Are Sunken Living Rooms 70’s? Yay or Nay

One of the things I did not like at all about our house when touring it initially was the sunken living room (Both angles below). To change it though would be seriously over-renovating as obviously the fireplace would have to be moved.

Photos by Maria Killam

When designing what the new step would look like, I initially considered this look:


But then decided that it was too modern for my rancher.


Then I found these steps from The Holiday house with Cameran Diaz and Kate Winslet. I like the look of the landing and the way the risers are painted the wall colour. I will do the same thing. And we will do a similar look to both sides, the railings in the dining area are gone and it will be just one long step down into the living room.

So I think it will still look good and certainly much more up-to-date without the dated railing and old carpeting. Over to you my lovelies, how do you feel about sunken living rooms? Are they 70’s are can they be 2012?

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  1. Maria, I have emailed you some photos of a step-down living room in an Atlanta house we built 20 years ago and sold two years ago. The photos don’t do justice to the spaces, but the “sunken” living room (25′ x 15′ w/15′ ceiling) with its stepped ceiling was the highlight of the house. I am emailing the pictures separately since I don’t see how to attach them here. No one picture I have gives a good view of the steps on each side of the built-in credenza, so I’m sending pieces of the area. –Jo

  2. Maria, obviously the current look is old and dated but when you’re done, based on the pix you show, it will be totally glam! The only issue with stairs is the risk of falls and Shawna may be right about the code requirement for railings – would definitely check it out before you start so that if they are required, you can work them into your design rather than have to add something later. Also, down the road, if you come to have regular visitors who can’t negotiate any steps, even with railing, you could have a sturdy but lightweight and fairly narrow ramp created with a bottom that rested on your steps and the ramp on top that you could move in for the needy visitors and then store away for the usual. You’ll make it work beautifully and colorfully too. The only thing I don’t like about your pix is the lack of color in the room – looks very cold and stark and downright uninviting to me
    Your room certainly won’t. Be sure to let us watch the progression!

  3. No, I don’t thinkn a sunken living room has to date the house. I like the image you posted. It looks clean and contemporary.

    Another idea comes from my world of old houses (100-year old, not from the 1970’s). If you check out the new June 2012 issue of This Old House, the image on page 87 describes my thoughts. You could go the route of craftsman/bungalow and use short, built-in bookcases on either side of the stairs. Eliminate the spindles of course! Then install half-columns from the top of the bookcases to the ceiling. I love the feel of a cozy living room with
    built-in bookshelves.

  4. I am currently wretling with the same problem and we sell our family home and move back into a 1980’s townhouse that has beeen a rental for 15 years. I like the step down and mine has a seven foot railing that stretches across the threshold that I am trying to decide what design to choose. Love the glassed in look but I agree with the others who said if you have steps there should be some sort of railing and I find them an interesting piece of “art” for the room. Will be excited to see your choices.

  5. What you have chosen to do is perfect; I think it adds a glamour touch to the space. We are actually doing the same thing in our new house; my husband the architect likes step down LR’s to allow for a higher ceiling appearance in the space; it defines the space and makes it “special”

  6. I like the idea of making the stairs a “feature” in the room. If it were my house, I might consider extending the dining room floor area further into the living room to accommodate extensions for a dining table if entertaining larger groups is a possibility for you. Obviously that would change the proportions in the room with the fireplace which may not be practical. I’m not a huge fan of fireplaces, so I wouldn’t mind removing it (if you did, is it possible to raise the whole floor?), but that may not be everyone’s choice, especially up in Canada.

    As an aside, I don’t have a sunken room but I have a dining room and living room in a traditional colonial style home that are on either side of the entry-way, and I would love to switch them because the LR is half again as long and would actually fit my extended table during the holidays. It’s not that so far from the kitchen as to be un-manageable. (My husband thinks I’m off my rocker, so we haven’t done it yet.)

