How to Make Open Concept Plans BETTER

"I HATE open concept."
"Open concept is an atrocity."
"I hate open concept with a passion."
"I can't wait to revel in hatred [with others] of this very bad idea."
"...there's no getting away from the ghastly kitchen in the living room."

These are not my words, friends, but I concur. There is no shortage of open concept plan "haters." It won't be impossible to find someone who favors the design (people who don't actually live in it don't count) but they are definitely in the minority.

For anyone unfamiliar with an open concept floor plan, it puts the kitchen, dining room, and living room all into ONE room. This means the kids studying at the kitchen table will have to compete with dad watching football on tv. If mom has some friends over, the rest of the family will have to... leave. But hey, if you're entertaining and the kids are supposed to be there anyway, it's great.

The rise of the open concept floor plan

Open concepts enjoyed a surge in popularity due to the fact that they were promoted as a cheaper way to build. The cleanliness of the spaces and the soaring ceilings were alluring to a generation of families that lived in the confines of 8' high ceilings. Suddenly, everyone demanded openness for their new homes.

The problem of producing these cookie-cutter homes at the rate of track housing development construction speed has led to rooms "looking cheap." Open concept rooms have stripped out the charm, the mystery, the individuality and surprise away from a home's heart and character.

The backlash? Homeowners are putting walls back in as fast as they can.

Don't get me wrong, there is a place for open concept design - in small homes. I lived in a tiny farmhouse with the typical single room layouts of early 20th century vernacular design. A second story room was sacrificed to open up as a loft. An addition on one side reached up to the rafters to provide a tall, slanted ceiling. Ultimately, the house became less claustrophobic, I claim it as a huge success.

Are open concept floor plans going out of style?

Remember split-level homes? Nowadays, they are the last to sell. The open concept design is not in that category - yet. Open-concept "haters" have already been clear that they are avoiding open concept floor plans when house shopping.

Visit any online forum and there will be heated debate on the value of open-concept floor plans. Spoiler alert, the nays are in the majority with post contributions appearing to be more of a venting and solidarity stance against the despised design.

Open concept floor plans are all about the kitchen

The pros and cons are covered below, but the unhappiness with open concept design points to kitchen.

Open concept food odors

Open-plan kitchens smell. Aromatic spices, powerful onion, garlic and other fragrant smells will waft into the air, spreading into the living room. Deep-fat frying, pan searing, it all stays. Of course, good ventilation is key to any kitchen and can help control a lot of it. Cooking failures come most to mind - burnt cookies that set off the fire alarm. The absorbent fabric of the living room furniture shares it all.

Keeping open concept kitchens clean

How do you keep open kitchens clean? Open kitchens are no different than regular kitchens, there are food activities that need to be cleaned up. With open concept design, there is added stress of having a tighter time frame of doing so. You never know who will be walking through the front door next. Don't forget lounging in the living room - the dirty dishes in sight are constantly reminding you to stop enjoying yourself and clean the mess up.

To keep open concept kitchens clean, dirty dishes need to go in the dishwasher immediately. Pots and pans and other dishes need to be washed in the sink, dried and put away. All food should immediately be put away and all newspapers and other paraphernalia be removed from counters. All counters should be wiped down, floors swept, and chairs and stools put back into place.

Wasn't that exhausting?

Hiding a kitchen from an open floor plan

After the constant marathon event of trying to keep an open concept kitchen clean, owners start to plot how to hide their kitchens. I hate to tell you this, but the kitchen should have been designed with that in mind in the first place.

Are closed kitchens making a comeback? I hardly think so. Years ago, I visited family in Germany and they had a completely closed kitchen, with a single door entering it. It was just weird. This was an older generation family, the younger relatives all enjoyed more open kitchens. I acknowledge that some homeowners prefer not to have guests in their kitchen, and perform food prep in isolation.

There is a glorious compromise: separate zones and work stations that spin off the side kitchen... AKA work kitchens or work pantries. The "show" or "trophy" kitchen footprint can be reduced in size (less space and less activities means faster clean-up). Side rooms can offshoot into work spaces for food prep, baking, or the best of all - clean up. 

If there is no space for side rooms, consider "inside the footprint" options. Baking stations are special deep, kitchen cabinets that flip out that contain baking ingredients, dishware, and appliances - the door can be closed in a flash.

"Invisible kitchens" is a trend to conceal everything in a kitchen by including a hefty bank of tall cabinetry. There is enough storage so nothing has to sit out on a counter. Dedicated sink stations with deeper wells can hide dishes that you can't get to immediately - buying you a little time.

