My new-home clients sometimes talk about a home design with “good flow”; or more often, an “open” or “open concept” floor plan.
“Open concept” sounds like a new idea, but is it? What is an open floor plan, anyway?
The first American homes were built in the 18th century, when home design was restricted by technology and fashion. Fashion, because the only building traditions the colonists had were the ones they brought with them from Europe.
Technology, because 18th century homes didn’t have central heating (it wasn’t widespread in America until the early 20th century). Since each room in the house had to be heated individually, it made sense to keep rooms small, separated from each other with walls, and easy to heat.
|This all-brick early 19th-Century Georgian house plan is very formal - notice how the rooms are arranged around massive fireplaces in the center of each wing|
Technology also kept room sizes small – the ability to mill and transport the longer, deeper lumber needed for bigger rooms wasn’t available until the late 1800s.
|A 1920's Bungalow design still shows a floor plan made up of individual small rooms, but central heating means the rooms don't each need their own fireplaces.|
The 20th century brought the technological changes needed to create larger, more open rooms. American Architect Frank Lloyd Wright took advantage of the bigger lumber and new central heating with his Prairie and Usonian home designs, essentially inventing the “open” floor plan.
|One of Frank Lloyd Wright's early designs - most of the interior walls are already gone.|
But while Wright’s new home designs were perfect for the increasingly informal American lifestyle, they were never as popular at the traditional, formal plans that had a 300-year head start in America.
|In this later Wright plan, almost all the walls - inside and out - are gone.|
Styles, unfortunately, don’t change easily.
To most people, “open” floor plan implies fewer walls between rooms and that’s generally true. But I think a more descriptive term is an “informal” floor plan. It’s the way we live – formally or informally – that has the biggest impact on the design of a home.
“Formal” or “traditional” floor plans have been around as long as there have been houses in the western world, but the informal/open floor plan is a relatively new idea (if you consider 90 years as “new”).
There are many differences between the two ideas; differences in how they’re built, how they’re furnished, how they’re decorated, how they’re heated and cooled, and most importantly, differences in how you live in them.
Here’s what you need to know if you’re thinking about buying or building a home with an informal floor plan.
An Informal Floor Plan Can Be A Little Smaller
Rooms in formal floor plans, enclosed by four walls, don’t allow space to flow between them, restricting furniture placement. That means each room needs space for the furniture in it.
An informal/open floor plan, on the other hand, blurs the lines between rooms, allowing the space to flow, and allowing furniture to flow with it. When you remove the walls between rooms, the total area gets smaller – and that can add up to quite a bit of space.
Formal Rooms Are Usually Single-Purpose Rooms
A dining room is just a dining room in a traditional, formal floor plan, but in an open plan, the dining room can also be the breakfast room and a social center.
Other formal rooms fade away, too. The living room and family room (and maybe even the kitchen) combine into a family-centered great room.
All of which frees up space for the rooms you probably really need, like a mudroom and laundry.
|Opening up the kitchen and family room to each other gives this home a more spacious living area, and frees up space that we used to make nice big laundry/mudroom.|
An Open Floor Plan Can More Expensive to Build
At first glance, this doesn’t seem to make sense. A smaller house, built with less materials (fewer walls) should be less expensive, right?
Problem is, all that open space requires larger structural members to support it. And fewer interior walls usually means beefing up the exterior walls.
Fewer interior walls also give the heating and plumbing guys fits – it’s harder to find places to run pipes and ductwork.
And flooring can get more expensive – without an easy place between rooms to change from hardwood to carpet, for example, you might end up with all hardwood.
Informal Floor Plans Are Easier to Decorate
Because very simply, you have fewer choices. When your whole floor is one room, you’re not going to have crown molding in some rooms and not in others. You’re probably only going to have one paint color.
|The family in this house spends most of their time in one room - where the kitchen, dining area, and family room all come together.|
Your furniture probably all needs to match, too, which means you might not be able to keep all the furniture from your formal house when you move.
Open Floor Plans Can Be Noisier
You probably already figured this one out, right? Without all those walls to block sound, life’s going to be a little louder in an informal house. You can quiet it down a bit with soft-fabric furniture, area rugs, and draperies – anything to absorb the noise.
Open, informal floor plans are a better fit for the casual lifestyles of most families today, although that doesn’t mean you can’t live comfortably in a more traditional home design.
But knowing the pros and cons of formal and informal floor plans will help you make a better decision when you’re thinking about what fits your family best.
Need expert Residential Architectural advice for your new home or remodeling project? Contact Richard Taylor, AIA at RTA Studio Architects to arrange a meeting or an online consultation.