Updated: May 7
Open any lifestyle magazine and you’ll see photos of homes with the vaunted “open space:” the kitchen right next to the dining area, and an unbroken sight line into the living room. I take buyers around for hours at a time, driving from home to home in Cambridge, Somerville, and beyond. I’ve seen hundreds of places and I can confirm that open plans (or broken plans) still rule the day.
But Ellie and I came across this story—I heard it on the radio and Ellie read an article on citylab.com—and the open plan may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Here’s a long overdue argument for closed-off spaces in our homes.
First, how did we get to this open plan place? Here's a brief history:
Before industrialization, many homes had one open space for cooking, eating, and sleeping. Think Little House in the Big Woods. Also, read that book again, or for the first time; what a great book! But I digress.
After industrialization, with the advent of readily-available building materials and goods, homes began to separate the rooms for eating and sleeping. Closing off the kitchen’s noises, smells, and messiness from the rest of the house made a lot of sense.
Affluent families added totally separate rooms for entertaining. Then, as materials became even more prevalent and affordable, everyone who could, did this. During this time, many of these families employed maids and other servants—and they wanted to hide them from view. Doors and walls are good for this.
Fast-forward to the 1970s, when fewer and fewer people had maids or cooks, and thus the need to shield them from view diminished. Architecture also made advances so that “cathedral ceilings” in homes, not just cathedrals, were now possible. This allowed a reaction against the low-ceilinged, cramped homes of the past century, and we started to see the open plan.
Homes became more and more “open,” with not just the removal of doors between spaces, but whole walls. It became possible to enter a home and see nearly everything but the bathroom and master bedroom.
Things started to get ridiculous after the year 2000. Affluent people were creating closed-off spaces called “mess kitchens.” You heard that right: people are now putting the real kitchen in a separate area so their visitors don’t have to see, smell, or hear the cooking going on. This is an actual thing.
Here we are today, nearing 2020, and the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward closed-off spaces. It’s not just a design trend, either; it’s more sustainable. Kate Wagner, an architect and the author of the article that inspired me to share this concept, writes, “The closed floor plan, especially the closed kitchen, can help save energy by the simple principle of not heating and cooling rooms that are not currently in use, as well as by isolating rooms we want to keep warm or cool...Designing homes around ‘entertaining’ that happens only a handful of times a year is a wasteful, yet still mind-bogglingly popular practice. When people come to visit, they are there to see you, not your open concept.”
Here’s the argument in favor of barriers between spaces in your home:
Separate rooms are easier to keep clean—the mess can’t migrate as easily from one space to another.
Noises are buffered by walls. When you’re vacuuming the dining room, your partner in the living room won’t have to pause their Netflix binge-fest because of the sound.
Cooking fish? Keep that odor in the kitchen with a door, and avoid the scrunching up of noses on the other side of the house. Although when I was growing up, in the maid’s room above the kitchen in my turn-of-the-century home, I could definitely smell my father’s seafood stock boiling away for 3 days on the stovetop. Oh well.
Raise your hand if your house has a “man cave” or what Wagner calls a “she shed.” Isn’t that a closed-off place where members of your family can go for some peace, for goodness sake?
It’s less wasteful and it saves your own time and labor to have a smaller kitchen, with fewer steps between the sink, stove, and dishwasher.
When your visitors—there to see you and not your layout—arrive for a dinner party, you can close off the mess in the kitchen and enjoy their company.
Do you have an open or broken plan home? Or do you have one of these new-fangled homes with walls and doors? Can you see the value in having closed-off spaces, or do you prefer as much open space as possible? Let us know.