Thursday, June 21, 2007

Reinventing the Family Room

Reinventing the family room

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The hottest new thing in homes is a computer room with stations for parents and children. It's not without problems -- would you believe noisy kids and snooping parents? -- but it has increased family time.
By Kate Goodloe, The Wall Street Journal
(c) Dylan Ellis/Getty Images

The Lucido family used to spend a lot of weekday time apart -- kids in the toy room, mom Kelli working upstairs. So when they moved to a new house in Oakville, Mo., in December, Lucido says she came up with a fix: a whole-family home office, with mom-and-me desks and a new laptop for her 7-year-old. It's the "heart of the house," she says.

In an effort to eke out more quality time, some families are designing group home offices in which parents and kids can work together. Some are renovating existing rooms, installing desks and adding laptop ports for every member of the family, while others are ordering them as custom-built options in new homes. In its new Menifee, Calif., development, Capital Pacific Homes has a model outfitted with an "education space"; the bright-yellow room can fit up to eight stools and has desks that adjust to adult and kid heights.

Results are mixed. Some families say the shared workspaces help facilitate intergenerational bonding, with parents learning about YouTube and kids getting their first taste of Excel spreadsheets. But others say the new spaces are counterproductive -- after all, it isn't easy talking to clients when your kids are doing vocabulary drills in the background. And kids say it's hard to concentrate with parents interrupting their Web searches to give them unsolicited grammar lessons.

For Shannon and Fred Converse of Norwalk, Conn., a shared office has meant more time with their 13-year-old twins -- and more noise when they're trying to work. Since they converted their formal dining room into a space for everyone to work in together, the Converses say they've gotten to know each other a lot better. But when the parents, who own a tutoring business, are on the phone with clients, Eli and Jacob often erupt into cheers over computer-game victories, creating a "kind of hairy" situation, Shannon Converse says.

Eli says his parents can be a distraction, too: He recently wrote out a homework assignment, only to discover he had inadvertently copied down a transcript of his father's phone conversation instead of the schoolwork. Now, he tries to do at least some of his homework in his bedroom. "It's a lot quieter there," he says.

Credit: John Hartman

Interior designers say the family home office is in part a backlash against the McMansion-fueled sprawl in recent years that ceded separate bathrooms, libraries and entire wings of the house to children -- essentially cutting them off from the rest of the family. In a September survey by the American Institute of Architects, the shared office was named the most popular "special-function room," with home theaters second.

But in a BlackBerry world, it's also a way for parents who take their work home with them to not lose touch with -- or sight of -- their kids. About 20 million people did some work from home in 2004, with about half simply taking work home from the office, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nancy Stack says she and her two teenage daughters spend hours some evenings in their family's Corona del Mar, Calif., home office, with three computers, two printers, custom workstations for the girls and a mahogany desk for Nancy Stack.

Nancy Stack uses the room to make conference calls to doctors and researchers for the nonprofit foundation she runs; 10th-grade Natalie is studying European history and 17-year-old Alex is researching saints for a religion course.

While she says the arrangement has "brought us closer together," she says it has also led to some tensions. When her older daughter started updating a MySpace page in the office, Nancy Stack objected to language and pictures other users posted on the networking site -- and banned her kids from using it. Without the room, Nancy Stack says, she "wouldn't have known about it."

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