Don't forget that walls can be put back up. Kitchens can be partially revealed, half walls built, decorative screens strategically placed, or the kitchen not placed in the direct line of the family room. Large doorways can psychologically separate the space from the living room, defining the boundary of each more clearly.

Seeing kitchen from front door

For me, the most evil offense is seeing the kitchen from the front door. I get it, removing a separate vestibule for an entryway saves space. Money must be the only driving factor of implementing this horrendous design choice. Imagine the insurance salesman knocking on the door and being a step away from you eating popcorn in the living room (if that is allowed). The only polite thing to do is have him join you and the family on the couch - see what I mean about awkward?

To summarize, it's not OK to see the kitchen from the front door.

Pros and cons of open concept design

I think you know where this is going. I'll try not to be too biased and let the facts speak for themselves on why open concept design is not an ideal choice in most situations. Please note that the original open concept design was applied to one-room apartments (there wasn't much choice!). Not only were/are the living room, kitchen, and eating in the same room, the bed is, too!

Positives of open concept floor plan

  • visually appealing
  • makes the space feel more spacious than it is, especially for small homes
  • great for keeping an eye on children
  • great for entertaining and socializing
example of open concept kitchen design

Example of open concept kitchen design where cooking space shares dining and living room space.

Negatives of open concept floor plan

  • a problem to decorate and add artwork on massive walls in different spaces, difficult to coordinate decorating between spaces
  • a challenge to coordinate kitchen furniture with living room furniture (everything can be seen "all together"
  • space can result in awkward furniture arrangements
  • difficult to hide electric cords and reach lamps in the middle of the room
  • lack of walls magnifies the sound - space is "loud" - tv dominates the space, as well as kitchen noises and people's voices
  • no interior walls reduce privacy and opportunities for more rooms/storage, such as closet storage
  • living in one big box with other people isn't appealing: lack of coziness
  • kitchen odors float into living room space and are absorbed into furniture
  • forced to look at the kitchen when trying to enjoy being in the living room
  • when the kitchen is a mess, the entire house feels dirty and disorganized
  • children bring noise and mess to the space
  • high ceilings are a pain to paint and clean, change a light bulb, and wastes energy for heating/cooling
  • entryways often directly open on to private living space (living room, dining room, kitchen are all in view)

It looks like an open concept is only welcome by young families, people who throw parties, and empty-nesters looking to downsize to a small house. What about families with teens and those empty-nesters not downsizing? The answer is not open concept, but flex space, that can satisfy all the occupants of a room and all stages of family lifecycle.

"Having lived in open and closed, I can say for certain I hate open plans. "

A better approach to open concept floor plans

There is a way to take the best features of the open concept and improve it to make it more human and task friendly.

  • define space using architectural elements such as columns, change in floor finishes, partial dividers such as a two-way fireplace, an oversized doorway to enjoy partial views without blending all together
  • further define areas and borders with furniture arrangement, plants, etc.
  • provide space for separate activities, such as a separate den or living space for watching tv or reading, a space for playing video games, and playing piano
  • respect public (socializing time) and private space by keeping them separate
  • provide a "keeping area" with one or two chairs in the kitchen, perfect for empty nesters and a small place for small children to play
  • use transitional space, vestibules between rooms, half walls, wall dividers to separate space, or a curtain on a track to close off parts of the room as needed or open up
  • install wide or double solid doors, pocket doors, or doors with glass to clearly close off space or open it up - the kitchen can be opened to the dining room (or closed)
  • add private spots out of the way of main traffic like a shared study spot between kids' bedrooms, an in-bedroom office, a door leading to a private balcony, a book nook, a porch, a den, theater, or game room
  • position entryways tucked behind a wall to prevent instant access to main living area when door is first opened, or relocate the main door to a more discreet entrance point
  • add a small TV to the kitchen to use during breakfast or meal prepping

In conclusion

Change is happening. Homeowners are demanding and asking for private spaces to return and a re-emphasis put on needing separate kitchen zones that whisk away at least some of the "over-sharing."

If you're ready to start the revolution, visit "Working Pantries" to find out about public and private kitchen space.

About the author 

Renee Matt

Renee is an Iowa farmwife with a background as a former kitchen designer. Supporting the family farm with hearty meals has been key to Renee's pantry readiness. She uses her professional IT background and expertise to bring the Everything Pantry website to life. Read more about this farmwife on her about page.

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