There’s an old and magical book called “A Pattern Language” that describes many surprising ways humans actually behave in certain spaces like towns, streets, buildings, balconies, and bedrooms.
Never build a balcony less than six feet deep because people rarely use them. That’s just one example of hundreds. And the authors’ unexpected insights about bedrooms could completely overhaul how we approach designing our sleep spaces.
Published in 1977, the book was written by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein, a group of architects, builders, and researchers who spent eight years observing how people behave and interact with different spaces.
When thumbing through the book, I landed on a section related to sleep and noticed a bolded statement that said, “Bedrooms don’t make any sense.”
Was everything I knew about designing an inviting sleep space wrong?
Jumping from section to section, I cobbled together a compelling case for changing the design of bedrooms to function in ways that humans will use and enjoy. From alcoves to lowering the ceilings above mattresses, tapping into these timeless ideas could help you create a sleep space that feels better than ever before.
How Humans Actually Behave
When roaming around a town square, you may notice how low walls, about the height of a bench, often define garden spaces. And you’ll also observe how people can’t help but sit on those walls. Therefore, the authors recommend building low walls around community spaces to encourage gathering and relaxation.
The garden designer may have envisioned the wall being built to define the space and protect the flowers, but in reality, humans thought, “That looks like a nice place to sit and look at the flowers.”
This observation about how people interacted with those low walls is but one example of many showing what people actually do, versus what we think they should do. It’s not unlike what parents have observed when it’s time to put their children to bed.
Bed Clusters Off Common Spaces
It’s important to understand the style of sleeping space that’s actually comfortable for a child in order to update our collective thinking about what makes a truly relaxing bedroom for adults.
“Every child in the family needs a private place, generally centered around the bed. But in many cultures, perhaps all cultures, young children feel isolated if they sleep alone, if their sleeping are is too private.”
Door open. Nightlight on. If it’s too quiet and she hasn’t drifted off to sleep, a little head pokes out to see if anyone’s awake.
For most of human history, kids and families slept in the same room. Archaeologists in South Africa unearthed a bed that was 77,000 years old and it was big enough to fit an entire family.
Isolated bedrooms didn’t become a thing until the 17th Century when privacy became both precious and possible. Victorian-era homes put a nail in the coffin of communal sleeping with their webs of walls and private rooms.
Until that cultural shift, families slept together. Servants slumbered at the foot of their master’s beds and travelers even bunked up together. Everyone mashed together each night to keep warm and to stay alive.
So it’s no wonder that little ones who are alone have a hard time sleeping. “This instinct is so strongly developed in children of all cultures, and we believe it may be unhealthy for little children to have whole rooms of their own, regardless of cultural habit.”
That statement might seem like a stretch for cultural relativists who believe there are a variety of ways to raise kids and if a culture wants its children to develop self-sufficiency aloneness will help in that development.
The authors balk at that idea, acknowledging that adults need their own rooms, but “the isolation of a private room for a small child may perhaps be fundamentally incompatible with healthy psycho-social development; and might even do organic damage,” they say. “It is significant that there is no culture in the world except the United States, and the offshoots of the United States, where this one-child-one-room pattern is widely practiced. And our observations do certainly suggest that this pattern is correlated with emotional withdrawal, and exaggerated conceptions of the individual’s self-sufficiency, which, in the end, bring a person into inner conflicts between the need for contact and the need for withdrawal.”
Parents will face a tug of war between giving their kids space to retreat from territorial sibling squabbles and their instinct to be together, especially at night.
The authors recommend redesigning a child’s sleep and play space. “Place the children’s beds in alcoves or small alcove-like rooms, around a common playspace. Make each alcove large enough to contain a table, or chair, or shelves – at least some floor area, where each child has his own things. Give the alcoves curtains that look into the common space, but not walls or doors, which will tend once more to isolate the beds too greatly.”
Here are some images that capture the spirit of this children’s bedroom design that eliminates isolated rooms and incorporates clusters of alcoves where children have their own small, private nooks that open to a common playspace.
These pictures show the basic idea, but keep in mind the authors recommend that each alcove is large enough to contain shelves, or a small table and chairs, with some floor space where kids can play. This arrangement gives the children a space each one can own while keeping them within earshot and sight of each other.
Now that you have a better understanding about what makes a great space for kids we’ll venture into the world of alcoves and low ceilings where we’ll reimagine bedroom design for adults.
Ceiling Height Variety and Alcoves
Take a look at the classic four-poster bed and you’ll get a glimpse into how bedrooms should actually be designed. The old four-posters feature curtains and a canopy that creates an intimate private space where the sleeper doesn’t feel exposed. That overhead drop matters more than you might think.
Lowering the ceiling height is one important method for achieving intimacy in a space. “There is a complex interaction between people and space, in which people read different ceiling heights in buildings as messages, and take up positions according to these messages.”
High ceilings are appropriate for social and formal spaces where people gather, such as airports, churches, or great rooms in a home. Buildings with varying ceiling heights have an effect on the social interactions that take place in that space.
If you’re urinating in a bathroom with 14-foot high ceilings you will likely feel uncomfortable. However, if you move from the main gathering space with a vaulted roof into a smaller den that features lower ceilings that change above your head sends a signal about how to use the room. This same principle applies to bedrooms.
“The bed, as an intimate social space for one or two, needs a ceiling height somewhat lower than the room beside it.”
A few ways to achieve this design is to build homes with alcoves, install overhead storage that lowers the ceiling height above the bed, or even elevate the floor with stairs leading to a platform.
Some might think this style of design and construction is impractical and for a culture obsessed with efficiency and their methods for production they’d be correct. But if you witness the beautiful interaction and the peace that relaxes across a person’s face when they’re inside a room that feels more like a womb or a cave you’ll understand that squares and rectangles aren’t what makes a person melt into the swaddle of a perfectly designed space.
Therefore, design bedrooms with enough space around the sleeping area to move about, but not so much that it creates awkward areas that need to be filled with unnecessary furniture or distracting tchotchkes. Create alcoves and lower the ceiling height above the bed to signal intimacy and create a feeling of safety and warmth.
Based on these ideas, bedrooms really don’t make sense! But with some gentle adjustments based on the author’s observations about how people actually use their sleep space, people can design an environment that invites rest, relaxation, intimacy, and a magical night of rejuvenating sleep.