For a recent study, UCLA-affiliated researchers in fields ranging from anthropology to sociology used cameras to record in great detail how 32 dual-income families living in the Los Angeles area used their homes. Their findings link real data to something about which I have been yelling into the void for years: Nobody is actually using their formal living and dining rooms. Families actually spend most of their time in the kitchen and the informal living room or den.
Yet we continue to build these wastes of space because many Americans still want that extra square footage, and for a long time, that want has been miscategorized as a need.
Any big-house ethnographer can see this in episodes of shows like House Hunters, where the prospective buyers will say infuriating things like, “I like having Thanksgiving at my house every other year, so I’m going to need a chef-level kitchen and a two-story deck.” This claim has about as much substance as another common House Hunters trope: “I like this house, but that easily repaintable green half-bath is a deal-breaker for me.”
TV hate-watching aside, it’s important for us as homebuyers, -builders, and renters to be able to discern a need versus a want (or as my mother says, an “I cannot” versus an “I don’t want to”) when looking for a potential home. “Entertaining space,” as it is marketed by builders, realtors, media, and popular culture, is, more often than not, a want that has been rationalized and internalized, and thus feels like a need. But now that science proves that nobody uses their formal living and dining spaces, it’s time for us to sit down and have a struggle session with “space for entertaining.”
Elite houses, from the domus of a Pompeian politician to the Palace of Versailles, from Biltmore to McMansions in subdivisions named Biltmore, have always maintained a separation of formal and informal space. The absence of all that extra space (combined with the standardization and mass production of building materials) is what made detached single-family housing inexpensive and accessible to different classes in the first place. One of the simplest reasons so many clamor for formal spaces is because they are a signifier of wealth and prestige, a sign of having “made it.”
These spaces are frequently articulated in a house’s architecture, partly for their symbolic value. These elements show up in exaggerated forms: The irregular massing and enormous windows of two-story foyers and great rooms, as well as formal dining rooms (often nested in a separate mass or articulated with wall-to-wall windows) facing the street, are such common McMansion features that yours truly has, over the past three years, immortalized them with a series of pejorative terms (Lawyer Foyer! Dining Turret!). If these rooms were designed for their actual practical purposes (entertaining) instead of being architectural megaphones for their owners’ money, they wouldn’t be cavernous spaces where it takes 50 steps to walk from the refrigerator to the oven, where the windows are so large that the heating/cooling bill is hundreds of dollars with an added bonus of being able to get a sunburn inside, and where the mere clinking of plates (much less a conversation) mercilessly reverberates through 3,000 square feet of pure echo.
The ironic inefficiency of hyper-exaggerated high-end entertaining spaces belies a truth: These spaces aren’t really designed for entertaining. They’re designed for impressing others. And not just impressing others: After all, it’s general politeness to compliment a host on their home no matter how impressive it is. The real goal, deeply embedded in these oversized, over-elaborate houses, is not for guests to say, “Oh wow, this is nice,” but to make them think, “Oh wow, this is nicer than what I have and now I feel jealous and insecure.” In true American irony, these giant “social” spaces (and McMansions in general) are birthed from a deeply antisocial sentiment: making others feel small. Considering that so often our guests are members of our own family adds another layer of darkness to the equation.
Of course, keeping up with (or surpassing) the Joneses isn’t the only motivation for designing homes with formal entertaining spaces. Most people don’t consciously want to crush the self-worth of their visitors. This is where the concept of “want” versus “need” comes back into play.
Entertaining space is very cleverly marketed and popularized by home and garden media entities like Houzz, DIY, and HGTV in a way that makes it feel like an essential. It’s no coincidence that most of the ads on these sites and channels are for mortgages, home decor, builders, real estate companies, and Home Depot. All of these entities benefit from your insecurity about the efficiency and worthiness of your home, and they also benefit when you make your home bigger or buy (and furnish) a bigger home.
Entertaining is emotional, as anyone who has fretted about getting the house “presentable” for guests—or seen someone else fret about the same—can attest. When we allow others into our space, we become vulnerable. We want to be good hosts, for everything to go as smoothly as possible, and for our guests to be happy and comfortable. Often, this is because they are our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family—people we care about and respect, and whose care and respect we want in return. But in all the hubbub of hosting, we sometimes forget that friends and family already care about us—they’re there to see us, not our houses, nor our stuff. Besides, even if we’re hosting work events or fundraisers where some of the guests are strangers, nobody is going to be so impolite as to call out a lack of specific home features like high great-room ceilings. Even if they were to do such a thing, fear of isolated rudeness hardly justifies building thousands of square feet of entertaining space or going into debt getting a bigger house.
At the same time, many of us feel compelled to entertain. We all want to feel like power hosts, extremely likeable and sociable people who are the life of the party. We need that second dining room because it is an architectural manifestation of our above-average social lives and unnaturally large circles of friends and admirers. But not all of us were built for entertaining in the first place, and perhaps we should examine ourselves and our social preferences before building massive spaces for people we most likely won’t ever see. We think our spaces will create the lives we want: If only we had a great room with an expansive deck, we could finally host big, sophisticated, straight-out-of-Mad Men parties. That built-in Tiki bar will definitely make us reconnect with all of our friends from college, and maybe if we had that massive kitchen, Aunt Jane and Dad would finally stop arguing about politics at Thanksgiving and peace would descend upon the entire world. These sentiments reflect two commonly held American cultural beliefs: that we can solve our problems (or at least feel better about them) by simply buying things, and that the best social lives are ones that involve hosting grand parties. But we can entertain where and how we want to. It can be as simple as inviting a few people over to hang out in the spaces we already have.
Even if we do use our great rooms and formal dining rooms to host Thanksgiving and entertain those circles of friends, we’re still designing our spaces for maximum occupancy instead of the average family of three to five people who actually live in them every day. If you build a 4,000-square-foot house for a family of four, that’s 1,000 square feet per person, and if the house were being used to its full potential, nobody would ever see each other. There’s a reason why the UCLA study showed that the most-used common areas are the kitchen and the informal living room: People like to spend time together eating and watching TV, without the glare from those two-story great-room windows. Large, unused spaces designed for social functions foster isolation instead.
Designing our homes for the worst-case scenario—a hundred people are all at our house for a party and the party is also a tribunal where all of our guests publicly judge us—prioritizes guests who spend a very short amount of time in our houses over our own daily needs. As the UCLA study indicates, we vastly overestimate how much we will be entertaining, and this is especially true for houses in neighborhoods where a 30-minute drive is required of anyone who wants to visit in the first place.
When planning or searching for your next home, prioritize (and be honest with yourself here) the spaces you and your family will use every day. More often than not, a dining room is all the extra space you’ll need for major holidays. If your living room, dining room, and kitchen are designed for heavy and practical use, they will easily accommodate a few extra people.
And no matter the layout of your chosen home, if you want to entertain, entertain! Nobody is stopping you from being the savvy socialite you want to see in the world, and you definitely don’t need 1,000 square feet of otherwise useless space to have your friends over for drinks. In college, you likely hosted great parties where everyone managed to fit in your tiny and probably much more rundown apartment. Channel that earlier self, and you might find that your house has very little to do with it.
Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer and is currently a graduate student in Acoustics as part of a joint program between Johns Hopkins University and Peabody Conservatory, where her focus is in architectural acoustics.