If I were to identify one common design direction for today's modern shelter, I would say the most significant underlying theme is our attraction to open, light-filled living spaces. In particular, domesticity today favours the "open floor plan", where the designated living-dining-kitchen zones are unfettered by structural separation.
However, did you know this interior configuration is only around four decades old?
This highly informative article, entitled 'The Case for Rooms', discusses the evolution of the open concept home.
Housing, of course, has long been a reflection of society in a given era. It’s interesting to note that, as outlined in the aforementioned City Lab article, the history of the open floor plan has run in opposite directions, based on social class. For the wealthy in the 18th and 19th century, home floor plans initially were quite closed, with a formal dining room, a kitchen, a parlor, and often multiple living rooms. This in large part was the product of having live-in servants, so it was preferable to partition interior spaces, separating those working from those being waited on. It was important to the well-to-do homeowners of the time to not have to see the comings and goings of the serving class.
19th Century sitting rooms, like the one below, no bigger than a common day formal living room, would have several entrances/exits. One or two of the doors would be reserved completely for servant access, and would sometimes be camouflaged into the decor so butlers and maid would seemingly appear and out of nowhere, clean or serve, then quietly disappear. Why acknowledge 'the help' if you don't have to? This was the advantage of having many separate rooms and segregated hallways and floors. Open sightlines - and the ability to see everything happening on the same floor at a glance - simply wasn't socially acceptable nor domestically desirable
Meanwhile, with the merchant and working classes, many homes started out as a handful of rooms, most of which were multi-purpose, confined by the cost of building multiple rooms. As the cost of construction became more affordable, working-class homes began to add more rooms to their homes, though they remained segregated.
While this was attributed to various reasons, including tradition and social expectation, it was pushed along by more pragmatic issues; working-class homes were smaller but housed more people (families were larger), and so walls provided privacy. Moreover, heating costs continued to be a constant concern for the less affluent, and heating one small room at a time was simply smart budgeting. Maintaining formal rooms meant they could compartmentalize the heating of their homes to conserve precious commodities like firewood and coal. The 1867 painting by Albert Anker, below, depicting people gathered around a tile stove, demonstrates the 19th-century concept of "heating people, not spaces". Maintaining formal rooms meant they could compartmentalize the heating of their homes to conserve precious commodities like firewood and coal.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
The diversion began during the 1800s; the design of homes for the wealthy evolved to be more open, as the trend of having live-in help declined and construction materials became more available. By the 1900s a significant portion of houses being built - particularly in growing urban centres, were combining rooms, like the kitchen and dining areas, or living and dining zones. Pocket doors - hidden within the walls - and French Doors became popular during the Edwardian period in Toronto, offering the ability to close rooms off if needed. But, when not in use, double-wide doorways between rooms dissolved the visual barriers and allowed main floor principal rooms to feel more airy and connected. Here's a picture of a modernized home I recently sold that had preserved much of its Edwardian architectural details:
Although it feels like we’ve been living in the open concept era for some time, the current iteration of the movement actually only started a little over 4 decades ago, where rooms were actually made “open” by removing doors. The impetus for this design shift was in reaction to the design that had characterized homes for decades prior: low-ceilings with closed-off rooms, which deter the open sightlines that provide that design illusion of visual freedom, with free-flowing air and light. As the years progressed, walls between rooms began to come down, and today, homes with wide open sight lines from multiple vantage points have become ubiquitous.
The kitchen has always been the heart of the home, but the design has presented it in different contexts. Historically, the kitchen had always been closed off, because it was central command in the home - a place of a lot of work (and a lot of mess) - often with household help. Fast forward to today, where the kitchen is still the heart of the home and command central, but serves a multi-purpose as we multi-task - cooking while entertaining or even while helping kids with homework - so is generally wide open. For this reason, you will often see the kitchen positioned as an anchor in open concept design, within reach of the other open areas of the home.
Here's an informative piece from the New York Times which includes a map of how families typically use their living space these days, in "Why Are Antiques So Cheap? Because Everyone Lives in the Kitchen".
However, many designers and architects have begun bucking this trend, suggesting that homes with defined spaces (even enclosed with walls) are not only appealing visually, but preferable for a number of pragmatic and design-based reasons. We are starting to see a significant design shift, where walls are being resurrected. It’s not being driven by a desire for walls, specifically, but rather a trend of owners and buyers seeking space with purpose. As the square footage of homes has grown along with the cost of hydro and gas, the work and expense associated with maintaining and heating/cooling the extra space have had homebuyers eschewing the open floor plan.
Today, the acceptance or rejection of the open-concept space plan is, in my opinion, ultimately dependent on demographics, household structure, and building typology.
In Toronto, back in the 1980s, this city began its love affair for the open-concept space plan by gutting the main floors of our Victorian and Edwardian housing stock. No question, open concept living is well-suited to narrow houses. Where hallways once circumnavigated warrens of pokey rooms, their banishment often increased the width of living space by 25 percent. By removing the corridors, the volume of space dramatically increased in these vintage houses, often enhancing the scale and proportion. They felt lighter, brighter, and had better airflow.
However, as far as housing types go, the urban condo is better suited to the open concept layout, given their propensity to be, shall we say, 'efficiently designed'. They also tend to have one or two exposures, so with windows at a premium, an open living space means more natural light. Furthermore, the rise of single and two-person households in urban centres means dwellings don't have to be designed for the large laughing barking broods of yesteryear. When the single is microwaving his dinner to eat while watching 'The Game' mansplayed on his sectional he doesn't need acres of space, let alone much of a kitchen, to live his everyday life.
