Most of us have fond memories associated with doing laundry—playing on the floor of the laundry room as a child, the fresh smell of clothes dried on a clothesline, or the warmth of a towel just out of the dryer. It’s not surprising that we take comfort in this chore that humans have known for thousands of years. Some historians attribute the invention of laundry soap to the Phoenicians, while others credit the ancient Egyptians, according to Irene Rawlings and Andrea Van Steenhouse in their book, The Clothesline (Gibbs Smith, 2002).
Comfort, in more than one sense of the word, may be the reason that we are now more interested in our laundry rooms than ever. A recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) says that laundry rooms and dining rooms are widely considered to be essential in new homes. When asked to specify extra rooms for convenience and luxury, 92 percent of respondents wanted a laundry room. Van Steenhouse thinks there is another reason. “We long for a simpler time when people were more connected to one another—by extended family, by neighborhoods, by communities, and by the simple tasks that sustained life and gave it continuity,” she writes.
The nurturing laundry room
Not just for cleaning clothes anymore, laundry rooms are now being used as multipurpose rooms for everything from gardening and crafts to storage and pet care. This reflects the changing role of women in the home, according to Lucinda Bailey, owner of Lucinda Bailey Interior Design, a green interior design firm based in Pasadena, California. Bailey, who also teaches courses on sustainable design at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, says that because women now watch children, keep house, and run businesses from home, “they have a newfound authority to demand proper work spaces in the home.”
While some homeowners opt for glitzy laundry rooms with high-end wood cabinetry, slate flooring, and multiple dryers, others want laundry rooms that are healthy, environmentally friendly, and nurturing. To begin, Rawlings and Van Steenhouse suggest asking yourself a few questions: Do you want to locate the laundry room in the basement, on the first floor where it can also serve as a mudroom, or on the second floor if that’s where most of the laundry is generated? Do you want a big room for sorting, pretreating, and folding clothes? Do you want a room with large windows that offers a pleasant environment for sewing or doing crafts?
Another thing to consider is how to create an environment free of the mold that tends to grow in rooms where water is used. And finally, when it comes to determining storage space, Karen Moore, owner of Djuna, an antiques, art, and fine fabric shop in Denver, has a helpful hint. “Decide how much storage space you think you will need, double that amount, and you will come out just about right,” she says.
Materials from floor to ceiling
Because laundry room floors can get wet, Bailey recommends either a stained concrete floor with a drain or linoleum, which is highly durable, waterproof, and soft enough to stand on for long periods of time. Ellen Mackey, who has been retrofitting her 1,790-square-foot, 1950s ranch-style home in Sun Valley, California, to make it more energy and water efficient, chose linoleum for her laundry room floor and says that it’s very comfortable on her feet.
Other flooring options include cork (if thoroughly sealed with a nontoxic sealer) and large stone tiles that minimize grout (although stone gets slippery with moisture). To this list Cheryl Terrace, president of Vital Design, a healthy interior design firm in New York, adds ceramic tiles, recycled floorboards, and rubber, depending on local climate and how much the room will be used.
Some flooring materials, such as ceramic tiles, also make great countertops, Terrace points out. Another beautiful countertop material is Silestone, an engineered quartz surface by Cosentino USA. Mackey chose Silestone countertops in a whimsical peach that looks like granite and is made of 93 percent quartz aggregates mixed with binders (Silestone’s “Stellar” series contains chips of recycled mirrors). She adds that her fourteen-year-old daughter took one look at the glittery countertops and promised to clean them, which was reason enough to install them.
Terrace suggests adding a deep sink with an indestructible quality in the laundry room. “Remember the big ‘slop’ sinks in schools?” Terrace asks. “Soapstone or even an old recycled sink are options to consider.” Bailey adds that the laundry room is perfect for installing a graywater system to recycle sink and laundry runoff into the garden (first check with your local health agency for regulations and restrictions).
When it comes to cabinetry and walls, Bailey and Terrace suggest checking out your local salvage yard for previously owned cabinetry or buying healthy cabinetry built from sustainably harvested wood and nontoxic glues, and painting the walls with nontoxic interior paints. In the spirit of reusing, Mackey chose to keep as much of the original cabinetry as possible in her laundry room.
Lighting is very important, too. Terrace is a fan of natural, full-spectrum, or halogen lighting in the laundry room, with good task lighting for projects and low-energy lights for atmosphere. Bailey suggests installing a tubular skylight, which is a light tube lined with a mirrorlike material that brings natural light through the roof into an interior space. Mackey installed hard-wired fluorescent lighting and a tubular skylight, and she says the room is now flooded with natural light. Her green laundry room also includes an energy and water efficient Maytag Neptune washing machine; wooden drying racks that the family calls their “solar dryer;” and a small energy efficient freezer in which Mackey stores fresh fruits grown in her backyard until she has time to can them. Part gardening, canning, and storage room, Mackey’s laundry room “is the center for many of the sustainable things we do in our home,” she says.
Terrace suggests making the laundry room a place where your family can be creative. “To create is often messy,” she says. “How often do we allow ourselves and our families to really get into something?”