So why is this trend so fashionable, and what are the pros and cons of open-plan living? We posed the question to Houzzers and professionals alike, who came up with not only some interesting answers, but also a look into a multi-functional future.
The British dictionary definition of an open-plan space is “having no or few dividing walls between areas”. Generally, this refers to the main living areas of the home – i.e. the kitchen, living room and dining room – which creates an open, flowing layout with few internal walls and fewer traditional individual rooms in favour of a communal living space. (Bedrooms and bathrooms can, of course, technically be open-plan, but for the purpose of this feature, open-plan refers to the main living areas of a home.)
German professional Bernhard Kurz of IFUB says, “[In Germany] there’s a strong tendency towards open-plan living. It’s been a request in almost all of our renovation projects – in some cases to a greater and in others to a lesser extent. But it generally refers to living rooms, dining rooms and the kitchen – home offices and bedrooms are still preferred as separate, smaller rooms.”
So what is it that draws us to this style of living? Andrew Brown of Brown + Brown Architects says, “Open-plan living remains extremely popular in the UK, as it seems to sit comfortably with the way most people (and in particular families), live nowadays. There has been a marked downturn in the popularity of formal dining and this has tied in with the rise of open-plan living.”
In the UK, where space is at a premium, architects are often called upon to ‘open up’ small Victorian or Georgian homes by knocking down internal walls, joining rooms together and creating light and airy social spaces.
Brown adds, “While it’s common to be asked to design open-plan spaces, it’s unusual for clients to request the opposite.”
As a design style, open-plan has an impact on the way homeowners use the space and interact with each other.
Melbourne-based architect Anthony Clarke says, “The majority of our clients love the idea of living within their homes in a more communal and connected way. Primarily, it allows the occupants of a space to become more open and engaged in dialogue.”
Clarke also describes the impact an open-plan living space can have on increasing light and the connection with the outdoors. “Our Engawa House project in North Fitzroy [Melbourne] is a clear example of open-plan living,” he says. “The concept essentially allows every occupant in every part of the dwelling to experience great northern light and a connection to a private landscaped courtyard.”
Australian Houzzer Karin Madgwick agrees. “In Australia, open-plan is the way to go, with the space then opening out onto a covered alfresco [area],” she says.
Knocking down walls to open up small homes is a popular solution to create a feeling of space. German architect Bernhard Kurz says, “In those areas determined by a highly competitive housing market, an optimisation of small flats is more likely – as there is less space.”
Russian architect Alexandra Fedorova of Alexandra Fedorova Architect agrees it makes sense for small and medium spaces. “If we’re talking about apartments smaller than 300 square metres, an [open-plan] solution is more than rational,” she says. “More and more people want to get an airy, spacious and well-lit apartment when purchasing a property. In Russia, many of us grew up in small apartments with tiny kitchens, and people desire new standards of living.”
Proving her point, she adds, “Personally, I chose an open-space option for my own apartment and [have] never regretted it for one second.”
While the argument for open-plan living is strong, there’s still a valid counter-argument. Some people feel it’s a trend that will pass.
UK Houzzer Margretg2 says, “Like most things in interior design (flush-faced doors, blocked-off Victorian fireplaces, fake-stone chimney breasts, feature walls) open-plan is a fashion. When it falls out of favour, we’ll all be putting back the stud walls the previous owners demolished.”
fizzfan54 brings up the issue of privacy – or lack thereof – saying, “As long as rooms are big enough, I prefer closed rooms. How on earth do you get away from the ‘maddening’ crowds otherwise!”
Kitchens are at the heart of many open-plan spaces; a 2015 Houzz Kitchen Trends Survey revealed that the majority of UK homeowners taking on a kitchen project in 2015 were planning to incorporate an open-plan design. Similarly, 48% of Canadian respondents were looking to install a kitchen that was “open to other rooms” in 2015.
However, the role of the kitchen was a hotly debated topic among the Houzz community, with many bringing up the topic of cooking smells and dirty dishes.
Spanish Houzzer Luisa Ramos says, “I love open concept kitchens, but if the family is big and they use the kitchen a lot, it might be inconvenient, because all the smells will spread across the house and in winter it is really difficult to get rid of them.”
Ukrainian Houzzer Olena Tkach says, “A separate kitchen is a must for our family, because I often cook when everyone is sleeping, so I need closed doors in order to be able to use blenders and mixers and even chop products with a knife.” But she concedes, “Everything else (dining, watching movies, hobbies, resting and chatting) may be incorporated into one open layout to allow easier communications between family members.”
Russian architect Alexandra Fedorova says, “An ideal property would have two kitchens – one open-space kitchen with a joint living zone, and a working one. We usually use this layout in our country house projects.”
When you remove walls, you also remove storage, something most homeowners crave, so this is one reason why it’s not a universally popular layout.
German Houzzer Ich Du says, “An open living-kitchen is nice and bright and looks much bigger. But… I think it’s not great if the kitchen looks dirty and my guests see this. What I really want is a large kitchen, where you can eat every day with the family, and also in the living room a dining area for friends and visitors.”
