Not in recent memory have so many Americans carried out nearly every aspect of our lives—working, schooling, resting, playing, eating—at home. Spending so much time at home has meant we’ve had to rethink the way we use certain spaces, from setting up workspaces inside and virtual happy hours from our living room sofas.
While many of these quick-fix design solutions are likely (and hopefully) temporary, there’s no doubt all of this time at home will change what we need from our homes—and thus how we want them designed—for the foreseeable future. One home design concept that may prove less desirable going forward: the open floor plan.
Open floor plans have been the most popular residential architectural trend for new construction and renovation projects in the country since the 1990s. Their rise in popularity over time tracks in strikingly parallel fashion to the rise of the HGTV television network, which has made demolishing interior walls something of a spectator sport for homeowners and aspiring homeowners since it launched in 1994.
Widespread adoption of the open floor plan across the country reflects a significant change in the way we live compared with prior to the World Wars, particularly the shift to more casual lifestyles for families with children, and the reduced dependence on domestic staff. In homes built prior to World War II, kitchens were positioned at the back of the house accessible by a center hallway or a back entrance for deliveries and staff.
The combining of common rooms may be losing its luster as the pandemic has triggered demand for private spaces like home offices and dens.
Open floor plans where the kitchen acts as a kind of command central for home certainly offer conveniences to modern families. Fewer walls facilitates better traffic flow and more natural light throughout a home, and can make it easier for parents to monitor children. Furthermore, open floor plans offer a certain amount of flexibility, making it possible to reconfigure furniture arrangements as needs change. Real-estate agents love how it photographs (how “airy!”) and developers embraced it because it’s cheaper. But the open floor plan presents some serious design drawbacks, as well, such as a lack of privacy, poor sound control, and a cluttered appearance (despite regular tidying).
With Covid-19 driving work and school (and almost every other activity) into the domestic sphere, families rub shoulders 24/7. As a result, the demand for private ancillary spaces—sculleries, libraries, sitting rooms—that percolated pre-pandemic seems to have kicked into high speed. The open plan is not entirely dead but more attention is being paid to creating purposeful private spaces and a balance between the two. Now, new homeowners are not automatically seeking to open living spaces.
Sometimes simpler strategies suffice. Designers renovating open-plan homes are using solutions such as sliding metal screens, partial perpendicular walls and shifts in material such as white brick and glass blocks, movable bookshelves, custom drapes lined with sound deadening materials - to create a sense of separation.
Clever design interventions and flourishes like this were integral to early iterations of the open-plan concept pioneered by master architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright but they faded away. Creating refuge spaces make you feel protected and may lower stress – with niches, nooks, corners, dens and mud rooms.
The following are more predictions for the future of American residential design.
- The return of the dining room – but it will be for multi-purposes (library/art studio/office, and sometimes dining).
- Re-zoning living rooms with parlor-style furniture plans (divided into seating zones – i.e. gaming or library table that can double as a desk).
- More portable and convertible furniture (secretary desks, or other pieces with a closeable, hinged desktop surface, are likely to increase in demand).
- Tucked-in kitchens that connect to living rooms (double-sided glass cabinets, large cased openings, and pocket doors.
- Alcoves and niches which are both part of a space and separate.
- Smaller master bedrooms with adjacent, specific-use spaces (separate connected dressing room, sitting room, or study alcove).
- More upholstered rooms (coziness and noise buffering).
- Views to outdoors and garden access (Connection to the outdoors, even a small one, has never been more important for stay-at-home days. For those who have space for yards or gardens, multiple access points to smaller, more defined outdoor rooms with variety of experiences may become preferable to a single large yard).