Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Conversation Pit

One of my favourite aspects of mid-century, 1970s and 1980s housing design was actually not very common and never really caught on en-masse for builder's tract housing. The conversation pit was usually reserved for spacious and/or avant garde houses, but a few rare examples can be found in Ottawa and the Greater Toronto Area. 
The sunken conversation pit was commonly centred on a fireplace and was an intimate area to gather and have a conversation - thus the name of the design element. Sometimes this space was designed as a way to make a portion of a larger space into a cozy spot to gather. The sitting surface may have been in the form of built-in benches, or the stepped carpeted floor became the sitting surface. 

The following are some examples of builder tract housing with conversation pits. I have a couple of Ottawa examples, but I have also dug in to my Orange County (California) files and my Toronto-area plans to share some interesting examples.

Cadillac Fairview built this design in the Pineview area of Ottawa. It has a great conversation pit as a way to break up the sweeping run from the living room through to the family room.
 This Costain plan from Orleans has a conversation pit at one end of the family room with built-in seating.
In Hunt Club Woods, this Campeau design has a raised den with fireplace off of the master bedroom, which could be considered a variation of a conversation pit (raised and without built-in seating) - although I am not sure the location off of the bedroom would be ideal for entertaining. The optional second floor has a separate room, more conducive for inviting guests.
Below are two articles about houses in Orange County, Southern California, with conversation pits as an integral part of the design.
The following article is on a design built in Irvine, from Professional Builder June 1978:
The design above has a small conversation pit in the master bedroom - more of an intimate space for spouses to chat, and not really a larger group. In this example, the carpeted steps double as seats. 
The design below is from Huntington Beach as described in Professional Builder June 1979:

The front corner of the living room in the plan below has a sunken and vaulted conversation pit.

The following plans are from a development in the Villages of Heart Lake in Brampton (my hometown) from around 1985-1986. When I was younger, my plan collection was much smaller and I would spend hours studying the few I had. The plans from this area were some of my favourite (and still are) because the designs are so innovative and unusual. Portions of 3 plans are shown below, all with a conversation pit next to a fireplace.
If the conversation pit is at one end of the room, it may be referred to by the historic name for such an arrangement: an inglenook. Traditionally, inglenooks were not sunken, but were smaller spaces right next to the fireplace with benches. In the examples above and below, they are ways to make parts of the long rooms feel more intimate.

In this design the two-storey family room has an intimate and cosy pit by the fireplace.
A conversation pit is an unusual aspect of this 1986 Bramalea Limited plan built in Unionville near Toronto. It is the only design in the area with such a unique feature:
Although it is not a builder's tract house, the design above from a CHMC plan book has a conversation pit at the end of the long living room in this unique design.
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By the end of the 1980s conversation pits fell out of favour, and recent renovations to some houses have removed them altogether. I still think they are a fantastic feature and a great space to gather by the fireplace to have an actual conversation - instead of sitting in front of the TV or computer mesmerized by screens.