The Advantages and Disadvantages of Sunken Living Rooms

Much like fashion, sometimes there are trends in architecture that, for better or worse, resurface.  Lately, we’ve been seeing more and more discussions of sunken living rooms.  They are showing up everywhere from period appropriate tv shows, like the very popular Mad Men, to more surprising places, such as contemporary design magazines like Dwell.

Mad Men Living Room.

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It has become apparent that this idea is no longer stuck in the past.  There are several great, contemporary spaces that implement this 1960’s idea, such as this home in Los Angeles.

Lahontan Homes.

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The space of the living room, while on a lower level than the kitchen and dining area, feels open and inviting, even with the hardness of exposed structure and concrete flooring.  The open, sunken living area balances the coziness of the kitchen and dining rooms beautifully.

Perhaps that is one of the greatest advantages of this design concept – the feeling of openness.

Eero Saarinen’s Miller House.

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This feeling of openness can be achieved without raising the ceiling plane.  Take, for example, Eero Sarrinen’s Miller House, built in 1957.  The living area is truly sunken, surrounded by the higher flooring of the main living level on all sides.   The flat plane of the ceiling appears at a modest height, yet the entire spaces feels more open than if the living area were not lowered.  While there are few walls, which also add to the spacious feel, this openness is in large part due to the fact that the furniture does not chop up the space.

Curved Sunken Living Room.

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Another advantage of the “conversation pit” is that it is a way to define a separate space without using walls.  Consider another open space with an inviting recessed circular seating area.  The sunken spaces seems very intimate, though it is part of a very large space overall.  The space is defined not only by the recessed floor, but also by the curved seating and the repetition of the circular forms on the ceiling with the vault and lighting fixture.   A cylindrical space is formed within the larger rectangular room, giving an intimate place of repose.

Outdoor sunken patio area.

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Sunken seating areas are not just for the interior of the home, but can be great outdoors.  This recessed patio area reinforces the geometry of the architecture while providing a functional area to sit and relax outside.

Recessed Seating in Pool.

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One last advantage to sunken seating is the added drama that it creates.  This recessed seating peninsula serves as a prime example.  The sitting area would still be lovely if it were at the height of the pool, but lowering it below the water line gives this space dramatic flare without interrupting the beautiful view.

Scale:  Too large for the room.

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With the many advantages to sunken living rooms, one has to wonder why they went out of style at all.  In truth, there are several disadvantages.  For instance, scale must be noted.  If only a small space is recessed, it would have a claustrophobic affect, much like sitting in a bathtub.  Another disadvantage is the lack of flexibility of the space; furniture cannot be rearranged and the floor will always have a “hole” in it, making it useless for any other function.  And one final, however important, disadvantage:  it is more costly to build.