Editor’s Note: Getting Real

There’s no doubt that COVID has reshaped our world in terrible ways. But as we’ve stretched ourselves and our lives to accommodate these seismic shifts, we’ve learned some important lessons about our houses. Those lessons are beginning to influence real changes in floor planning in the custom home market. And, as we know, changes at the high end often move down through other price points and into the mainstream market.

When those of us with flexible professions came home, it’s as if someone finally turned on the lights and we could see our houses clearly. And, oh my, we could hear so much more clearly, too. And what were we seeing and hearing? Well, that several key trends from the last two decades were not without flaws. First and foremost, the “great room” is not so great after all. Fully open plans that blend kitchen, living, dining into one large space are fantastic when we’re in a leisurely family or party mode, but they are loud, crowded, and generally unpleasant when our family needs to do five different things at the same time in the same space. And, honestly, even in the before times, they were problematic if one person wanted to watch the morning news and another wanted to read by the fire in sweet silence. (Guess my preference.)

During lockdown, those of us who were fortunate enough to still have a separate dining room with doors discovered it was the perfect unscripted space that could be conscripted for a variety of functions—dinners with our extended pod, a virtual classroom, an extra home office or conference room. 

But the real takeaway here is the need for “away rooms”—ones with doors. When space and budget are at a premium, these flex spaces can be added to rooms with a different primary function—an alcove in a primary bedroom or a built-in desk in a guest room. How about a nicer laundry room with a window and a built-in table for folding laundry? Voilà, another Zoom room. 

Not all away rooms have to be indoors. Protected outdoor space became especially precious during COVID, and it remains vital to our well-being. Access to nature is a proven balm for physical and mental health.

Around the same time we started to lose separate dining rooms, we also lost an important room most older houses offered: a first-floor bedroom with either a dedicated bathroom or full bathroom nearby. Families who found themselves having to isolate in their own houses were very lucky to have this feature in their homes. Tending to someone ill is much easier if they are on the main level of the house. 

This miserable interlude has forced us to revise our priorities and our expectations for our houses. It turns out that prior generations, who lived through pandemics and world wars, knew a thing or two about what our houses need to handle in a crisis.