Okay, I admit that I like the ideal of open floor plans as much as everyone else.
I would say about 90% of my clients tell me they ideally would like an open plan.
They are beautiful and show off what today is considered the centerpiece of the home, the kitchen.
They are great for social events, allowing you to fit many people in one room with easy access to food and plenty of space for circulation.
They allow for you to watch TV while you are cooking, talk to your kids while playing in the living room, and stay in conversations with dinner guests as you get up to clear the dishes.
Plus, they are still trendy.
All of these things are good. And yet, more recently I have started to question the open floor plan craze. After seeing enough homes actually being lived in, I’ve realized there are a lot of reasons it might make sense to choose a home with a more conventional layout.
Apparently, I’m not the only one. After reading The Curse of an Open Floor Plan published in The Atlantic last May, I was inspired to read the perspectives of others who think open floor plans are overrated.
Here are some things you may want to think about as you make your decision about whether you want to jump on the open floor plan bandwagon:
Art and Furniture Placement
“We could always tear this wall down.”
I hear this all the time when showing houses. The goal is often to open space as much as possible.
Before you pull out the axe, think about whether that wall could serve a more important purpose. Walls are not evil. They can do many things for you.
Walls can display art and give your home more personality.
Walls can house books, pictures, and other personal items that make your home yours.
Walls also can add more possibilities for how you arrange your furniture.
Often, by tearing out the wall between the living room and kitchen, you will significantly limit where you can put your couch and/or television so think carefully about furniture placement before making such a decision.
In the ideal vision of the open floor plan, people think that by making the kitchen more accessible to leisure spaces – the dining room and living room – it will make the labor required to maintain these spaces more pleasant.
If you could watch television while scrubbing down the countertops, wouldn’t that be better?
But there is an argument to be made about how this arrangement could be even more stressful.
The other side is also true. If you could clean while watching television, would you always feel pressure to clean every time you watch television?
This may be a personality thing, but I know for me that if I know I could be multitasking, I will choose that option most of the time.
To be honest, though, it is a lot more fun to watch television while sitting on the couch with my family. Maybe I could be more relaxed if labor stayed in the kitchen and leisure stayed in the living room.
This quote from the Atlantic article sums it up well:
Despite its promise of relaxation and conversation, open-plan living has actually combined leisure with labor. When the two fuse, work wins in the end, converting recreation back into obligation. The dinner party entails its preparation and cleanup; meal-prep also involves child oversight or homework help; television-viewing takes place during dishwasher-unloading. Overall, domestic life becomes an exercise in multitasking. And so, even when it expands freedom, the open kitchen constantly reminds its users of that freedom’s limits.The Curse of the Open Floor Plan – Ian Bogost – The Atlantic – May 2018
Are You a Neat Freak?
If the answer is no, you may want to think about how living in a totally open space will make you feel.
I admit that I am not. I frequently eat dinner and enjoy time with my family before I got back to do the dishes and clean up my kitchen.
Do I want to be staring at my mess for hours while I’m trying to enjoy family time?
I also don’t want to see all of my kids’ toys spewed across my living room as I try to enjoy my dinner. Out of sight, out of mind.
Open floor plans put it all out in the open and make you constantly aware of any mess throughout any part of your living space.
The Rush Before the Party
One of the main reasons people say they want open floor plans is because they say they like to entertain.
When pristine and cleaned, an open floor plan can be an ideal spot for a large gathering. However, when doubling as the main space a family spends its time, chances are, it doesn’t look pristine 99% of the time.
As a result, before a party, the open floor plan necessitates a big clean up effort (especially for those of us with small kids and lots of toys).
One advantage of more traditional colonial floor plans is that it is very possible to have a clear division between “family space” and “social space.”
You can contain toys to a family room or playroom.
Kitchen mess is out of the way.
You can keep your mail sitting on the casual family table in the kitchen.
Seat your guests in a formal dining room or hang out in the formal living space, spaces almost exclusively devoted to social gatherings and special occasions, and you don’t have to worry about rushing around to get everything organized every time people are about to come over.
I think we have an ideal that our happy family will always want to be together in one big space where we can simultaneously pursue our individual activities while together.
Open floor plans fit into this vision. One family member can cook, another work on their laptop at the table, and our kid can play with toys on the living room floor.
This sounds nice in theory. Yet the truth is, there are a lot of moments when we crave privacy.
Interestingly, one of the things I read in my research about floor plans is that the “man cave” concept grew in popularity around the same time that open floor plans became in high demand.
The desire for a place for oneself away from everyone else still persists despite the ideal of togetherness.
If you can afford to have an open floor plan and enough private spaces for other members of the family (kids have their own room, a man cave, sun room, etc.) then great.
If not, going back to a more traditional plan that can give you the same feeling of being in your own space within the basic rooms most houses have (living room, dining room, and kitchen) may help you satisfy your need to be in your own space once in a while.
Just make sure that when you want everyone to be together (while having dinner at the dining table or watching television in the living room), you have adequate space to do it.
Noise and Smell
When you tear down walls, both noise and smell will travel faster. Perhaps the idea of the aroma of freshly baked cookies traveling into your living room sounds appealing.
Now imagine, though, another scenario:
You open your refrigerator only to find some moldy pasta that was forgotten about in the back. Now you have to clean out the Tupperware. The idea of that smell engulfing your living room, dining room, and kitchen all at once is probably a lot less appealing.
Sound too has its pros and cons. When trying to have a conversation between someone in the kitchen and the living room, it is great. Yet when you are trying to watch a movie and your spouse wants to make a smoothie with the blender, the situation is a lot less ideal.
On a recent home inspection, the inspector I was out with noted that some of the doors upstairs didn’t close properly.
“Yup. This makes sense,” he said. “It is above an open floor plan.”
I asked him what he meant, and he told me that houses with open floor plans tend to settle more (meaning the foundation shifts slightly making them less level).
He explained that because the loads on the house are more concentrated on a few points, they are more prone to settling which can be particularly apparent in multi-story homes with an open floor plan on the main level.
While this is not a catastrophic problem, it can certainly be annoying and something to think about.
None of us ever want to worry about our houses catching on fire, but if you are ever unlucky enough to be in that situation, your odds of survival are a lot higher if you don’t have an open floor plan.
30 years ago, you had an average of 17 minutes to escape your home once a fire started. Between an increase in synthetic building materials and open floor plans, today’s homes burn in an average of 3 minutes.
This is a terrifying statistic, especially when you consider that many fires start in the “open” part of the house, igniting in the kitchen, wood stove in the living room, or with a lit up Christmas tree at the core of the home.
For those of us with small children, it is also worth noting that the kitchen may contain many dangers including stoves/ovens, toxic cleaning supplies, and knives. While there are baby proofing devices that can be used to limit access to (some) of these items, having the flexibility to close off a room with a baby gate can also reduce stress and burden on parents.
The jury is still out for me on open floor plans. Despite all of the downsides I have listed above, I still find them somewhat appealing.
Like many people of my generation, I am drawn to the ideal even though my brain knows I’d be less happy with the reality.
For now, I’ll keep my walls up and enjoy open floor plan homes on TV and at my friends’ homes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pallas Ziporyn is a Realtor based in Burlington, VT. She is the founder and head writer for The Vermont Real Estate Blog, and she works with both buyers and sellers in Chittenden County and surrounding areas.
In addition to her real estate pursuits, Pallas enjoys serving on the Winooski Planning Commission, skiing, writing, and spending time with her husband Chris and their two small children, Leander and Hugo.