Changing Room Names Reflect How We Live

A beautiful and large living room combined with the kitchen that is in the back of the room. In the backward, we may see a large balcony.

Today’s home plan’s reflect the way we live — and so do the names we call the rooms we live in. Take the great room — no longer just a living room, the great room is an expanded and open cooking/living/entertainment space with no walls in between. Courtesy of DiVosta Homes; the Dartmouth plan at the Castellina community in Wellington, Fla.

Will the new home you’ve been dreaming about include a parlor? Or maybe a rec room? 

Probably not. Sure, the house might have a lovely room in front where you could entertain visitors or you might have a finished basement where you’ll hang out and have fun.

But the chances that you’ll ever refer to these spaces as a “parlor” or a “rec room” are slim to none.

That’s because as 
American homes’ designs evolve through the generations, so do the ways we refer to their rooms, according to an expert on architectural history and the builders who study our lifestyles and fancies.

What’s in a Name?

Room names are in a permanent state of flux, according to Matthew Gordon Lasner, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban Affairs and & Planning at Hunter College in New York. 

“Over the years we continually see new nomenclature — we’re always seeing new names come and go, as rooms are tweaked and as configurations and purposes shift, along with the way we live and who we live with,” Lasner said.

Take, for example, the “master suite,” a recent staple of homebuilding and remodeling. The idea of a spacious principal sleeping chamber with attached bathroom has been high on consumers’ wish lists for the past couple of decades. 

And it still is — but don’t necessarily expect to see it called that when you scrutinize a builder’s floor plan. Apparently a casualty of demographic change and cultural sensitivities, “master suite” has been ditched by many builders in favor of “owner’s suite.”

“We’ve been changing it, quietly, around the country for a few years,” said Valerie Dolenga, a spokeswoman for Pulte Homes, who said the term “master” has been perceived to have a negative racial context. Plus, she said, with the emergence of single women as homebuyers, “master” can be taken to have a vaguely male ring. 

The term originally implied a level of desirable status, said Lasner, author of an exhaustive history of the condominium in the United States. 

An owners suite with a sitting area. Courtesy of DiVosta Homes; the Dartmouth plan at the Castellina community in Wellington, Fla.“Something I noticed about condos and co-ops was that the term ‘master bedroom’ was itself a marketing innovation,” said Lasner, author of High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century. “That term doesn’t exist at all before about 1895 and it really comes into use in the 1910s and flourishes from the 1920s on.”

In the early years, developers of apartment buildings wanted to appeal to residents who could afford live-in help (“or pretended that they did,” he said). Thus, floor plans often used the term in the plural, to designate all the bedrooms meant for the residents’ families, versus those for the hired help. 

“You’d see real estate ads in the 1920s saying ‘a house with four masters’ bedrooms, three servants’ rooms,’ ” he said, adding that the term faded during the Great Depression. “Wealth went into hiding in the 1930s.”

The parlor, most associated with the Victorian era, was considered a relatively “public” room that walled off the family’s private (and less-fancy) spaces, he said. 

“You’d keep the best china and best furniture there, and you’d receive visitors in the parlor if you were middle-class,” Lasner said. 

Not every visitor made it past the foyer. Being invited from the foyer into the parlor connoted a certain privilege, he said. 

“The foyer would have an uncomfortable hall stand, so if a tradesperson had come to the house and had to sit and wait, it would be uncomfortable, with no cushions,” to discourage any inclination to linger, he explained. “But if you had more business in the house, you would be invited into the parlor.”

We’re always seeing new names come and go, as rooms are tweaked and as configurations and purposes shift, along with the way we live and who we live with. — Matthew Gordon LasnerThe usage of “parlor” was gone by the 1920s, generally replaced by the “living room,” though that room’s exact arrival in the architectural lexicon is tough to pinpoint, he said.

As servants, too, routinely became less commonplace, the kitchen grew in prominence as the lady of the house took over the cooking and needed simultaneously to be able to watch over the kids, he said. 

“Living room” is probably an endangered term, threatened by the “great room” — an expanded and open cooking/living/entertainment space; the term probably came into common use in the ’80s and is now a popular design option, Lasner said.

Where We’re Going

Homebuilders are still adding to our vocabularies — terms for rooms with specialized functions continue to pop up and be embraced by consumers. Fairly recent ones that have gained a toehold: media room, home office and “outdoor kitchen,” for example.

More are on the horizon, Pulte’s Dolenga said.

The company’s Del Webb division offers floor plans with a “hearth room,” which is a space next to the great room with a fireplace and two comfy seats, where the homeowners likely will hang out and read, she explained.

Pulte and other builders recently have popularized the notion of a “drop zone,” which usually is an expanded version of the mudroom (between the garage and the rest of the house), where the homeowner and kids can come in and drop everything — the clutter of backpacks, car keys, cell phones, etc. — but the space is designed so that the stuff has a place to go, in a neat and in an organized fashion, she said. 

Then there’s the “planning center,” she said. At Pulte, it’s an area just off the kitchen: a dedicated computer space to pay bills, surf the Web on a tablet, do homework, etc.

One emerging design feature seems to be in search of a name. Lasner said that Lennar Corp. started something, semantically, with its NextGen floor plans in some markets. They function as a “home within a home” — essentially an apartment inside a house that allows multiple generations to live independently under one roof.

Other architects and builders also have designed variations on this theme, some of them units that are directly attached to the house; others are freestanding buildings on the same lot; still others are apartments built over a garage — all of them meant to appeal to multi-generational living. Lasner refers to such a concept as an “accessory unit,” though he admits the phrase lacks a certain panache.

If the concept catches on, what to call it? Pulte, for one, last year introduced in some markets an apartment-over-the-garage plan that it calls a “grand retreat.” But depending on their structure, they may be known as “granny flats,” “coach houses,” “backyard cottages,” “laneway houses” — the list goes on.

Stay tuned for what we’ll call the rooms of tomorrow.

Freelance writer Mary Umberger has covered real estate and home-related products for publications such as The Chicago Tribune, Inman News and other leading print and online publications.

Related Articles

Sign up for the Home of the Week

New Home 101
New eBook Available

Expert Advice on Buying & Building a New Home

The eBook will be delivered to your inbox. We will not share your email address.