Are Open-Concept Homes on the Way Out? How the Trend Emerged and Where it Might be Headed

November 18, 2020

Open-concept floor plans have been the going trend in North American home design since roughly the 1960s, and especially in the last few decades after popular home-reno shows featured home flippers tearing down walls to create larger, brighter spaces. But with many Canadians working from home as a result of the ongoing pandemic, we’re beginning to see the chinks in that concept.

Family doing various activities in an open-concept home.

The open-concept style (or “open plan,” as it’s sometimes called) is built around the idea of combining once-compartmentalized living spaces into a large, central room, allowing for a free flow of activity and togetherness. With the kitchen, living room, and dining room integrated into a single “great room,” parents can take care of daily chores while easily keeping an eye on kids, hosts can entertain guests while putting the last touches on dinner, and conversation can flow unimpeded by walls or closed doors.

To modern Canadians, housing that prioritizes efficiency and family connections seems fairly obvious, but around the turn of the 20th century, it was a newer concept born out of changing ideologies about social and family structures. 

Narrow staircase in the hall of a Victorian-style home.

Prior to the 20th century, Canadian houses were generally modelled after the Victorian style of having individual rooms assigned to specific activities that were clearly organized into public and private spaces. Guests were received in drawing rooms, parlours, or sitting rooms, which were located at the front of the house and separated from the domestic spaces by doors and hallways. Kitchens – then considered humble workspaces – were relegated to the back of the house, and bedrooms were tucked away upstairs. Any additional rooms, like offices and nurseries, were also given their own closed-off spaces, supporting the rigid social roles and family structures we’ve spent the last century dismantling.

But by the late 19th century, Victorian society was beginning to evolve toward a more relaxed lifestyle with fewer social formalities. The emergence of the middle class meant that families were taking on the household work once done by servants, creating a need for more functional household arrangements that were less focussed on impressing guests and more focussed on creating a comfortable living environment.

Example of a late-19th century kitchen

A number of advancements in the early twentieth century made the gradual shift to open-concept design possible. As people began to associate healthy living conditions with access to light and air, the use of steel and concrete blocks allowed builders to span wider areas, while central heat from radiators and hot-air registers meant rooms didn’t have to be organized around fireplaces. Architects were also challenged with meeting middle-class needs within smaller homes, which led to fewer rooms with a specialized purpose and more flexible uses of the available space.

By the mid- to late-20th century, some of the organic open-concept architectural principles made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1909 Prairie-style home had made their way into common home design, and we’ve been celebrating wide-open domestic spaces ever since.

Small open-concept room featuring a kitchen, dining table, and sofa.

Among the major benefits of open-concept design – especially in the real estate world – is how it can make a small home feel much bigger: gone is the claustrophobia of cramped kitchens and small living rooms filled with large furniture, and dark corners can be filled with unimpeded light. Find other tips on making a small space feel bigger.

Yet, for all its benefits, this style of home has some drawbacks that have nudged some homeowners toward a more “closed-concept” design in recent years.

Woman loading dishwasher while looking up at someone out of frame.

For one, messes and clutter are always in sight. Since most open-concept homes combine the kitchen with the dining and living rooms, dinner messes – especially when entertaining – can’t be hidden, which means hosts are often pulling double-duty as they clean up while trying to keep the conversation rolling. Similarly, staring at a living room strewn with toys from the dinner table can make it hard to relax and enjoy the company of our families. And even without children or guests, the lack of defined rooms means that clutter is always in sight, compelling us to prioritize storage (often creatively) in other rooms. In need of savvy storage solutions to tackle during the pandemic? Read on.

Man at work at a small desk in a living room, leaning over to pet an eager-looking dog.

More significantly, though, many Canadians are now grappling with working from home amidst the clamour and distractions of the domestic space. As makeshift offices are set up on dining room tables, in guest bedrooms, and in odd corners, Zoom calls can be interrupted by kids and pets, our ability to focus can be compromised, and there’s more potential for work responsibilities to bleed into our downtime.

So too, with lockdowns and restrictions on social activities, we’re spending much more after-work time with our families, which can be trying when everyone’s activities are pushed into the same room. Overall, we’re seeing that modern home design lacks functional, private spaces where we can compartmentalize our responsibilities.

Woman at work in a home office, looking serene and focussed.

While it’s unlikely that building firms will see a rush of clients asking for homes with smaller rooms and more walls, some buyers are starting to prefer homes with better demarcation between spaces. Perhaps where the Victorians began to value family connection and relaxed social interactions, our modern society is evolving to appreciate connection with moderation in an uncertain world.

If you’re looking for a home to meets the changing needs of your family, Purplebricks REALTORS® are here to help. Our homebuying agents know your local market and are committed to finding the perfect home for you. Plus, our buyers receive $2,000 in cash back* – why not make your new-home experience a little sweeter? And for sellers, our professional team offers both industry expertise and a commitment to your safety, all while saving you thousands in commission. Call to learn about selling with our low fixed fee, or to start your homebuying journey: 1-855-999-9740. 

On December 1, 2021, Purplebricks rebranded to FairSquare Group Realty. Blog articles published before this date were created under the Purplebricks brand but remain the property of FairSquare Group Realty.

In January 2019, ComFree Commonsense Network Brokerage rebranded to Purplebricks.