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An open floor plan, circa 1906

Myths of the Open Floor Plan

by Charity Vogel on May 24, 2013

in Bungalow

ABOVE: An open floor plan, circa 1906. Photo by Rejuvenation

Like solitude and quiet, walls and closed doors aren’t always bad.

Turn on the TV to one of the home-buying and home-improvement cable channels, and listen for it: The real-estate agent or starry-eyed house hunter is about to gush about the “fabulous open plan!” It never fails.

That’s when I change the channel, and two things once again cross my mind: One, I am very glad I don’t have to live with an “open floor plan,” or what that’s come to mean in 21st-century new homes. Two, I wonder exactly how clean these people plan on being, for the rest of their lives? I’m as tidy as the next person—maybe more so, thanks to my Polish grandmother—but really, everybody has dishes in the sink and messy stacks of magazines and coffee cups on the end tables. Don’t they?

Living in an open-plan house is trendy and is apparently desirable for those building the McMansions that dot the landscape. I guess the idea is that having the time-crunched, stressed-out clan all in one space provides togetherness. Dad’s watching the game while the kids do homework and Mom cooks, all in one “room” the size of a used-car lot.

It’s not for me. As an old-house owner for more than 10 years, I appreciate old-house interiors, and no doubt you do, too, whether you live in a Victorian (like me) or a bungalow. We have the best possible sort of house—one with actual rooms. And walls. And columns. And doorways, with doors that close. Even open floor plans in old houses allow for some break between rooms and activities; a great example is the half-wall colonnade between living room and dining room in an Arts & Crafts house, or double glass French doors that may be left open or closed.

Living the open-plan lifestyle: no more walls, and nowhere to hide? Photo: Chris Considine

Living the open-plan lifestyle: no more walls, and nowhere to hide? Photo: Chris Considine

We can live our lives, sometimes discreetly, in discrete spaces. We don’t have to put everything on display at every moment. Yes, we love our families and friends. But we also need to retreat—or hide. True story: House hunting soon after we were married, T.J. and I came across a teeny room, with a window, on the second floor of a sprawling 1898 Queen Anne. The room was dedicated to—brace yourself—ironing. We bought the house.

An ironing room, 3′ by 10′: Could anything be more outdated and anachronistic? But the very idea sealed the deal for us, along with several sets of massive sliding doors and the oak staircase. No, we didn’t immediately knock down a wall to sacrifice the poor little ironing room for more space in the home office or the bathroom. Ten years later, the room is used for…ironing, and to hide away laundry baskets and hampers filled with dirty clothes. I love that.

Open planning might just be one of the contemporary housing market’s most over-hyped, under-deliberated phenomena. These towering “great rooms,” in which the bulk of the contemporary home’s ground floor is turned into one uber-space combining kitchen and eat-in island and home office and media center and reading area, may seem to be multi-purpose. But they miss the point about how humans live, rest, play, and work.

Consider daily life. We rush through our days, meeting deadlines and paying bills. In our off-hours, we absorb screened media, eat takeout food, and supervise children. Modern life gives few opportunities for silence or solitude. Over the decades, workplaces have changed into team spaces, and hobbies have become obsolete; home is perhaps the only place we can concentrate alone. One of the most pleasant sounds in life, to me, is the sound of loved ones talking or laughing—when they’re in another room.

Really, do we want to stare at the laundry going from washer to dryer while we munch a lunchtime sandwich and the television blares? I prefer to have one space for loud entertainment, another for reading or sewing. Am I the only one who doesn’t load the dishwasher in sight of guests eating dessert? Nor do I want to stare at the dirty dishes from the sofa in the same room’s “conversation area.”

When I was a kid, I loved the books about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald. Not only was her house upside down, but it was also filled with strange nooks, narrow staircases, a drafty attic, and a dank basement. Kids were always finding things, like gold coins, in the crannies. Maybe that’s one reason I fell in love with my house in rural New York. It’s certainly part of why I’m convinced that open-plan houses fail when it comes to an important duty of any great house: to be a little bit unknowable to the outside world.

I wish owners of modern, open-plan homes odor-free kitchens and quiet washing machines. I wish them clutter-free lives, calm pets, and fastidious children. You are so brave!

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Elizabeth May 28, 2013 at 4:56 pm

I agree! While the open plans look great online, I’ve never seen one that perfect in real. I live in a 1917 bungalow with lots of rooms but the floor plan is very fluid so we can hear each other without having to call on the cellphone. The living room is the entire front portion of the house with a very wide hallway that goes all the way to the back of the house to the dining room and kitchen. Its been a wonderful place to raise our family, and now that the kids are grown and gone, we each have our own office/den space, with two guest rooms to spare. Lots of walls and doors, but very welcoming and easy to navigate. Love it!

