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Lift Up Your Sunken Living Room Design for Modern Times

Sunken living rooms are coming back into style! Or in some cases, trendy renovators are no longer removing them from existing homes. In either case, consider your options before you call a contractor to cement it in. Getting rid of a sunken floor is a permanent solution, and a costly one at that. There are ways to adapt it to modern living and keep your older home chic without hiding them from sight. A sunken living room is different for every house it’s in. In fact, you should flaunt such a unique feature!

History of the Sunken Living Room

If you lack a lot of doorways without the doors to separate spaces, a sunken floor can help distinguish between rooms (by Susan E. Brown Interior Design)

A sunken living room, also known as a “conversation pit,” is more recent than you might expect. European and American architects started deploying the concept in the 1950s. Famously, the JFK International Airport had a bright red one installed in 1962, which has been recently restored to its former glory after being covered for decades. The point was to create a more casual, socially-forward section in a large open room. Conversation pits even resemble a theater hall in miniature, where spectators sit at higher levels than the performers to keep a clear view. They started being phased out in the 1970s due to concern over accessibility and potential accidents from tripping on its ledges. Despite the purge, you can still find them in some houses today (like yours!).

It Can Still Appeal Today

While they are rarely being installed in new houses, sunken floors can still have a contemporary feel (by Blackbox Design Studios)

The modern versions of the conversation pit apply to the entire room instead of a portion, and are now technically classified as sunken rooms rather than pits. You usually see this in the living room in particular, though other rooms in the house can be a few steps below floor level. In an open-concept home, the two floor levels put the room in isolation, giving it a secluded feel. It allows you to center your room around a large coffee table, which is excellent for family game night. Best of all, breaking your rooms off into unique spaces with a visual indicator can also make it feel less cluttered overall.

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But Get Rid of the Carpet

Hardwood and the like is more expensive upfront, but can wear and tear better than carpet for a living room (by Griffin Enright Architects)

Should you carpet the space? If you’re aiming for an updated version of the sunken living room, the answer is no. Hardwood is where the modern trends lean, and that applies to living rooms as well, sunken or not. For one, it’s a lot less hard on your vacuum. Carpet holds fiber and debris better than a flat flooring, and hides it from sight as well. You can vacuum carpet, but it requires more horsepower from the vacuum and even brush extensions to get everything out. Robot vacuums won’t like the “cliff” in the middle of your floor, but that’s a small price to pay if you own one. A sufficiently smart vacuum should be able to avoid the sunken floor and turn away when vacuuming, making it a non-issue (but always check the warranty before testing this).

Add a Rug for Comfort

How big you want your sunken living room to feel helps guide what size rug you should lay down (by AA Real Estate Photography)

But if everything is hardwood now, where is the comfort underfoot? A living room is not only a social space, but a comfortable one as well. The tried and true area rug can help add some softness. It’s a lot easier to replace a rug that doesn’t match the living room’s aesthetics than to tear up ugly flooring, which you may have already done once to repair your sunken room. A statement rug combined with two-level floor can create incredible effects to further emphasize the room with just shape or color. A square or rectangular rug matching the sunken shape gives the space coherence, and a circular or oval rug provides interesting contrast.

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Don’t Date Your Room with an Old Couch

Don’t simply recreate the past with your furniture choices; experiment with sunken spaces (by Rill Architects)

If you’re worried about your sunken room looking dated with your choice of flooring, know that it’s not the only thing making the space feel old. Your couch can be a determining factor on whether the same living room looks retro or modern with a sunken floor. Instead of choosing a traditional or period-inspired couch, opt for something more modern-looking. Remember that context is what makes the piece stand out or blend in. Like with area rugs, you can also play with angles using your couch. Try putting it contrary to the edges of the sunken “walls,” right against them, or at a distance to see what you like best.

If you’ve recently bought a home that already has a sunken living room, wait before you decide to remodel it. While not the best structure for accessibility, these architecturally unique spaces provide a built-in design element that takes your living space from bland to glam.