August 21, 2000 (UP)--For many, the American dream house has turned into the American disappointment. Our houses provide shelter, but not sanctuary. They contain us, but they don't comfort us.

Attractive and well appointed though they may be, many houses just don't live up to their potential. They meet or even exceed basic physical requirements, but do precious little for fundamental emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs.

We have living rooms we don't really live in and dining rooms we don't really dine in. We have family rooms that are, despite the fireplace and entertainment center, vacant much of the time. We have bigger houses with more rooms than ever before, and where do we end up? In a spare bedroom, often rechristened the TV room, furnished with cast-off--but divinely comfortable--furniture.

The most sought-after, status-conscious features have let us down. The soaring cathedral ceilings that dazzled us when we were house hunting now dwarf us. Floor-to-ceiling window walls make us feel exposed and vulnerable. Relentlessly wide-open floor plans leave us lusting for just one cozy corner to retreat into.

How do you get a house with heart and soul?

The cautionary adage "Be careful what you wish for because you may get it" applies. Many of us got precisely the kind of house we wanted. Or thought we wanted.

What we didn't get was a home. And the trophy houses, mini-mansions, junior embassies, and faux chateaux sprawling across suburban America suggest we still aren't thinking hard enough.

"How did McMansions, as I call them, come to be so prevalent? The answer is that we're living in a world of excesses, where marketing geniuses have cleverly taught us that more is better, and we unwittingly bought into it," says David Jensen, an Oakland County builder known for his neo-traditional subdivision, Westwood Common, a nostalgic neighborhood of close-together, two-story homes with sidewalks and a communal area.

So how do you get a house with heart and soul, a home that responds to the physical and emotional needs of your family, a home in which the emphasis is on the quality of life, not the quantity of space?

"What you do is ask yourself: How does this house or object add value to my life? Is the quality of my life measured by the size of my house? Isn't quality more important than quantity?" says Jensen, who knows of an architect who claims to have hastily designed a 28,000-square-foot house on a paper napkin.

"The key is to think about your personal values, how you live, how you want to live," writer Jim Tolpin says. "You need to follow your instincts instead of fighting them and think long and hard about the kinds of spaces that are most comforting to you."

Fortunately, there are signs that a few free thinkers are beginning to do just that. Tolpin tracked some of them down for his coffee-table book, "The New Family Home" (Taunton Press, $34.95). Along the way he identified some significant trends that reflect new attitudes about family life and new approaches to home building:

  • Spaces to be together: "While one-function rooms isolate members of a family, communal rooms bring them together and let them share their lives," Tolpin says. For their home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Grace Gordon-Collins and Ernest Collins designed a great room that combines the functions of a kitchen, dining room, and family room--in less space than three separate rooms would have required. They dispensed with a formal living room and dining room altogether. A grand piano and a fireplace attract and hold members of the household, encouraging them to spend time with each other. Furniture groupings, area rugs, and adjustable lighting define intimate "rooms" within the larger space.

  • Spaces to be apart: In-house sanctuaries acknowledge our need for occasional solitude. A small attic space, a snug library or den--even a window seat--off the beaten path can be a retreat. Near Boston, John and Kathy Cook appended a modest screened-in porch to the back of their house, in the process providing a literal catwalk for the family feline as well. Gracious but far from grand, it's a place to gaze into the woods, watch wildlife, feel the caress of summer breezes and soothe jangled nerves. "The careful balance between communal and private spaces is always an important consideration for a family home," Tolpin says. So is prioritizing. In emotional terms, what matters most--a cozy retreat or a status-seeking two-story entranceway?

  • Fitting in a home office: Single-purpose rooms are a waste of space and money. In Harriet and Russ De Wolfe's home north of Seattle, a modest guest bedroom does double duty as a home office. The strategy maximizes the use of space without resorting to putting the office in a high-traffic area. "A room doesn't always have to be what the label on the floor plan says, Tolpin says. "Flexibility and versatility can be built in: A first-floor guest room today may be a teenager's bedroom tomorrow and then a master bedroom down the line."

    Putting emotional issues on par with--or even ahead of--physical requirements can make any house more family-friendly, even if a specific family consists of just one or two people.

    "Some architects and builders are finally getting on the right track," says Jensen. "As we get older, wiser, and more experienced in life, we ultimately realize that if life is measured by the things you have, you probably have few, if any, close family members or friends."

    Writer Jim Tolpin says, "We need to stop choosing houses just because they're spacious, because they're convenient to the hairdresser or the shopping mall, or because they're status symbols. We need to think about how we really want to live, acknowledge and respect the rightness of our own feelings, and stop fighting our instincts."

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