Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why don't we live in the living room?

My mom recently called my attention to an article on the New York Times' "Opinionator" blog about the history of living rooms—or at least, rooms that are referred to by that name. If you read literature more than a hundred or so years old, you'll find that the room in which people sat around, talked, read, and entertained guests might be called a "parlor" (which makes sense, since it comes from the French parler, meaning "to talk") or a "drawing room" (actually short for "withdrawing room," since you "withdrew" to this room after dinner) or simply a "sitting room." Or, to look at a completely different social setting, consider the Ingalls family in the Little House series. They did most of their daily activities—cooking, eating, reading, working, and playing—in the large "front room" of their log cabin. They even bathed in there (once a week, on Saturday night, so as to be clean for church on Sunday). So clearly, homes have had rooms used for talking and relaxing for centuries.

In modern homes, however, the room that's known as the "living room" is often a space that isn't used for day-to-day living at all. Instead, it's a showplace, an area used only for formal entertaining, an activity that families today tend to do a lot less of than they did in the past. The actual day-to-day living, as well as informal socializing, takes place in a separate "family room" or in the kitchen. It even seems like you can't find a new house these days that doesn't have a separate living room and family room, as if this were a basic necessity of life.

Now, mind you, I have no problem with the idea of having a room set aside for entertaining for families that actually do a lot of entertaining. One of the commenters on the Opinionator piece (#15) observes that she uses her living room for this purpose, and while "living room" may not really be the right name for it, she can't think of anything else to call it that doesn't sound silly. However, as commenter #20 laments, formal entertaining has become such a rarity in the modern world that for most people, a room set aside for this purpose is no longer useful. And I can hardly think of anything less ecofrugal than setting aside a whole room in your home—a room that has to be heated, cooled, and cleaned, as well as paid for in the price of the house—for a purpose that will seldom, if ever, be fulfilled.

So what's the solution? Well, here's a modest proposal: why don't we all try actually living in our living rooms? Set them up to accommodate the actual activities we do on a daily basis, whether that's chatting, watching TV, or playing board games. Surely a basic living room can handle these activities and still be cleaned up for guests when the occasion calls for it. If we all did this, we might be able to get along just fine in a house without a "family room"—or, if we can't actually find such a house, convert that extra space into a room we really will use, like a home office, or an exercise room, or even an extra bedroom, allowing a family to get by with a house one bedroom smaller than they thought they needed. We'd all save money, building resources, and fuel—and the folks who build the houses would be no worse off, because they could fit more of these smaller houses onto the same parcel of land. So as a bonus, each new development would use up less green space.

In fact, according to the article I cited back in February, this very idea seems to have occurred to a lot of Americans, resulting in a trend toward smaller and more efficient homes. It's just conceivable that ten or twenty years down the road, we may find that the name "living room" has once again come to mean just what it should: a room that gets lived in.
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