- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

Buyers may think they know what they are looking at when they begin shopping for new homes, recognizing such common terms as a living room, a dining room and a family room, but builders and their marketing specialists, always looking for new ways to entice consumers, have added a few terms for spaces within their homes.

Sometimes, these terms have real meaning, describing a style of home or a type of window such as a bay window. Just as often, however, the terms are fuzzy in their meaning or interchangeable with more familiar names for spaces, such as calling a large family room a "great room" or a small living room a "parlor."

"Builders often call homes 'units' when they are working on them, but they would never use this term in the marketing literature," says Rhonda Ellisor, vice president of sales and marketing for Miller and Smith. "Builders know people don't like the idea of buying a unit, that they prefer to think of their home as unique and special for them. So we are constantly looking for ways to make our homes sound appealing and to convey a message about what the home looks like and what it would feel like to live in."

Builders often use varying words for the same space to create an impression on potential homeowners. For instance, buyers today will see a first-floor room labeled "den," "study" or "library," three terms used almost interchangeably.

"Although the room essentially remains the same no matter what it is called, I think the various terms are used by builders depending on the price range of the home and how sophisticated they want to sound," says Ms. Ellisor. "A den is usually found in a home priced under $300,000, and a study is in the midrange of single-family homes. A library presents a more upscale impression and is found in the higher-priced homes."

Jim Pohlhaus, design manager for the "Your Home Your Way" design program at Winchester Homes, thinks "study" sounds more like an office that will be used by the owners, while "library" is a classier term, with both used far more often than the more old-fashioned "den."

"I do think a library should require bookcases, too, though, or at least the option of adding them," Mr. Pohlhaus says.

Even more terms seem to exist for a multiwindowed first-floor room, often available as an option, alternately labeled the "sunroom," "solarium," "Florida room," "morning room," "breakfast room," "conservatory" or, sometimes, "music room."

"All of these are basically just marketing terms which have to do with a room which lets in a lot of sunlight," says Debbie Rosenstein, president of Rosenstein Research Associates. "But there are slight variations depending on where the room is placed. Obviously, a morning room and breakfast room are interchangeable casual spaces off the kitchen, but a sunroom is usually placed to the side of the house. A conservatory is simply a more upscale term for a sunroom. A Florida room is an older-style sunroom with jalousie windows."

According to Mr. Pohlhaus, "You can't call something a sunroom unless you also have a breakfast area, although sometimes people will decorate that way, with a family dining table placed in the sunroom instead of right in the eat-in kitchen. A conservatory is really just another term for a sunroom, but when it's called a music room, it's defined as a room for musical instruments but buyers can decorate and furnish it any way they want."

One term that seems to be losing an accurate definition is "great room," which used to mean a room that combined living and dining activities into one space.

"A 'great room' is basically just a marketing term which means a large family room which functions as casual living space," Miss Rosenstein says. "Sometimes, it does replace a formal living room and formal dining room, but often it's just a term interchangeable with 'family room.'"

Two new, yet old-fashioned terms coming back into vogue are the "keeping room" and the "parlor."

"A keeping room is a casual living space off the kitchen which dates back to Colonial times," Miss Rosenstein says. "It's usually a little smaller than the family room, and sometimes includes a fireplace. A parlor is a term which dates back to the early 1900s, and in those days it was a room where you greeted your guests before moving on into another part of the house, such as the drawing room or dining room. Now, a parlor usually means a small living room."

Almost universally, builders have renamed the master bedroom an "owner's suite" or an "owner's retreat" on their floor plans, a change that has varied explanations.

"Some people say that the term 'master suite' is not politically correct," Ms. Ellisor says. "Basically, I think one builder started naming the room 'owner's suite' and others copied because they thought it sounded good."

"'Owner's suite' just sounds more upscale and flows better than 'master suite,'" Miss Rosenstein says. "Most of the terms used by builders are meant to present a richer image. When they use the term 'owner's retreat,' they are trying to make you feel like you can escape from the hassles of your day."

Builders are not just renaming old-fashioned rooms, though. Sometimes they are inventing new spaces to suit today's lifestyle.

