed to put my stuff and subsequently my body. The design of the space—be it walls or a furniture arrangement—provides a map of where I’m supposed to go.

Watch me put my purse on the table along with a big-ass pile of papers. Photo credit: Houzz

Watch me put my purse on the table along with a big-ass pile of papers. Photo credit: Houzz

Walking into an entryway without these cues creates awkwardness and uncertainty. That uncertainty results in a big pile of keys/jackets/backpacks/shoes/bike helmets/etc. on the floor. Or on the couch. Or the counter or any other nearby surface. (This is what I call a “clutter backup area”—the place where things pile up because there is no obvious home for them. And you know clutter backup areas beget other clutter backup areas.)

Furthermore, (design pet peeve alert!) front doors that open directly to kitchens or dining rooms leave no room for putting non-food-related items away. Shoes and cereal just don’t belong together! Please stop it!

A huge, formal, sweeping, winding staircase-dangling-chandelier situation isn’t necessary. Just give us a closet, some built-in storage, or at least a wall where a row of hooks could go. Modern life is chaotic. Modern life with kids is even more so, especially with all of those after-school activities and their corresponding whatnots.

Help us out: Give that stuff an obvious place to live.

Deal Breaker #2: Stove top on an Island or Peninsula with an Eating Space Behind It

OW MY FACE. Photo credit: Houzz

OW MY FACE. Photo credit: Houzz

It’s neither safe nor pleasant to hang out behind the stove. No one wants a face full of spaghetti water, frankly, but kids are even less equipped than adults to deal with such splashes.

Imagine a preschooler perched on one of these nice stools, keeping her parents company while they cook. Sweet, right?

NO. Because you also have to imagine all of the dangerous things that could happen while she sits there: 1) She puts her hand on the stove and burns herself. 2) She puts her hands on (or in) a hot pot and burns herself. 3) She gets splashed by sizzling, boiling, simmering, etc. foodstuffs and burns herself. 4) She literally climbs into a pot and gets scalded. And burns herself!

I guarantee I’m not the only worrywart here.

Deal Breaker #3: Disproportionately Allocated “Great Rooms” without an Obvious Place for Kid Activities and/or Toys

And the highchair will go where??? Photo credit: Redfin.

And the highchair will go where??? Photo credit: Redfin.

In today’s new-build homes, particularly townhomes, it is fashionable to have long, narrow great rooms, consisting of a kitchen, dining area, and living room. Typically, a large portion of the space is dedicated to the kitchen, with a wee spot for the dining room (if that) and slightly more than that for the living room.

Don't get me wrong; I'm all for open-concept living! I think open kitchens are great—they enable parents to multi-task cooking and child-watching. However, most parents don’t love having their kids literally underfoot while they’re trying to cook. I would rather have a smaller space to maneuver alone, with a larger, adjacent living space for my kid to play.

Really, I just want a great room to be proportional to how families live, with more weight given to a well-thought out living space (read: where are we going to put our shit). Which leads me to my next point: Show us you have at least considered where we’re supposed to put the toys. I’m talking about a nook or an out-of-the-way wall that won’t have to compete with where the dining table/couch/entertainment center is supposed to go—someplace where nobody is going to step on a LEGO. Because ouch.

I guess they're cheaper than remodeling your house. Photo credit: Bored Panda

I guess they're cheaper than remodeling your house. Photo credit: Bored Panda

It’s like your parents told you: Just because it looks cool doesn’t mean it works. (Or something like that.) Substance needs equal weight. I want to be inspired by my space, but I also want it to flow smoothly, suit my family’s needs, and be comfortable. So to all you designers/architects/remodelers/builders/etc., I beg you to think about what it would actually be like to be in AND use that space. Think about storage—will you be able to put the thing where you do the thing? Think about flow—will you have to walk back and forth a million times to get ingredients and equipment when you cook a meal? Use your imagination and a lot of empathy for the end user. A little ergonomics goes (go?) a long way.