Great Gatherings: Is Your Abode Ready for Company?

We’re seeing our homes differently now, and as we set a place for family and friends to visit, it’s important to make sure the right details are in place.

(Advance Design Studio photo)

These past few months have given us an unusual opportunity to get to know our homes – and it’s changed how we see them.

Pulled away from our busy social calendars, we’re using our homes differently, and we may even find our “gatherings” are evolving, too. We’re thinking how we can be more deliberate about family time, and we’re concerned not just with what we do together but where we do it.

Inevitably, we’re discovering our homes don’t entirely work the way we’d like. They’re not keeping up with our new lifestyle, and we’re itching for change.

In this “new normal,” gathering spaces are coming top of mind, as we seek to enjoy our time with family, accommodate changing needs and once again welcome guests into our abode. Before remodeling your home into a great gathering space, here are a few things to consider.

Carving out a Great Room

For years now, the trend has been toward open-concept layouts. Walls are coming down as we mix kitchen, family room, dining room and other spaces into a single “great room.”

“I think families are getting back to being very deliberate about how they’re choosing to live and how they’re choosing to spend their time,” says Christine Jurs, co-owner of Advance Design Studio, in Gilberts.

And how they spend their time in this space will define what’s worked into the great room. It’s all about family lifestyle. Are the kids doing homework here? Is the family gathering for dinner? Will the TV factor into dinnertime or family get-togethers?

“We recently posted a live video of a walk-through on our Facebook page, at a tri-level house,” says Jurs. “A wall was moved, and it opened up the entire living room to the kitchen and dining room. It’s the same house as the others in the neighborhood, but because we removed those barriers, and then opened up the stairs – voila – we now have a great room.”

Putting everything out in the open presents new opportunities to dress up your space. Kitchen cabinets are taking on more furniture-like details, to better blend in with the adjacent rooms. Handy tools hidden inside, like rollout trashcans and hidden technology drawers, bring additional functionality – and they solve problems, like the way electronic devices and unsightly junk tend to collect on countertops.

“We can create a docking station in a drawer where it’s accessible to the whole family,” says Jurs. “You can put all of your devices in there and shut the drawer while they’re charging. It’s all put away, so you can hide the clutter.”

For some families, a well-designed lower level is a better place to build that great room. Jurs and her team recently finished a souped-up basement build-out that had a movie theater, built-in bunk beds for sleepovers, a full kitchen with seated bar area, and a play room – designed to resemble a cottage – for the youngest child. Every inch was designed with family in mind, and now the family enjoys weekly movie nights, instead of being isolated from each other across the house.

Somewhere between the great room and the lower level comes the sunroom, a feature that’s rapidly growing in popularity. Often located adjacent to the kitchen and family room, a well-designed three-season room allows the family to host gatherings pretty much year-round.

“People love the versatility of this space,” says Jurs, “because it provides shelter from weather and bugs while still offering the feeling of being outdoors.” Adding a heating/cooling system ensures the space is viable all year, but there are other ways to stretch the season.

“Often we’ll build in fireplaces and ceiling fans, so the space can be used late into the fall season, as the weather starts to change,” says Jurs. “You can shut the doors to your house, turn on the fireplace and be outside in 50-degree weather, when you’d never sit on your deck and patio.”

No matter the setting, lighting is perhaps the easiest thing to overlook, but it’s also one of the most important considerations when renovating. As you remove walls and raise ceilings, you inadvertently remove many traditional ways of lighting a room, says Jurs. “No one is going to be missing that fluorescent pancake on your kitchen ceiling,” she adds.

Can lights will help, but they’re not always sufficient for aging eyes, says Jurs. Low-voltage lighting can be hidden among cabinetry and architectural details to better illuminate countertops and accents. Sconces have become a popular choice, too.

For a touch of class, though, a new pendant fixture will create a wow factor and a focal point everywhere from kitchens, foyers or dining rooms to bedrooms and kitchens. More and more, decorative pendant lighting is taking on art-like qualities.

“Designers are removing the glass and floating these amazing wire figures with light bulbs,” says Jurs. “And the light bulbs are so interesting, too – like Edison light bulbs we see with the filaments exposed – and the LED bulbs are everywhere. They’ll drop your electrical bill substantially and last for 10 years.”

For all the dreaming you’ll do about your new gathering space, there’s one overriding consideration – and it’s not one you can easily see.

“Probably the biggest consideration is to get a solid understanding of what it may cost to complete your renovation,” says Jurs. “It’s something in our process at Advance Design Studio that’s built in, because we talk about it right upfront. People, for the most part, are usually unprepared for the cost of any renovation, until they start doing their research. Getting the help you need from an industry professional will help you set your expectations and get going on that long-awaited project you’ve been dreaming about.”

Tearing Down Barriers

In order to create your new great room, you’ll likely need to rip out walls and blur the lines between kitchen, dining area and living room. The result is breathtaking: a wide-open space that absorbs many functions and allows many nooks for gathering.

“If you have a spot where a large number of people can get together, then you tend to gather more frequently,” says Bret Boyles, sales manager at Slaten Remodeling in St. Charles. “You’ll find people coming around more often, and your family visits more often when you have a nice, big family room that blends into the kitchen.”

Conspicuously absent from this new layout is a traditional dining room. When it’s not absorbed into the new kitchen, the space may be closed off to make a cozy home office. Some families are opting to move a formal table out in the open, but that’s not always the case.

