Thursday, November 23, 2023

(Don't) Tear Down The Wall!

Think hard before you "open up" your home by tearing down walls.

Houses get remodeled, again and again, over the years, and oftentimes the remodeling is good, and other times, not so good. I remarked before about sun porches and how a "sun room" addition can become the centerpiece of the house - and the old family room or living room becomes nothing more than a room you walk through to get to the sun room.  It becomes nothing more than a place to set things down and forget about them - living space that no one lives in.  It becomes a junk collection area.

So the television moves out to the sun room, but all that pesky sun makes it hard to watch, so blackout curtains are installed and the sunroom becomes a darkroom, until one day the homeowner thinks, "you know what this place needs is a sunroom!" and they add on yet another addition.  I've seen this done, too!

Tearing down walls is another remodeling trick that may end up being dated in a few years.  While it is true that older homes were often chopped up into tiny little rooms, there is such a thing as too much open space.  No one wants to live in a stadium or basketball court.  When a house is too opened-up, there is no wall space for artwork or even your television.  There is no place to set furniture against, so pieces end up "free floating" in the room - a look many are uncomfortable with.  It also can turn your house into an echo chamber.

With regard to this last element, a friend of ours decided to knock down some walls and "open up" their house as it was the trendy thing to do.  You came in the front door and you can see it all at once - the living area(s) the dining area, the kitchen - hello there!  It also emphasized how low their ceilings were, as the house had maybe 8 foot ceilings.  It didn't look so bad in smaller rooms, but with vast expanse of "open" space the effect was, ceiling.  It was the most noticeable and memorable part of the house.

Our own home was "opened up" in some respects, but not all the way.  Originally, when you came in from the garage, you were inside a cramped laundry room.  This lead (through another door) into the eat-in kitchen with a bay window.  This lead to a dining room through one door, and a family room with fireplace through another door.  The dining room was separated from the living room by yet another wall (or partial "butterfly" wall, it is hard to tell).  Lots of little rooms!

And speaking of which, the house had four (4) tiny bedrooms and two baths.  The "master bath" was the smallest of the two!

Over the years, the homeowners modified things.  The laundry room moved out to the garage and the wall between the old laundry room and the kitchen was taken down.  The laundry room became a bar area with sink and built-in icemaker.  The wall between the kitchen and family room was removed which was good, as the family room felt tiny and cramped.  And the wall between the dining room and living room went away, creating a huge open space.

But some say that is not enough!  More than one friend has suggested removing that last wall, so that the living room, dining room, kitchen, bar, and family room were all one big giant room.  We thought about it and concluded that you can have too much of a good thing as evidenced by some houses we have seen that have done this.  It looks less "opened up" than unfinished.

The guy we bought the house from did two smart things (which is why we bought the house).  First, he took out the "master" bath and two of the four bedrooms and made a huge "master" bedroom along the lines of what people expect today.  With about 2/3rds of the other bedroom, he made a "master" bathroom that is, well, a little over the top for us (the garden tub is a useless accumulator of laundry and I've only actually used it once in 18 years, and only then, because I was cleaning it).  Nevertheless, it is a far more comfortable bathroom for two people, with a private commode room and two vanities - each at a different height!   That was a remodeling effort that really paid off, in terms of bang for the buck.

The other thing he did - and I would never have thought to do this - was to raise the ceiling in the master bedroom and living room, using a "tray ceiling" (raising the center portion about 10") which made both rooms feel larger and roomier than they are, without the need to "open up" so much.  Walls are not evil, they are not the enemy.

Raising a ceiling, even a few inches, makes a space feel larger.  It ain't easy to do, however!

Walls can help define spaces and actually enhance your home.  Granted, in the past, our ancestors were perhaps a little too wall-happy.  Part of this problem can be traced to the antiquated notion that the number of rooms determined the value of a home (as opposed to square footage).  When middle-class people tried to emulate the number of rooms in older, larger, homes, on a smaller scale, the result was a series of small rooms - tiny rooms - that felt cramped and claustrophobic.

