Brian Sullivan is in the midst of a giant remodeling project at his Studio City, Calif., house. He's installing oak cabinets, granite countertops and German appliances. But the room is not for preparing gourmet meals — it's for washing his socks.
The humble laundry room — once consigned to a corner of the garage or the basement — is now getting the same treatment that has turned kitchens into commercial-grade cooking centers and bathrooms into personal spas. Even luxuries like dedicated sound systems and plasma televisions are being installed so you can watch "Dirty Harry" during pre-soak.
In a 2004 survey by the National Association of Home Builders, the laundry room was rated No. 1 out of 90 items in terms of desirability in a home. That new space needs to be filled — preferably with eye-catching products — and with the centerpiece appliances getting more expensive (one Miele washer retails for $2,200, and even Sears has models for $1,300) homeowners want the rest of the room to match.
But perhaps more important, guys are getting involved. The gadget boom that brought commercial-style ranges — and men — into the kitchen is changing the laundry room as well. It was only a matter of time before "power" laundry machines appeared, described by manufacturers in terms better-suited to a BMW brochure. Bosch Appliances, a German company that also makes power tools, touts its new $1,200 Nexxt machine's maximum-spin speed ("a powerful 1000 to 1200 rpms"), and notes the model's "soft-shouldered profile is reminiscent of a modern luxury automobile, as are the doors that close with a satisfying solidness." Miele's new Touchtronic machines ($1,800) boast of their chromed doors, digital displays and hydraulic suspensions. White goods don't even have to be white anymore — several makers offer their products in macho shades like black, stainless steel and blue.
GE tried to stoke male interest this year with its second annual Men Do Laundry month. Maytag Corp.'s research shows that men are involved in purchases of washing machines 40 percent to 45 percent of the time for standard washers, but for top-of-the-line washers that figure "can grow to more than 50 percent," according to Pam Kleese, senior marketing research analyst for the appliance maker. "It's a testosterone thing," says Mario Saverino, a Pasadena, Calif., designer who has placed several European-style washers and dryers in clients' laundry rooms in the past three years.
For Sullivan, the appeal to come clean is working. He spent $2,100 for a Bosch washer-dryer pair and admits he was swayed as much by aesthetics as, say, efficiency. "I think guys are more on the looks. And it has a clock on it," says the insurance executive, noting that his research included "playing with the dials and controls and opening the doors."
The gadgetry goes beyond traditional washers and dryers. Whirlpool's Personal Valet is a $1,200 cabinet that uses misting to remove odors and wrinkles from garments. The brand also offers an ensemble of products called the Family Studio (for about $5,500) that comes with the clothes-freshening cabinet, a jetted sink for handwashing, an ironing station and a drying cabinet. Maytag's Neptune Drying Center ($1,200) is a dryer with a cabinet on top that blows warm air past clothes (like sweaters) hung inside or laid on shelves, to help prevent shrinkage.
Energy efficiency has also been a factor in the laundry room's evolution. Government Energy Star appliance guidelines (made stricter this year) have encouraged makers to develop front-loading washing machines, which use less than half the amount of water as top-loaders. The category has captured 15 percent of the domestic market, up from 9 percent in 2001, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Front-loaders also give designers more flexibility, since they can be installed under counters and hidden in cabinets.
Contractors say today's laundry rooms can be as large as 300 square feet, compared with the 50-square-foot versions they were building a few years ago. According to Lance Stratton of WmOhs, a La Jolla, Calif., design firm, the average cost of laundry rooms he designs has gone to $30,000 from around $10,000 five years ago. Gretchen Willison, who is building a home in Los Angeles, is including a laundry room furnished with antique terra-cotta tile walls and an iron-and-crystal chandelier. "If you're over 50 and doing your own laundry, there's no reason you shouldn't feel great," she says.
But some architects caution there is such a thing as laundry-room overload. "I think the laundry room should be as utilitarian as possible," says New York architect Alexander Gorlin. "There's a line in the sand I won't cross in residential architecture, and that's the line." Ralph Gillis of Gillis Previti Architects says he's recently warmed to the idea of putting plasma-screen televisions in laundry rooms — but he's skeptical of some of the new designer washing-machine colors. "Black is a little counterintuitive," he says. "I mean, the point of the room is washing spots off your clothes, and you have to be able to see the dirt."