“Most people don’t use the dining room anyway, unless it’s Christmas or Thanksgiving or some rare, special occasion,” says Boyles. “Most people are eating in the kitchen. Even if all you have is a four-person table, people are just pulling up chairs so they can all be together.”

Accordingly, the kitchen island is becoming that central place where families prep meals, do homework and eat together.

“It’s about creating an island where everyone can eat around or play games at,” says Boyles. “We can do just about everything around that island, if it’s adequate enough. I even see people adding pieces like wine fridges, things of that nature. It makes this an enjoyable entertaining area.”

As the walls come down, there’s one major limitation: load-bearing walls that are holding up the weight of your house. They can be modified, but it may alter your overall vision.

Reputable home remodelers will often call in an architect, to ensure that whatever replaces the wall – a header, a beam, a pole – is structurally sound.

“We always find a solution, because we have a full-time design team in house,” says Boyles. “We can find a way to help you achieve your vision.”

Load-bearing structures are a common appearance in the basement build-out, and there are many ways to work around them. Lately, more homeowners are opting to keep those structural elements out in the open. Going for an industrial feel, they leave the ceiling unfinished, with structural beams visible yet insulated and painted black.
“If you can leave the ceiling alone and then spray-foam insulate and paint over it, everything stays exposed and you can keep all of your mechanicals in place,” says Boyles. “It saves tons and tons of cost. Spend your money on your floors, your billiard table, your wall finishes, or build a wine fridge or wine room.”

Your expanded great room can accommodate more people, but it’ll also need the ability to move those people outside when a deck or patio are present. Try replacing a window with a sliding glass door to make the home feel even more open. Boyles and his team are doing this more frequently in homes, including a St. Charles ranch home that had a pool in the backyard.

“There was one door going to the back,” says Boyles. “The client was like, ‘No, this isn’t working. We’ve got to open up this house by a bathroom, so people can get in and out a little better.’ So, we did. Especially if you have a pool or big entertainment area outside, you need bathroom access that’s convenient.”

Where the yard allows, larger pool decks provide extra niches for people to gather. Add in features like an outdoor kitchen, hot tub and patio for additional functionality – and extra doorways for indoor access. (Arvidson Pools photo)

The Pool Deck

It’s a prime place to gather with friends and family on a hot summer day, so getting the right kind of backyard pool makes all the difference. Like the great room, the pool and its surrounding elements should reflect a family’s lifestyle.

“Really, it’s at the core of all that we do,” says Doug Marunde, vice president of construction at Arvidson Pools & Spas, with locations in Crystal Lake, St. Charles and Palatine. “Is the pool meant to be a peaceful retreat? If so, then the landscape design around the pool becomes a key component of the design. You may want to incorporate a waterfall to achieve the soothing sound of trickling water. Do you have a large family or like to entertain large crowds? These pools need to have an expansive deck area surrounding the pool.”

If you’re looking for a prime entertainment space for large groups, you’ll need to ensure there’s enough room for patio furniture and walking space. The deck should feel spacious enough that people can walk or stand around and not feel boxed in – or like they’re about to fall in, adds Jami Switzer, marketing manager for Arvidson.
More practically, the pool should play to the existing slope and shape of the yard.

“The topography of the property can be one of the trickiest elements in designing a pool,” says Marunde. “Whenever possible, we strive to work with the existing landscape, which helps keep excavation expenses down and also provides the best flow between the home and the pool.”

Depending on the size of the yard, additional features may up the ante. Outdoor kitchens bring food and drinks right to the pool deck with built-in cooktops, grills, refrigerators, televisions, bars and more.

A stylish cabana provides additional shelter while combing several functions, including a storage room and add-ons like a wall-mounted TV or a bar with mini-fridge.

“It can also be a nice little seating area that’s out of the sun and maybe has a fan or an area where you can retreat to when you just want to stay close to the pool,” says Switzer.

While large yards are most conducive for a pool, there are alternatives that achieve the same effect in a smaller footprint.

A swim spa is a smaller pool that has a built-in current for swimming in place. Turn off the current and it’s a comfortable pool for lounging and dipping your toes. “Because it’s a relatively small body of water, it allows you to keep it heated throughout the winter months,” adds Marunde.

Similarly, hot tubs offer a year-round setting for relaxing and gathering at home. “It provides many health benefits such as stress relief, improved circulation, improved sleep, and so on,” says Marunde. “It also provides a great place for families to come together at the end of the day, without their digital devices, and have real conversations.”

Behind the scenes, new technologies are helping to make the pool experience even better. In-floor cleaning systems drastically reduce maintenance time with their ability to keep dirt and grime out of the water.
Automatic covers keep unwanted debris, as well as children and animals, out of the pool when it’s not in use.

“The last thing you want is for your pool to become something that’s more effort or causes you more work,” says Switzer. “You want your pool to be a place that’s relaxing, that brings you joy, that adds to your life and doesn’t make it more frustrating.”

And these days, while we’re all spending more time at home, it’s as good a time as ever to create a lasting and relaxing place to kick back in good company.

“We don’t really know how long all of this is going to last, and if we are spending more time at home, why not have a pool, a swim spa or a hot tub that gives you a place to relax and unwind,” says Marunde. “They are huge stress relievers. Don’t we all need a bit of that at this time.”