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Bigger Isn't Better If It Means More Mess


After engaging an architect to design a house, most couples begin the first meeting with a discussion of their functional requirements: "I want a big kitchen." Or specific rooms: "Let's talk about the foyer." Or lifestyle: "We entertain a lot."

But to get a house that really fits your needs, Memphis architect Carson Looney said, you have to discuss personal habits. Are you fastidious? Generally neat or frankly messy?

In 25 years of designing houses, Looney has found that almost every couple has one of each. And as the clutter starts to overtake the house and tax the relationship, the clients think a bigger house will solve the problem.

But "bigger isn't better, better organized is better," Looney said. "The solution is to find a place for all that junk. 'Everything in its place' ... only works if you have a place for everything and it's so easy to use you can't avoid using it."

The three places in a house where neat and messy most often collide are the kitchen, the bathroom and the entry area.

Junk mail and catalogs overflow the mail table and often end up on the rarely used dining table. Every kid in America carries a backpack, and these invariably pile up near the front door along with coats and sports equipment.

Looney's unusual solution to this front hall disaster is what he calls a "liver room." As the liver is the cleansing organ of the body, the liver room is the cleansing place of the house though which all household members must pass before entering the living areas.

Intended to capture coats, backpacks, sports equipment, mail, brief cases, laptops and everything else, the room usually has a bench with space for shoes, and hooks abound. There's plenty of shelving and each family member has a designated cubby. If space and budget permit, Looney incorporates a small home office where the mail is sorted out, bills are paid and household files are kept.

Once Looney's clients understand the concept, he said they are universally enthusiastic.

The kitchen can turn into a neat-messy war zone and being bigger can make things worse. In her 20 years of designing houses, Los Angeles architect Gina Moffitt has found that when a kitchen is large, functions and storage tend to be spread out.

This makes for lots of walking back and forth to get all the items required, even for something as simple as making toast (open the bread box, get out the toaster, fix the toast, get a plate and butter and jam).

Rather than retrace all those steps to put everything away, the messy person will leave things out on the counter. To avoid this, Moffet organizes the kitchen layout so that the storage related to a task is next to the equipment that will be used for it. Not only is the task easier, both partners are more likely to clean up afterward.

Many clients already use an appliance garage to contain some of the kitchen clutter. Moffitt also puts one in the master bathroom "to make bottles and potions disappear."

Looney has had great success in capturing bathroom clutter in a built-in recessed shelf with sliding doors that he puts just above the sink.

"It eats up about eight inches of mirror, but it works," Looney said. "You put outlets in it as well, so you can use an electric shaver and put it right back."

Separate his and hers vanities can help, and both architects recommend an outlet in the top drawer of the vanity for a hair dryer so that owners just open the drawer, use it, stick it back and shut the drawer. Moffitt also includes a large niche in the shower and the tub for hair-care products.

Also problematic can be the dressing area in the master bedroom. It's easier to control when it's separated from the sleeping area, which both architects like to keep small because a smaller bedroom means fewer places for clutter to accumulate.

If the budget and house are big enough, separate dressing areas are optimal. At the very least, each partner should have his own closet and dresser storage. Not only will a separate dressing area eliminate a trail of clothes across the bedroom floor, by moving the dressers in as well, the contents of pockets won't appear all over the bedroom.

Moffitt recommends a good-sized built-in clothes hamper with a large drawer or pullout. The advantage of this over a free-standing type is that clothes cannot pile up on top of it.

Even with these tactics, the dressing area won't be perfect, and you'll still want to shut the door to hide the mess, Looney said. He always specifies a pocket door because "you only have to move a few clothes out of the way to close it."

If there's any money left in the budget, Looney also suggests a way to make that rarely used dining room serve double duty as a hobby area.

He advises owners to get a heavy-duty oilcloth to protect the table and he specifies cabinets with formal-looking raised panel doors to hold hobby equipment and materials. With the storage area right there, cleaning up for company is easy and quick.

"If you have to walk through two or three rooms to get stuff, you won't put it away," he said.

Both architects said that clients are happily surprised to discover that design can help bring order to a cluttered household.

Looney said clients are even more surprised to find that the details that will bring the clutter under control and make a house more livable are "not real noticeable. You won't notice the little shelf above the vanity unit until it's pointed out."


Syndicated columnist and author of "The Brand New House Book," KatherineSalant can be reached at Distributed by Inman News Features

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