Making TV, Fireplace and View Work Together


Fireplace versus television versus view. Husband versus wife.

When planning the family room or living room in a new house or a major remodel, "the husband and wife will argue about what's more important, the television, the fireplace or the view," said Sarah Susanka, an architect in Minneapolis and a columnist for Fine Homebuilding magazine.

"The husband usually wants a big-screen television. The wife doesn't watch TV much and wants a view. Both want the fireplace, but they're not sure where to put it," Susanka said.

All three are compatible, but making them work together in one room calls for some rethinking of cherished traditions, she said.

The fireplace is such a potent symbol of home and hearth for most homeowners that they automatically organize a room around it.

But many people who want a fireplace don't actually use it. Even if they do, it isn't watched in a focused way like television; it's just part of the ambience of the room. A fireplace doesn't need to be front stage center; it just has to be in the room.

The TV doesn't have to be stage center either, but, unlike the fireplace, it is watched in a focused way and needs to be placed where people can watch it comfortably while sitting, Susanka said.

Putting the fireplace and TV in proximity and even on the same wall makes it easier to place the furniture, but this can still be problematic if you're looking at tract-built houses.

"Many home builders are now putting a viewing niche for the TV above the fireplace," said Lita Dirks, an interior designer in Englewood, Colo., who works for home builders all over the country.

"It looks good, but in a small room, you will be craning your neck to see. You don't want to feel like you're always on the front row at a movie theater."

Dirks' solution is to put the TV in a niche next to the fireplace, preferably in a cabinet that you can open to watch and close when you use the space for other things.

A bank of cabinets can also house the CD player, tape deck, VCR, videotapes and all the other paraphernalia that go with the TV in most households, she said.

Built-in cabinetry can sound expensive, but creatively combining kitchen cabinets can make this surprisingly affordable, said Debbie Saling, a kitchen designer in Beltsville, Md.

With a more expensive semi-custom cabinet line, you can get both a base cabinet specifically designed for a TV, with folding pocket doors and a swivel base, and additional base cabinets with customized roll-out trays to hold everything else.

If your budget limits you to stock cabinets that rarely offer these features, Saling suggests combining base cabinets with open shelving above for the TV, books, photographs, plants and anything else you might want to display.

The CDs, VCR and other less sightly items can still be stored in the base cabinets, but you will have to modify them yourself. However, Saling said there's almost always a way you can do this.

If you don't want cabinets, the size and proportion of the TV and fireplace should be factored into their placement, Dirks said.

If you want a huge TV screen, "it needs its own territory," and she would put it in another room. If you are willing to settle for a more modest-sized TV, a good rule of thumb when placing it near the fireplace is that the TV should not be bigger than the fireplace plus its surroundings, she said.

Susanka often organizes a family room or living room so that the sitting circle is centered on the TV for easy viewing and the fireplace is on a diagonal in a nearby corner, within view but not dominating the room.

To give more choice in how to arrange the furniture, she favors putting the TV in a niche on a pullout swivel that can be turned toward viewers.

The view outside, while certainly important, is also just part of the ambience of the room, Susanka said.

"We enjoy having it surround us, but we don't sit and watch it like the TV unless it has a focal point like a bird feeder."

It's also important to separate the two--the view and TV viewing--so that people watching the TV won't have to contend with glare from the windows.

If the seating area faces the TV, she puts the view to the sides and rear. Even when the TV is not on the same wall as the windows, you can still have glare problems with the afternoon sun if the view faces west. When this is the case, you will have to cover the windows with shades or curtains if you watch the TV in the afternoon.

A living room or family room that works for watching TV and enjoying the view or a fire still has to accommodate all the other household activities that occur there, Susanka said.

Conversing, eating, reading and children's play will work in almost any space. Adding music listening, computer work and homework to the mix will complicate matters, largely because some of these activities require quiet and concentration. When you're working at the computer and paying the bills, for example, you don't want to be distracted by rap music.

To get privacy for those tasks that demand it, Susanka recommends adding a small den off the family room that can be closed off with French doors when needed, but that is still visually connected to family room activities.

Older children using such a room for homework will still be close to the kitchen so they can ask questions and a parent can supervise them.

For some families, putting the TV in the den with French doors is a solution for conflicting activities in the family room.

If adding a den doesn't fit in your budget, another possibility is closing off the living room with French doors, an option that many home builders offer. As living rooms get smaller and smaller, using the space as a den may be more appropriate anyway.

Adapting the living room for other uses while living in the house also solves a major problem for new home buyers with resale concerns.

Many are loath to eliminate a living room, even if they know it won't be used, for fear of hurting the home's resale potential, Susanka said.

Katherine Salant is a syndicated columnist who writes on newly built homes. She can be reached via e-mail at

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