Is open-plan over?

Howard Miller, co-founder of H Miller Bros, in Liverpool relates how one client caused him to call into question whether open-plan living is always the best design solution and discusses some alternative options for creating ‘broken-plan’ spaces.

During a recent client meeting, I found myself in a heated discussion about open-plan layouts. The client’s home had already been reconfigured to an open-plan layout prior to them buying the house. The discussion was about the degree of openness this style offers. 

It was obvious that both clients felt torn between the perceived benefits of open-plan living and the negatives that, it was noted, had been laid bare during living through various pandemic lockdowns. It was a moment to take stock for me, because I realised that the wisdom of ‘breaking through’, and creating one large space for kitchen, dining and living areas is such an incontrovertible truth in our business and what this couple were describing struck a chord with my own experience at home, especially during lockdown. 

We’re so well versed in the arguments for open-plan spaces. The space is casual, social and relaxed and this reflects our modern-day lives in a way that stuffy Victorian rooms do not. The users will be able to move seamlessly between tasks and therefore manage housework more efficiently in order to prioritise precious family time. The merging of internal spaces, coupled with an enhanced relationship to the outside through larger windows and skylights, will create a light-filled, healthy home. Something we think, but don’t mention, is  UK homes are small and expensive. Combining spaces allows us to make layouts work harder with less space by overlapping functions and sharing circulation space. 

So, what’s the beef? Well, these clients felt like the promise of conversation while preparing dinner, helping children with homework while cleaning the work surfaces or having this great room to act as a canvas for family life to play out on, never really became reality. What was envisaged as a harmonious space was in fact a contested one, constantly being disturbed. 

Having been indoctrinated into the cult of open-plan, starting at architecture school in the late Nineties and then working in the architecture and interiors field for the past 20 years pretty much converting everything I could to open-plan, I was obviously not going to be easily diverted away from this design convention. 

However, we are taught as architects never to presume things, to make keen observations and react accordingly and to challenge prevailing orthodoxies. I started to look around for answers and saw other people struggling with the same set of questions and a cluster of people standing under the banner of broken-plan. Essentially this idea is to treat the symptoms of open-plan layouts with clever physical elements, such as screens, sound absorbers, changes in levels to the floor and ceiling, to differentiate areas within an open-plan space. 

I can relate to this. At H Miller Bros, we instinctively do this sort of thing all the time, but without a name for it. It also struck me that ‘broken-plan’ was being described with a certain amount of expectation management – where everyone can be together, separately doing their own thing. A bit of a downgrade from the idealistic social agenda that drove open-plan thinking. 

As always when I’m stuck with a design dilemma, I reach for a couple of books that always seem to have something to contribute. In ‘A pattern language’, Christopher Alexander describes a ‘half-open wall’ and goes on to describe very beautifully how a room with four walls and a door can sustain activities separate from the next room perfectly, but that it is hard for new people to join these activities or leave them naturally. 

He compares this to an open space with no walls around it marked by a carpet on the floor and a chair arrangement. This would be so exposed that people never feel entirely comfortable there. He argues that a balance must be struck between these two extremes and that modern open-plan layouts need a great deal more enclosure to achieve that best-of-both-worlds position. 

Frank Lloyd Wright had this trick of overlapping the corners of two rooms slightly so that the overlapping piece was in both rooms. The two rooms could still be read as whole rooms with all the benefits of enclosure. 

In his Robie House of 1909 in Chicago, he built an impressive long room divided centrally by a fireplace that one can pass on either side into the other half of the room. It’s a masterclass in striking this balance, because it’s designed in such a way that it was like a piece of movable furniture. 

I concluded that, at its heart, is the age-old struggle for work/life balance being played out in how we lay out our homes. Too often open-plan schemes hit the main moves, but fail to provide any of the subtle details that soften and mitigate the effects of the lack of shelter. When we create a new kitchen or interior, it’s a rare opportunity to make a radical change and strike the right balance of enclosure and openness for the client.  

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