Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.
It seems like a hundred years ago now, but, in late February 2007, I traveled to Caroline’s Comedy Club in Manhattan for the Maytag Repairman open auditions.
Not just to write about them, but to get up on stage and try out.
Maytag was looking for someone to replace the actor Hardy Rawls (the father on Nickelodeon’s Pete and Pete), who had replaced WKRP in Cincinnati’s Gordon Jump as “Ol’ Lonely” in 2003, when Jump retired.
I had learned about it while I was attending the National Association of Homebuilders convention in Orlando in mid-January and was visiting the Maytag booth. A friend was doing public relations for Maytag, and since my columns appeared in 300 newspapers every week, she thought my auditioning in New York the following month and writing about it might give her employers maximum exposure.
Publicly, I agreed it would be a good story. Privately, I was thinking “What if I made it and became the new Maytag Repairman? Money, fame, and money would follow!”
A guy from Virginia, Clay Earl Jackson, got the job. I ended up being interviewed on NPR and other media, and reaped lots of publicity for Remodeling on the Money, my second book, which had just been published.
The book had an extensive chapter on laundry rooms, because, in the first decade of the 2000’s, people were spending thousands of dollars creating palatial spaces in which to wash and dry clothes. I know that sounds kind of silly … well, at least I find it laughable since our washer and dryer sit in the corner of the basement and comes to life once or twice a week.
Philadelphia Realtor Joanne Davidow summed up this trend better than anyone at the time: “Imagine telling your grandmother that all of your friends really rave about your $30,000 laundry room!”
In this article, we’ll discuss the evolution of the laundry room and what to consider when renovating your own.
I’m old enough to remember wringer washers and clotheslines on which sheets became as stiff as boards on sunny and cold winter days, and I am the grandfather of two, with a third on the way. And even though I witnessed the days of $30,000 laundry rooms, I still find it hard to believe.
It was truly an era of excess that ended badly for many Americans who were given vast sums of mortgage money they were never able to repay.
Just to clarify, the existing grandchildren – ages 4 and 2 – live with their parents in a two-bedroom flat in South London. The European front-loading washer, designed to be energy-efficient and water-saving, is embedded in a lower cabinet in the kitchen and takes at least eight hours to handle the literally tons of wash every other day.
There is no dryer. The wash is hung on drying racks in the living room/dining room.
Everything I see on the Internet points to continued interest in functional, rather than ostentatious, laundry rooms in dedicated spaces that are NOT the basement. Builders and remodelers continue to put the laundry rooms as near as possible to the source of dirty clothes, which is typically close to the children’s bedrooms – meaning the second floor, in most cases.
Often, laundry rooms start in the basement and end up elsewhere.
In the book, I related the decision of a couple named Liz and Mike who donated Mike’s pool table to their brother-in-law Terry so they could create a laundry room in a basement space large enough to accommodate, not only a commercial-sized washer and dryer, but a playroom for twin daughters (four years old) and their three-year-old brother.
Shortly after the book was published, Liz and Mike had a second-floor closet enlarged to accommodate that washer and dryer. The playroom, too, was moved to a second-floor space a few steps from the new laundry room.
It seems to have worked well since the 17-year-old twins and their 16-year-old brother always seem to have plenty of clean clothes. The family is, however, on their third washer, but the dryer – all dryers seem to last forever – is the original.
For two working parents and three growing children, the laundry set-up worked.
Why all the focus on laundry rooms? It is because doing the laundry for a family of four can almost be categorized as a small business.
The Laundry Butler, a laundry service based in Simi, Calif., reports that the average American household washes 50 pounds of laundry a week and 6,000 items of clothing in a year.
Mulberry Garment Care of San Francisco found that the average family does laundry four to five times a week. In a survey of 1,000 Americans, Mulberry also learned that people typically wash their jeans after two wears but won’t even touch the sheets in the guest bedroom after someone has slept over.
When Maytag test-marketed its Neptune washer in Bern, Kansas, in 1997, it found that the typical family of four in that rural community did 11 loads of wash a week. When I asked one resident why they did so much laundry, his one-word answer was “farmers.”
