Flexible Family Rooms

The ultimate family room is big, bright, and versatile, yet intimate enough to nurture human connections. Paying attention to design issues will help you fashion a comfortable room that enhances togetherness.

Accommodate Media

+ enlarge image Make sure your wiring is sufficient for today's activities

Entertainment media have grown more sophisticated, and so has the infrastructure they require. Set up your family room to handle the potential demands of home theater, communication cables, computers, CD players, and multiple telephone lines. Anticipating the locations of the equipment will help you provide sufficient circuits, minimize visible wiring, and position electrical outlets and phone jacks.

Plan for Storage

Built-ins are the backbone of an active family room. Shelves, drawers, and cabinets help keep books, magazines, tapes, CDs, board games, and toys out of sight but within easy reach. When space is especially tight, find furniture pieces with storage potential, such as a coffee table with a shelf below, an end table with a drawer, an ottoman that opens up, or a trunk or chest that's both footrest and footlocker.

Add a Feeling of Size

+ enlarge image A fireplace is a classic place for families to gather.

A spacious room increases seating and storage options, lets family members pursue separate activities simultaneously, and makes large-scale entertaining possible. If you can't get more square footage, some design features -- vaulted ceilings, exposed beams, large windows, or openings into other rooms -- help make a modest space feel bigger.

Have a Focal Point Families used to gather by the fireplace, then around the radio; now, it's often in front of the television. Even if everyone engages in solo activities in the family room, a fireplace or media center creates a visual center of attention and provides natural display space for books, art, and collectibles. The focal point also helps guide furniture placement.

Plan for Refreshments

+ enlarge image A pass-through can connect the family room and kitchen.

In a perfect world, all family meals are eaten in the dining room or kitchen, but we know that's not always the case. Where people gather, food follows, so try for convenient access to food and beverages. If the kitchen isn't close, consider equipping the family room with a mini version -- a bar sink, microwave oven, and small refrigerator.

Stay Connected Family rooms are often "getaway" spaces, providing opportunities to retreat from cares, to catch a new movie, or to get reacquainted with a favorite book. Don't, however, let the lure of sanctuary feel like banishment, especially in basement family rooms. Try to include open passages or windows that maintain ties to other rooms or to the outdoors.

Let in Light

+ enlarge image Glass doors let in light and provide access to these outdoors.

The best family rooms welcome natural light by day and provide enough artificial lighting at night to support a range of activities: reading the paper, doing homework, playing cards, or working at the computer. Maximize window area. Consider installing skylights. And place lamps and light fixtures where they'll be needed most. Even if the family room is in the basement, egress windows can funnel in sunlight, while wall sconces, recessed fixtures, and undercabinet lighting can brighten areas with low headroom. At any level, access to the outdoors makes a family room seem lighter and brighter.

Encourage Comfort and Conversation Plan furniture groupings as you sketch the room's layout. Don't line the perimeter of the room with furniture, leaving a big open space in the middle. Like the dance floor at a high school social, this only encourages people to choose up sides, stick to the walls, and avoid interaction. Two or more seating areas increase the room's versatility. The furniture pieces should be comfortable, durable, and easy-to-clean upholstered pieces. Light, casual, touchable fabrics, such as cotton, denim, and sisal, wear well and say "welcome" in a put-your-feet-up-and-have-some-popcorn kind of room.

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