In the diminutive condo, the island becomes ground control for the domestic organization, social media logistics, wine-o-clock, and food prep. The small household can multi-task effortlessly in the open-concept space plan, as long as every resident is committed to doing the same thing. It's the moment when one person wants to watch a movie and the other wants to puree a potato leek soup life lived largely in one room can be problematic.
Even homeowners who have been entranced for decades with the sunny disposition of the open floor plan, time is revealing some of the less desirable qualities of having your home wide open. This article, “Why We Need to Just Stop With Open Floor Plans” talks about some of the inherent inefficiencies in the design, including noise and privacy. For example, the state of certain economies and employment climates has resurrected interest in multi-generational living (one of the next boom housing markets - including co-housing for aging in place), where separation is highly desirable. As you can imagine, the desire for space segregation in such situations is quite high.
Here's a 2018 piece by authors at HGTV, called, "10 Downsides to Open-Concept Living You’ve Never Considered."
There are also generational splits on the issue. Zoomers don't like open-plan kitchens; they're from a generation where the place you cooked and the place you dined were separate. To view the trail of wreckage of a culinary undertaking from the dinner table horrifies the hostess (which is what that generation call themselves). She cannot eat in comfort, with the utility of cooking piled in sight, serving as a stark contrast to the formality of her candlelight supper. The unique tastes of Zoomers should be considered if you own a property they might favour when it comes time for them to make their next purchase. They prefer defined space with walls to accommodate their artwork, in addition to having “unseen” space for entertaining, which I touch on in this piece, The Zoomer Home.
And it's not just limited to Zoomers. A wide open kitchen may look great in a photo (like above) but living with one has other challenges. As any home cook will tell you, the best meals usually involve the most dishes, and there is nowhere really to “hide the mess”. There are even smell issues if you are cooking something particularly fragrant. We're seeing more and more articles like this NY Times piece, “The Closed Kitchen Makes a Comeback”, which sites these very arguments for a more compartmentalize kitchen. More and more homeowners are preferring separate spaces for cooking and entertaining - nobody wants to have their guests witness food prep mishaps and endure overpowering sounds and smells. In the aforementioned article, the New York Times talks about an array of new residential buildings in Manhattan that are offering a separated kitchen, as well as a developer of Twenty 1 (a brand new loft building in Chelsea) who opted to separate the kitchen from the living spaces with a pair of sliding oak doors - allowing owners to choose the level of openness in their unit. He said that his choice to opt for formal kitchen spaces in the new development was both a nod to prewar apartment design and fulfillment for the demand for separate entertaining and food prep spaces.
For born entertainers and those who are consistently obligated hosts of family gatherings, partitioned kitchens are looking more and more ideal. However, we believe there will always be a subset of parents with small children who prefer to keep their kids in their sightlines when preparing meals. Luckily, there's a new trend that is perfectly in line with those who wish to retain an open concept kitchen but also has a private space for food prep, containing unsavoury cooking odours, and hiding dirty dishes and cooking appliances: a second kitchen!! We are seeing more and more custom homes with two kitchens of late, notably in Vancouver. As described in this "Fancy Fiasco article", due to it's culinary and ethnic diversity, it has been a trend on the West coast to build secondary kitchens, sometimes known as spice kitchens, wok kitchens, fry kitchens, or even butler kitchens. If you are having a party, prep in the secondary kitchen, then close the door, leave the mess behind, and serve guests from your main kitchen! Here's another article by B.C.-based design studio, Draft On Site, entitled: "Homes With 2 Kitchens Are Popular Again"!
It's true, open floor plans help to make a space feel larger, as I noted above with more modest-sized condos. However, when your space is already large, having an open concept layout may work against you; while the uber-wealthy may disagree, there is such a thing as a room feeling too large. After all, one of the most coveted qualities in all things 'house and home' is coziness. Click here to read, “Pros and Cons Of Open-Concept Floor Plans” and “Is Open-Plan Living A Fad Or Here to Stay?”
Quite recently I had a gracious Edwardian 6bed residence in the Palmerston Little Italy neighbourhood which retained much of its original charm, including all of its formal spaces with architectural embellishment. I featured the dwelling in Edwardian Residential Architecture In Toronto. Listed at $1,689,000 it garnered 8 offers - all from families seeking the next house to put roots down for 25 years, including some multi-generational families. Spiking to a sale price of $2,054,000, it made me realize we may be looking at a lifestyle shift that goes beyond room configuration. Since 'use of space' informs design, I anticipate that it's this movement to larger families which is fueling the structural separation between rooms to return to fashion and, as such, a parallel resurgence in the desirability of traditional architecture. If this sale was any indication, Toronto home buyers can expect competition for the city's vintage character architecture and preserved century-old housing stock to become increasingly competitive. If this sale - which is the kind of special Urbaneer.com loves to promote - intrigues you, here's the Heart-Grabbing Edwardian On Markham Street Listing for your review.
That said, there is no denying the immense appeal of abundant air and light that comes with an open floor plan. The challenge, in addition to what I’ve outlined above, is how do you connect spaces, particularly in a large home. How do you say “comfy” as opposed to “cavernous”? There are décor tricks that can make open concept rooms cozy; using area rugs and artwork to define spaces is effective. It’s also helpful to arrange furniture around a major focal point in a room, because of how it draws the eye. Using multi-tones on the walls and natural materials for the décor communicates warmth in a wide open area.
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