Sunday, December 23, 2012

The four-function room

My husband and I made some unconventional choices when we commissioned the building of our Centerpointe house (the building of it plus the sixty-eight upgrades and structural modifications we added to the base plan, much to our builder's trepidation). 

For one thing, we did not want a McMansion, the type of massive suburban house that basically defines greater Houston, but which I feel is an overall waste of money, as well as posing poorer re-sale potential down the road as massive numbers of baby boomers retire and seek down-sized digs.  We just don't need that much space now, and we sure as hell won't need it when we are closer to retirement. 

For another thing, we were both past the stage in our lives where we could be satisfied by living in a generic tract home.  I'm sure that's been abundantly obvious from my many design and gardening posts. 

One of the decisions we made early on was to not have a dedicated guest room in our home.  If you run the numbers, you'll probably find that, in mortgage, local taxes, utilities, maintenance, and furnishings, your carrying costs for a guest room will average over a thousand dollars a year - and that's calculated in Houston where houses are dirt cheap, and that's at a time when mortgage rates are at record lows

This is the kind of annual out-lay that my husband and I could easily pay for, but this notion offends my conservative sensibilities because it represents the type of financial inefficiency that has come to plague the American middle-class, at their great silent slow-bleed peril.  Day by day, we tend not to notice the "little incremental wasted bits" we might pay on outsized mortgages or for trash service, but over time, it all adds up to represent a significant financial opportunity cost both individually and collectively.  I wasn't raised that way and those are not my values, so frugal lifestyle choices, which a generation ago were called "normal" but which have now become "thinking outside the box", are important to me from symbolic and self-identity perspectives as well. 

First function:  Guest room.
So no dedicated guest room in our house, but we did need a sleeping space for guests, and what that meant was that our "spare room" had to be designed to be convertible - to serve multiple purposes. 
In my last post, I described how we updated the style of this room, chiefly by using a rug as wall art.

But you can also see from this photo that this is an unusual room in several other respects as well.  I'll next describe the thought process behind those decisions.
The first and most fundamental thing a guest room must supply is a guest bed, but if you intend to have the room serve multiple purposes, it cannot be a conventional bed because they take up too much floor space.  There are basically three alternatives to a standalone bed:
  1. Sofa bed
  2. Murphy bed (aka "wall bed")
  3. Temporary bed such as the newer generation of inflatables.
Some of the inflatables are actually getting to be pretty advanced in terms of quality (e.g., this one looks good) but I immediately ruled them out for the following reasons:
  1. They just seem too insubstantial to me.  My goal is to be financially efficient, not cheap. 
  2. Too much overhead.  I don't want to have to drop what I'm doing in order to construct the Tinkertoy equivalent of a bed every time my teenager has a friend stay over. 
I was really, really fascinated with the idea of a Murphy bed, but here's what stopped me from buying one: you only get a single-function item for your substantial investment. 
Screengrab of a random Google ad.  By the time you get done factoring in the framework, the mattress, and some kind of low-end but decent-looking cabinetry or housing to hide it, you're going to be over two thousand dollars - no way around this. 
You're going to be paying over two thousand dollars for something that serves only as a bed.  Whereas if you take that same money and invest it in a high-end sofa bed, you'll get a bed AND a sofa - a really beautiful and practical high-quality leather sofa.  And after extensive research, that's what prompted my husband and I to choose this Natuzzi for our multi-purpose room (as always, no company pays me to endorse their products).
Here's the page for the product that we chose.  Google "Natuzzi sleeper sofa" if you want to see more links and more styles.  We really liked this nice clean timeless but modern or contemporary style.   
My husband and I were utterly horrified by the poor quality of most of the sleeper sofas on the market.  It's like the manufacturers had defined their sleeper sofa target demographic as being trailer trash or something - because don't most upper-middle-class Americans own McMansions by now, with their dedicated guest rooms??  And therefore people with money don't need to be buying sofa beds?!  That's the feeling we got during our extensive shopping and research. 

The Natuzzi was very different from the pack.  The mattress is a very good Tempurpedic - it feels to us like sleeping on a normal bed, not a flimsy mound of lumpy springs, which is what the other brands felt like to us.  I don't know if Natuzzi (an Italian company) advertizes as such, but one gets the feeling that perhaps they designed this thing for use in Europe, with its microscopic houses and flats - where home owners may need to sleep on something like this on a daily basis for lack of space.  And if it's going to be used daily, it better be good and it better be durable. 

Its engineering is really cool.
With most sofa beds, you pull off the bottom cushions and retract a very thin mattress out from within the bowels of the sofa.  The Natuzzi is actually engineered to be all one efficient piece.  You start by pulling the back forward...
...another view...
Have you ever "unfurled" a sofa before??  This is trippy. 
And here's the very comfortable result. 
Owing to this unusual one-piece engineering, we find that it works better if the "head of the bed" is actually farthest away from the frame, which is the opposite of how most people sleep in conventional sofa beds.  I place a little couch table or something near the pillows to hold guests' eyeglasses, travel clocks, or whatever. 
We have been extremely pleased with this choice.  My kid's teenaged friends crash on it, and either my husband or I will use it when he's doing rotating shift work, or when one of us has come down with a head cold and is keeping the other awake at night.  It's queen-sized, so plenty of room for two if necessary. 

