El’s rabbit trails: On rooms without walls

Throughout this month, I have been reading, and only reading, books related to Florida history. Nothing else. While I find the subject endlessly fascinating and educational, I don’t expect that my readership is interested in endless reviews of books recounting various aspects of the native peoples, discovery and trajectory of all things Florida. There are exceptions of course, such as the story of Joseph Clark, which is well worth sharing regardless of geography.

Rather than allow this little spot to languish for another week or more, by which time I hope to have completed a non-Florida education book, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a recent article from the links worth a look page.

Citylab.com makes the case for rooms. Specifically, they delve into the trend of open floor plans which tend to be designed with the entry, kitchen and living room connected without walls. Because our home has an open floor plan  (and vaulted ceilings which I fell for before I considered having to paint them), this article piqued my curiosity.

If someone asked me five years ago whether or not I thought the open floor plan would still be popular, I would have said no. Domestic architecture seemed to be taking a turn toward the rustic. Today, “Farmhouse” and “Craftsman” modern designs, hearkening back to the American vernacular tradition (complete with shiplap walls), are a tour-de-force.

But I would have been wrong. Although these houses bring all the exterior trappings of beloved vernacular houses of the past, they do not extend that to the interior plans. In fact, the open concepts from the oversized houses of the pre-recession era have only gotten more open.

Much has been written about the open floor plan: how it came to be, why it is bad (or good), whether it should or shouldn’t be applied to existing housing. The open floor plan as we currently understand it—an entry-kitchen-dining-living combination that avoids any kind of structural separation between uses—is only a few decades old. Prior to the last 25 years, an “open floor plan” meant a living configuration without doors; now the term has come to mean a living configuration without walls. I will refer to the latter from now on as an “open concept,” in order to differentiate it from a traditional open floor plan.

There are times when I really enjoy our open floor plan. We entertain four to five times a year (birthday parties, holidays, and the occasional small dinner party). On those occasions, when every part of the house is tidy and spotless, and engaging with several guests and family members in different places from the central hub of the kitchen is easier, I thoroughly enjoy the open concept. It’s utilitarian for the purposes of entertaining.

There are other times, however, when having walls separating one or more of those rooms from another would be convenient. Our home is lived in all day, every day. There are meals prepared in the kitchen three times a day and kids educated at the kitchen table. Books, paper, pencils, experiments, and the paraphernalia of life dots the landscape of our home on a regular basis. No amount of anal obsession with keeping things clean is going to lead me to the nirvana of a perpetually company ready house. There are days when a mess kitchen might come in handy:

In a recent essay in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost described a new luxury concept called the “mess kitchen”—a second kitchen out of sight from the main kitchen and the rest of the open plan. He cited it to demonstrate why the open floor plan and its rhetoric around “entertaining” have reached new levels of absurdity. However, to me, the mess kitchen offers hope for a transitional period where open spaces may become closed again.

On normal days if someone drops by, the open concept feels inconvenient. It also means that I have to embrace the reality that very few people are judging my home as harshly as I am. In fact quite recently someone came over for an appointment I’d forgotten about and while I was having an internal crisis about the state of my house, they said, “You guys have a great house. Your family room looks like a great place to hang out and watch a movie.” Failing homemaker fire extinguished.

Our house is our home, for better or worse, and I do love it. If we ever decide to leave it, perhaps I can revisit the decision to choose an open floor plan. I do wonder however, if this trend will hold or if sometime in the near future, walls will make a comeback. After all, our house was built 25 years ago.


7 thoughts on “El’s rabbit trails: On rooms without walls

  1. elspeth says:

    Our open concept is actually kitchen, breakfast nook, and family room. The formal living and dining do have walls separating them. No doors of course. I didn’t know that was a thing, because even my father’s very old house had walls between the room, but no doors.

    I do have one friend whose house has actual doors separating the rooms. Almost all of the rooms, in fact. It’s kind of neat.


  2. hearthie says:

    We only have doors for the bedrooms, bathrooms, and in between the house proper and non-house spaces (patio/garage).

    I do a lot of staring at real estate (as you know) and I don’t see much in the way of doors between living spaces anywhere. Sometimes you get a half-wall or something, but “open living space” seems to be the order of the day.

    I wouldn’t mind a door between my living room (generally tidy, minus cat fur and dust) and the rest of the house (varies, a lot). My kitchen is small enough that I think a door/wall would be regrettable, but if I could have a kitchen that wasn’t a walk-through into the garage (laundry area, storage, tools, etc) and the rest of the house, and that would cost me a door, even as small as the kitchen is, I’d sign up. Actually, even though they’d mostly get left open – I’d love some doors.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Curly Sue says:

    We have an open concept home that is about 8 years old. Living room, dining area and kitchen are all open to each other and the kitchen is arranged such that when you walk into our front door, you have direct line-of-sight to the prep side of our kitchen island, so there’s no hiding anything when guests enter unless you’ve finished all food prep and cleanup already. It IS nice for entertaining other than that. I also sometimes wish the kitchen were a separate room so I could putter in the kitchen without concern that the noise will wake my husband napping on the couch. (My kitchen-putter time and his nap time always seem to coincide).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Elspeth says:

    Yes, Curly Sue! Noise pollution is a problem in our house, with the combination open concept AND tile floors throughout the common living areas.

    Kid on piano? Resonates and echoes.

    School starts next week so I’ve let my kids have a slacker week, LOL. Yesterday, they were watching Soul Surfer while I was in the kitchen whipping up a few things that required use of the food processor. It was drowning out their movie, much to their chagrin.

    It’s a constant issue, but we’ve mostly learned to live with it.


  5. Bike Bubba says:

    To me, it’s interesting that someone commenting on architecture doesn’t understand the cost pressures due to doors (framing and finish carpentry, $300-$500/door) and the safety hazards of bubble framing–it’s a huge fire hazard because flames go right up the wall instead of being slowed by the floor. Oopsie.

    Reality is that people who can afford longer timbers/framing have always loved fairly open floor plans, at least until you get to the servants’ quarters. Now the middle class can have bigger rooms, too, and with insulation, you can even afford to heat and cool it. Put mildly, my homes in MN are a LOT cheaper to heat and cool than the brick bungalow my dad grew up in around Chicago–and they’re all at least twice the size.

    As much as I do not desire a McMansion, I’m at a loss as to why the ability to build and operate one in an environmentally sound manner is a problem.


  6. Elspeth says:

    I think the author was writing from the perspective of practical daily living logistics more than safety, fire hazard and costs.

    Frankly, I hadn’t considered the things you mentioned either. The fact that noise levels, privacy, and the ability to shut off areas as needed were issues I contend with was what made me appreciate the piece.

    Thanks for another point of view, Bike.It’s good to have an engineer reading along, 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Bike Bubba says:

    She was, but it’s interesting; having studied acoustics, she’s got a very similar set of degrees to mine. She is for all practical purposes an engineer, too. (electromagnetics, heat flow, and acoustics work off a lot of the same math) I think the difference is that I’ve spent a lot more time going through houses I’m considering buying with realtors and housing inspectors.


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