Bedrooms, at least in the US, are nearly always constructed with built-in closets, but I don't see why? What's the appeal?

Personally, I don't like them. I want the flexibility to arrange furniture however currently best suits my needs, and a built-in closet permanently reserves a portion of the floor area. Stand-alone wardrobes also offer flexibility when occupants vary in how much stuff they have that is a good fit for a closet.

When we were adding dormers to our house four years ago we needed to decide whether to include closets in each of the rooms. Here's what the three new/expanded bedrooms looked like with and without closets:

Anna's bedroom

What will be Nora's bedroom once she's out of our room. Currently my office and where I sleep for the second half of the night.

Lily's bedroom

We decided to construct all three without closets, and in retrospect we're both very happy with that decision: each of the three has the bed in a position that wouldn't be possible if we had kept the closets.

(Sometimes people will say that it doesn't matter whether you like closets, building code requires them. This is a myth: the International Residential Code (IRC) says nothing about bedroom closets. And our building inspector had no issues with our closetless bedrooms.)

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Closets do have a few advantages over furniture, but it's up to you whether this is a worthwhile use of space. 

  • Unlike a wardrobe or armoire, a closet lets you use all the space from floor to ceiling for storage
  • "Unsightly" storage solutions, like inexpensive stacked bins for out-of-season clothes or extra bedding if you don't have a convenient linen closet, can be hidden in a bedroom closet; similarly, storage solutions that don't match the rest of the room's decor
  • Sometimes it is helpful to be able to put things "away" in a hurry for a little while, and having a closet to shove things into is an easy stopgap solution for this
  • Larger doors than typical furniture, if you have to store taller items
  • Floors are stronger than furniture bottoms, if you need to store anything heavy
  • Reconfigurability; it's much cheaper to find new ways to organize things in a closet, then to buy new furniture

I am currently a few weeks from selling my house and moving into an RV full time, about an 8-fold reduction in square footage for me, my wife, and our dog and cat. I've been thinking a lot this past year about what space and things I actually use, and why, and how. This is what I've got RE: closets.

Closets protect clothes from dust etc.

How does that distinguish them from other furniture, though?

I guess.As others have noted, I havent seen other furniture that provide fully covered, wall to ceiling level of storage. 

Dining rooms.  Foyers with double height ceilings.  Sun rooms.  upstairs kitchens.  Commercial grade kitchens in houses meant for 4-5 total occupants.

There's a lot of ways to waste space in housing, and the other factor as you figured out is that there's not a whole lot of engineering effort put in.  A methodical way to design a house would be to sample the movement and activities of the occupants, over a decent sample size, over a period of years.  Find out in the data where people go and what they do, how long they spend on a task, where do they get less task performance because a space is too cramped.  

And then develop a model and iterate many designs and converge on good layouts and house designs.  Which you then build in factories and install on-site as prefab modules.  

But somehow people have gotten convinced that this would be too cheap, and this means their neighbors might be poor, and maybe those neighbors will do bad things to them.  Or something.  It's complex. 

For offices this has mostly been done.  The buildings are poured on site for various economic reasons but a lot of the materials are prefab and obviously the cube farms themselves are prefab.  The exact layout has been carefully iterated on.  

Perhaps MIRI should take "designing a perfect house" as a subproblem of "extracting human preferences". :D

I am not even sure I could design a perfect house for myself. Seems like my preferences change over time, depending on my situation. It is different being childless, having toddlers, having teenagers. Optimal kitchen and dining room depend on your social life (how often do you invite people for dinner? how many?), how much you cook, and even what you cook. For example, a kitchen connected to another room is good, because the person who cooks is not socially isolated at the moment. But if you cook something that smells, then your whole house smells. Unless you have a powerful cooker hood, which suggests that the answer may depend on the available technology, which can be different ten years later.

Maybe the perfect house would be one that is easiest to redesign. Like, whenever you change your mind, you just move things into new positions and try it for a week; then either keep it or revert the change. How far could you go in this direction, to make the house as flexible as possible? Rearranging furniture could be easy, but what about walls? A simple board that can be easily moved to another position is probably bad at isolating sounds. Moving a kitchen or a bathroom requires connecting the water and gas supplies; getting a complete freedom would probably cost too much. (In theory, perhaps you could put the water and gas pipes in walls around the whole house, so that you would have outlets everywhere. Not sure how often the pipes would leak then, impacted by changing temperature in the outer walls.) So maybe you could only have multiple outlets along one wall? Or course, electric power and ethernet everywhere.

