By Connie Bastyr, Dan Cary and Larry Okrend
A spare room, unlike a spare tire, shouldn’t stay hidden away for emergency use. Any unassigned or vacated bedroom is valuable real estate, so make it a vital part of your home before it turns into a mere staging area for clutter. You can still use the room to house occasional guests, but you might as well enjoy it year-round.
To envision the space’s potential, consider your needs and your dreams. Do you long for more privacy or entertainment, a place for study or creativity — or even to pursue a new career? What are your hobbies, interests and pastimes? Imagine the possibilities, and new functions will unfold.
Trend watchers in home design say today’s consumers want products that serve more than one purpose; we’re seeking efficiency and economy from our homes as well as their contents. To expand your vision and your home’s functionality (without expanding its square footage and depleting your budget), here are three designs that take a nondescript space to new spheres of usefulness.
The Home Office
Designing a home office is not much different from planning any other room that requires specialized organization; only the details differ. Whether you want an efficient, businesslike environment or a comfortable, homey space (or a combination of both), keep these basic considerations in mind:
Power - A home office is the ideal location for your house’s nerve center: for example, a wiring hub for lighting and security systems, computer networking and communications. If you use a wireless network, you may need to place the router in a central location to achieve the best reception. Be sure the electrical circuits can handle the required load, and have an electrician add circuits if necessary. Remember to provide adequate cooling and ventilation for electronics because excessive heat can cause them to fail.
Windows - Natural light is desirable, provided it isn’t too harsh, which can cause glare on a computer screen. Position computer monitors on the same wall as the windows or on a wall that’s perpendicular to windows — never on the opposite wall. Ideally, using two window treatments is the best approach: one to diffuse the light (such as translucent shades) and the other to block it (opaque shades).
Lighting - If your office has no natural light, you’ll need to create your own lighting scheme. Relying exclusively on flat lighting, such as that produced by overhead fluorescent fixtures, is a poor choice because it can cause eyestrain and make it difficult to distinguish shapes. Add soft directional lighting and task lighting to create a better scheme. Consider using table lamps, track lights or can lights for a more pleasant environment. You can also control the mood by selecting bulbs with a warmer or cooler color temperature. Dimmers can help to reduce energy consumption with incandescent lamps.
Furniture - With some modification, the concept of the kitchen “work triangle” is applicable to a home office. Being able to access your computer, printer, filing and supplies by simply rotating in your chair is ideal. When shopping for office furniture, look for modular systems that keep your major tasks within easy reach. Also look for a workstation with features such as an adjustable-height keyboard tray, wire-management provisions, mechanical drawer glides and work surfaces large enough to accommodate your present and future office equipment. Be wary of complicated ready-to-assemble furniture with numerous parts. The convenience of buying assembled furniture might be worth the extra cost. For a clean look, you could also opt for a workstation that can be folded and hidden behind doors.
Flooring - In an office, reducing noise can be essential to your concentration. Rugs or short-pile carpeting will help to reduce ambient noise. Whatever floor treatment you select, it should be caster-friendly for your office chair and mobile furniture. If you choose carpeting, use a plastic floor mat under your chair to keep it rolling smoothly.
You can control house lighting directly from your home-office PC with a wireless modular control system. This USB stick from HomeSettings by Intermatic loads software on the computer and controls lighting modules.
Home-office workstations provide an efficient, compact solution for organizing most common computer hardware. Shelves, keyboard pullouts and wiring chases help to reduce clutter and improve ergonomics.
To prevent eyestrain caused by harsh lighting, these translucent Roman shades from Levolor diffuse outside light and create a more pleasing soft light. You could add a layer of opaque curtains to completely block light if needed.
The Hobby Center
To be functional, a hobby center/studio must offer work space and provide for organization and storage. But to be truly inspiring, the room should also reflect your personality, stimulate your creativity and beckon you to spend your leisure time there.
If your hobby is artful (and most are), you can help to achieve this goal by planning for ample display space. Showcasing your projects encourages further creativity and productivity. In addition, displaying collections — even if they’re not related to your hobby — adds atmosphere and makes the room your own.
As you dream of your ideal hobby room, imagine how you might include some of these necessities and amenities:
Furniture - Whether you’re using existing pieces or adding custom built-ins, choose bookcases, dressers, cabinets and other storage systems that organize hobby tools, supplies and equipment. Include a table of counters designed to fit your height. Add an island made of manufactured base cabinets or even a mechanic’s tool chest with drawers or storing tools and supplies. If possible, designate a file cabinet for hobby-related patterns, plans, instructions, ideas, etc.