A prime example is the expansion of useful living space off the garage entrance to the home, identified by various builders as a "family foyer," a "command center," a "commuter station," a "family office" or an "owner's foyer."

"Basically, these terms and ideas come from architects who are trying to answer the problem of how people live in their homes," Ms. Ellisor says. "Builders and architects make changes to reflect today's needs. These family foyer areas used to be the back hall area where you come in from the garage. Builders now recognize that people need a place to drop their computers, recharge their cell phones, and drop their backpacks and sports equipment.

"Taking it a step further, beyond simple storage issues, builders are making the space functional, with a desk for actually plugging in your laptop and working there, or a place for kids to do their homework near the kitchen," she says.

Another new term appearing on floor plans of upscale properties is the "juice bar," "breakfast bar" or "coffee bar." These interchangable terms refer to a wet bar with a refrigerator and space for a coffee maker, placed in the master suite bedroom, sitting room or dressing area.

"A coffee bar is really like having a little kitchenette on the second floor, and it's very popular with our buyers," Mr. Pohlhaus says. "It's not just a luxury for the owners, either. One mother with four small children mentioned that she wanted it so she could keep juice and milk upstairs for her kids so she wasn't constantly picking up the baby and running down to the kitchen when they needed something."

Besides coffee bars, many master suites today include special ceiling configurations with a variety of different terms.

"A vaulted ceiling means the ceiling slopes from one side of the room to the other, with the highest point at one edge of the room," Ms. Ellisor says. "A cathedral ceiling means that both sides of the ceiling slope up, with the highest point of the room in the center. Barrel ceilings are rounded and raised, but usually you find this in a foyer rather than a bedroom."

Also popular are tray and box ceilings.

"Box and tray ceilings are basically the same, with an indented shape which raises the ceiling [height] in the center," Miss Rosenstein says. "Tray ceilings are all the rage now, because people like the lowered part of the ceiling to create a feeling of intimacy in the bedroom, yet the ceiling overall still has that nine-foot height. Often, buyers will add 'cove lighting' to a tray ceiling, which is decorative indirect lighting masked by moldings or drywall."

The term "coffered ceiling" creates confusion among even industry experts, who disagree as to whether this means a ceiling with exposed beams, a tray ceiling or one with squares rather than a flat surface. All agreed that this is an expensive ceiling treatment that adds an upscale decorative element to family rooms or bedrooms.

Large master baths have become the norm in most homes, with even affordable town homes frequently including a luxury bath as a standard or optional feature.

Sometimes known as a "garden bath" or a "superbath," these bathrooms include a soaking tub and separate shower and sometimes a double-sink vanity or "his-and-hers" vanities. A garden bath usually also has a shelf near a window or a wider soaking tub surround so that indoor plants can be included as part of the decor. "His-and-hers" master baths are frequently seen in the floor plans of luxury homes, usually meaning two bath areas connected by a walk-through shower, with a separate commode and vanity for each spouse and a soaking tub on "her" side.

Many luxury baths include a broad expanse of windows over the soaking tub or skylights overhead. Window styles such as bay windows, often optional features, are also used to add elegance to the first floor of a home. One window term that has nearly disappeared from use is the "greenhouse window," Miss Rosenstein says.

"Now if anyone puts in that type of window they'll call it a 'garden window,'" she says.

Other window terms are not just marketing ploys but have an actual meaning. "Palladian" windows are always arched and sometimes are placed over the top of standard windows, which increases their height. "Transom" windows are placed over interior or exterior doors to add more light and can also refer to smaller, square or rectangular windows placed over picture windows to create a window wall.

"Bay" windows are a group of windows with angled sides that extend outward from a wall. A "bow" window also is a group of windows curving outward from the wall but without squared-off angles. A "box-bay window" is another variation in which the sides of the bay are squared with additional windows.

Whether your lifestyle demands a command center off the garage and a coffee bar in your owner's retreat or you prefer an old-fashioned home with a parlor and a keeping room, rest assured that builders and their marketing experts will continue to come up with new ways to describe that quintessential American dream, your home.

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