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Designing a built-in Closet

by Lorenz Prem
published on September 8 2011 2:25 pm

I recently decided to replace a couple of closets in my house with new, built-in units. The existing closets were not very usable. Each had only one rod, a sagging shelf, and no drawer space whatsoever. The new units will ultimately have 2-3x the storage space of the old closets, look much better, and make the users very happy.

Little did I know when I started the project that designing a good closet is hard. A lot of considerations go into the design of a usable closet. Let's examine what it takes to design a truly great closet.

Attributes of a good Closet

A good closet is much more than a place to store clothes. It is a single stop clothing center. It's the place the user goes for all of his or her clothing needs. Don't just design the closet to hold all the clothes the user owns. Think about how the user interacts with the closet every day. What makes getting dressed in the morning a joyful experience? What saves the user time?

Truly great closets make the user feel like she is in her very own boutique. Clothes are presented, rather than just stored. Choosing an outfit is a joyful activity.

All these somewhat emotional characteristics are created by the dimensions you specify in your design. Understand what will happen in front of the closet a couple of times a day, and design the closet to fit that situation as best as possible.

Frame for reference

As a designer you have to be aware that your frame of reference can be different than that of your customers. A person at 6ft+ perceives the world differently than a person 5ft tall, or a child at 4ft. Your challenge as a designer is to create a closet that is usable for your intended customer.

For full-height closets at 8-9ft of height, this is an important consideration. In the master bedroom you can safely assume that 2/3 of the closet will be used by a female of the average height of 5ft 6in. 1/3 should be dedicated for a male at 5ft 10in, on average.

In the other bedrooms things get harder. Creating a design that works for both children and adults is hard. You will have to make Compromises.

Build to the Ceiling, regardless of Height

Built-in units should extend to ceiling regardless of the height of the room. Space outside of the range of an average person should be designed to hold items that are used infrequently. If necessary, consider adding accessibility features like pull down rods, built-in ladders, and step stools.

If you do not use the space, you only end up creating a dead zone. Instead, use the space to allow the user to store all clothes in one place. There is always something to store. Winter clothes, formal clothes, hat boxes,… and so on. If you build it, it will get filled with clothes.

Design for Dirty Clothes

What gets worn, must eventually go to the laundry room. If there is space, the closet should include a place for one or two laundry hampers. That can be a challenge in tight places, but should be a priority as soon as you move beyond the standard closet. Managing the dirty clothes of the user is a significant contributor to the user's satisfaction and quality of experience.

Chances are that a laundry unit will not fit into most spaces. If it does not, examine what impact that has on the user. It can force the user to have a hamper elsewhere in the room. She might have to move her dirty clothes to the laundry room more frequently. All of these affect usability. If you have to, eliminate the drawer unit to make room for the hamper, and add a dresser elsewhere in the room.

Hampers full of dirty clothes are unsightly. Most people also consider them private and don't want them visible. Keeping them behind doors increases the appeal of the closet.

Drawer Space

Drawer space is required. It gets used to store items that cannot be hanged. Underwear, jewelry, and socks typically are best stored in drawers. Everyone has something that goes into a drawer. A complete closet must have at least some drawer space. You can opt to have none, if you plan on having a dresser somewhere else in the room. The closet loses its one-place-for-everything feel, but the room remains functional.

Drawers must be below the arm level of the user to be considered useful. A user wants to look into a drawer and reach downward to pick things out of the drawer. Drawers at eye level meet one of these criteria. Drawers above the head of a user are almost useless. The user can't even see what's in them.

The sweet spot for drawers is between 2 to 4ft off the ground. Drawers below 2ft are good for occasional use. The user can still see what's in them. Drawers at 4 to 5ft can serve taller users, but are also pushing the limits. Drawers higher than 5ft off the ground are a design mistake.

Baseboards, the Closet Bottom, and Crown Molding

You have the choice of extending the baseboard and crown molding across the closet, or to terminate them at the point they touch the closet. This choice changes the look of the closet and the room.

Terminating the crown molding is hard to do, since it projects outward from the wall. Unless there is a natural termination point near the closet, the crown molding would have to abruptly end at the closet. Crown molding running all around the room is pleasing to the eye. An incomplete run of crown molding loses a lot of its appeal. Unless you have a special situation, extending the crown molding across the front of the cabinet is the way to go.

Whether or not to extend the baseboard is a harder choice. The baseboard adds ~5in to the bottom of the closet. These 5in move the highest closet rod up by exactly that amount. This might be a problem, if you are designing your closet for smaller users. On the plus side, the baseboard also creates a space below the closet that holds a cabinet base. This base is far easier to level than a closet sitting on the sub floor.

Having no bottom at all makes the floor space accessible. Boxes can be moved in and out with ease. This comes at the cost of removing the clean line between the living space and the closet. Doors can no longer be added to the closet, because there is no bottom frame. Most people will judge a closet without a bottom to be of lower quality than one that is a complete box. Don't do it, unless you have a good reason for it.

Eliminating the bottom is a workable choice in a walk-in closet with a door. The door creates enough separation to create the necessary organization of the closet space.

Think in Vertical Units

Divide the space of the closet into vertical unit. Each unit is subdivided into several units stacked on top each other. A unit holds a particular type of clothing. When your customer looks at the closet, he or she sees a natural system of organization, which is both efficient and convenient.

