Closing time? Open floor plans aren’t going away, but they are evolving

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Alloy Workshop expanded the previously claustrophobic kitchen in this Rose Hill neighborhood home by taking over the footprint of an existing screened porch. Photo: Andrea Hubbell Alloy Workshop expanded the previously claustrophobic kitchen in this Rose Hill neighborhood home by taking over the footprint of an existing screened porch. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Waves move in cycles.

If you want to know the status of the open concept trend among homeowners, that’s pretty much all you need to know, according to Robert Nichols of Formwork Architecture.

“There are almost always cycles, and there are subwaves too,” he says. “Some hybrids start to get developed. I kind of feel like the thrill [of open floor plans] must be having some sense of exhaustion about now.”

Nichols concedes this particular wave has been slow to fall. Open concept home planning has been all the rage for a decade now; and, truth be told, you can trace it all the way back to mid-century modern design in the 1950s, he says.

But the wave is evolving as folks find there are some things about opening their space that doesn’t suit them. Here’s how local designers are accounting for those concerns.

There’s no place to hide

Open floor plans can lead to visible clutter, according to Nichols. So designers have to take measures to include storage and discreet, concealable spaces.

“Just thinking of the kitchen, where you prep food, and dishes stack up, you don’t want to end up sitting in your living room looking at the dishes from dinner,” Nichols says.

Joey Conover of design-build firm Latitude 38 says that while most people still want an open floor plan, they also want what she calls an “away room.” The traditional, closed-off space is on the same floor as the great room and can be used as a den, study or office, among other things. If you don’t have the square footage for another room, a desk and office area in the kitchen can get the job done.

“People appreciate that away room because they can use it for different things, and its function can change over time,” she says.

Furnishing is difficult

No one wants a room with a bunch of furniture lining the walls. Conover says she thinks that’s one of the reasons sectional sofas and console tables behind them have become popular.

But the concern can also be alleviated by clever design. Conover says built-ins—not just desks but bookshelves and even daybeds—can offer natural breaks in vast spaces.

“People appreciate some kind of division in space…things that visually divide the rooms,” she says. “And the furnishing thing is a legitimate issue.”

Light and sound travel

Dan Zimmerman of Alloy Workshop agrees the open concept trend isn’t dead. But it is altering as people find they want “some elements of acoustic privacy or visual privacy.”

“What I have heard is, with the chaos of daily life, the super-open plan doesn’t really allow any sort of mediation,” he says.

Alloy Workshop solves that problem by changing the focus in rooms. If the kitchen is connected to the living room north to south, for example, it might be oriented east to west so the cook isn’t necessarily exposed to a blaring television. The idea is to position people in such a way that “when you are in that space, you can feel like it is fun in a different way,” Zimmerman says. Flooring materials, changes in ceiling height and other strategies can also be helpful for making those divisions.

Nichols warns open residential spaces can have some of the same acoustic concerns that commercial restaurants have. And while noise-dampening panels and the like aren’t appropriate in the home, carefully selected furnishings and floor coverings can help deaden bouncing sound waves.

The house is finite

Every owner is different, but Conover says folks in homes 2,000 square feet and under are typically willing to deal with the conflict of shared spaces because of the flexibility they provide.

Zimmerman agrees. “When folks do downsize, you have to make sacrifices and changes to the way you’ve been living in the past 15 to 20 years,” he says. “That can be challenging. What you tend to find is, instead of having distinct rooms, they have rooms that serve multiple purposes.”

To make a shared space even more effective, Nichols suggests looking outside your walls.

“It turns out, [open planning] is hard to get right, and in many cases it’s just not transferable,” he says. “It really works when the combined spaces continue to have openness out to the landscape, so that sense of openness is greater still.”

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