Often times beautiful design goes wrong when people forget about function.

The functional use of spaces is the bottom line.  No matter how beautiful a space is, if people can’t use it functionally, it is useless. I learned about this first hand when I moved into a beautifully remodeled house that had never been lived in. I found many problems with functional use that were over-looked. For example, in the newly renovated bathroom there was no toilet paper holder installed; linen closets with no handles or knobs; and a shower without a door or curtain rod.  While these things were easy to fix, they showed how the building professionals had forgotten to think about the functional use of the spaces they were creating.

This concept becomes even more important when considering people with health concerns or disabilities who might have functional limitations. A skilled building professional will not only consider the use of the space by an average person, but also by people with a variety of functional impairments. It is not enough that the design problems could be worked around, but that in good design no one should have to work around it. This is the motivation behind movements such as universal design, barrier-free homes, visitable homes, and life-time homes, but also a fundamental principle in creating custom home modifications for people with disabilities. This series simply asks the question of “what could be improved?”  It is not meant to criticize, but to encourage people to think about the functional use of the spaces by real people living in a home.

Child’s closet space

Today’s photo is from a model home I visited.  It is a standard closet in a child’s room.  They put in extra effort to paint the interior of the closet a kid-friendly blue color.  The doors are standard bi-fold doors with round pull knobs.  There is a single shelf and clothing rod for storage. The look is clean and friendly. So, what could be improved?

When you imagine using this closet space, what do you notice?

When you think of a child using this space, what do you notice?

My thoughts…

First, remember this is designed to be a child’s room (as many bedrooms in houses are).  How tall is the child?  Could he/she reach any of the storage in this closet?  How tall is children’s clothing when it is hung?  How much children’s clothing do you think will get hung up on a regular basis? Overall, this closet is mostly wasted space.  A child will put things on the floor, and a parent will hang a few special outfits up, and the rest of the space won’t get used unless it gets modified. A simple addition would be a lower rod and shelf for storage.  A larger upgrade would be to add some shelves or an adjustable closet system to make better use of the space both for the child and the parent.

Second, remember how it feels opening and closing bi-fold doors.  Most children will struggle to open bi-fold doors (they don’t move in the expected direction compared to most other doors).  The small knobs are notoriously hard for anyone to use because they are difficult to grasp and are not positioned for optimal leverage to open and close the doors. The knobs could be easily replaced with hardware that is easier to grasp, such as a larger, spherical knob or a handle instead.  Placement should be adjusted to allow better and more intuitive use as well.

Third, look inside the closet and imagine finding a lost toy while it is filled with stuff.  While the blue color is kid-friendly, it makes the space darker.  In this closet there was no additional lighting, so darkening the space will make it harder to locate objects once the space is in use.  Adding lights inside the closet (or outside with light directed in) that is switch-controlled would be ideal. Otherwise, smaller battery-operated lights can help to illuminate closet spaces, and many are motion-activated for additional convenience.

Example closet system with rods and shelves of varying heights. For children, this allows some storage to be within the child’s reach, while other storage is out of reach and for parent use.

Typical messy closet- imagine finding a missing object in here? Lighting is critical to the usability of storage spaces.

Other improvement ideas:

  • Closet doors can be difficult for children (and many adults) to use.  They take up floor space when opened (which in children’s room is often a big deal!).  An alternative is to hang a curtain on a rod (using rings for easy sliding), which is often easier for kids to use and takes up less space overall. Barndoor sliding doors can also offer an alternative that is easier to use.
  • Modular design closet systems can be a huge benefit, but they don’t have to be complicated or have lots of pieces.  A few rods and shelves that are height adjustable as children grow can be plenty to make the space useful.  If installing a closet system is too difficult, using a standing book shelf or cube storage (from places like Ikea or Target) can help to make the space more usable and accessible for all people.

So, what have I missed?  What other ideas or suggestions do you have?  Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.