6 Open-Plan Obstacles — and Tips for Overcoming Them
For all their advantages, open floor plans — especially those that fuse living, dining and cooking zones — have their drawbacks: They’re prone to being noisy and hard to decorate, for starters. To help tear down the walls between you and a layout that suits your lifestyle, we pored over the wealth of pro advice on Houzz for troubleshooting these and other common complaints. Whether you’re designing a room from scratch or struggling to make yours work, check out our top tips and links below, accompanied by photos of rooms uploaded to Houzz that do it right.
1. How to Divide the Space Is Unclear
Whether you’re designing a huge room or a small one, figuring out how to divide the space can be confounding when you don’t have many (or any) interior walls and partitions.
Solutions: One word: zoning. This means partitioning the room into subspaces, or zones, according to their function. This article on space planning covers a lot of what goes into the process.
The gist is that you’ll want to ensure that each zone functions as its own room but that the zones interrelate comfortably and logically within the shared space.
Start by sketching out your room, taking into account existing plumbing, doors, windows, fireplaces and other features you don’t plan to change.
Then estimate how much square footage you need for your furniture groupings — your dining table and chairs, for example, and your couch, side chairs and coffee table, plus the space around them — within that larger space.
A typical arrangement for long, rectangular open-plan rooms is linear, with the dining zone sandwiched between the kitchen and living zones, as in the previous photo.
An L-shaped configuration, with either the kitchen or dining area in its own space, is also common.
Square or nearly square rooms can be divided in half, with one side devoted to a single zone and the other half equally divided into the remaining two zones.
But the configuration of your living, dining and cooking spaces may vary depending on the location of the fixed elements.
One critical consideration when figuring out which zone goes where is how people will travel through the room.
Adjacent zones should be logical — for example, your dining area should be close to your kitchen — and traffic should flow unimpeded, but not through the active cooking area.
Here are some key measurements that will ensure that people can move from zone to zone safely and smoothly:
You’ll need at least 3 feet of width for paths of travel.
The space between the kitchen counter and the dining room table should be at least 4 feet.
An entry door in the path or a larger-scaled space will require more room — 6 feet or more.
If your existing furniture groupings impinge on those clearances, pare back the pieces or replace them with items better scaled to the space.
On the other hand, sometimes there’s so much clearance that groupings look like tiny islands in a huge ocean. In that case, you can scale up the size of your furniture or add pieces. But if you have more than 8 feet between your sofa and other seating in your living area, it might look best to add another furniture grouping.
This very large room, for example, is organized into quadrants; the double-sided fireplace divides the living areas into separate living and family “rooms.”
Nailing the layout and scale of your furniture is critical to making your home functional and comfortable. And as you’ve probably figured out, it’s harder than it looks.
Hiring a designer to help you plan your open-plan room could save you a lot of headaches.
2. Open Floor Plans Lack Coziness and Privacy
Even when kitchen, dining and living zones are properly scaled and placed in relation to one another, without walls, privacy is scarce and furniture can feel like it’s floating in space.
Solutions: Successful zoning is more involved that just dividing up a room and plopping down furniture. The zones should be clearly defined and anchored, with visual and sometimes physical separation from one another.
Strategic furniture arrangement has perhaps the highest impact with the lowest cost.
If you have those requisite wide paths of travel, “floating” a couch away from the walls, with its back toward the dining and/or cooking space, is a great way to create a cozy conversation oasis within the larger room. Adding a large area rug below the living area’s furniture grouping helps to define the zone as its own “room.”
A bench or console table behind the couch can add more visual interest by giving you a place to add lamps, plants and decor of varying height. A bench will also give people a place to sit while chatting with folks in the adjacent zone, rather than perching on the back of the couch (a personal bête noire).
One exception to the “clear separation” rule is that, in the case of smaller rooms, allowing for some blurring between zones can actually enhance the space, making each zone look larger.
Although this room is by no means tiny, the orientation of its sofa and chaise provides some differentiation without adding visual and physical bulk like a tall couch back might.
Side note: In a tight setup, a round dining table like this one is more conducive to traffic flow than a sharp-cornered rectangular table would be.
Lighting — ideally layered and separately controlled — is also crucial for delineating zones.
Planning your layout far in advance will ensure that you have fixtures where you want them. For example, a dining table usually demands a chandelier above it. And when placing a lamp next to a floating couch, you’ll want a floor outlet, which will prevent the wire from being an unsightly trip hazard.
If lighting and furniture placement don’t cut it (often the case in very large rooms), architectural details like ceiling beams, raised ceilings over individual zones, sunken conversation areas (yup, they’re back!) and cased openings between rooms can help reinforce the sense of separation and make a big room feel less like a gymnasium.
Paint, wall treatment and textures can help too. Find even more ideas in 11 Design Tricks for Defining Your Open-Plan Dining Space.
A partial wall or even a large storage piece that looks great from all angles creates further division. Purists will note that this turns the layout into a broken plan versus a true open plan.
