It’s a question that’s been posed every so often for years.
And now, after an extended period of homebound family togetherness and staring at the walls — or in many cases lack thereof — people are asking it again.
“Is the Open Floor Plan Really Dead?” inquired a headline in Architectural Digest this month.
The answer that publication came up with echoes what many Lancaster County architects, designers and real estate agents are saying. Thanks in part to the impact of COVID-19, open floor plans are seeing some tweaks — particularly when it comes to home office options. But don’t expect to say goodbye to unobstructed views across vast expanses of living space any time soon.
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The open appeal
“Since the pandemic, it’s made me crave it even more,” says Erika Parker with Tippetts/Weaver Architects in Lancaster.
She shares a “maxed out” 1960s Cape Cod starter home with her husband and three young children. Parker is pining for some of the open floor plans she’s worked on for clients.
“The open floor plan has evolved since the ’70s,” she says. “And I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
When Parker takes strolls around her neighborhood she notices that owners of most homes constructed identical to hers have removed as many interior walls as possible. And she finds herself wondering if she should have done that, too.
Pandemic living has complicated such decisions, says Charlie Yohe, owner of Yohe Architecture + Design in Lancaster.
“I think people will think twice now before knocking down a wall,” he says.
There’s no doubt that the open floor plan has been widely embraced by many, including some with smaller homes.
“It gives them a sense that they’ve got all this extra space when they’re not boxed in by walls, so to speak,” Yohe says. “And there are some advantages.”
He likes the opportunities for visual connections and sense of community that an open floor plan affords. Yet Yohe has never been a fan of completely blown out, wide-open designs.
“Even if we are asked to do that, we try to find ways to still segregate spaces,” he says. That might involve a partial wall or something else to obstruct the view of somebody who is seated.
“When I’m in a living room, I like to feel like I’m in a cozy space,” he says.
The open challenge
In recent years, some practical demands have moved trends toward at least some separation.
Consider “mess kitchens” and butler pantries. Yohe says those have been a regular part of client discussions since probably 2018.
“They still want these entertaining kitchens where the kitchen is the central focus. It has the views and some soft seating. But they don’t want everyone at their dinner party staring at pots and pans,” he says. “It takes more square footage to be able to do these kind of things. But we’re seeing more of that.”
Yohe was recently revising plans for one client for whom the firm had designed a large prep area that can be shut off from view. Turns out that client wanted one even bigger.
“It’s got a dishwasher and a sink,” he says. “It’s basically another kitchen.”
More specific to the pandemic, the home office has highlighted some challenges to open design, he says.
“People have been sitting on dining room wooden chairs for the past 12 months or in rooms without daylight,” he says.
“They need a segregated space, which usually sends them to a bedroom or a basement or an attic — some place that was never really intended for something like that,” he says.
A recognition of such issues will continue to shape designs of the future, he says. Energy awareness is also playing a part, he says.
Energy conservation was a key point in a Bloomberg CityLab piece titled “The Case for Rooms: It’s time to end the tyranny of open-concept interior design.” In that piece, architecture critic Kate Wagner noted how closed floor plans can save energy by isolating rooms that don’t need to be warmed or cooled.
“As cultures of consumption change and people become more environmentally conscious, homes must change to reflect this,” she wrote. “Designing homes around ‘entertaining’ that happens only a handful of times a year is a wasteful, yet still mindbogglingly popular practice.”
Wagner — perhaps best known for the “McMansion Hell” blog she started from Baltimore — wrote the aforementioned Bloomberg piece in 2018, long before families had been cooped up together for a year.
“The best thing about the closed floor plan? It offers what it has always offered: aural, olfactory, and spatial privacy,” Wagner wrote. “Humans have always needed the sense of comfort and refuge that defined rooms provide. That may explain the rise of ‘man caves’ and ‘she sheds’ — closed spaces that rebel against the open concept.”
That sentiment may speak to many after a prolonged period of testing the limits of open floor plans.
At the same time, so might another that Architectural Digest noted this month.
“(A)fter a long year of trying to create space within our homes (and, at times, away from the other people in them), there’s a major longing for a return to the days of gathering, together, at the center of the house,” wrote that publication.
Finding a compromise
Lisa Baker of Elizabethtown, owner of Blue Stone Home Staging, takes both sentiments into account when selecting and arranging furniture for homes on the market.
Especially for many families with young children — the need for a closeable office door is real, Baker says. Some are accomplishing that by opting for a four-bedroom home when they previously might have gone with three, she says.
Baker put in a pull-out couch rather than a large traditional bed in her own guest bedroom, which she converted to her office. Her husband, in his home office area, has erected a green screen in front of a hutch that he thought looked odd in video calls.
Sometimes extra room usage is out of the question. That’s one of the reasons Baker recently staged a two-bedroom condo with a small desk arrangement behind the stairs.
“It was a little something to let people know, ‘You could keep your guest bedroom as a guest bedroom and still have a little office space,’ ”she says.
Baker is one of many who expect the open concept to stay in demand when it comes to main living areas.
The open concept trend has been a huge draw for condos in the Drogaris Cos. portfolio, says project director Lauren Reilly. She is, however, mindful of alterations buyers may want in an era of working from home.
“We’ve converted a coat closet into a small office space,” she says. “We made a little niche and put special lighting in there.”
In another unit, a door with a large glass pane was installed to let natural light into a second bedroom that did not have a window and is likely these days to see home office use.
Pocket doors are picking up, Reilly says, adding sliding doors can also be practical and artistic ways to provide some optional privacy. Buyers want some of that, she says, but not at the expense of an open area where everyone can hang out together.
“That’s been the trend, and I think it will continue to be the trend,” says Lancaster Realtor Cal Yoder with Keller Williams.
Yoder is currently working with one buyer looking specifically for clearly delineated rooms. But that client is a rare exception, he says.
Homes around Lancaster County that have been remodeled in recent years have typically moved more toward the open, he says. Now when those hit the market, they sell quickly. Granted, you could say the same about just about any floor plan in today’s tight market, Yoder says. But generally speaking he sees the open floor plans bringing more offers.
“People are still removing walls,” says interior designer Amanda Voloshin, with Interior Designs in Lititz.
Creative ways of carving out space will continue to be key, Voloshin says.
Using space under stairs can be a good option, she says.
Even when a house has ample space for inhabitants to spread out, that can still add a fun and comfortable touch. She says that was the case with a project involving an under-the-stairs wallpapered nook with a cushioned bench near a bar.
Other times it can make more of a logistical impact. She’s currently drawing up a project that includes an office under some stairs.
“There’s usually enough space for a desk and a filing cabinet drawer and maybe something else,” she says.
Voloshin also saw a spike in demand for barn doors last year. She suspects that’s partly because Lancaster County homeowners often just love their look but also due to acoustical considerations amplified by pandemic living.
Barn doors do require considerable wall space, but French-door versions of barn doors that meet in the middle can help reduce that requirement a bit, she says.
“They can cover a wide doorway and you can leave them open 90% of the time,” she says. “But when you need that privacy and sound barrier? You just close those barn doors.”