Happy Thanksgiving! Now Get the Family Room Out of My Kitchen
Thanksgiving, the homiest of holidays, naturally gets most of us thinking of, well, home. A Thanksgiving celebration is often the scene that springs to mind when home buyers picture holiday entertaining in a new home, and an open concept floor plan is an especially attractive canvas for that picture. It's the holiday of togetherness, after all, the one that's made for hanging out, being grateful, and making memories.
On the other hand… it's also Thanksgiving, the holiday with all the food, the pots and pans, and the last-minute rush to stick the landing. The one with I Thought You Invited Him and Why is the TV So Loud Now? Could it be that open-concept living space isn't the must-have HGTV and DIY tell us it is? (Reader, we believe it is not. Read on!)
There's the dream of the thing—Wow! We'll have one big, open space where everyone can be together!—and then there's the reality: Oh, wow. It's one big, open space…and everyone is always together. Let's take a minute to see if there's a case to be made for sending us all back to our rooms.
First, a little history.
How did we get here? Open interiors slipped into American home design in the 1950s with thousands of ranch-style houses springing up across the country. Many of these post-war homes introduced a combined living and dining space that felt like a bold departure from traditional home design—a step away from the formality and hardships of the past and toward a more relaxed and promising modern life.
New appliances—refrigerators, wall ovens, built-in ranges, even dishwashers—started making the kitchen a space worth showing off, but it was still largely separate from the other rooms, and more private than public. A 1950s kitchen may have had pass-through windows (along with shutters to keep any kitchen mess out of sight) or a snack bar (the predecessor of the kitchen island). Many of them had room for a small table, and some housed washers and dryers. This era launches the kitchen of the future and the kitchen's transition to a space suitable for company.
Open layouts grew slowly but steadily over the next generation, with an uptick in the 1970s, at which point the kitchen had started to become part of the plan; before the close of the '80s, some kind of great room was practically a given in new home construction.
Into the great wide open. Open concept living has been a priority among home buyers for easily a decade now–at first glance, what's not to love? The spaces are airy and bright, with good flow and plenty of room for a variety of activities and enjoying, in theory, time with family and friends. An open layout means it's easy to visit with guests and keep an eye on kids and/or pets even if you're busy in the kitchen. In an older home, knocking down a few walls likely lets you reconfigure the space completely, quickly eliminating quirks and questionable alterations of previous owners and giving you clean, fresh slate.
On the other hand... one-room living has its issues.
- Privacy. If the number of people using the space is greater than one, there's a fair chance this will be an issue. Are you sure you won't ever want a place for a discreet conversation, other than the bedroom?
- Sound. Combine kitchen noise, TV noise, conversation, high ceilings, and wood floors and the living area gets loud, fast. When everyone heads back to their own rooms for quiet and/or concentration, it casts some doubt on the idea that open floor plans bring the family together.
- Décor. Be prepared to commit to one palette—really commit to it—and in a few years when you're ready for a change, know that it's kind of a big deal. Unlike an open space, distinct rooms can have their own colors, flair, and personality and still be part of the home, design-wise. Updating them is simple. Walls also make furniture easier to place, collections easier to display, and, obviously, art easier to hang.
- Energy loss. It's more efficient to heat/cool separate rooms than one large one.
- Coziness. Try every area rug and furniture arrangement hack in the book, but walls allow for intimacy that even the best-designed open floor plans can't provide.
- Talking turkey. When it's just a normal day, you might not be pressed about a messy kitchen at dinnertime. But when it's time to entertain—say, at Thanksgiving—is a fully open kitchen everything it's built up to be? Kitchen walls contain cooking odors and residues and conceal dirty dishes and the general rubble of meal prep. (They also give you a place to catch a minute's peace, if you like.) A kitchen can be out of sight and still be plenty big enough for the cook and several sets of helping hands—both can be true!
According to the National Association of Home Builders, a partially or completely open kitchen is something 86% of home buyers wanted in 2019. At the same time, the desire for an always-immaculate space is real enough to have spawned a new and growing trend in home design: fully equipped prep pantries with sinks, storage, counter space, dishwashers, wine fridges, and yes, walls and doors, where the countertop appliances live and the unsightly work gets done. It's a kitchen for the kitchen, which is an Inception-level answer for a problem that doesn't have to exist, but it furthers the illusion of effortless entertaining that's key to open concept's allure.
The open floor plan is still wildly popular among home buyers. Builders won't be walking away from it any time soon, and because it looks great on camera, we'll certainly keep seeing it on TV—but it's not a perfect solution. The case for a return to rooms is growing. Maybe—just maybe—it's time to move on.