From Dining Rooms to Flex Spaces

A study room, well-decorated with attractive white chairs and wooden shelves full of study materials and picture frames.

Instead of a formal dining room, homeowners of this Pecos plan by Ashton Woods Homes in Dallas opted for a reading room/study. Courtesy of Ashton Woods Homes.

When Marika Meyer and her husband reimagined their home in Washington, D.C., the couple converted their dining room into a library with walls of built-in bookcases.

Meyer, owner of Marika Meyer Interiors, uses the library for several functions.

“Instead of a traditional desk, I put a 40-inch round table in the center of the room where my kids can play with Legos,” she says. “When we have a cocktail party, our guests like to linger there, because it’s a nice space to have a conversation. We’ve also served dinner there when we have another couple for dinner and want to be cozy.”

A cultural shift from formal to casual lifestyles has transformed the way people live in their homes today. The formal living room was the first casualty of informal living and now the traditional dining room is fading from floor plans in favor of flexible spaces. 

According to a survey by Angie’s List, 62 percent of respondents say they have family dinners nearly every night and another 18 percent say they manage family dinner at least three times per week. But the majority of these families don’t gather in a traditional dining room. Instead, 57 percent dine at a table or island in the kitchen and 36 percent eat in the family room or living room. 

“In almost every one of our new communities, there’s a focus on the breakfast nook and kitchen island instead of a formal dining room,” says Leigh Spicher, national director of design studios for 
Ashton Woods Homes, a luxury homebuilder based in Atlanta that builds in numerous markets. “People want an extended kitchen island, a separate table that complements the kitchen counter or a tiered island that makes it into a table where you can seat up to 14 people.”

Spicher says that in their new Southern Hills community in Dallas, six of the first 13 homes to sell have a floor plan without any dining room at all.

“Buyers are taking the space on the floor plan that was a formal dining room and turning it into a home office, even in some of our smaller homes,” Spicher says. 

The mentality that every space in the home had to be separate to protect guests from the noise and mess of the kitchen has disappeared, says Louis Conrad, co-owner of 
Surge Homes in Houston, particularly as homes got smaller.

“Developers and architects had to reinvent space so that a smaller home feels larger,” says Conrad. “The revolution in design started with removing the wall between the living and dining room and then removing the wall between the dining room and the kitchen. The next step was to design better kitchens since the room is so visible.” 

Regional Differences in Desirability of a Dining Room

Spicher says that in most markets, buyers choose function over formality, with the exception of Raleigh, N.C. 

“Raleigh is more traditional, so even buyers who have opted not to have a formal living room want a formal dining room,” says Spicher. “But they tend to furnish it a little more casually. Some of our buyers there ask us to enclose the space with a barn door to keep it as a dining room or to repurpose for a kids’ room.”

In the Charleston market, more buyers are converting the dining room space into a home office or a play room, Spicher says.

Washington, D.C., is known for its traditional homes, but many homeowners there opt to use their dining room for completely different functions or at least design the space so it’s usable for multiple functions including an occasional dinner party, says Meyer.

Functional Options for Dining Room Spaces

According to the Angie’s List survey, two-thirds of respondents still have traditional furniture in their dining rooms, but they use the table for homework, crafts, board games or storage. Another 13 percent have eliminated their dining room furniture to convert the space into a yoga room or a place outfitted for art projects and crafts. 

“Sometimes people want to have a dining room where they can entertain on holidays and special occasions,” says Spicher. “But they want to be able to use the room the other 90 percent of the time, so we can help them create a built-in tech center, yet still have room for a dining table.”

Meyer says many of her clients have young children and choose to turn the dining room into the “ultimate” kids’ playroom.

“They’ll put down kids’ play mats all over the floor and fill the room with toys and playhouses,” she says. “If they’re hosting a holiday, they can pull out all the mats and put in a temporary table. A lot of them say they’ll redo their dining room when the kids get older.”

Another of Meyer’s clients wanted to use their dining room, but in a nontraditional way. 
“They’re passionate about wine, so they made their dining room more like a wine lounge, with linear, backlit wine storage on the walls and a gorgeous table that works as wine tasting table and as a dining table,” Meyer says.

Two of Meyer’s other clients requested plans that allow them to use the dining room as a study and an eating space.

“In one plan we built in workstations for each of the kids to do their homework that had storage space and workspace and then custom-designed a table they could move around for entertaining,” says Meyer. “For the other home, we turned the larger dining room in family living space and converted a small den into the dining room. The dining room is smaller and has a 48-inch round table to use for paperwork, plus two leaves that can be squeezed in for the occasional dinner.”

Office, kids’ paradise, crafts’ room or yoga studio: dining rooms have become multifunctional spaces — just not always for eating.

Michele Lerner is an award-winning freelance writer, editor and author who has been writing about real estate, personal finance and business topics for more than two decades. You can find her on Google+.

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