Are Open-Concept Homes on the Way Out? How the Trend Emerged and Where it Might be Headed
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.
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.
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 focused on impressing guests and more focused on creating a comfortable living environment.
A number of advancements in the early 20th 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, we’re spending more after-work time at home, 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.
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.
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CBC: Here’s how COVID-19 is changing what people want from the design of their homes
Old House Online: Evolution of the Open Floor Plan
The Atlantic: The End of Open-Plan Everything
The Canadian Encyclopedia: House
The Canadian Encyclopedia: Working-Class History
The Spruce: The Open Floor Plan: History, Pros and Cons