Dividers work particularly well when you’re trying to make a large room feel less cavernous. The fireplace divider in the room seven photos back is a great example.
Bonus: These physical room dividers can also add storage space, create a little privacy and provide a surface on which to hang art — three features often missing in open-plan rooms.
3. Open Floor Plans Are Hard to Decorate
It’s easy for colors, styles and finishes to look incoherent when you’re trying to coordinate two or three separate zones. But it’s easy to fall into the matchy-matchy trap too.
Solutions: In addition to getting your layout and lighting nailed down, you’ll want to decide on a style you love — taking cues from your home’s architecture and adjacent rooms — and commit to using it throughout the open-plan space. (Not sure? See which of these speaks to you most.) Then it’s all about balancing continuity and contrast with your finishes.
8 Open-Plan Mistakes — and How to Avoid Them is a great resource for figuring out that balance.
Starting with a single flooring material and neutral paint color for the walls will create visual continuity. Then you can add in two or three coordinating colors in varying strengths in your finishes across the zones.
A common rule of thumb in decorating is 60-30-10: 60% of the room is your main color (usually your walls), 30% is your secondary color and 10% is your accent color.
And don’t be afraid to mix and match rug and upholstery patterns. Just make sure they share a color palette and sensibility.
You’ll want to repeat finishes (the elements that are fixed in place, such as countertops and floors) across the zones too. Per Anna-Carin McNamara, interior architect and principal at Anna.Carin Design, three to five finishes is usually about right in an open-plan space.
The most interesting spaces also balance textures: hard and soft; rough and smooth.
It can be especially challenging to make the kitchen feel integral to the space.
4. Open Floor Plans Are Noisy
There’s no getting around it: Noise is a challenge in open-plan rooms, especially if someone (we’re not naming names) tends to turn the TV volume up to 11.
Solutions: One relatively easy way to reduce noise is to use fabric and other sound-absorbing materials liberally, particularly if you have a lot of large, hard surfaces, like sliding glass doors and tile floors.
Throw rugs (be sure to use nonslip rug pads), curtains, fabric lampshades, woven grass furnishings, fabric upholstery and textile wall hangings are good places to start.
High, vaulted ceilings, which are popular in many contemporary homes, amplify sound. Lowering the ceiling in a portion of the space retains that lofty feel but reduces echoes and reverberation.
Adding acoustic panels to the ceiling (which you can disguise as beams or obscure behind another ceiling treatment, such as modern-looking wooden slats) is effective, but any significant texture will be better than a large, flat expanse. This goes for walls too.
To prevent sound from traveling between rooms but to keep sight lines open, you can also create a barrier with partial or glass walls (another advantage of the broken plan).
For more flexibility, opt for pocket doors and folding screens.
A not-inexpensive but game-changing approach is to hire a home audio specialist or acoustical engineer. They can customize your audiovisual setup to help keep sound where you want it through a combination of soundproofing and acoustic treatment. 5. Open Floor Plans Are Smelly
Hooray for springing the cook out of the kitchen and into the party. However, bringing the stovetop and compost bin into the main living space means not-so-pleasant food smells can linger throughout the house long after the party’s over.
Solutions: An important step is to install an appropriately sized ducted exhaust hood and to use it faithfully when you cook on the cooktop. Leave it running for just a few minutes after you’re done to clear out any remaining particulates and odors.
And don’t forget to clean the filter regularly — trapped oils will start to stink eventually.
In fact, the regular cleaning you’d want to do in any kitchen becomes doubly or triply important in an open-plan space, given that you can’t just shut the door on smells.
Food residue in the disposal is a common stink culprit. Keep the blades clean by running ice down the disposal occasionally, be sure to clean the underside of the gasket each time you clean the sink and throw a lemon peel in there to mask a smell quickly.
You might also rethink your garbage cans and compost bins. Open tops are convenient, but a well-fitted lid will do a much better job of containing odors. Regardless, you’ll want to give the containers (and the cabinet they’re in) a good scrubbing periodically.
6. The Kitchen’s Always Messy
It’s hard to relax during dinner when your chores are staring you in the face. And if you’re entertaining, dirty dishes really spoil the mood.
Solutions: Sure, we could say just wash as you go. But who are we kidding? This is all about concealment. Installing a bar-height section on your island between the work area and the dining table can obscure all kinds of messes.
You don’t need a huge secondary kitchen to hide the evidence — even a small pantry can save the day when you’re hosting and want to stash takeout boxes and dirty dishes out of sight.
Finally, consider installing cooktops and sinks in the perimeter counter, leaving the island or peninsula clear. This puts distance between mess (and, for that matter, hot surfaces and smells) and dinner guests.
Plus, when a peninsula or island is clear of clutter, the whole room magically looks neater. Try it and see.
Tell us: How have you overcome these and other challenges in your open floor plan? Share your tips in comments below.