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Is it Cabin Fever or is the Space Really Shrinking?

Feb 28, 2015 05:14PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

Franklin Park log cabin, built in 1800. Photograph by Matthew Schlueb

As we begin the third month of the winter season, many Pittsburghers are ready for spring. The snow on the ground, ice on the walks and chill in the air are things that only young children still appreciate. My own sons wish the snow would last well into summer, so they could continue tunneling igloos into the piles plowed to the edges of our cul-de-sac. But for parents, after weeks of cabin fever cooped up inside the house, plans for the summer start to materialize into lists of things to improve.

Several months of winter indoors quickly highlights the shrinkage of space, with a family growing over the years into a house that has remained the same size since move-in day. Adding more space quickly rises to the top of the list for many homeowners. For architects, this is the time of year when calls start coming in with requests to add another bedroom and bath, finish off a basement into a game room, or enlarge the kitchen.

The desire to add additional bedrooms is not surprising, as kids become teenagers and no longer want to share a room with a younger brother or sister. Everyone needs their own space—a place to retreat when the family seems to be on top of each other or as tempers flare; a common symptom of cabin fever.

And a basement game room is the perfect place to send stir-crazy kids on days of arctic temperatures or sleety rain. However, it is the kitchen that most intrigues me, as it relates to cabin fever and the shrinkage of space. As an architect, I wonder about the phenomenon and how it connects to the kitchen.

In 1800, the first log cabin was built in Franklin Park—a single, 14 x 20 foot room with a loft that housed a family of eight. The kitchen was no more than a corner table and a single fireplace performing double duty in winter months, warming the house and providing a place to cook a meal in a fireplace kettle.

In a 19th-century log cabin, winter life was centered around the hearth, which was used for cooking, drying clothes and filling the room with light after the sun had gone down. The space was alive, fueled by the flame, providing the origin of today's romantic idea of a decorated fireplace in the center of our living rooms (even if they are no longer lit). 

Over 200 years later, an average suburban home on the same road as the cabin houses a family half the size at over four times the square footage, resulting in eight times as much space per person. While it is clear evidence of prosperity in a growing community, could this increase of space also be a response to cabin fever, that feeling of the walls closing in?

Today, we still desire one central space without walls, a kitchen open to the living room. As modern heating and stoves became fixtures after the turn of the century, the fireplace moved out of the kitchen and into the living room. Yet the heart of the home remained in the kitchen, the place where family activity gravitates.

With the absence of a fireplace, the kitchen has symbolically changed, and is now represented by the refrigerator. The arrangement of refrigerator magnets, artifacts from our lives, corresponds directly to our house and the family as a whole. Yet, the refrigerator is an appliance to chill, preserve and store; something quite the opposite of a hearth. The space of a home has become a repository for leftovers, no longer active, nor consumed with the energy of a crackling fire.

Although we have grown accustomed to having more space over the centuries, something more fundamental has changed in the house. Our psychological needs seek shelter in our homes, in addition to the physical comfort of warmth during cold winter months. Cabin fever may drive our compulsion for more space in the kitchen, but is bigger always better, or does the ever-increasing pace of our daily lives simply need more organization, like the clutter of magnets on our refrigerators?  

In this last month of winter, as you dream of adding an addition to your home to relieve some of the pressure building up inside, consider the forces at work. Sure, an extra bedroom or bath may be needed as the kids are getting older, and aging cabinets and appliances may justify a kitchen makeover. But first try a little experiment. Return to the fireplace and light a fire—even if it is with artificial gas logs and an electric starter. Enjoy an evening of fireside conversation with family and friends. You might find that the romance of a log cabin, still longing in the minds of a 21st-century household, may explain how a family of eight survived each other in a single 14 x 20 room.

Maybe more space was never the solution in the first place. Just maybe, a moment to slow down, breathe and reconnect—like the feeling of a warm hug—is best done in a cozy space.

 

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners
Home+Garden cabin fever home renovation house size
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