The challenges of open floor plans

It sounds so great, doesn’t it? An “open floor plan?” One envisions soaring, light-filled spaces; coordinated furniture; plenty of room for family and friends to relax…

Open floor plan

I hate to break it to you, Gentle Readers, but open floor plans present some challenges. Before you buy an open-plan home or renovate to create one, here are some things to consider.

– Open floor plans can be loud. With limited privacy. Because everyone is within earshot of one another.

Picture your house during the winter holidays. Not the fantastic, Martha-Stewart-approved holiday MEAL that we plan all year for, but the less glamorous part of family holidays. The day AFTER the meal. When your spouse, children, parents, a sibling, the sibling’s children, and a stray friend are all hanging out in the same space, because it’s sleeting and no one can rally for a trip to the Smithsonian.

The loudest activity — whether it’s the TV, the board game, the polite disagreement about how to store leftovers — will dominate the entire space.

Open floor plan

– Open floor plans can be tough for parties. When you walk into a house with an open floor plan, don’t you think, “Wow! This would be GREAT for parties!” Well, it can be, inasmuch as your guests can see with one sweeping glance who else is in attendance.

But from a practical standpoint, parties benefit from closed-off kitchens. If there’s no delineation between behind-the-scenes and the-scenes-themselves, the guests feel they’re in the way, and the helpers feel it would be rude to claim the space they need to stage and serve. Plus the party debris is right there in the open: dirty dishes, corks, food wrappers…which leads me to the next point.

Open floor plan by Spinnaker Development

– Open floor plans require tidiness. I used to think I was tidy. Before I met my husband, that is. Before I had children. When I was single, my countertops were relatively clear, laundry generally was in or near the laundry basket, and bills usually were in some semblance of a stack.

But now? Forget it. I’m so grateful for the vertical lifestyle townhouses beget. I can clean up one floor, and if I stay there, I can trick myself into thinking that the rest of the house looks tidy, too.

With an open floor plan, your life, the mess…it’s all horizontal, spread out in front of you. One untidy area, and that’s the first place your eye goes.

Open floor plan by Ojanen Chiou Architects

Look. There are many, many pros to open floor plans. That’s why everyone loves them. There are few things more elegant than a pristine, wide-open home with spare, carefully chosen furniture and all signs of life tucked neatly away.

I’m merely suggesting that if you’re considering open-plan living, take a moment to compare the beautiful ideal I’ve just described with the way you actually live.

I just want you to know what you’re getting into.

Open floor plan

Quoted in publications from The New York Times to The Washington Post to Real Simple magazine, Annie Elliott is an expert in color, residential space planning, and telling people what to do in the nicest way possible. Her interior design firm, bossy color, is based in Washington, D.C. If a picture above has no link or attribution, it’s because I found it on Pinterest and couldn’t get to the source. If you have information about those pictures, please let me know!


  1. says

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with this one. My daughter just moved out of an open floor plan house and is not looking back! It was an ongoing chore to keep it tidy. And there’s no sense of coziness or quiet. Maybe for some people it works. They must be boring or have domestics.

  2. says

    Barbara, thanks so much for your comments. The tidiness thing is such a big factor. When I think about the friends and clients who DO have open plans, they are all tidy souls. More power to them – they’re in the right place! Thank you again.

  3. Lisa says

    After reading your post I just realized why I’m bothered by living in my open concept condo. I can see the clutter in every room. Even if one or two areas are clean my eye goes right to space that’s not. It makes it hard to relax. I do like that we have open concept in our very small condo where it would look so much smaller with walls and doors.

  4. Carrie says

    You raised some good points. I live in a 100 year old home and I sometimes imagine life with a beautiful open floor plan. I have gotten comments from my friends who live in open floor plan homes that it feels cozy in our house. I checked out Apartment Therapy and was pleasantly surprised to see your home featured!

  5. says

    Annie, as soon as I saw the top photo and your subject I thought of this Mary Petty drawing, done for T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings “Homes of the Brave ” clear back in 1954.

    The guy tried to warn us about the noisy (and messy) reality that’s the downside of the large, open-plan spaces that always look so good in the glossy magazines, but, even then, few people were listening.

  6. Michelle says

    I totally agree! I think about this every time I see a house with an open plan where you can see into the kitchen as soon as you walk in the front door. My kitchen tends toward a constant state of clutter – even completely tidied up, it stays that way for no more than a few hours. There is no way I want that to be the first thing someone sees when they walk into our house! I know people who never have any clutter around who can pull that off, and I know myself well enough to know that I can not.

  7. says

    I’m with you! We lived in a 1924 house with real rooms, for 25 years. At times we thought, oh how nice to take down a wall or two and open it up. Thank goodness we never did!! And now, in our newer (1995) house, we even enclosed what had been a dining room that opened to the living room and front hall, to make a study for my husband. It works beautifully.

  8. Kate says

    We just bought a larger ’54 ranch home with a wall between the kitchen/informal dining area and the living room/formal dining area. Add to that a separate first floor family room and a finished basement, this means the front formal area is ALWAYS clean and picked up. I LOVE IT. Sure, we live in the back of the house, but to have one room always looking right? Worth its weight. Finally, you WANT the kids’ table in a different room than the adults’ table. The kids love it. The adults love it. Trust me on this.

    Also, the first floor family room can be closed off completely, making our three bedroom a four bedroom for guests. Yay for walls and doors!

  9. Sandy C says

    Hi, Annie. Just found your blog by accident on a list of frequently visited blogs somewhere else. I regularly follow Maria Killam at Coulour Me Happy and had just been reviewing her post on “bossy” tile so your blog name grabbed me. And I came across this post. So true! I live in a Del Webb retirement community in Sun City West, AZ where every house built form the 1980s forward featured some degree of open floor plan. Mine is similiar to Michelle’s where the kitchen is not fully visible but you do see into the kitchen across the LR/DR as soon as you walk through the front door. Not the most attractive sight and no way to close it off without blocking the light. My main reason for reviewing Maria’s post on “bossy” tile was that ultimately I want to redo the floors (currently tile at the foyer, carpet in the hallway to the right, carpet in the DR/LR to the left (you look/walk through the middle of the two areas to the kitchen/laundry with tile). The flooring treatment was typical of houses built here in the mid 1980s but it totally defeats the purpose of the open floor plan. The carpet in these areas will definitely not be replaced by carpet, and wood floors, while lovely, are not such a good choice for the Arizona desert. Too hot, too dry and way too dusty. I prefer medium to dark hardwood/wood-look tile, and it would never be that color with the dust and three white cats. So I’m looking at tile – don’t want bossy which so much tile can be (per Maria and my own experience) but also don’t want my home to look like a museum. I enjoyed this post and I’ll be back but gotta go now to see what you’ve said under “tile”.

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