‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’ The romantic poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning is unlikely to have been talking about her utility room, but as a self-confessed neat freak, my love for our utility room knows no limits. The over-whelming reason is that it makes the rest of our house look great.
A year-round hero, the utility room nevertheless rises to the zenith of its power in the winter. It serves to house all those muddy wellies and walking boots, bulky winter coats and jackets, hats and a seemingly endless collection of scarves and gloves, that would otherwise be ‘decorating’ one’s hallway, not to mention the pre-requisite dog towels to negate the inevitable muddy paw prints straying beyond the threshold. Add to that, the washing on drying racks that can’t be put in the garden at this time of the year (and no, not everything can go in the tumble dryer) which serve as an obstacle course in the kitchen, and the picture gets worse.
I should mention, these days we’re just a household of two, once there were three boys at home as well when rugby boots and endless avalanche of muddy clothes would have been added to that mix too.
Domestic clutter is the scourge of a tidy house; it is however the reality of family life. In my book a utility room can rarely be too large. In past times – certainly in 1850 when Barrett Browning released her collection of poems including the wonderful Sonnet 43 – large country houses would have had clearly defined upstairs and downstairs areas, the latter likely to comprise a multitude of rooms in addition to the kitchen; a laundry & linen store, scullery, wine cellar, boot room, flower room, pantry and larder. While there are still homes that enjoy some of the above (I’ve even seen some executive mansions with the more contemporary addition of a dedicated dog shower), they are the exception. A utility room is, for most of us, the sum of a few of those parts – or as many as we can fit in.
Flats have better internal layouts
Sadly many houses lack the benefit of a utility room or the provision of anything resembling it – I think it’s a fair claim to make, that even in today’s modern family homes of circa 1500 sq ft and below, few have them. In my 30 years in property, I can also report to have been in quite a few new houses that didn’t even have an under-stairs cupboard tall enough for a couple of coats to hang or an ironing board or hoover to be stored. Ideally, utility rooms in semi-detached and detached homes should include direct access to the garden and front of the house so pets, wet and muddy boots can be ‘captured’ before straying into the main part of the house.
Ironically, many modern well-designed apartments of considerably fewer square feet, come out of this notably better, incorporating at the very least a utility cupboard in the hallway. Typically, this houses a washer-dryer and usually just enough space for an ironing board and/or hoover to one side and a laundry basket atop the machine in addition to another small cupboard for coats. In two-bedroom apartments the utility cupboard is often double-size which allows for built in shelves for some cleaning products and/or linen storage. It means at least the laundry element of domestic clutter – not to mention the noise – is kept out of sight. Only two or three times in my career have I seen a separate utility room in a spacious luxury apartment and unsurprisingly, that came with the appropriate price tag attached.
Social Housing nails it better
Interestingly housing associations often insist on these practical considerations being part of their minimum standards in the provision of social housing. I remember visiting a standout site in Aylesbury which comprised homes for private sale, shared ownership and social rent. It was notable that while they appeared tenure blind externally, internally the layouts differed slightly in favour of the social housing; the ground floor loo was particularly cavernous not just for legislated wheelchair access but with extra storage space for a child’s buggy; so often left in a porch, blocking the hallway or even put on a balcony. Another was a retractable washing line added above the baths which, in the apartments provided a viable alternative to having to use the balcony; a vista which defines so many older council estates.
My personal utility haven – the sum of many parts
So, as I’m making this personal, it’s only fair to caveat this next bit; firstly, I’m at an age that means I’ve amassed ‘stuff’ despite a major declutter five years ago – although that largely facilitated the merger of two households (which meant more stuff). Lastly but life-forming, I’m the daughter of an insurance man and having a back-up was the mantra on which I was raised.
Even my first flat had a small laundry room off the bedroom (note to architects to consider this option more? Afterall washing is usually created when we disrobe at night – why is it carted downstairs only to go up again when clean? Subsequent homes have always necessitated major house renovations which have ensured a utility room of varying proportions has been enabled, but I admit to now hitting the jackpot with our latest refurbishment.
Our current townhouse has a lower ground floor which, due to the reconfiguration, includes a generously sized room but which lacks much natural light; perfect for items that are much used but let’s face it, are hardly aesthetic objects. So our utility room is the sum of many parts; firstly, it’s our laundry (tumble-dryer and washing machine), our boot room with shelves for trainers, wellies and walking boots and a bench so we can sit down while we put them on (a necessity these days), and lots of hooks for day-to-day jackets and coats. It also houses a full-height freezer (why do housebuilders take up valuable space in the kitchen with a fridge/freezer combo which usually means the fridge element is too small and impractical?) although I admit to having the luxury of a second fridge (perfect for parties and a saviour at Christmas).
Storage cupboards and wall shelving provide overflow larder space for less frequently needed items, as well as large dishes for major catering (when we can do that again), my collection of vases (about 40 of them – you can never have enough) and small planters for house plants and herbs. There’s also a cupboard of Tupperware; I always cook more than we need and freeze the rest so it’s invaluable (have I mentioned I was a ‘Tupperware-lady’ in my youth?). There’s a tall cupboard full of cleaning materials – floor, surfaces, silver, washing – and another with the ironing board, mop, bucket and a rechargeable hoover (and power source). The central island has a wine rack at one end and open shelving on two other sides that stores surplus dog blankets, more catering-size dishes, boxes for first aid, shoe cleaning, spare candles and lightbulbs, and the ironing pile. A Belfast sink is large enough for washing boots and dogs while a food processor sits on the worksurface rather than taking up space in the kitchen together with a spare kettle in case the hot water tap in the kitchen fails. Wall mounted collapsible rails allow shirts to hang while drying/awaiting ironing. On the floor are the dog’s night-time beds, food and bowls. With the exception of the dog beds (there are others in the sitting room, my study and the bedroom, yes, their every comfort is considered) you now know why I love our utility room. With all this stuff out of sight, the rest of the house looks great!
Building real homes for every demographic
OK.. perhaps our utility room represents overkill, and a psychologist might come up with a few other thoughts on the subject, but day-to-day living does create practical requirements that housebuilders and their architects need to address if 21st Century living is to be just that. The design of flats proves that it’s possible for homes of significantly less than 1000 sq ft to make a fairly reasonable utility provision so why not in all houses? I am sure one argument is that it’s better to maximise the living space available, but if that means the place you spend most of your time is cluttered with even just a few of the things mentioned, is it going to be that comfortable or conducive to relaxing or entertaining? There are other implications for other demographics too. I know many older people who would like to downsize from their five-bedroom family home; while they appreciate a degree of decluttering might be in order, they don’t want to dispose of all their possessions and with them their memories. Retiring/downsizing shouldn’t mean shutting the box on a past life.
While show homes need to inspire – whether for first time buyers, families or retirees – their layouts should recognise the realities and that includes providing more space for the practical side of living.