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Here’s Why Sunken Living Rooms Make Perfect Sense

The ’70s design no-no gets a new lease on life in Toronto homes

By Tory Healy
Photography by Andrew Snow

Decor and interior design trends come and go. Remember waterbeds, shag carpeting and wall-to-wall wood panelling? Or the sunken living rooms of the ’70s, as seen on the Mary Tyler Moore Show? Fashionable or not, step-down family rooms make good sense. For one, they’re a way for architects to create distinct living areas in open-concept homes and, for another, these dropped rooms gain height without affecting the roofline. They simultaneously appear taller and more intimate than other parts of the house.

Sunken living rooms ideas
Neolith-clad island by Marble Plus; table from Restoration Hardware; lighting by Apparatus (available at Hollace Cluny).

Studio AC’s decision to give this Humewood house a sunken living room began with the removal of a tired back addition and the crawl space below. The architects carved out the living room and added ceiling height glazing, which brings light into the heart of the home and doubles as a walk-out. To integrate the space with the rest of the ground floor, they lined up the living room’s millwork with the home’s spine: one central element that runs the full length of the house, amalgamating storage, plumbing and structural elements. Rather than hide this 84-centimetre-wide “backbone,” the architects accentuated it to visually connect the rooms. White oak flooring runs throughout, but along the spine, Studio AC ran the wood perpendicular to emphasize thresholds and millwork. Now the ground floor has a continuous look as well as clearly demarcated zones. There’s nothing ’70s about that.

sunken living room with A two-sided Ortal fireplace, surrounded by hot-rolled steel
A two-sided Ortal fireplace, surrounded by hot-rolled steel, separates sunken living room and dining space.  Tub chairs and coffee tables from Torp; art by Jeffrey Milstein.



On a leafy street in North Toronto, architecture firm Atelier Kastelic Buffey (AKB), completed a 925-square-metre residence for two parents and their four kids separating the dining space from the sunken living fireside living room with its Jeffrey Milstein photography and Danish-modern furniture.  “Homes are intensely personal,” says architect Kelly Buffey, co-founder of AKB. “So, to develop the design, we spent a lot of time with the family, understanding exactly what they needed.” As such, the ground floor is a testament to the clan’s love of entertaining.

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