Christopher Alexander conceptualized the idea of an “Away Room” in his 1977 book, A Pattern Language. In it he recommends that people living together also need to have opportunities to be alone, and suggests that each household member should ideally have a space of one’s own. In the best case scenario this should comprise a separate room affording private space, but if that is not practical, he writes, everyone should have at the very least an alcove space away from the business of the household with at least a modicum of enclosure and of privacy.
Author Sarah Susana popularized and built upon the same concept in her Not So Big House series of books, encouraging homeowners to create a room in which to escape near the common areas of the home, but offering some privacy from the noise and socializing of the other spaces.
Here is a portion of the original description from A Pattern Language:
Pattern #141: A Room Of One’s Own
The problem: No one can be close to others, without also having frequent opportunities to be alone.
The solution: Give each member of the family a room of his own, especially adults. A minimum “room of one’s own” is an alcove with desk, shelves, and curtain. The maximum is a cottage – like a Teenager’s Cottage (Pattern #154), or an Old Age Cottage (Pattern #155). In all cases, especially for adults, place these rooms at the far ends of the intimacy gradient — far from the common rooms.
Designing the “Away Room”
While it’s clearly possible to create a room for each household member, the ideal of each adult having their own private room and each child having their own bedroom is obviously infeasible for the vast majority of American households.
Alexander himself identified this limitation, stating, “for the man and woman, give each of them a separate room, beyond the couples realm they share; it may be an expanded dressing room, a home workshop, or…an alcove off some other room.”
Susanka, picking up on this theme, has written, “If the homeowners value visual separation but aren’t concerned about hearing other activities going on in the house, you may be able to create an alcove that’s hidden from view but is right off the main living area. If it’s also important to them not to be bothered when using this space, you may want to include visual cues, such as a drape or folding screen that, when drawn across the alcove, indicates the desire for privacy.”
She continues, “One option for visual separation is an upstairs landing. In many homes, these spaces are seldom used during the day when family members congregate on the main living level. So if it’s large enough, this area can provide an adequate spot for a small desk or hobby area.”
This obviously is not the ideal, and generally in fact the farther the alcove is located from primary circulation areas – with their accompanying noise and bustle – the better. All things being equal, if the house is small but sufficient space exists in the master bedroom it may be possible to admit of a built-in desk subdivided into two cubby-like alcoves, one for each partner in the relationship.
The master bedroom, being the sanctum sanctorum, is unlikely to be casually invaded by the general family buzz, thus almost guaranteeing privacy and repose. With two separate alcoves, each partner in a relationship is assured of having an absolute albeit small domain over which they have complete control. And finally, they can reach a tacit arrangement to occupy the entire room all to themselves on alternative days or at different times of, say, the same evening if need be, essentially creating a timeshare.
All this may seem to be quite an elaborate exercise for many who read this blog, yet the “Away Room” concept does meet a fundamental human need, that for occasional, yet complete, privacy.
Quoting American sociologists Foote and Cottrell as cited in A Pattern Language, “There is a critical point beyond which closer contact with another person will no longer lead to an increase in empathy. Up to a certain point, intimate interaction with others increases the capacity to empathize with them. But when others are too constantly present, the organism appears to develop a protective resistance to responding to them. . . .”
“Families who provide time and space for privacy, and who teach children the utility and satisfaction of withdrawing for private reveries, will show higher average empathic capacity than those who do not.”