Living in the Kitchen 'Great Room'

As families congregate more and more in their kitchens, the traditional living room may soon be replaced by the kitchen "great room."
By: Katie Allison Granju

For the last few centuries, kitchens were constructed as far away from a family's living quarters as possible. In larger homes, kitchens were often completely separate from the house itself. Today, however, the kitchen has become the heart of the modern home, the meeting place where families do a great deal of their day-to-day living.

In fact, a recent study conducted by Electrolux Group found that the typical family of five spends 175 hours in the kitchen each month, but only 31 hours in the living room. That's why many homeowners, builders and renovators are now bringing casual family living into the kitchen, creating "kitchen great rooms."

Victoria Birov, an interior designer with Heritage Luxury Builders in Chicago, says she's designing with kitchen living in mind to meet her customers' demands.

"People are spending more time in the kitchen and family room as opposed to the living room," says Birov. "Family living is centered on the kitchen, with fireplaces and TVs, comfortable islands and desks wired for Internet access all located in the kitchen. The kitchen is the center of today's homes."

A Family Affair

In a well-designed kitchen great room, the kids can do their homework on a computer that also hosts the family's online calendar, and the fireplace and TV can be enjoyed while parents cook.

Speaking of cooking, a kitchen great room allows meal prep to become a true family affair. More than just an eat-in kitchen, the best kitchen great rooms bring together a functional kitchen with a truly comfortable living space.

"The idea is that family members can relax in the great room before or after meals," explains Birov. "This type of layout is also important for entertaining, as more and more people entertain in a more casual atmosphere."

Janet and Randy Everitt of Alpharetta, Ga., recently knocked out the wall separating their formal dining room from their 1980s-era kitchen and renovated the entire 600 square foot space into a large kitchen great room to enjoy with their two teenagers.

"We never used the dining room and we spent way too much time cramped up together in our kitchen, which was too small," explains Janet. "One day it just hit me that what I really wanted was a much larger combination kitchen/den. We love it."

Designing a Great Room

The key to designing a kitchen great room that really serves its purpose is organization, and the best of these multipurpose rooms are created with casual but defined "activity zones," including:

  • cooking and food prep
  • storage and dishwashing
  • informal dining
  • studying, crafts and family activities
  • relaxing and enjoying media entertainment

Unity is another important element of successful great room design. Repeating elements such as flooring, light fixtures, cabinetry and trim throughout all the activity zones gives a kitchen great room a cohesive look.

The Everitts' new family space boasts open kitchen shelving and cheery hardwood flooring, with both features extending beyond the kitchen area into the rest of the family room.

"We took the doors off the old cabinets and then had a carpenter build matching open shelving on the other side of the room for books and our television, so the kitchen shelves and the other shelves look pretty much the same," says Janet. "It really does look like one big room instead of two rooms with the wall removed."

For many homeowners, combining the kitchen with another existing, but little-used, room is the best way to create a great room. This may involve knocking out a wall, as the Everitts did, or even expanding into the garage. But even if you can't rearrange your walls or enlarge your kitchen's physical space, there are ways to shape your current kitchen into more of a gathering space for family and friends."

Making the Kitchen More Livable

"I think every kitchen needs a couch," says Jay Pfaffman, a Knoxville, Tenn., college professor who writes a cooking column. "I can't make my kitchen any larger, but I've turned it into a more comfortable living space by bringing in furniture you are more likely to see in the den."

Pfaffman's Victorian cottage features a small couch on each end of the room, one with a coffee table. Guests can lounge comfortably, reading the paper and snacking, while Pfaffman prepares one of the Sunday brunches for which he's known.

Bringing electronic media into the kitchen can also make it more family friendly. Converting one end of a counter into a computer desk or installing a flat-screen TV in the kitchen means that more activities will be centered there.

Whether it's accomplished with small changes or a major makeover, creating a kitchen great room yields tangible benefits.

"It may sound crazy," says Janet Everitt. "But this big room where we can all be together but still do our own thing has actually made our family get along better!"

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