  7. You’ve picked the right direction – removing the rug & railings will immediately erase the 1975 feel. But before doing the stairs, consider your furniture placement – will having stairs interfere with anything? P.S. I can just see your nephews zipping matchbox cars from the top over the stairs to land in the living room – you’ll be the best auntie ever.

  8. the holiday house picture proves that it will look wonderful, I like how they used oversize vases on each side to remind you that the step is there…

  9. I agree, it is a great architectural feature to the home. As said, what dates it is the finishes not the plan or layout. I also love that the sunken living room helps divide the 2 spaces with still allowing for an open concept. Can wait to see it once you do your magic.

  10. I think it is a wonderful architectural detail. You should play it up. Remove the railings and extend the steps the whole length of the opening, making the bottom step extend even further. That way you won’t need any railings. It’s only when you have three steps that you need a railing, as long as there isn’t any area where someone can step off a deep drop…
    Get rid of the carpet. Use hardwood treads instead, and paint the raisers the same color as your walls.
    Architectural features don’t date rooms, its the furnishing that date rooms. So you your flare for design and make it 2012!

  11. Our townhouse has a sunken living room. Removing the railing, as you have done, really helped to open up the space between our dining and living areas. It also felt much less dated. Soon, we will install wood floor in the entire space…I am hoping this will make it look even more fluid. Love The Holiday house. 🙂

  12. Living in an area where every home has basements – we never see sunken living rooms. So I like them – they are unique and I love the heightened ceiling they allow. I love your idea with the steps, that will absolutely make a statement that is not tied to a previous decade. Can’t wait to see your home come together!

  13. We have a sunken LR in our 1970s house that I have come to loathe becuz of the safety issues. I took out the railing years ago and now I wish I had it back. We inadvertently made the problem worse when we took up the LR carpet and put travertine tile throughout the kitchen/dining/LR area. People don’t see the step down at all and fall into the LR or trip up into the kitchen. I’ve been trying to think of solutions for years and the only thing I have come up with is to put up stick-on closet style lights onto the stair facing when we have company come over….

  14. We have a step down into our dining room,and I am very afraid of people falling. ( Many have )They don’t see it. there is marble before it and into the Diving Room I have a runner at the base. I do not like the look of a railing what can I do? I want to raise it but I think the price would be prohibitive.

  15. I love your blog and it has been my biggest inspiration in renovating my house. We have a 70’s house with a sunken lounge room and we have just put in timber laminate floor and updated the step and it looks amazing. Couldn’t be happier and would have to say that I actually like the lounge room being sunken, to me it defines the space from the dining area and creates a relaxing and cosy feel to the lounge area. Originally we had pinky latte coloured carpet and although it was quite new, your website gave me the confidence to rip it out and the difference is unreal, now the undertones in the house are really working. Thank you so much, you have no idea how much your information on your blog has helped.

  16. We did a sunken family/great room in out newly built home because we wanted taller ceilings and a large feel to the room. We also did a different hardwood in there (walnut) versus a cherry that is on the rest of the first floor. We lvoed the walnut and wish we could have done the whoel house in it but it was too expensive for us. So, it probably doesn’t look as cohesive as it should but we love it and the sunken room I don’t think dates a house at all. I actually like them in that it is a characteristic of the home to be loved.

  17. I have a fully remodeled house that was for sale in 2016 and now again in 2017. My one-story house is popular and draws in many potential buyers. The biggest drawback from feedback is the sunken living room. Many who want/need a one-story home, is someone taking in an elderly parent. The steps pose a negative for them.

    A few in our tract have filled in their sunken living room mainly because the low point in those homes created a water leak problem. I haven’t had that issue. I didn’t fill in the sunken living room because of the fireplace.

    We had a friend fill in her sunken living room. It was a daunting project filling in the sunken living room with lots of cement over cement slab. The end result was lovely.

    I don’t think I’ll buy another home with a sunken living room. Too hard to resell.