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Keeping the outdoors out of doors isn't easy. Mud travels stealthily when packed into the crevices of gardening boots and pets' paws. Clinging sand waits to dry-and-drop only after it gets into home territory. Snow turns invisible inside, and leaves a mess behind.

This is where the utility room can come to the rescue. It acts as the home's gatekeeper, helping relieve the kids, the dog and your freshly potted plants of their accompanying dirt.

It's an important role—and a major reason why this room is gaining prominence in home design.

"The utility room is one of the new emerging spaces in the American home," says Diana Schrage, an interior designer at Kohler Co. Schrage says that the cramped mudroom of yesteryear, typically wedged between garage and kitchen, has blossomed into today's spacious, multi-functional home management center, complete with a water source and utility sink.

A home's "command central"

The utility room can be a center for just about everything that doesn’t have another, dedicated place. You can store the kids' schoolwork and outdoor clothing in lockers or "cubbies," or install a device that allows you to control utilities like heating and lighting, says Judy Pickett, principal of Design Lines, Ltd., in Raleigh, NC.

More typically, it's a place for cleaning, laundry or gardening—and as such, it must be accessible to homeowners of all ages and inclinations. The utility room is often located adjacent to a first-floor entryway that leads directly outdoor to the yard, pool or beach, outside kitchen or entertainment center. This versatile space can serve as a mending room or even the family's communication center with a message board or intercom system, says Faith Sheridan, principal of her self-named interior design firm in Seattle, WA.

"People are thinking of this area in terms of family's age and lifestyle," says Sheridan. "If the homeowner is a gardener who really enjoys being outside, a place for preparing plants may be incorporated into a counter surface or sink. If your kids are coming in from playing outside and are muddy, you don't want them running through the house". You'll want a utility sink or an adjacent small bathroom right there."

"For these households, the "gardening sink is a big idea," says Sheridan. The Harborview™ utility sink, made of KOHLER enameled cast iron, for example, is shallow and wide enough for working with gardening pots and dirty shoes, and its optional wood grate extends the countertop to create a roomy workspace.

For people working with heavy or bulky items, Kohler also offers its Oceanview™ in-floor sink. The sink's shallow-basin depth and removable wood grates are ideal for rinsing off sandy feet, mud- or snow-covered boots or a heavy bucket of garden vegetables.

With this sink, "you can water plants, wash the dog at the dog's level, fill cleaning buckets without lifting, and wash cleaning rags and mops," Schrage says. You also can hang clothes overhead to air dry.

Air it out

Air drying has become a growing trend in laundry features, say both Pickett and Nancy Hoff Barsotti, an interior designer with offices in New York City and Pittsburgh. Resembling side-by-side refrigerators, these units use natural or motor-generated air to dry clothes, and they’re becoming more common in laundry/utility rooms.

Air drying units provide "a 'green' energy alternative and are practical for drying woolens and sweaters," Barsotti says. "The units have hanging rods and adjustable wire shelves to facilitate clothes placement and wrinkle-free drying."

The utility room is one of the new emerging spaces in the American home.

Pretty useful

Today's utility room is not only functional, it gets more beautiful all the time. The use of natural lighting, tile, customized cabinetry and beautiful sink colors seen in the Harborview and Oceanview sinks can help homeowners to almost forget that they're actually doing chores in this space.

"Despite technological advances, people still want rooms that are aesthetically pleasing," says Sheridan. "They don't want the laundry room to look like a science lab."

"A beautiful, personalized décor also helps incorporate a utility room into the overall design of the house. That, along with its sheer convenience, is why designers are seeing mini-utility rooms pop up throughout the home—even in private areas such as the master suite."

"Mini-utility rooms with compact-sized or stacking washers and dryers are definitely popular," Barsotti says. "Many laundries are in the lowest level of the house so this feature [near the master bedroom] is a time-saver, not to mention a back-and-arm saver from having to carry laundry up and down steps."

It seems that utility rooms, even tiny ones, have finally grown up.

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