Family Bonding by Design

Their house had all the trappings of the American Dream and the look that house magazines inspire others to want for their own homes. A country setting with a swimming pool, custom-designed interior and exterior spaces, a house with the look of success. Yet it somehow just didn’t feel right for family living. While it was a showpiece house tour winner, its design was riddled with SDD (Space Deficit Disorder), a “toxic asset” for the entire family. The architects of this dream home had failed to consider the space/behavior connection in their design.

An April article in Scientific American Mind1 on “How Room Designs Affect Your Work and Mood” confirms, through recent brain research, that we can “craft spaces that relax, inspire, awaken, comfort and heal.” Your home, condo, or apartment includes a collection of spaces designed to accommodate the various activities of you and your family’s life. These personal environments serve as a mold that reinforce patterns of behavior and performance, and can be either antagonistic or synergistic to your family’s goals, or as Sir Winston Churchill observed, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Every room you live in sculpts both individual and interpersonal behavior, although most of us are unaware of our interconnection with designed spaces. Change happens because we slowly adapt to the physical restrictions and features our spaces give us. At this moment the acoustics and lighting in your dining room may destroy vital family interactions or your arrangement in your home office may minimize productivity. Space and furniture layouts direct your use of space, affecting intimate and social behaviors. Seating arrangements impact interpersonal communications in living rooms, family rooms, and dining rooms (consider Archie and Edith Bunker’s chairs.) You can learn how to use the existing features of your interior environment as positive assets to your growth, health and success. The results are often astounding and immediate.

The Blakes are a family of four who are no longer communicating. Meaningful interactions, so essential to healthy family communication, are becoming increasingly isolated. Emotional stress is increasing and the mother feels a negative environment insidioiusly developing within the house they moved into just over two years ago. They have started family counseling.

Upon having the various spaces within the home evaluated for SDD, it can be observed that the dining and living room spaces are not functioning to supporting the family‘s stated desires of a creating a healthier family dynamic. The dining room, well furnished with beautiful antiques, is located in the center of the house with no access to natural sunlight. The walls of the room are painted sheet rock, producing a slightly hollow sound. Because of the echoey feeling, voices sound a little thin. A very small rug covers the floor beneath the table, but not under the legs of the chairs, thus denying the opportunity to establish a strong sense of an eating place within the room. Because there is no natural light, there is little natural contrast or visual stimulation that natural light normally produces. This “flat” space is flattening the attitude and mood of its occupants as they adapt to its offerings.

Although the room supports the requirements “dining” with sufficient square footage, it doesn’t support the social function of dining as a family interative and positive psychological experience. Dining in that space is setting up a family pattern of non-talking, because the physical qualities of the room don’t support it. The dining room — the room dedicated to the most social experience of family life — doesn’t bring the family together, but molds them in the opposite direction, the impact of which could affect interactions elsewhere in their behaviors.

Adjacent to the dining room, separated by a wall and doorway, is the living room, another space filled with SDD. The room is quite long and narrow with the seating arrangement beyond a ten foot diameter, too separated to support personal communication. The solution to both the dining room and living room dysfunctionality is to move the dining table into the under-used sunny end of the living room and convert the existing dining room into a well needed storage closet. By placing the dining table opposite the living room entry, still in close proximity to the kitchen, the living room is visually shortened and its new and cozier seating arrangement also better supports family communication around the shared coffee table.

The acoustics in the living room with its wall-to-wall carpeting are far better for communication. Installing an area rug under the dining table and chairs heightens the sense of containment of the eating space within the large space. A chandelier installed such that the bottom of fixture is at least 30“ off the table top and wall art installed at eye level of seated occupants adds the finishing touches of place making to the new family living space.

Simple Design Tips
• As you move from room to room, explore how gateways, pathways and destinations can be defined with effective placement of furnishings.
• Try warmer, darker colored entry spaces that “hug” you as you enter, then “release” you into lighter colored living spaces.
• The softer the acoustical environment — rugs, books, furniture — the more intimate the family dynamics.
• Try hanging some horizon line art (HLA) that complements the view from a favorite seated position within a room.

As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche proclaims, “The only way to implement our vision for society is to bring it down to the situation of a single household.”

1. Anthes, E., “How Room Designs Affect Your Work and Mood.” Scientific American Mind, Apr. 2009. Terry Cline, Lic. Architect and SpaceTherapy® consultant with more than 20 years of training and professional experience in residential design services, is the director of DwellRight Studios. He can be reached at 508-579-8233 or email