The Evolution of the Dining Room

Some buyers want them, others don’t. But before your clients rush into major structural changes to rid their home of a formal dining space, here are some options that may affordably meet their needs.

September 25, 2014

Some builders, architects, and real estate pros have said dining rooms are a thing of the past — a relic of older homes, like avocado green kitchens and shag carpeting.

Not so fast! Maybe dining rooms aren’t as passé as thought in recent years.

While eliminating the concept of a room devoted only to traditional dining may appeal to more home owners, many still want to purchase a house with a separate dining space. The reason? It can work in a multitude of ways, depending on a family’s interests. There’s no single solution, says Rick Dent, a senior interior designer with Mathews Furniture Gallery in Atlanta, whose clients ask him to help furnish their dining rooms in a variety of ways.

Help your sellers and buyers understand all the possibilities, along with the risks, if they want to make permanent changes to a home’s layouts.

Think open-style or great room.

New home construction, which often indicates current buying trends, reveals that the living room could either disappear or merge with other rooms, according to a survey from the National Association of Home Builders about the 2015 new home. This is hardly surprising given that informal living and dining continues to gain fans, even among home owners residing in existing traditional houses, condominiums, and townhouses.

Many will take down walls for an interflowing, all-in-one kitchen-dining-living room, says Chicago designer Scott Dresner. Keeping all areas open to one another offers another advantage: The space tends to look larger, says Chicago designer John Wiltgen, who’s found more of his clients, even those with traditional taste, seek this arrangement. One of his urban clients recently turned a 24-by-15-foot dining room into a combined kitchen-family room by removing a wall. “The kitchen was on the interior, so this also brightened the space, and the area became more equivalent to a family room found in a suburban home,” he says.

Know the niche.

The open layout may not appeal to some buyers. Home builder and developer John Egnatis, CEO and cofounder of Grenadier Homes in Dallas, which focuses on the 50-plus market, is finding that the size and price range of houses often determine whether a traditional or more modern layout is preferred. In smaller homes, under $300,000, Egnatis says dining rooms are being combined with breakfast nooks as the main dining space, though a kitchen countertop may include bar seating where people can also dine. However, in more expensive homes that are 2,500 square feet or larger, a separate dining room still is the trend, he says.

As the size and price of the home increase, buyers have to make fewer compromises, Egnatis says. What’s important is that a home owner make their house work for them, not future buyers. Few know when they might move again, who will purchase their home down the road, or what design trends may surface in the meantime.

Transform dining room square footage into…

Some home owners are converting a separate dining room to a more needed use — perhaps a homework center for multiple generations to work in or a super-casual family room with big-screen TV and billiards table. One of Dent’s clients transformed the dining room into a music room for their children who play the piano, drums, and guitar, allowing the family to host recitals. Others are reimaging the dining room as guest quarters for overnight visitors or aging parents, especially if there’s a bathroom nearby.

Go multifunctional.

For those buyers who still favor a traditional dining room for holidays and special events and are reluctant to give up their favorite good china, crystal, and flatware, there’s another alternative, says Wiltgen. A traditional layout with a table anchored by a chandelier overhead and area rug underfoot can work in a corner with some adjustments. Home owners might forgo chairs all around and opt for a banquette to fill the space fully, or do away with the chandelier and go with sconces or floor lights, so it doesn’t look off-center, even though it is. Then, the leftover space can be devoted to other functions, such as a library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and seating, which can look smashing as a backdrop during those occasional dinners, Wiltgen says.

Dent has found that with computers and tablets shrinking, smaller desks are the trend. “Many would prefer that the dining room be converted at times rather than totally giving up a bedroom for an office,” he says.

A round rather than rectangular table often functions better in versatile layouts since it’s easier to navigate around and more conducive to a single conversation, Wiltgen says.

Don’t ignore outdoor space.

Depending on the area of the country you work in, the climate might not always cooperate, but a terrace, deck, or balcony can become a favorite al fresco dining spot. Protect it with an awning or umbrella overhead, or home owners can partly enclose their outdoor seating so its use can be extended into nippier fall weather.

Wiltgen and his partner frequently use their terrace for meals, which is the size of some homes and apartments at 1,000 square feet. It also has good city views from its 10th floor perch.

Egnatis’s company now offers a covered front porch at least 6 feet deep and 15 to 20 feet long as a standard feature. The rear of his homes feature a 12-by-13-foot area that can function as a dining space. And both can be a place to relax with fewer digital intrusions than indoors, he says.

The bottom line:

“Retrofitting and making changes is way more expensive — two to three times or more, depending on the changes and particular geographic market — than building from scratch,” Egnatis says.

Advise home owners and potential buyers not to rush to make huge layout changes willy-nilly. Sometimes, it’s best for them to live in a house as it exists, then decide if they should adjust the room layout through remodeling to better meet their needs.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


Residential Styles & Structural Elements


Gambrel roofs have a shallow slope over a steep slope. This roof is typical of the Dutch colonial architectural style and is also frequently...