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Publication Date: 2019-10-31

Design Insights

The Challenges ⁠and Opportunities of Open-Concept Floor Plans

Open-concept floor plans have become the norm, particularly in family homes. However, open-concept rooms are difficult to light effectively and delineate into different areas, while noise escapes easily from one area into the next. Here, we talk with designers about how they approach open-concept layouts and how they decide which kinds of clients should try the style — and who should avoid it.

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Design by Hillary Littlejohn Scurtis Design

What attracts clients to an open concept?


It's not a certain style of design or architecture that makes an open concept appealing to clients. Rather, "it's about a lifestyle," says Hillary Littlejohn Scurtis, a designer based in Miami. This "lifestyle" is about different areas and ways of living that fit naturally together — a kitchen that blends into a seating area without rupturing the cohesion of the design.

Dennese Guadeloupe Rojas, who founded Interiors by Design in Washington, D.C., adds that open concepts are perfect for people who love company: "Open concepts present a great space for someone who enjoys entertaining and the space flows better for socializing," she says. With an open concept, a homeowner can cook dinner while their kids watch TV on the couch, or a host can chat with friends seated around a dining table while preparing hors d'oeuvre behind the kitchen counter. "People can be 'around' each other while still doing completely different things," says designer Maren Baker. At a time when each person is expected to multitask constantly, juggling work, family, and personal life all at the same time, an open concept can promise that with a little planning, each of these spheres can complement each other, without forcing a compromise in values.

Whether or not the client chooses an open concept also depends on the kind of aesthetic they're craving, and the architectural bones and surrounding landscape of the home. With an open concept, the larger experience of space can enhance a trendy minimalist look, especially when paired with wide windows and a beautiful outdoor environment. "Rooms with lots of windows and doors to a beautiful exterior lend themselves to an open concept, as they allow all to enjoy the amazing view," says Sophia Shibles, an interior designer based in Providence. "Ample negative space works best with these types of floor plans."

Design by PepperJack Interiors | Photo by Michelle Drewes Photography

What kind of clients should try an open concept?


"Open concept floor plans mainly for combined kitchen/dining/family rooms can be wonderful for a young family with limited family time," says Laura Neuman, owner of PepperJack Interiors. "The joint space for TV, cooking, eating, after-school homework, and weekend craft projects provides a lot of togetherness and shared experiences during limited precious time." Limited precious time is key here — time is a resource, and those who lack it may be well-suited to an open-concept-style design.

Design by Interiors by Design

When don't they work?


An open-concept style "does not work well for clients that want designated spaces for privacy and different functions," says Rojas. If as a parent, your only time alone is spent preparing snacks in the kitchen, you might prefer solitude to the drone of conversation following you from another area of the home. "Sometimes a bit of separation between functional spaces gives everyone just a bit of needed space," Neuman agrees. Rojas refers to another kind of person who might struggle with an open floor plan: "If you are messy, you will see all of the mess in your space," she says. 

Design by Sophia Shibles Interiors (formerly SCS Design)| Photo by Michael Patrick Lefebvre

How do you find out if a client is a good fit?


Designers have a set of techniques for determining how to lay out and style an interior. "To assess whether I think it is a good idea, I ask questions about noise tolerance, musical instruments, tolerance for seeing the mess in adjacent rooms, etc.," says Shibles. "Before we even begin to design a floor plan, we gather as much info as possible on the client's lifestyle. If anyone really needs a quiet place to work or read, I make sure there is a smaller adjacent space away from the main open living area that can be used for these purposes. If that isn't possible, I try to steer them away from it."

Design by Maren Baker Design | Photo by Erich Hausman

What are the biggest challenges?


"The two biggest challenges are creating intimate spaces and managing the sound," says Scurtis. With so much open space, privacy is difficult to achieve — as mentioned above — which can leave spaces cold and impersonal. Another difficulty with open concepts is "finding ways to have storage without just having a bunch of cabinets, [considering] where to put closets, or how to hide some of the 'junk' from daily living if you can see all that from anywhere you stand," says designer Maren Baker. Spaces that flow together also means that clutter, and noise, is often in the periphery of a room.

"One downside of open-plan arrangements is the noise," says Kendall Wilkinson, who is based in San Francisco. "Kitchen, home projects, and TV all combine in a mismatched orchestra. That long awaited football game? It could be drowned out by dishwashing, veggie chopping, and the loud sink disposal."

Design by Kendall Wilkinson | Photo by Paul Dyer

How do you create separate areas in a large room?


First, furniture arrangement is important. "Any style can work well, but the primary consideration is how furniture pieces look from all sides," says Wilkinson. "A sofa, for example, can be modern or traditional, but if it’s floating in a room, how does it look from the back?" she says. "Is it attractive, or would it be better suited placed against a wall? All pieces need to be evaluated for their design in 360 degrees."

Informal pieces may work better, too, since a single area may serve multiple functions. "I find that more casual furnishings with less precious finishes and fabrics are more suitable to open plans as they provide more wear-friendly surfaces for the many uses," says Neuman. "Hard-working fabrics and solid woods pre-distressed with waxed finishes are my favorite. Waxed woods are un-fussy and easy to maintain."

Color can create cohesion within certain areas, Rojas notes, and decorative screens — as well as aptly placed shelving — create separate spaces within an open design. Nearly all the designers we spoke with mentioned rugs: "The space needs to be grounded with area rugs forming delineated seating groups or zones which can also flow and speak to each other," says designer Terri Ricci. She adds, "We like to create intimacy and interest by playing with furniture heights and shapes as well as contrasting textures and color tones."

Design by Terri Ricci Interiors | Architecture by Ike Kligerman Barkley | Photo by Peter Aaron

What can you do to manage noise and light?


To make sure that a large space, (which may require both task and area lighting) is well-lit, Ricci is deliberate about positioning outlets. "We carefully locate floor outlets to create balanced pools of light throughout the space," Ricci says. When a room doesn't have floor outlets, Wilkinson gives extra attention to the placement of floor and table lamps so that there won't be a tangle of cords running through the space. For upholstery and rugs, Ricci selects "rich, noise deadening materials and use soft, light curtains wherever possible."

The architecture of the space also helps to regulate sound. Says Shibles, "In historical architecture, I use wide cased openings in renovations or additions that include an open concept. This gives a nod to the architectural elements in the rest of the home and helpswith sound absorption."


IDEAS:

- Separate areas through color, screens, rugs, furniture arrangement and height, and contrasting texture

- Use cased openings, thick rugs, and heavy fabrics to mitigate sound

- Tread carefully with maximalist styles and create negative space

- Use floor outlets whenever possible for lighting

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