Washing and drying clothes consumes huge amounts of energy, even if the appliances are the latest and most-efficient models. Most people, of course, won’t replace energy-guzzling appliances until they no longer work.
The Cleaning Institute in Washington, D.C., notes that a new washer in 2017 used 70 percent less energy than in 1990. Yet consumers tend to push back against energy efficiency by washing less than full loads or incorrectly believing that the hotter the water, the more cleaning power.
Reducing the drying temperature or hanging the wash on the line also will save great gobs of energy, the institute says.
Just what does a $30,000 laundry room consist of?
As I remember it, and I am reaching back a couple of decades, the trend was to treat the laundry room as if it were a suite, and exposing it to more scrutiny by putting it on the first or second floor, but especially the first.
They were, in the words of a spokeswoman for Whirlpool Corp., “becoming showplaces. … connected to the interior design of the house and being shown off with everything else.”
The laundry room, like every room of the house, had become an “individual living experience,” the spokeswoman said at the time.
The laundry room was being looked at as a “sanctuary,” with custom cabinetry, scratch-proof stainless-steel surfaces, televisions, CD players (remember those), and coffeemakers.
There also were “ironing stations.” Who irons these days?
The laundry as a sanctuary was an example of “cocooning” – an attempt to make houses into “fortresses” in the wake of 9-11. In addition, there were trillions of dollars in home equity available for such excesses, and the misguided trend of treating homes as ATMs by continuous cash-out mortgage refinancing set the country up for the 2008 financial crisis and the millions of foreclosures that followed.
We are again cocooning, but for reasons of health, of course. Rather than building palatial laundry rooms, however, people are creating open spaces – large patios and decks for relaxation and entertainment, home offices and exercise rooms — until the ability to travel and socialize in public is again unlimited.
A lot of us have been and will be dressing casually for a longer time than we could ever have imagined. While there are no statistics on the number of weekly wash loads since the start of the pandemic, I cannot remember the last time my jeans were laundered. And we haven’t had anyone in the guest room bed for at least six months, so I’m not worried about changing the sheets.
I’m also perfectly happy with a basement laundry, since it is near my office, and the pool table can be used for folding clothes right out of the dryer. If, however, you want a laundry closer to the source of dirty clothes, here are a few things to consider.
An area six feet wide by three feet deep would accommodate a standard-size washer and dryer, a utility tub, and a hamper (you want to do larger loads to save energy and water).
Consider a stackable washer/dryer, since they can save space horizontally. A 7 ½ -foot ceiling would accommodate shelves for supplies above the washer and dryer. A little extra room for sorting and folding laundry might be useful.
Put the laundry room near existing plumbing and wiring, and in a location where the dryer vent is unobtrusive. Check to see what building codes require for ductwork and shutoff valves. You may need a structural engineer to see if the floor joists can withstand the washer’s vibration (front-loaders are big offenders in that department, even in the basement). If not, reinforcement will be required.
The venting duct and gas connection require at least six inches of clearance behind the dryer, which are typically 30 to 32 inches deep. Your building code may require that the washer sit in an overflow pan designed to prevent water from accidentally pouring on the floor and into the ceiling below.
Plan for plenty of lighting. The electrical outlets should be GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupters) that shut off automatically when they are in contact with moisture. Most washers require 240-volt electrical outlets, which means an electrician in addition to a plumber.
For years, we used top-loading washers that seemed to last forever (20 years in one case). As it reached its second decade in service, that washer began chewing up enough of my wife’s clothing that she demanded a front-loader.
Since I had access to all the major manufactures at the homebuilders’ convention and the Kitchen and Bath Show, I personally checked out all the models and settled on a manufacturer that also produced our very-efficient dishwasher.
From the beginning, there were problems, not only with performance but with warranty and service. There have been continuing mold, mildew and resulting odor problems that my wife periodically treats with Tide washing-machine cleaner to keep the situation under control.
Within a year of buying the machine, it stopped working. The repairman sent by the manufacturer had to replace a computer board, and then tried to charge me $400 to fix it. After several angry exchanges with the manufacturer, the price dropped to $99 (keep the warranty handy).
The repairman got his revenge, however. Before he replaced the board, the bell and whistle sound alerting us to the completion of the washing cycle didn’t work.
Now, it won’t stop.