Many using traditional dining rooms now for exercise, office, play and more
By Diane Cowen
Her hands encased in thick, foamy gloves, Neda Malkani jabs at the freestanding punching bag hanging in her home gym: left, right, left.
When she tires of punching, the 40-year-old mother of four uses it for kickboxing. There’s a nearby Dyson oscillating fan keeping her cool, and shelving holds towels, weights, kettlebells, and other exercise equipment in her Humble home.
The home gym was a gift from her husband, Shashi, for her 40th birthday. Before its transformation in February, the Malkanis used the room as a toy/hangout space for their kids, ages 11, 9, 6 and 3.
But never in the 10 years they’ve lived in the home have they ever used the room for its original intent: a formal dining room.
As the American lifestyle gets ever more casual, formal spaces — such as dining rooms — often either hold lovely furniture that never gets used or they’re converted into something more functional, whether those who live in them are young families, baby boomers or something in between.
Part of the trend comes from homeowners wanting more-open floor plans. With fewer walls, dining areas blend in with kitchens and family rooms. There’s also the issue of Americans’ busy lives — with parents working longer hours, kids involved in more after-school activities and the family dinner tradition getting sidelined. Those who do dine together often opt for the more casual setting of a table off the kitchen or even outdoors on a patio.
But in many homes, that room set aside — often near the front of the home but always accessible from the kitchen — for formal family gatherings is finding new life as a home gym, meditation space, office, kids’ study, playroom or even family arcade.
Home-maintenance referral service Angie’s List conducted a survey on dining rooms in 2017, and although 77 percent of respondents said they have a formal dining room, only 23 percent said they use it regularly. (Some 46 percent said they use it when they have company.) And 67 percent said they use the dining room for other things, including crafting, homework, play space and as a home office.
Houston interior designer Saima Seyar of Elima Designs worked with Shashi Malkani to transform the room as a surprise gift. The two went to elaborate lengths to keep it a surprise, with Shashi telling his wife that Seyar was helping him with a fish tank. Neda — vice president of Tax at Kinder Morgan — went on a girls’ trip to Napa Valley, and while she was gone they had the room painted and rubbery gym flooring installed. Shashi bought the punching bag and other exercise equipment from a list of suggestions from Seyar, who also had inspirational fitness photos prepared for artwork.
“We like more casual dinners. A dining room becomes more formal like you can’t hang out there. When friends come over, we might sit at that table for three hours,” Neda Malkani said, pointing to the long family table near the kitchen. “I don’t see us doing that in a formal dining room. I didn’t grow up with one either, so it wasn’t hard for us to say it will be a toy room or something else as the kids get older.”
Seyar often has clients who say they want to build bigger homes, but when she asks them about how they use their existing homes she learns that whole rooms go unused. With standard dining rooms starting at 10 feet by 12 feet, it’s plenty of square footage for any number of other uses.
“I have to point out to them they can use their dining room for anything they want, and they look at me with complete surprise every time. Every single time,” said Seyar, who is president of the Texas Gulf Coast chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. “We talk about how they live, and so many times that dining room — or the formal living room, for that matter — aren’t used at all. Typically, we end up turning it into a meditation room, workout room, kids’ playroom. I’m always telling them, ‘Use your rooms for what you want.’”