Gold mirror above fireplace mantel
Family Room

Designing a Functional Family Room

After a long day its understandable that you would look forward to relaxing in a comfortable space. Although, for your family room to feel relaxing, it needs to first be functional, which will be based on your family’s needs. Your family room is typically the one area in your home where multiple activities take place. It can be easy to lose sight of how you need your room to work for your family’s needs after browsing online for inspiration only to find hundreds of styles, textures or layouts that you like.

Family Room Activities

gold mirror above fireplace mantle
Photographer: Aimée Mazzenga

Staying true to how you will use your space is what really matters. You could spend so much money on the various trendy colors or latest furniture design, only to realize you feel like you are living in someone else’s house. Once you design a well-functioning family room, adding the room’s colors, textures, lighting or various decor elements will be a lot easier. Here are just a few of the common activities we expect our family room to functionally accommodate:

  • TV watching
  • Children’s playroom
  • Sitting by the fireplace
  • Entertaining company
  • Reading a good book
  • Doing puzzles or board games
  • Exercising or Yoga
  • Playing video games
  • Listening to music
  • Doing homework
  • Working from home
  • Enjoying the scenic outdoor view

Designing your family room to accommodate all these activities can be challenging. You can get caught up in trying to make the room do too much and either the room becomes huge and/or chaotic.

“Just because a room is intended to house a lot of functions doesn’t mean it needs to be large. In fact, such a room is often both more comfortable and more functional if it is kept to a reasonable minimum so that everyone using the room can feel part of the greater whole, rather than simply being a separate and isolated entity.” 

– Sarah Susanka, Not So Big Solutions For Your Home

One thing to remember is that these activities do not all happen at the same time. There are usually a few activities that a family does most often and simultaneously. If you base your design around the activities your family does the most, this will provide a guideline for incorporating the other activities that may not happen as often. With some strategic planning, it is possible to accommodate all your family’s activities and maintain a cohesive space that welcomes you after a long day.

Defining Your Family’s Needs

Photographer: Aimée Mazzenga

Answering the following questions will help you create a well-designed family room. Below each question are a few activities that may apply to you, however, answer according to your own specific needs:

  • What are the top three activities that you enjoy doing in your family room? 
    • Watching TV
    • Entertaining friends and family
    • Sitting by the fireplace while reading a book
  • Where do you want your focal point to be when you walk into the room?
    • The TV
  • What are the activities your family does on a daily basis in your family room?
    • Kids play 
    • Watch TV
    • Eat snacks
  • Are there activities you would like to do more often that does not happen because of a lack of designated space?
    • Reading or writing while kids play
    • Work from home
    • Host larger parties 
    • Exercise and/or Yoga

Creating a list of your family’s priorities helps narrow down your focal points. These priorities do not have to compete for your attention, but a hierarchy does need to be established. Once you narrow down your top three or four priorities for the room, all other activities should revolve around that. For example, if watching TV and sitting by the fireplace are your top activities, then they should be prominently displayed in the room. Notice where the natural light will be coming from within the room. The light from outside can make it difficult to watch TV or see a fire burning, as outside light is brighter than the fire or the images on TV. Installing proper shades can help eliminate the need to squint to watch TV during the day and make the fire in the fireplace more noticeable. 

Designated Space for Everything

Let’s talk about how to incorporate the other activities on your list. There are more than a few options, but depending on your space configuration, take what works for you and leave the rest.


Installing or utilizing built-ins for your family room can add balance, function, organization and a focal point. These can be placed on either side of a fireplace, on a long wall, in a corner, or even along a half wall. When part or all the built-ins have cupboards, they provide space for storing board games and puzzles, yoga mat and weights, craft baskets for adults or children, video games or even your binoculars for observing the outdoors. Other built-in options can be open shelving, where your favorite books can live, or maybe the cribbage board that you have wanted to play more often.


Adding alcoves in your family room can serve numerous activities while not taking up very much space. A window seat can be a designated place to curl up with a good book, or store children’s toys.

A desk alcove could be placed in a corner of the family room or on the wall side of a kitchen peninsula. Not only could the desk alcove serve as a place for kids to do homework, but can also be a mail drop zone, a place to pay bills and a home for your laptop and printer.

Eating Nook

Expansive windows showing pond from inside of family room
Photographer: Jeremy Bittermann | Architect: Cutler Anderson Architects

An eating nook or informal dining area can bridge the gap for any other activities you may find yourself wanting to enjoy such as playing cards with friends or a space for various hobbies or projects you may have, while naturally being a place to gather together for meals.

In general, alcoves, built-ins and nooks offer versatility to your family room without expanding the footprint. The alcoves do not need to be big to make them extremely useful. Whether you are going to build, remodel or in the home buying process, writing down your family’s activities, both frequent and occasional, will be an important part of designing a functional family room. If you find that your family’s activities seem mutually exclusive for the space that you have, look at each activity closer and see if they can co-exist within the same space, given that not every activity happens at the same time. Rather than having a larger space where every activity is spread out, you may find that your family room feels more unified and cohesive when activities share a common space.