Question 1: We just moved into a new house with a very unique layout. I'm wondering how to describe some of the rooms using formal definitions.

The main floor has an open-air space that is pretty versatile — it could be a living room, or it could be a dining room, we haven't decided ourselves yet — and extends upwards two floors.

The term atrium seems to fit as there are windows that go up one whole side of the area, but I wasn't sure if that term was traditionally reserved for non-residential uses.

Great room also seems to apply, though it's not necessarily a vaulted ceiling and therefore doesn't fit Wikipedia's definition.

What is the difference between an atrium and a great room, or is there another word that would describe this room more formally?

Question 2: The upper level of our house contains three separate areas — a landing/den, a wide space used as a bedroom in the past, and another space that is currently my office. These upper rooms are bordered by a half-wall on the sides that face the great room/atrium/whatever.

This area seems too big/complex to be considered simply a loft. Is there another term to describe it?

closed as not a real question by Kit Z. Fox, Callithumpian, Daniel, kiamlaluno, nohat Jul 11 '11 at 20:08

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Thank you for joining English Language and Usage. It sounds like you have a lovely new home, but I'm afraid your question is not on-topic per the guidelines in our FAQ. You are asking several questions in one post, which makes it difficult to determine what a correct answer might be. We would be happy to entertain such questions as "What is the difference between a great room and an atrium?" – Kit Z. Fox Jul 11 '11 at 17:07
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    @Kit: It's a tough call. Really, Chrisbloom7 has only two questions: terms for two spaces in his house. I'm sure this could fit nicely under the terminology tag. – Jimi Oke Jul 11 '11 at 17:42
  • Thanks Jimi, and yes - I'm just trying to find the proper english words for rooms that match what I described. I figured this might be a good forum, especially since there is no architectural focused SE site at the moment. If you disagree, I will close the question though I would appreciate if you could leave it up in the short term to see if anyone has an answer. – Chris Bloom Jul 11 '11 at 17:46
  • @Jimi @Chris I understand your reasoning and I am inclined to agree, but I still think this should be broken into two questions. – Kit Z. Fox Jul 11 '11 at 17:50
  • @Kit - I edited the question to remove some of the extraneous details and instead focus on the specific question. Let me know if that helps. – Chris Bloom Jul 11 '11 at 17:51

Part 1

Atriums or atria come from ancient Roman architecture. They were central to the house, occupied a couple stories and provided access to other rooms. See The Roman House and Wikipedia. These days, atria are common features of multi-story public structures, with huge windows and sky views. (Here is an example of the famous Schow Atrium at Williams College.)

According to the NOAD, the great room is

a large room in a modern house that combines features of a living room with those of a dining room or family room.

In this Wikipedia article, there is an excellent photograph of a two-story great room.

In your house, great room would be the ideal term for the space you describe. You say it is a versatile space, one that would combine living and dining. The term would even be more apt if that is the only living space on the lower floor. Foyer wouldn't work because your space primarily a living area. Also, living room, family room and drawing room are not adequate. However, front room is a completely acceptable term, as well.

The difference between an atrium and a great room in modern architecture would be thus: An atrium is a large open multistory space often found in public buildings functioning as the central access point to the rest of the building, a source of natural light and a multi-purpose space. A great room, however, is the main living area in a residential building, and it used for entertainment, relaxation, dining, etc.

It is possible that atrium may come full circle and regain its original usage in residential architecture. For now, however, the trend favors an industrial usage.

Part 2

A loft is not always a simple structure. These days, converted lofts and loft apartments are all the rage, especially in cities where real estate is scarce. From what you describe, the three upper-level areas constitute a loft.

The area could also be a modified gallery of sorts, most especially because it has a "half-wall" that overlooks the living area. Galleries, however, are traditionally narrow. Here is the relevant definition from NOAD:

a balcony, especially a platform or upper floor, projecting from the back or sidewall inside a church or hall, providing space for an audience or musicians.

Attic should be ruled out, as it usually refers to an uninhabitable or unfinished space. Garret is a fancy, old term that has a negative connotation. These two terms are inappropriate for the simple reason that your upper level overlooks the lower one in a way. Thus, loft and gallery are the best choices.

The bottom-line is: you can name the spaces in your house any way you want. For me, atrium and gallery go well together, because it makes sense that a gallery overlooks an atrium. Great room and loft are more traditional ("proper/formal") names, and these also go well together.

Themes can also be used in naming rooms in a house. For instance, the designer or owner yacht-themed house might favor the terms galley, for the kitchen, and bridge for an upper-level that overlooks the lower level on both sides (but this is a digression).

If you fancied them, you could term these spaces the lounge and the garret, depending on the look and feel (either real or imagined) of your house!

  • Oke has explained it perfectly. Typical advertisingese would include phrases like "architectural open-plan living" and "open volumes" and the like. – Fattie Jul 11 '11 at 19:28
  • Excellent answers, Jimi, and thank you for providing so much background information. I'm inclined to lean more towards the latter set of terms you provide. – Chris Bloom Jul 11 '11 at 19:31
  • @Chris: no problem. I'm glad we could save the question! – Jimi Oke Jul 11 '11 at 19:52
  • Well, I guess not! – Jimi Oke Jul 11 '11 at 23:21
  • Oh, well. Thanks for the answer to my "question" :) – Chris Bloom Jul 12 '11 at 17:29

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