A House of One's Own

The way things look.
Jan. 7 1998 3:30 AM

A House of One's Own

A women's magazine surveys its readers to design a model home.

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A bigger garage. A cedar closet. An extra-large laundry room. Are these the stuff of women's dreams? Traditional Home, a home-design magazine for suburban women of childbearing age, thinks so. The magazine surveyed 800 women to find out what they wanted in their homes. Some of the questions were about things: What's at the top of your wish list? What would be in your dream house? Others were about feelings: What do you like about your home? Would you move? Who really makes the decisions?

Not surprisingly, the women wanted more storage space, maybe a whirlpool bath, and could foresee a day when their homes would feel like empty nests or crowded houses. Electronics were low on their lists. But the women were also attached to their domiciles, however imperfect. Eighty-two percent said their homes were most like "a resort, a place to relax." A majority said they were the decision-makers, where the house was concerned, and that they wanted to stay put.

Traditional Home then offered its readers a solution to their dilemmas: a less-than-traditional home--a "flexible house"--that the owners could change easily as their needs changed, without remodeling or moving. Readers loved the idea (they voiced doubts mainly about the cost), and so TraditionalHome entered the home-building business. The "Built by Women" project, a model home designed by women, for women, incorporates the survey responses into plans for a dream house. The magazine's November issue gave readers a first look at room layouts and façades for the project, and the January issue offers room-by-room photos of the first house, built in a Dallas suburb. Editor Karol DeWulf Nickell will be offering a satellite tour as well. Already some readers, for just $1,500, are buying the plans to build these homes themselves.

The Built by Women house, designed by Chicago architect Margaret McCurry, comes with three façade options: New England clapboard, ever trendy Tudor, and a yellow Texas brick. Many American subdivisions offer houses with similar basic historical touches--wrought-iron porch, half-timbers above the door--but leave the front wall fortress-like, with a garage door, a front door, and a small lookout window the only apertures. "I was in Phoenix recently, looking at a subdivision with new houses where there was a two-car garage in front and the front door--no other window on the street," McCurry said. "I could drive into that community and kidnap a little girl and no one would see." McCurry adds windows to let women watch the street as they read, work, or clean: both a security system for a paranoid age and a symbol of the old-fashioned American dream--picture window, pastel drapes, and all.

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F rom the outside, Built by Women is merely a sturdier version of the houses that builders slap down outside cities, planting two or three spindly trees by the driveway and calling it "landscaping." There are no communal kitchens or marble bathrooms; that's not what the women in the survey wanted. Instead, McCurry wanted to give women a house that makes their day-to-day routine comfortable. Readers who had recently built or remodeled said their homes reflected their designers' fancies, not their own needs: Counters were too high, misplaced lights cast shadows when women applied their makeup, there was more space for formal entertaining than for family dinners. Not so in McCurry's model. Readers said they wanted the areas where they spent the most time to have space and light, so McCurry has provided a spacious laundry room, generous hallways, a living room that's small enough to straighten easily but large enough to fit the whole family.

The women surveyed did want to retain some ceremonial space, so there's a formal front hall and parlor off the double-height foyer in the model house. But otherwise the emphasis is on the practical. The bathrooms, the stairs, and large closets are packed into a strip down the center of the house, and two sets of three rooms are lined up on either side. The garage fits within the rectangular footprint of the house, but along the side, so it no longer dominates the front of the house. The kitchen is positioned between the family room and the dining room, separated by swinging doors. The children's playroom is upstairs and over the garage, so the rugrats can jump up and down to their hearts' content.

The Built by Women house sounds superficially like the "open plan," the vogue in the 1960s, that was also supposed to offer ultimate flexibility. But the open plan proved less permanent than the lava lamp. No one wanted just a folding screen between the children's and parents' bedrooms. No one wanted to read a book in a drafty multipurpose area. That was for swingers, always planning their next key party. The 1990s flexible house is all about family. Family members can retreat to their own rooms, insulated from warring musical tastes by hallways, bathrooms, and closets. They have their own entrances: a mother-in-law suite on the first floor, a back door for dirty kids, a front door for first impressions. The entire family can come together around the dinner table, restored to central status from its incarnation as a nook or a counter. McCurry's house has lots of doorways and entrances, so that the mother-in-law and the children can find their own way to the dining room at dinner time, or exit when the parents need more privacy. The living room can be a home-entertainment center when the kids are young (it is well insulated, so Barney need not take over the house) and then a home office in the empty-nest stage (it's wired for the Internet).

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The Built by Women model home encloses a clear theory about keeping your family intact. Old-style feminism would have quarreled with Traditional Home's premise that women cared (and wanted to care) more about their homes than men do, and rejected the idea that the new-style "dream house" would involve more space for housework. But the magazine's contribution, feminist in its own way, is the utility of a plan that allows each room to have another function depending on the age of the owners, their children, and their parents--utility in the service of family unity. The Built by Women house is like a new wardrobe, with all the promise of the early Donna Karan: a house that fits, and stretches, and won't go out of style. Built by Women's goal is to put the average American family in a house that suits, for as long as possible.

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