Sometimes you want to get close to friends. Like, really close. Maybe you’re all drinking, or enjoying other varieties of social lubricant, and there’s a party going on—FINALLY, after all this damn quarantine!—and somebody puts an actual vinyl record on the actual record player, and the shag carpeting feels pretty sweet on your bare toes, and it just feels good to live again.
Picture the above little scenario we’ve sketched out. What kind of room are you in?
What’s the floor like? Is it boring and flat?
Most likely, you’re not imagining a staid living room, with a bulbous recliner couch purchased from Bob’s Furniture, and a massive flatscreen TV drawing everyone’s eyes toward yet another soulless Netflix binge session.
No. You’re picturing something more exotic. A bit more romantic. Seductive, even, and blushing with unabashed nostalgia.
You’re picturing a conversation pit, baby.
Huh? What even is that?
For such a fun and sexy architectural feature, “conversation pits” are sure stuck with an unattractive name. A “pit,” after all, is defined as “a large hole in the ground” (sign us up!) or, in verb form “to set someone or something in conflict or competition with.”
The ironic thing, of course, is that the conversation pit is intended to bring people together—often in joy, harmony, and drunkenness. No less a source than the New York Times views these pits as an antidote to Covid-era malaise, offering “the ultimate symbol of intimacy” to combat “feelings of isolation exacerbated by a yearslong pandemic.”
And let’s not even get started with the phrase “depressed seating.” Blech.
On a basic level, a conversation pit is simply, per Merriam-Webster, “a usually sunken area (as in a living room) with intimate seating that facilitates conversation.” In a real way, a conversation pit forces you and your guests to get down a whole different level—several feet lower, to be exact.
Popularized by Instagram accounts and a seemingly endless parade of trend pieces, the conversation pit can require dedication and significant amounts of cash to pull off. In many cases—if you’re sadly not dedicated or rich enough for “the real thing”—you may be able to simulate the vibe of a conversation pit, without actually digging a huge hole in the ground.
Is constructing a conversation pit worth it?
The short answer is: Probably not. It seems slightly uncommon to go through all the hassle of building a new conversation pit in an existing house that doesn’t have one, simply due to the structural and engineering requirements. “Remodeling to include this recessed feature usually isn’t practical,” advises Bob Vila, “due to the need to alter the home’s weight-bearing structure.”
Certain types of properties would make a conversation pit a real folly.
Conversation pits, Vila notes, are “best-suited to homes with concrete slab or crawl space foundation. Because the recessed area of the floor would reduce headroom in a basement, rendering it useless for general living purposes, sunken spaces are rarely found in homes with basements.”
“Digging into the concrete foundation would be hugely prohibitive,” says Palm Springs-based interior designer Christopher Kennedy. “In California, keep in mind that we are in earthquake country. In areas of the country where you have a raised foundation, it might be a bit simpler, though it would need structural reinforcement, as you would be cutting through floor joists.”
If I buy a house with a conversation pit, what should I do in it?
We’re starting to think you haven’t fully thought through your questions here. It should go without saying that the primary goal and focus of a conversation pit should be… to initiate conversation. Conversation is defined as “a talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged.”
Of course, these days, “news and ideas” can be increasingly fraught. Introduce that other staple of pit life—copious, free-flowing alcohol, generally of the vodka or gin school—and things could spiral out of control quickly.
If the action in your conversation pit (or “conversation pit”-style domestic zone, explained later) gets a little too heated, here are some activities that could minimize tension while maximizing intimacy:
•One person plays acoustic guitar while others listen
If I don’t have a conversation pit already, and I’m not incredibly wealthy/eccentric, is there a way to replicate the conversation pit’s appeal without major surgery on my property?
Yes! Indeed, this seems to be the way most people are engaging with conversation pits these days. And while some purists might say this is “living a lie”—you can’t really have “recessed seating” if it isn’t “recessed”—others point to the myriad cons that offset the pit’s pros.
Mackenzie Collier, owner and founder of Phoenix, Arizona-based Mackenzie Collier Interiors, is in the naysayer camp when it comes to conversation pits—a domestic intervention that she says could run you anywhere between $5,000 and $30,000 to bring to fruition.
Her estimate pales in comparison to that of Christopher Kennedy, who suggests a proper conversation pit build-out would run closer to $100,000 (though this figure includes furnishing the pit in an appropriately chic manner).
“While conversation pits in the 70s were cool, they had some major flaws,” Collier says, “including the lack of ADA accessibility, massive construction costs, and not being child-friendly. So while we love the aesthetic, if we’re going to add them to a design project we would much rather recreate the look with round seating options or rounded sofas facing each other. A round cocktail table and a dramatic lighting pendant placed over the center are always a nice touch to add to the overall aesthetic.”
“Why dig a hole in your living room when you can easily create softness and coziness by adding super textural rugs and pillows?”
—Mackenzie Collier of Phoenix’s Mackenzie Collier Interiors
Collier also warns that behind the Mad Men-esque chic of those drool-worthy pits lies a rogue’s gallery of toxicity.
“1970s conversation pits were previously made with synthetic fabrics and cushions that emit harmful gasses as a byproduct of the chemical process, and therefore polluted indoor air,” she says. “If you were to install a conversation pit today it’s best to use organic materials like linen or wool with plant-based cushion materials.”
With a bit of creativity, though, it’s possible to keep the vibe of the conversation pit, without the construction headache. Christopher Kennedy describes a unique client who was giving a historic 1960s-era Palm Springs property a facelift. While the house had once boasted a conversation pit, it had been “filled in” by former owners.
“Our client knew that digging into the home’s foundations would be an enormous mess and expense,” Kennedy explains. “So, we chose to go up. We created a raised platform—an LED dance floor!—that defines the previous conversation pit. We further defined the previous conversation [area] with wrap-around sectional sofas, clad in wood on the outside.”
Let’s say I’m committed to the pit and I go ahead and build one, after which my friend Gus falls into the depressed seating area during a karaoke party and breaks his leg in three places. Might my homeowners insurance assist in this unfortunate scenario?
Clean up the broken glass, turn off the stereo, and get Gus to the nearest ER! Poor guy, he was just about to belt out Celine Dion’s version of “I Drove All Night.”
But afterward, what happens? Well, the mishap likely falls under your policy’s medical payments coverage, which may help Gus with some of those bills (especially if he’s not carrying his own health insurance).
You can read more about how Lemonade homeowners insurance works, if you’re curious—or click below to get your quote now. Trust us—insurance is awesome, and it’ll give you something to converse about in the pit.