Vertical units are also convenient to build in the shop. Each unit is a manageable size, and can be moved to the jobsite relatively easily. As much of the work as possible happens in your shop. Some field assembly is still required.

23-24in is the optimal width for a unit. This allows for efficient construction, since 24in is half the width of a 48in sheet of plywood. It follows that the most efficient width of a closet is a multiple of 24in. If you can design the house framing around your closet, keep this in mind.

The Depth is set

The depth of the closet is set for you at 23in-24in. This measurement represents both the width at which all hangers will fit into the closet, and the maximum width that allows two side pieces to be cut from a single sheet of plywood.

The finished closet will be a little deeper than the width of the plywood side pieces. The face frame adds about 3/4". Cutting the side pieces to 23.5in allows for a generous 0.5in of waste and results in a very usable 24 1/4" closet.

Use Standard Units

The units need to tailored to fit certain types of clothes. A male shirt does not take up as much vertical space as a dress. While it is possible to stack multiple units of shirt hangers on top of each other, two units of dresses would be far too tall to be useful. The following measurements are for the inside height of a box that will support a closet rod, hangers, and clothes of the listed type.



Man's suit38"
Man's pants (folded)44" (27")
Man's Shirt41"
Woman's dress68"
Woman's jacket36"
Woman's blouse34"
Woman's skirt36"
Women's shoes9"W x 6"H 12" D

Of these the two most critical are the "woman's dress" and the "male shirt" unit.

The "woman's dress" unit is the largest of all. If the closet is being designed for females, there has to be at least one. You must find a place for it somewhere. In almost all cases the unit will have to be at floor level to make the rod reachable for growing children.

The "male shirt" unit is the largest of the smaller units. A unit of this type can be used to house all other type of clothes with room to spare at the bottom. Both sexes find units of this type useful. It also happens to be that two 41in units stacked on top of each other are near the maximum usable limit of 7ft. The combined height of ~82in also allows for the closet sides to be cut from a single sheet of plywood with extra room for a cabinet base and crown.

Your design should provide the exact number of units the customer requires to store all of his or her clothes. The number and type of unit will vary depending on your user.

The measurements provided should be viewed as minimum measurements. Chances are there will be room to spare to the ceiling when stacking any number and type of units. The extra room can be used to make each unit larger. Any extra space will result in shelf space below the hangers. On a 34in unit a rack of blouses will fit with an inch to spare on the bottom. At 38in shoes will fit blow the same blouses.

Use Standard Stacks

Only the first 7ft closest to the floor are considered usable space for everyday use. The space above that cannot be accessed by every person with their arms extended as far as they will go. That space becomes "occasional-use space"; space a user is willing to access with difficulty.

The first few inches above the floor is also occasional-use space. The user has to bend over to access items stored in that area. That's easier than using a step stool to get to the upper shelves, but it still somewhat bothersome.

These limitations and design choices result in a couple of standard stacks. The following plan shows a few of these. The exact measurements will vary with your closet size and desired user. The arrangement of units will not.

A standard stack makes efficient use of the space available, while both being usable in the widest range of circumstances.

Shoes are hard to fit

Units for shoes are hard to fit into a closet. Shoes only require 12in of depth. The design either wastes 12in of space in back of the closet behind a row of shoes, or the user has to double up shoes, which ruins the feel of being in your very own boutique. In very large closets shoe storage is often built into a seat in the center of room, or on a dedicated wall in a shallow closet.

In a more modest environment, the reasonable workaround is to move shoe storage to the bottom of one of the units. Simply extending any one of the unit by 4-6in will create shoe storage on the bottom of the unit. Two pairs will fit back to back. The closet loses its boutique feel, but it still performs better than a simple walk-in closet.

Another solution is to store shoes in drawers. This allows the user to access the shoes stored in the back of the cabinet.

If the user likes to wear boots, you'll have to create some extra tall units to store them. Since boots are typically found near the ground, most people expect to find them near the bottom of a closet.

The standard Built-In Closet

If there is such a thing as a standard built-in closet, it would be this design. This design is meant be as versatile as possible. It offers the most utility to the widest range of users.

  • Male and female users have two hanging spaces within easy reach.
  • An additional two hanging units are located at a higher level.
  • The drawer unit has universal appeal.
  • Adults of average height can make use of the upper hanging units.
  • Kids have access to at least one hanging unit and the drawer unit.
  • The dress unit allows women to use the closet.
  • If the unit is used by a male, the dress space can hold shirts and laundry hamper below.
  • Limited shoe storage is possible on the floor of the hanging units.

The unit does all this at the expense of being ideal for a single user. If design was limited to a male user, for example, a few more units could fit in the same space.

The design offers limited drawer space, especially for female users. Expect to add a dresser somewhere else in the room. There is also no place for a laundry hamper, if the closet is being used by a female.


As you can see, a lot goes into designing a good closet. The standard closet design is an adequate solution for most secondary bedrooms. If you are designing a walk-in closet, you probably have enough room to do better.

Whatever design you come up with, it'll be significantly better than the single rod closet it replaces. Built-in closets significantly improve the livability of any room they are installed in. If you have problems with clutter, maybe it is time to build your own. At any rate, good closets make people happy.

Built-In Closet Series

About the Author
"Lorenz is the founder of Hingmy. When he is not reviewing power tools or improving the site, he is building things in his workshop or playing hockey."