And then when we are done with it, it furls back up again in two seconds. 

If you search for where to buy a Natuzzi sofa bed, the internet will return a bunch of high-end furniture stores around Houston, most of them contemporary or Danish.  But believe it or not, we bought this thing right here in Clear Lake.  It was at that furniture store on the northeast corner of NASA Road 1 and IH-45 - I believe it was Star Furniture which may have since moved to a new location on the other side of the freeway. 

The financial bottom line on this choice:  This Natuzzi was expensive - about $2,200.  But do you see what I've done here?  I may have purchased the Cadillac equivalent of an Italian leather sofa bed, but in the years since we bought it, I've correspondingly saved about $3,000 by not paying the costs on a typical dedicated tract-home guest room square footage.  Not only did I spend less money overall, I actually have something to show for that money - an excellent quality durable good that gets a lot of use and that we could take with us if we ever have to move to a new home.  That's my idea of a wise financial trade-off. 

Now for the other three purposes of this room.

Second function: Exercise room. 
You'll notice in the pics above that I had positioned a long thin black mat in front of the sofa. 
That's one of my older yoga mats.  This room must also function as our exercise room, but I don't want it to look like an ugly home gym.  The particular yoga mat shown here is a "lite" variety (it's thin - you can see ripples in the now-worn-out edges) which does not make for the best generic area mat (it no longer lays perfectly flat, so you'll trip over the edges if you keep it on the floor).  I will be ordering a much denser rubber mat which I will leave in front of the sofa at all times except when I pull it out into the middle of this floor to use it. 
Manduka is one of my favorite brands but I don't own one in black yet, which is what this room calls for design-wise.  They are extremely dense and lay perfectly flat (and they also make mats that are more appropriate for floor exercises that potentially result in more impact stresses than yoga... such as Pilates, maybe?  I don't know much about Pilates).  When I bought this navy blue one at Whole Earth Provision Company in the Galleria, the young, nerdy, socially-inept but endearing sales guy responded to my questions about durability with the response, "This mat will last longer than you will."  Ummmm.... I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be happy about that bit of perspective or not. 
Thinking outside the box:  Dedicating a dense yoga mat as as a decor design element in front of a sofa bed to provide visual grounding in the absence of a conventional area rug (because the area rug is instead mounted on the wall).  The navy blue Manduka shown above has to live in the back of my car, because if I try to shuttle it back and forth between my car and my exercise room, I will forget it in the exercise room and then I will show up at yoga class without my equipment.   For the sake of efficiency and to thwart middle-aged brain farting, I need one mat in each place.

The yoga mat isn't the only piece of exercise equipment in this 12' x 12' room:
Steampunk meets contemporary?  That's actually my decade-old Concept2 rowing machine in the corner, but coupled with my child's keyboard, a minimalist floating shelf, and a similarly-spindly floor lamp, it almost looks like a cohesive design moment has been established here.  Like it's supposed to all go together as a grouping of stylistically-related objects, rather than looking like a piece of exercise equipment simply jammed into an available corner.  That's the point.  I don't want it to look like a home gym. 
The wall rug rationale is further expounded thusly: I didn't want an area rug on this floor because I need to use the bare floor for these exercise purposes.  I need to be able to pull out the yoga mat and pull down the rower without an area rug being in the way.  Therefore the rug had to go on the wall.

Third function: Music room.
Obviously with the keyboard in the photos, you can see that the third function is as a music room.  I like to flop on the couch and listen to my child practice her piano skills, a family quality-time scenario that would not be possible if I had instead opted for a Murphy bed here. 

My husband and I also have hand-held musical instruments of our own, although we don't practice much.  But perhaps we will practice now that I've gotten this room finished, finally. 

Fourth function: Reading, quiet, and staging space.
The fourth function is defined by what you don't see here: no computers or TVs or other electronic devices in this room, and no clutter.  This also serves as a quiet room, a reading room, a napping room, whatever is needed in the way of temporary segregation. 

Because we intentionally left such a large open floor space, we also tend to use it as a staging room.  For instance, in packing for trips, we first spread all of our equipment and clothing out on this floor in order to do a visual inventory.  There's not another place in the entire house where we can do this kind of thing without interfering with foot traffic.  Almost all of our travel falls into these categories:  international and backcountry camping (sometimes both combined).  In each of those scenarios, you're in big trouble logistically if you forget a single piece of equipment.  So being able to first organize all travel items in a wide-open fifty-square-foot floor space is very helpful.  In other words, this room occasionally serves as the residential analog to an industrial laydown yard

So there you have it - our four-function room.  Happy holidays!  If your New Year's goals involve the achievement of greater degrees of fitness and home organization (which this site claims are two of the top ten most common resolutions), perhaps I've been able to provide a tiny bit of inspiration regarding both with this post (a two-function post on a four-function room??).

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