NOV 21, 2019
Wishing for walls: Some buyers have had it with the ubiquitous open floor plan
Over time the airy open floor plan has turned into the American dream. But could the tides be gradually changing? In this sometimes hectic, over-connected world, some buyers are now seeking a semblance of solitude and room organization.
While most in the real estate industry agree open floor plans are here to stay, and the pros outweigh some of the cons, there’s a minority who believe the open floor plan can be too open. Homeowners craving more defined spaces sometimes feel left out of the equation when it comes to newer homes.
A recent survey by the National Association of Homebuilders shows that older consumers have less interest in the totally open layout than younger generations. Carmel Ford, an economist at the NAHB, noted that although 43% of millennials embrace a completely open floor plan, which includes the kitchen and dining room, 40% of Generation X buyers prefer these open spaces and 37% of baby boomers prefer the open concept. When it came to seniors older than boomers, that number dropped to just 29% embracing open floor plans.
“Older home buyers are more likely than younger buyers to want clear separation between the dining and family areas of their homes,” said NAHB.
John Frigo, 35, a Pilsen homeowner, seems to buck that line of thought. “Open floor plans look beautiful, but they aren’t necessarily practical,” said Frigo, the owner of an e-commerce nutrition site. “While it looks great in a magazine photo shoot, with a completely open floor plan there’s very few places to hang things on the walls.”
Frigo said the open concept leads to a lot of wasted space and is difficult to decorate in a way that’s functional and attractive. His family room is open to the kitchen and dining room, which he said leaves him with just two usable walls.
Since he doesn’t have a lot of wall options, he’s had to line his windows — which cover much of the walls — with furniture that blocks his view outside. “For example, the back wall of my home is floor to ceiling windows. I’m hesitant to put anything in front of it. It’s also odd just randomly throwing things in front of a window as opposed to against a wall,” he said.
Frigo is planning to leave Chicago and move to St. Petersburg, Fla., where his home search is focused on avoiding a house that has too many open rooms with little definition. “I’m looking for a mix between an open floor plan and still having some segmenting of the rooms,” he said.
Greg Howe, of Searl Lamaster Howe Architects, sees a hybrid of open and closed spaces as having more appeal.
“I think what people are seeking these days is kind of a mix of the two. It kind of parallels what you see a little bit in open office designs,” he said. Howe is referring to the many companies that gravitated toward open office designs but quickly realized some of the pitfalls of barrier-free spaces, including a lack of privacy. The same can be said for the open concept in homes.
When you don’t have anywhere to escape to read a book or put a child in the corner for a time out, having a secondary space becomes more appealing, Howe explained.
“We recently did a house where the kitchen, living room and dining room are completely open to one another, but then kind of tucked in the corner of the house, behind the staircase, was a study with a TV,” he said. “It’s closed enough that it’s usable but separated enough to provide a sense of privacy.”
Howe has also laid out a home where the living, dining and kitchen space are arranged in an L-shape, with the dining room at the corner of the L. He said this gives the room a direct connect to the kitchen but with a bit of a separation to the living room. He’s also done sunken rooms.
“Sometimes the danger with open spaces is that it becomes too cavernous in scale, so trying to break it up a little bit puts it more in the scale of what you want,” he said.
But, according to Gary and Jennifer Alveranga, brokers with Real People Realty, open floor plans on the first floor make spaces appear bigger to buyers.
“Open floor plans are still the way to go,” said Gary. "When (buyers) see closed and defined spaces, they’re asking us which wall to knock out.”
The open concept became more mainstream within the past 10-15 years. Jeff Benach, principal at Lexington Homes, said the notion of making rooms closed off again wouldn’t make much sense.
Maurice Hampton, president of the National Association of Realtors and owner of Centered International Realty, said open floor plans became popular pre-housing market crash and really became a part of the design philosophy post-crash.
Within the past year Lexington redesigned several of their floor plans to better reflect the open concept, including homes in a new single-family town home hybrid on the north side and a town home in Oak Park.
Lexington eliminated the separate dining room in its suburban town home communities and went to a single area for dining, plus a kitchen island with plenty of stool seating for more casual meals that can double as spaces for family activities.
The Belgravia Group is incorporating a little bit of both. The builder recently completed projects that include open communal spaces for entertaining, as well as more defined spaces offering varying degrees of privacy.
Alan Lev, chairman of the Belgravia Group, noted that it’s more challenging to have defined rooms in smaller spaces. But in one of their larger condominium projects downtown, Renelle on the River, the plan includes living areas that offer the flow of an open concept space but are defined by walls that create distinctive rooms.
“People really like what we have instead of one big great room. They’re connected with an opening but it’s not just one big huge space,” he said.
Having more defined rooms has its pros, Lev admits. They include more walls for artwork and furniture, and “it also gives it a little bit more feeling of intimacy,” he said.
However, square footage matters. With smaller spaces and prices getting more expensive in the city, Lev explained that it makes more sense to open the floor plan.
“Can you imagine one of the microunits that people are building now without an open floor plan?” said Lev. “On bigger units and bigger homes, if there’s enough space, people do like to have some demarcation, some differentiation between the rooms,” he said.
The majority rules in keeping open floor plans so far. But builders and designers are taking note of those seeking to create more private spaces. People like Frigo may be catching the ear of the industry.
“In my previous home I was taking walls down to create more openness, and in this house, I find myself wishing I had some,” said Frigo.
"In the spring of 2016 I had made the decision to downsize out of the home I had lived in for 22 years."
- LuAnn Guthrie Tenuta