Russian Houzzer Oxana1963 says, “If your kitchen is not big, it gets even smaller with the joining, as the wall where you could put your cabinets or a fridge will disappear.’
Oxana1963 is one example of a homeowner who’s tried open-plan living, but wants to move back to a more traditional, closed-room layout. “In my new apartment, I joined [the] kitchen and living room,” she says. “Now I’m thinking [about] how to separate them.”
One of the problems she encountered with open-plan living was the mess. “When you have guests, at some point they start seeing dirty pans, dishes, pots etc. It doesn’t really make your living room prettier,” she says.
“If you don’t have two living rooms or a separate study,” she continues, “your partner won’t have a chance to have a little chat and a cup of tea with her friends, while you are watching TV or reading in the living room. You wouldn’t invite your friend to the bedroom for a chat!”
As design influences become increasingly global, the flow of ideas from one country to another enables concepts to become international trends. Has this influenced the open-plan trend?
Enrique Espinosa, partner at PKMN Arquitectura in Spain, thinks this global exchange of design ideas has had an impact on the rise in popularity of open-plan living. “Spanish architecture, following the Mediterranean tradition, has always stood for the non-open-plan space,” he says. But things are slowly starting to change. “Living in a global world and seeing different types of houses on television, specifically American and British ones, and also more accessible room models, like those displayed in the Ikea stores, broadens the type of house we are used to.”
Espinosa thinks this access to global trends has had a drip-feed impact on local design. “Step by step,” he says, “we start to think these models are more appropriate to a contemporary way of living,” which he describes as being very different from the traditional Spanish model of “a married couple with two children who used to leave the nest in their early twenties”.
Open-plan living is clearly a red-hot topic amid the Houzz community, based on the volume of discussions started about it.
On Houzz USA at the time of writing this article, there were some 77,000 discussions logged in the advice section on the topic of “open-plan help”. When you search Houzz UK for discussions with “open-plan help” in the title, there are 2,400 results, and in Australia, 1,400 results.
That’s a lot of Houzzers in need of advice!
In an informal poll, the majority of Houzzers preferred an open-plan to a closed-room layout, and in a couple of countries by a large margin. More than 60% in UK, Russia and Spain voted for an open-plan layout.
The countries with the strongest vote in favour, however, were Germany and Australia. In Germany, 4 out of 5 Houzzers answering the poll voted for open-plan living. And our land of warm sun and big skies, three-quarters of Australian Houzzers voted for open-plan over closed layouts. Indeed, one Australian Houzzer, Kerrie Langloy7, commented, “It’s a no-brainer in Australia… We love open-plan and indoor/outdoor living spaces.”
However, there is always a middle ground and many Houzzers have come up with interesting solutions to the problems thrown up by open-plan living. Australian Houzzerhowde1 suggests the ideal solution would be the “ability to open or close off spaces as required”, and it seems flexibility of living spaces is key for many modern-day homeowners.
In Germany, Mimi Fuchs says, “Open spaces are something beautiful, but there are occasions where several smaller rooms are more practical. I therefore find solutions great where the layout can be customised with large sliding walls or doors.”
Andrew Brown of Brown + Brown Architects agrees, saying that when his company designs an open-plan space, they “still ensure this doesn’t necessarily equate to a lack of privacy, and opportunities for individual moments are still provided”.
The future is half and half
“Our project at South Crown Street, Aberdeen, has an open-plan kitchen-diner,” explains Brown. “Initially, the clients wanted all three main rooms on the ground floor to be open to each other, but due to issues with listed building consent, permission could only be given to open the rooms at the rear of the house. However, with hindsight, the clients are pleased the living room has been retained as a separate space, and as a result the house has the best of both worlds.”
PKMN Arquitectura has come up with a clever solution to bridge the gap between open- and closed-layout spaces: they have developed buildings with rotating walls that allow spaces to be used in multiple ways, as pictured here.
Partner Enrique Espinosa says, “The future of the home is about optimising the space and making it multi-functional, much more now that every square metre is extremely expensive. Being able to use the whole space of the home every single second, instead of just half of it, increases, among other things, the value of the property.”
Julissa Medina Moreno, interior architect at deSYgn by JM2, says, “French homeowners want to live in a space that’s as open as possible to keep the natural light and circulation.”
But, she adds, “The loft trend is over. Now, [homeowners] don’t want walls, but they want to [zone] the spaces using furniture. So they ask more and more for tailor-made furniture, which is conceived by architects orinterior architects, and then made by specialists.”
It will be fascinating to see how our homes continue to evolve and what an open-plan layout might look like in the future. “Buildings have to adapt over time to meet occupants’ ever-changing needs,” Andrew Brown says. “It’s very difficult to predict how family life will be structured in 20 years’ time. It will be interesting to see how the changing make-up of households, with an increasing number of multi-generational families living together due to house price increases etc, will impact on the current trend for open-plan living.”