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Sunken Rooms: Design Challenge or Buried Treasure?

Sunken rooms – where a living space is a few steps below the rest of the home – can be traced back to the 1920s. Still, the style didn’t really hit the mainstream until the swinging ‘60s. It was then that sunken rooms, or “conversation pits,” were the envy of everyone on the block. Created as a way to introduce a feeling of intimacy to homes, these sunken living areas pushed families and guests into one small and cozy space.

While sunken rooms aren’t as popular today, there has been a resurgence of the style. You might have inherited a sunken room when you purchased your home. Or you’re looking for a unique design feature in your new place. Either way, it might be time to start thinking of sunken rooms differently. With the right design and decor, your sunken room might just become your favorite spot in your home.

Sunken room pros

Living room with conversation pit

Sunken rooms can create conversation. Image: sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

There’s a reason sunken living rooms were so wildly popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In an era where social events took place in the home, sunken rooms were the perfect way to make a home feel more intimate. Even if you’re not planning on throwing a party at your place, sunken spaces definitely have their advantages.

  • They define the space. Sunken spaces are great for large, open concept homes. When walls are few, having rooms on a lower level clearly delineates the space without destroying any sight lines. The feeling of openness is preserved without losing any definition between, say, the living room and the kitchen.
  • They create intimacy. Cozy sunken rooms that are outfitted with comfortable seating and pillows are a great way to introduce a more intimate space in your home. Whether you use it for conversation or board games, it pushes the members of your family into a smaller space for a cozier vibe.
  • They introduce character. Sunken spaces give homes more character when compared to a flat, box-like floorplan. Some homes even feature circular sunken spaces and interesting woodwork to call attention to the detail.
  • They can make a room feel more spacious. Sunken rooms increase the distance between the floor and ceiling, which can make the space feel incredibly open. The added space between floor and ceiling makes a room look bigger. Installing a skylight or interesting lighting fixture above the sunken room can also draw the eye up.

Sunken room cons

Sunken room living room

Sunken rooms can create conversation. Image: sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

Okay, so it’s not all peace, love and sunken spaces. There are a few drawbacks to take into consideration, especially if you’re thinking about designing a sunken room in your own home.

  • They can cause accidents. If you asked most people what they disliked about their sunken rooms, chances are that the biggest complaint would simply be that they’re cumbersome. If you’re not expecting a couple of stairs leading into a room, there’s a risk of tripping and falling. It might seem like no big deal, but if you’re living with someone who has accessibility issues, sunken rooms could be dangerous.
  • They don’t offer much flexibility. Let’s face it: if you have a sunken room, there’s not a lot you can do with it. Sure, you can repurpose a room for lounging or swap it out for a playroom, but you’re limited to working with a sometimes odd space for layouts. Even if you get creative with how you use the space, it always remains in the same place and you’re always limited by the size and shape.
  • They aren’t open concept. If you’re craving an open concept home, sunken rooms can disrupt those dreams. Because they define spaces so decisively, sunken rooms aren’t really considered elements in an open concept design.

Working with sunken rooms

Split level living room

Use color to denote indoor stairs. Image: pics721/Shutterstock

Already have a home that features a sunken room? There are definitely ways to make it flow with the rest of your layout. Try these tips to make sure your sunken room is as safe as it is stylish.

  • Take precautions. Remember that visitors won’t be as used to the sunken space as someone who lives in your home. Install handrails or use materials to make sure the steps are clearly marked. You can use different flooring for the stairs, for instance. Or you can paint the stairs so they’re easy to see and don’t blend in with the rest of the floor.
  • Use the right furniture. Make sunken spaces look more purposeful and less awkward by filling them with furniture. Using the right scale for couches, tables and pillows gives the sunken space a clear purpose: lounging. Filling it with toy storage and activity centers makes it clear that it’s meant for kids. No matter how you use your sunken space, filling it with pieces gets rid of awkward angles.
  • Use color and light. Sunken rooms – especially those in older homes – can sometimes seem dark and unwelcoming. Utilize light and color to make the space more inviting. Incorporate the same colors in the sunken room as you do in the rest of your home. Match upholstery and furniture so the room is a cohesive part of your home design. And don’t forget plenty of light: an interesting overhead fixture and plenty of accent lighting ensure your sunken room doesn’t feel dark and dank.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, sunken rooms will likely always be a part of American architecture and home design. Whether your home came with a sunken room or you’re planning one as part of a new home, they can definitely be interesting and chic design features. With the right eye and a little love, a sunken room can truly become your very own buriedreasure.

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