2 Ann Stephens May 28, 2013 at 5:12 pm

Yes! This is exactly my reasoning when explaining to friends and family why I don’t like “open floor plan” houses. Our 1917 Bungalow has just enough open space and just enough walled off space. People can wander from the dining room to the living room, but the kitchen is behind closed (swinging) doors. The TV is in a separate media room rather than imposing above the fireplace. When we purchased last year, I wouldn’t spend more than a few minutes in a house with an open floor plan before marking it off the list. And I often find myself changing the channel from HGTV when yet another remodeling show starts talking about taking down walls. Thank you for your wonderful post!

3 Heather MacKenzie May 28, 2013 at 8:46 pm

I SO agree with you! I have never liked the open floor plan. I really like having separate rooms. My husband and I even have our own separate studies. With the open floor plan, how can anyone read with comprehension when the kids next to them are watching TV, Mum is rattling around in the kitchen and the dog is whining to go out? I think of that line from “My Fair Lady”, how Professor Higgins like the “silence of an undiscovered tomb.” Give me peace and quiet anytime – and separate rooms!

4 Shari Davenport June 3, 2013 at 12:45 am

Thank you thank you thank you! I absolutely agree 110% with everything you have written, and wish that all Real Estate agents, as well as the over-hyped remodeling and rehabbing TV shows would all try to understand that not everyone wishes to live in a warehouse! I am hoping with the days of the Real Estate debacle winding down a bit, that the days of the magnificent monuments of excess, i.e. “McMansions,” are numbered. There is nothing homey, nothing calming or soothing, nothing casual, nothing inviting about walking into an enourmous room full of nothing but soaring ceilings, space and echoes, no matter how it’s painted or furnished. The few times I have done so, they make me cringe and feel like leaving as soon as I possibly can.
There is a REASON homes have been built with walls inside them, creating the discrete spaces and separations you mention, have existed for many hundreds of years inside our homes, no matter where they are located, or what hierarchy of humans inhabits them. Even mansions and castles have separate rooms for specific purposes, and human beings by their very nature crave privacy and separation from their fellow human beings from time to time in their daily lives. Even caves aren’t always completely open and undivided, and surely they were doled out amongst our cave dwelling forebears by some form of individual hierarchy of the day.
I don’t understand, unless it is some hopefully soon to diminish and vanish fad, why tearing down walls in existing homes, or building new homes without them, making all the purposes of daily living take place in one enourmous room is desirable. Even Frank Lloyd Wright, with his special style of Prairie architecture that seemed to be so open and different, actually had divisions of space in his creations.
We have lived in a ranch-style, nondescript 1960′s vintage rectangle in farm country in the Midwest for 23 years, but I ADORE and lust after living some day in a bungalow of my dreams, which is why I read these sites and subscribe to so many related magazines. BUT – our house has ROOMS. It has walls, and separate spaces, although connected together logically, that allows us all to do our daily living in private if we desire, and together if we want that instead. We have the choice to be in the same connected rooms at the same time, or to be in one room, or to be at opposite ends of the house, but withing loud earshot. But that’s just it – we have the CHOICE to do any of those things. In one of those enourmous open-concept, warehouse-style monsters, there is little choice, besides going in the bath and bedrooms. I think it boils down to that more than anything. And in a world that seems to demand more choice about what we do and how we do it than ever before, the idea of choice at home seems to be thrown out the windows with the walls they came in. I will maintain my concept of choice in my home, avoiding those massive wall-less, soul-less all purpose warehouses until the day they plant me in my own plot in my own coffin with walls, thank you very much!

5 Jen June 10, 2013 at 1:32 am

I love your article and I agree completely. Open floor plans create a ton of noise pollution which creates stress. I think the open floor plan is what has led to the enormous size of bedrooms and master suites, it is the only places people can go to be alone and close the door on the noise from the rest of the family. A traditional floor plan with walls and door offers great flexibility. Dad can be in the kitchen cooking dinner, watching the baby and listening to the radio without disturbing Mom whose having a Skype conference call in the dining room with work, while Billy is playing video games in the living room with friends because of walls and doors between the rooms. It is why as a renter I have always chosen to live in two and three family homes it makes living with roommates or anyone that much more convenient. The living room can always double as a guest room with the door to the kitchen closed and the door to the hallway closed.

6 Gene December 12, 2013 at 5:15 pm

I quite agree. I have a great fondness for bungalows and feel disappointed every time when I see the wall dividing the kitchen and dining room removed, in order to make it more open. While I can understand why other people like it, it really doesn’t appeal to me and detracts from the period charm.

Victorian architects were very smart when they included pocket doors. They could easily be open to create more space and close for privacy. Bungalow architects were also quite good at creating enough open space, without sacrificing privacy.

Another possible reason for the popularity of the open floor plan might be expense. Builders can fit more within a certain space if their is little or not room definition, walls, etc.

7 Chuck December 20, 2014 at 7:42 pm

Well said. I always thought the people wanting open floor plans were the ones who got claustrophobia unless they had a huge space; I’m sure there’s also a lot of truth to the thoughts of the writer and you commentators.

After the re modelers make their money tearing down walls they will have business for the next ten years putting them back up. Such is the life of the trendy crowd.

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