Closets vs. Armoires

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Gunston Hall, one of America's first great homes

   Of all the elements in today's American homes, closets just might be considered the second-most essential, right behind the bathroom. How could we possibly live without closets? But if you'll look at plans of the greatest American homes ever built, you'll notice that most of the ones built before the 1920s had very few if any closets for clothes. How was that possible? Didn't they have more than a single change of clothes?

   Yes, they did, and it was actually quite easy. Rather than having fixed closets, they had a number of different pieces of furniture such as armoires, bureaus, chests-of-drawers, etc., for storing hanging clothing, folded clothing, etc. And when you look at those plans, you'll notice that the fact that they're not "gunked up" with closets all over the place allows the plans to be much cleaner, with better-proportioned rooms, doors, and windows.

   Clean plans, however, are just the beginning. Storing clothes in furniture rather than closets allows much more flexibility because it allows rooms to do the unthinkable: change from a bedroom to an office, dining room, den, study, library, and back again, just by moving furniture around.

   It also saves a lot of space. A stud wall with 5/8" sheetrock on either side is nearly 5" thick by the time you get it mudded and painted or finished with wallcovering. An armoire wall thickness is likely closer to 3/4". Reduce every closet wall by over 4" and you pick up some really usable space in a plan.

   You may also save money. We don't often consider the real cost of closets. By the time you frame the walls, sheetrock them, install the door frames, the doors, the hinges, the latches, the baseboard and possibly the crown mold on the outside of the closet, you've easily spent more than enough money to build a really nice armoire that can store just as much clothing as the closet. And if you've designed it well, the armoire is far more attractive than the closet.

   There's another benefit as well: Closet walls built to the ceiling make the bedroom smaller. But when you use armoires instead, they don't go all the way to the ceiling and as a result, the room looks bigger.

   With all these benefits, why would you not want to store your clothes this way? Like drywall-free walls, replacing closets with armoires is scary to most designers and builders because it isn't their normal way of doing things. Wanda and I designed Coastal Living's 2011 Idea House, and we designed all of the clothing storage in furniture pieces instead of closets. Just like the walls I blogged about earlier, the developer cautiously went along with the idea… until the drawings were done and the interior decorator got involved. Her influence was just enough to push the house back into using closets again. So remember that with any revolutionary idea, all of the experts (architects, designers, decorators, builders, developers, and real estate agents) will likely recommend against it because it's not what they're accustomed to. They're accustomed to doing ordinary things. But if you want an extraordinary home, make that very clear to them… if you prevail, they'll likely thank you for it once it's built.

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Drywall-Free Walls

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Here's what drywall-free walls can look like. This example is from Eric Moser's Coastal Living Idea House in Habersham, South Carolina.

   Drywall is such a pervasive building material today that it's almost impossible to imagine building a house (or office) without it. It wasn't always that way. Drywall has only existed for just over a century, and didn't become the normal way of building interior walls until after WWII.

   Think about the "drywall" term for a minute. Ever think what it really means? Yeah, that's right - it works fairly well… so long as the wall is dry. But leave the window open while a summer shower blows in, or let the roof leak, and "dry-wall" turns into "wet-mush." One dousing of water, and it's a moldy, mildewy mess. You have to rip it all off, down to the studs, and rebuild the room. So the slogan should be "dry-wall or mush-wall"! And remember the Chinese Sheetrock Disaster recently… it doesn't necessarily even need to get wet to breed mold and mildew.

   Simply put, drywall can't endure imperfection. Not only does it fail when a bit of moisture causes it to breed disease-causing mold and mildew, but it's really fragile in other conditions as well. Have a couple teenage kids that like to horse around? Chances are, they'll probably smash a hole in the drywall before too long. Bump the vacuum against it a bit too hard? You'll knock its paper face off. Try hanging a picture and can't find the strength of a wood stud behind the powdery drywall? You just may make a real mess of things.


Katrina Cottage VIII, which we designed, was built drywall-free

   There is a better way that doesn't cost so much more, and we've started to improve it for today's needs. Ever been to a little Atlantic beachfront cottage built before WWII? You might remember that the walls were sheathed in wood boards, and often left open on one side so you don't need wood on both sides of the wall. Really charming. And really useful as well. You can hang a picture, attach a peg, hang a cabinet or a shelf, and never have to worry about whether it's solidly attached. And you can actually build shelves within the wall as well, so that you're using ever cubic inch for storage instead of the hidden cavities of drywall-sheathed walls that breed mold and mildew when wet, and house roaches and mice.


shelves inside fin wall transition smoothly

to kitchen shelves in Katrina Cottage VIII

   Some immediately protest "but what about the acoustical privacy?" What about it? Who is in the house with you? Your kids? Do you really not want to hear what your kids are doing? OK, maybe there are some times you don't… like when you're already in your bedroom for the night, but the need for acoustical privacy elsewhere in a house is dramatically overblown. If we're talking about a powder room just off the living room, then yes, you probably want to insulate those walls. But most other walls don't require insulation so much as we might think.

   I should note that we tried - and failed - to build drywall-free walls recently. Wanda and I designed the Coastal Living Idea House this year, and it was designed with many of the walls open. The developer was cautious about it because he had never built anything that way before, but he agreed to do it… all the way up to the point when the drawings were finished. But once the decorator (who had never done it before, either) got involved, her influence was just enough to tip the scales against it. So if you're planning on doing this, just be aware that the deck is stacked against you because everyone you work with will be in unfamiliar territory, and the unfamiliar makes people nervous. But the usefulness and charm you get in return for a few extra dollars is well worth it, and how can you put a dollar figure on a healthier house for your family?

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