Functional Flex Space for Every Home

Mary Cook contributed to this story. Cook is the founder and president of Mary Cook Associates. Her new book, “The Art of Space, Seven Fundamentals that Guarantee
Great Interior Design” demystifies interior design and makes it accessible to everyone.
It’s available on

The 1950s saw dramatic changes in American housing. The first “tract” homes and mass-produced housing developments spread across the landscape, offering affordable—though not very distinctive—homes to the millions of returning members of the armed forces after the end of World War II.

The homes they returned to were viewed as more of a shelter rather than an oasis. Rooms were small and functional. Kitchens were for cooking, bedrooms were for sleeping. and bathrooms were for bathing.

Back then, the American home had a standard list of rooms: living, dining, kitchen, bed, and bath. As the 50s progressed, the middle class progressed, and so did their homes. In addition to the living room, we saw the birth of the family room—a welcome improvement over its predecessor, the mercifully short-lived rumpus room. But the collection of rooms we called “home” hadn’t significantly changed in a century.

But then, lifestyles changed. What we wanted in our homes overtook the bare essentials of what was needed in the homes of previous generations.

Kitchens became gathering places, craft centers, and work stations. Family rooms became home theaters and technology centers. Bedrooms became suites with sitting rooms and oasis master baths. Suddenly, homes weren’t designed to meet needs as much as they were designed to enhance and even improve quality of life.

Consumers wanted new spaces that didn’t even have names yet. These new spaces had functions, but nobody knew exactly what to call them. Why? Because depending on the specific family and that family’s stage in life, these new spaces were being used differently by every household.

“We’ll use this room for this today, and then next year we’ll turn it into that. And then, we’ll convert it into…” That’s how the story went, over and over. So, architects and designers officially dubbed this ever-morphing part of the home as “flex space.” These are the spaces in homes that enhance, function, and perform to meet the needs of the different chapters of our lives.

Since we’re all immersed in our own lives, this may seem ridiculously obvious. Most people live in the “now.” We are too busy to try to anticipate the future, and when we do, it’s usually about our careers and family, not flex space.

But, when you’re looking for your next home, put the future on your list of assessments. Ask a few simple questions. “How will this home work for us when we have a child? Or two?” “What will we do with the space when the nest is empty?” “How will it function when aging parents and grandchildren come to visit?”

The chapters of our lives have different needs. Looking at the possibilities of how they may unfold will help you to anticipate how your home will need to meet the needs of your future. It will help you make better decisions when looking for a new home.

If you step back and think about it in the context of the history of home design, flex space is one of the most important developments in home design, and it’s all because of a simple idea:

Life requires us to be flexible. Your home should be, too.

For more ideas on what to do with the flex space in your home, visit Toll Brothers’ Flex Space board on Pinterest.

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