A/v and power - Don’t forget mood music: Adding a radio or CD player lets you choose the right tunes for inspiration, relaxation or recharging your energy. You may want to forgo a TV if you find it distracting, though it can allow you to watch instructional videos or inspiring how-to programs.
Storage - Because hobby materials, art supplies and even tools are visually interesting and inspiring, storage can double as display space. Depending on your preferences, incorporate built-in wall units and/or furniture to either hide or show off your stash. Carefully evaluate the closet’s potential for a custom storage system, and select containers that fit your gear (large or small, drawers or shelves, hooks and bars, bins). By removing the closet doors and adding lighting, you can transform the closet into a built-in nook for a desk or workstation.
Lighting - Natural light (from windows and skylights) is best for most hobby-related activities. For evening work, provide good general (ambient) lighting as well as direct (task) lighting. Even on sunny days, you’ll probably need task lighting (provided by lamps, spotlights and pendants) in some work areas. To power additional lamps, glue guns, Dremel tools, a sewing machine and iron, or other electric hobby gear, consider adding outlets on the wall above countertops or work areas. As an alternative, you can install a wall-mount power strip or use plug-in surge protectors.
Flooring and walls - When choosing colors and finishes, consider aesthetics as well as functionality. For flooring, a hard surface with minimal pattern offers easy cleanup and makes it easier to find dropped pins, screws, beads, small model parts, etc. Use wall surfaces to your advantage: Apply chalkboard paint, magnetic paint or dry-erase paint so you can easily post notes and ideas. For textile projects, a large flannel panel on the wall can hold patches of fabric (without pins), allowing you to step away for a broader view.
For a hobby area, cork is an ideal smooth-flooring material. It’s cushioned, quiet and easy to keep clean. These cork tiles from Lumber Liquidators provide an easy-to-install floating floor system.
Slatted wall systems (Suncast is shown) aren’t just for the garage or shop. They provide convenient access to tools and supplies, their storage potential is flexible, and they look cool.
Because bedrooms tend to have limited natural light, we added a tubular light (a Solatube Daylighting System) to improve visibility and to provide for more accurate color rendering.
The Media Room
You don't need to build your own multiplex to enjoy a theater experience at home: Your spare bedroom is only a few electronic components and a comfortable chair away from becoming a media haven. Even if you’re not a film buff or video-game fanatic, a media room’s quiet, comfortable ambience makes it a great place for reading, playing board games and doing puzzles.
For this makeover, in addition to adding new furnishings, we replaced the sliding closet doors with a single door. This created wall space on which to hang the TV and the front speakers, and the closet behind the new wall hides all of the audiovisual (AV) components and media (DVDs, CDs, video games, books, board games, etc.)
If you’re planning to build or retrofit a media room, consider this checklist of modifications and components:
Lighting - Install multiple light sources that can be adjusted independently. Indirect accent lights such as wall sconces provide ambient light during video viewing. Floor lamps, track lights and hanging pendants can all be great sources of directional task lighting for reading or games. Use a combination of light sources, including natural light from windows, to provide general room lighting. Install room-darkening blinds or curtains to block sunlight during video viewing and to improve acoustics by covering the hard glass surface.
Sound - Soundproofing retains the sound from the TV and blocks distracting noise from outside the room. You can improve soundproofing by simply adding a second layer of drywall; extensive enhancement may involve rebuilding the walls with staggered stud framing, insulation and special soundproofing drywall products.
Because large hard and flat surfaces are not good for acoustics, your décor choices can affect soundproofing. For the best results, hang heavy fabric curtains over windows, cover hard floors with carpet or large area rugs, and add soft furniture.
Furniture - Ample comfortable seating options are a must. If you plan to use the room for reading, at least one seat should adjust to an upright position. Choose tables with storage to keep items such as remote controls and reading material within reach.
Electronics - Select a screen that is the right size for the room. A high-definition screen (measured diagonally) should be no larger than one-half the distance from the TV to the seats.
Keep floor space open by wall-mounting speakers and video displays. To further limit distractions and clutter, you can hide AV components in a closet, but be sure to provide additional ventilation and air circulation to all enclosed electronics.
To avoid having a basket full of remote controls, invest in a universal unit that can operate all of your components — some models can even control lights and power window blinds. You may need to install an infrared-remote repeater system or use a radio-frequency remote control to allow the signal to reach the hidden components.
The Niles MSU140A is an infrared-remote repeater system that uses a small receiver located in the media room and transmitters attached to each component to deliver the remote-control signal.
A home integration system such as Lifeware software provides on-screen control of AV components, lighting, power shades and even heating and cooling.
Get speakers off the floor and out of sight: Onsia flat-panel in-wall speakers mount flush with the wall surface and are concealed with drywall mud and paint.