Has anyone already tried something like this? How well does it work? It is significantly more expensive than a normal house?

Modular housing would let you do that, it hasn't taken off in the USA in favor of finance scam built on site places that are extremely expensive to modify.  So you need a design that meets most needs no matter what they are, which is part of the reason US houses are so big with extra rooms.  

Another factor is that it's expensive to switch houses.  In theory you should be able to just trade up and down with minimal hassle.  In practice you pay approximately 5% of the value of the property to various people as fees!  Not to mention the time wasting viewing and bidding process, which would be much more efficient if houses were more, well, identical to each other so that prices can be easily discovered.

I wonder if there is a business opportunity here, especially in cities where most people rent their flats:

Imagine that you build a house that contains identical flats. (Or maybe two or three types of identical flats, like there would be a small type A, a medium-sized type B, and a large type C, but all A's would be the same, all B's would be the same, and all C's would be the same.) Then you also build a house with exactly the same types of flats in another part of town, or in a different town.

Now in addition to renting these flats, you offer people the service of hassle-free relocation. Suppose you live in a B-type flat in town X, and you indicate a desire to move to town Y. The owner will tell you when a B-type flat in town Y is available, and will help you move things. That is: they will completely clear the destination flat, provide you lots of boxes to put your property into, optionally provide a temporary place to stay during the relocation, then they will photograph the positions of the furniture in your original flat, move all the furniture into your new flat and put it in exactly the same position (unless you agree otherwise), and bring the boxes there for you to unpack. It would be almost as if your flat was teleported to the new location.

Of course this all would happens for a fee, but I think it could be more convenient and/or cheaper than the traditional way. First, there is a lot of uncertainty removed: if both the old and the new flats are owned by the same company, you don't have to worry about quality and hidden defects; if your overall experience was good at the old place, it will likely be good at the new place. Second, there is much less negotiation: you never meet the previous owner of your new flat, you don't even need to sign a new contract, you just pay a one-time relocation fee, and maybe your rent changes because the costs in town Y are different than in town X, but otherwise everything stays the same. Third, if the company does this routinely, they can become more efficient about it.

The company could even give you a "preview" of what it is like to live at the new place (rent you a temporary room in the new location for a month, while your original flat remains untouched until you make your final decision), so you could experience the town Y and decide whether you actually like it.

Yes.  I also sorta daydream about similar things.  With real estate we've got this archaic model mired in all these artificial rules and barriers and intermediaries who are legally allowed to consume a chunk from every transaction.  

A proper setup would be, well, once we get robotics to be more flexible and reliable (obviously using the latest breakthroughs in reinforcement learning/neural networks), we'd make everything out of cubical modules like you say.

So you assign the robots to clear a site and the first ones come and demolish anything in the way.  Then the next set come and install a concrete foundation and the appropriate base supports.  Then the next set install an open framework of girders with however many floors the building will be allowed to have.  The framework is made from modules that bolt together in pre-manufactured sections, with obviously a utility/elevator core going up the middle that is prewired and pre plumbed. 

Then the buildings functional modules are cubes of a standard size - probably using the 'fold flat' technology several startups are working on that makes them transportable in standard dimension trucks - and they come from a factory prefabricated and pre-furnished and designed for the purpose of their occupants.  Obviously, the smart, flexible robotics in the factory can build a cube with an interior layout with tens of thousands of permutations, as the materials they need are just in time ordered from other feeder factories by robotic vehicle.  

Once on site, most of these buildings have an outer set of rails and a winch system that lets the cube be autonomously raised and then moved laterally to it's final position while the building is in use.  

The cubes are inherently designed to be maintainable by other robotics - all the functional systems inside them are subdivided into modules that can be removed all in one piece, so that maintenance robots don't have to be very smart, they just go pull the module that self reports a failure or it's peer modules claim is not responding. (and they come back and replace peer modules and reporter modules if this doesn't clear the fault)

And yeah obviously as the interior of a cube gets dated, or no longer to the occupant's needs it gets removed, recycled in a factory, and a new one built.  Since robots do 99.9% of the work, costs are cheap and recycling and building a new one (often with used parts from previously recycled modules) is cheap.