Design Out in the Open


Has the pandemic dealt the coup de grâce to the ubiquitous Open Plan?

Do you find yourself thinking wistfully about that old house you grew up in? The one with lots of nooks and crannies and rooms with walls and doors? If you do, you’re not alone. Less privacy, more noise and more visible clutter at home are making a lot of Americans rethink the wisdom of having everything out in the open. Anyone who has struggled to find an appropriate place at home to make a Zoom call in the last year knows what I’m talking about. Is it time to take a second look at the so-called open plan?

We’ve changed

The pandemic has changed us. It has changed our behavior, our vocabulary—whoever heard of “social distancing” before COVID-19?—and our perception of ourselves and the world. It has separated us from those on The Outside and pushed us sometimes uncomfortably close to those on The Inside.

Most of us didn’t see this coming, of course. Wearing masks to the grocery store? Hoarding toilet paper and Chlorox wipes? No weddings, no family reunions, no Thanksgiving? Ditto Fourth of July parades, football games, Broadway shows? No, not here. Not in this country. But over the course of the last 18 months, we’ve had to recalibrate. And somehow we’ve managed to navigate a new reality in which we find ourselves using the word “pandemic” a dozen times a day.

Social distancing—at home

For some of us, the pandemic has also forever changed the way we think about home—about being at home–and this is driving a number of trends in home design.

Since the 1990s, the one thing most homebuyers have wanted almost more than anything else is an open plan, with spacious living areas and few or no internal dividing walls. What could be more American than wide open spaces, after all? The idea of separate rooms was anathema. We wanted to be able to see from one end of the house to the other. It felt inclusive and breezy. Friendly, even.

Walls were separators. They excluded. They got in the way. They had to go.

And before COVID, that seemed reasonable, but the pandemic has made many of us long for the days of walls and doors again. The future of the open plan, it would seem, is now uncertain.

“Now more than ever having a room to escape to—the proverbial ‘room of one’s own’—has taken on new meaning and greater significance,” said New York designer Charlotte Moss. “To be able to close a door, be free of noise, someone else’s conference call or video chat, just to be in your own space—your own head, if you will—this is a necessity. We all need physical separation to stay balanced.” (Veranda, May 4, 2020)

What’s trending

Today’s homeowners/ad hoc homeschoolers/remote workers are looking for more defined spaces with particular functions–otherwise known as “rooms.”  In short, walls and doors are back in vogue.

When we first moved into our circa 1940s American Foursquare, there were doors on the kitchen separating it from both the dining and living rooms. They seemed like speed bumps, so we took them down. But I confess I miss those doors when we entertain—back when we entertained, of course. Was it really such a bad idea to shield my guests from that stack of dirty dishes in the sink? After all, speed bumps serve a purpose, and maybe we could all use a few more of them right now.

Are you overexposed? 

Feel like your house is a little too revealing? Maybe it’s time to make some changes. It could be as simple as rearranging the furniture to create defined spaces or installing a room divider, such as a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. For example, in our son’s tiny studio in Ann Arbor, we used a large Kallax shelf unit from Ikea to separate living and sleeping spaces. It not only creates a visual barrier, but provides much-needed storage–win-win!

Some things, sadly, can’t be fixed with a trip to Ikea. Sigh. First, think hard about how you currently use your space, and how you want it to work for you going forward. If you are working remotely or your kids are schooling at home, do you need to define study/work spaces, i.e., not the dining table? Would you like a more functional entry that doesn’t dump directly into the living room? Are you longing for a cozy place for relaxed, adult conversation?

What to do?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, or you need a more permanent solution to any of a hundred design dilemmas laid bare by the pandemic, you would do well to consult a design professional.  An architect has the education, training and experience to help you 1) define what you want to build, and 2) help you get the most for your construction dollar. A good rule of thumb is if you plan to spend 5 percent or more of the value of your home on a remodel, you should hire an architect. You’ll be glad you did–dollars spent on design on the front end of a project pay off big in the finished product. —Andrea Lee

For more information about what architects do and how they can add value to your home, click here.

Andrea is Marketing & Business Development Manager at JLA, an architecture firm located in Northern Michigan. Before joining JLA, she was Associate Editor at a publishing house, where she wrote copy for dozens of custom publications and contributed regularly to Great Lakes/Seaway Review and Great Laker magazines.