Open floor plan homes—those with no walls separating the kitchen, dining and/or living area—are all the rage today. According to the National Association of Home Builders, 84% of new single-family homes have fully or partially open layouts.
But whether you're thinking of buying an open floor plan home or renovating your way to one by knocking down a wall, you should know both the pros and cons of this setup (because it's not all good news).
A history of open floor plans
Early American homes were "open" by necessity: one or two rooms built around a central hearth. During the Victorian era, however, it became popular for homeowners who could afford it to build many smaller, specialized rooms, from parlors to maid's quarters. Yet as society changed, so did our floor plans. As full-time help became less common and home life became more casual, there was no need for cooks to hide out in the kitchen.
At the same time, new construction materials such as steel beams and advances in heating and cooling technology made big, open rooms more feasible to build, heat, and cool. As Jay Kallos, vice president of architecture for Ashton Woods in Atlanta, points out, "Prewar, before air conditioning, the kitchen was a very hot place, so it was closed off to keep heat from spreading around the house."
Architect Henry Hobson Richardson is credited with first introducing a living-dining room combo in his Paine estate, built in Waltham, MA, in 1886. But Frank Lloyd Wright pushed the open floor plan idea to a whole new level, with homes like the one he built in Hyde Park, Chicago, for Frederick C. Robie in 1909, with a combined living and dining area in one minimalist, free-form space.
Benefits of open floor plans
Open floor plans are popular for good reason.
Maximizes square footage. Open floor plan homes feel bigger, since the square footage isn't cut up into small, cramped quarters. Plus, "With a living room and dining room, you're allocating 300 square feet of space to rooms that are only used a few times a year," explains Kallos. "An open floor plan home will feel bigger because you don't have all this unused space."
Better natural light. Removing walls lets the light that comes in through your windows spread throughout the home, eliminating dark interior rooms that have to have artificial lights on even during the day.
Social cohesiveness. Open floor plans make socializing easier, even when people are doing different things—say, Dad's cooking dinner while the kids are playing in the living room while Mom pays bills at the dining room table. Entertaining guests is easier, too; you can catch up with guests in the dining area while preparing dessert.
Flexibility. "Open floor plans create a usable space that's flexible, based on your needs," says real estate agent Jimmy Branham of the Keyes Company in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Want a giant TV to be the center of your living space for sports games? No problem. Long for a farmhouse table for dinner parties? A dance floor for all your friends? Go for it. However homeowners choose to define their space, it works without making major architectural changes.
Downsides of open floor plans
Open floor plans may be popular, but they're certainly not for everyone. Here are a few of their challenges.
Cooking heat and smells travel everywhere. Don't want your couch to smell like fried fish? Unless you've got a heavy-duty vent hood, you might just have to go to the chip shop with an open floor plan. There's no way to keep the smoke, food smells, and oven heat contained.
Less formal living. Some people want to be able to sauté while chatting with guests sipping wine at the kitchen island. Other people want to be able to get some cooking done without anybody sticking a finger in the sauce. If your hosting style is more formal—or if you employ professional cooking help, and you don't want guests to bother them—an enclosed kitchen and more formal living/dining space might be better for your needs.
Less privacy. Sometimes, hanging out with your whole family is a downside. Parents like to be able to escape from kids for a little while. Or maybe you just want to read a book while someone else is cheering for their basketball team.
It's noisier. Kid noise, cooking noise, TV noise, the dishwasher running, someone else's music on the stereo: There's no hiding from everybody's noise in an open floor plan, and a lack of walls makes the space echo more and is less sound-absorbent.
You can't hide the mess. It's nice to have guests come over and only have to clean one room. In a home with a dedicated office, a separate playroom, and closed kitchen, you can just shut the doors and deal with the mess later. With an open floor plan, everything is visible, including your clutter.
It could date your home. Open floor plan living is a trend that's been building for years. It shows no sign of slowing, but everything goes in and out of fashion. With a completely, radically, loftlike open floor plan, you might be setting yourself up to look "so late 20-teens" in 10 or 20 years' time.