The "chair rail" in the tiny dining rooms of yore was literally necessary to prevent guests from marring the walls as they backed up their chairs from the dining room table.  Rooms were smaller back then.  Today, we live in stadiums.

The need for such rooms was tied to older notions about living.  You had to have a "public area" such as a parlor, to receive guests and such.  Then you had more private areas, usually further back into the home, where you did your actual living. These notions about "proper" living survived until relatively recent times.  My parents always had a "living room" that no one lived in - with white carpeting that we were forbidden to walk on.  Everybody's parents had that, back then, along with wedding china, silver, and crystal.  Today, who can afford servants to polish all that silver?  Who has the time?

In more recent times, the informal home for "entertaining" has developed, with fewer demarcations between public and private spaces.  The kitchen was seen as the ultimate private space  - sometimes not even attached to the home (because of the risk of fire, and also because of the heat, smells, etc.).  My Father's family had no kitchen in their home, a problem my grandmother had to rectify when she moved back in with her elderly sisters.

Today, "the party always ends up in the kitchen" so the kitchen becomes part of the public space of the home and is often the centerpiece and showpiece of the home.  It is often the most expensive room in the house. Appliances are no longer functional "white goods" but "look at me!" elaborate technological wonders of stainless steel and electronic controls.  Whaddya mean, your refrigerator doesn't have a camera and a display screen?  Next you'll tell me your stove doesn't have WiFi!

Cooking shows and celebrity chefs have made us all "foodies" (a term that makes me throw up in my mouth a little) and thus we are expected to "entertain" not with cocktails and clever banter, but with our cooking skills.  And since middle-class or even upper-middle-class people can no longer afford servants ("the help") we have to do these cooking demonstrations ourselves.  In the future, everyone will be Martha Stewart for 15 minutes.

It is not better or worse than in the past, depending on your point of view - just different.  And this difference drives our architecture today.  No longer is the kitchen some tiny dank area for the "help" to prepare meals, or for a housewife to emerge from (through swinging cafe doors, no less) with steaming hot dishes from the oven.  Today, the kitchen is the center of the action.

And in that regard, our remaining wall (separating the kitchen from the dining and living rooms) does indeed present some difficulties for us.  Whenever we entertain, people gravitate toward the kitchen/family room, and as a result, the "living room" becomes neglected.  I've tried in the past to move people to the living room, by placing the hors d'ouvres there and whatnot, but they merely grab them and drag them back into the family room.  It is an interesting phenomenon to watch.  It is only after dinner, when the kitchen is a mess of dirty dishes, that people want to relax in the living room, away from all the clutter and leftovers.  And maybe that is not such a bad thing.

That is, indeed, one problem with the kitchen as "heart and hearth" of the home - a dirty kitchen is not nice to look at, and if someone comes to the door, well, it looks kind of awful if they can see your dirty breakfast dishes in the sink. One must tidy, constantly!  But lets' face it, a working kitchen is not often a tidy kitchen. These fancy "look at me!" kitchens are often owned by people who eat at restaurants most of the time.  Easy to keep clean, if you never cook!

So, while we've talked about "opening up" that last wall, we kind of gave up on the idea and learned to live with separate rooms.  Knocking down walls is a fine thing and all, up to a point.  I mean, you don't want to tear down all your bedroom and bathroom walls and live in one communal pile, do you?

And yet.... some do.  A neighbor remodeled their house with a new master bedroom and attached master bath with no door between the two.  The toilet was visible from - and no more than 10 feet from - the bed in the master bedroom.  Your spouse gets up in the morning to take a steaming dump and you get to be part of the experience.

No thank you!

There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. And these trends in remodeling become dated quickly.  Remember tile countertops?  "This Old House" pushed that nightmare for quite a while, until people realized tile countertops were (a) uneven as hell and (b) mostly grout that showed every bit of dirt and were impossible to keep clean.

I suspect the same will be true of "opening up" in the future.  "Oh look, honey, a 2000's remodeling job - they took out all the walls!" 

And some other trend will take its place.  I predict that Dutch doors will make a huge comeback in 2025!  Be the first on your block!