Postwar bungalows and midcentury ranches fill much of the prime downtown residential areas in Huntsville, AL, a thriving city of 350,000 people. The housing market hasn’t taken the hit that many other cities have experienced, and Huntsville Realtor Amanda Power of Keller Williams Realty says the high-value locations of these older homes make them prime candidates for modern renovations. In addition to remodeling bathrooms and refinishing hardwood floors, many homeowners in Huntsville are opening up their homes—formerly compartmentalized spaces.
Having an open mind about open floor plans is paying off for these renovation-minded homeowners, according to Power. “Open floor plans absolutely sell better,” she says. “They fit in with today’s family life, but they also make the renovations seem bigger and more up-to-date.”
But while free-flowing floor plans may be hot, they’re not right for everyone. So how can you know if opening up your space will work for you? Here are some guidelines.
Consider Your Home’s Structure
First, consider what “open floor plan” means and that different homeowners have different definitions. “There are different types of open spaces,” says Peggy Hlobil-Emmenegger, principal at UCArchitect in Toronto. “For example, one may open up an entire floor so the space flows horizontally, or one may open up the entire house through interconnected spaces so the space flows vertically.”
An open design can be incorporated into any existing home with varied results, dependent on the size of the house, number of stories, structural integrity of the outer shell, location of plumbing and ductwork, and existing structural supports. It’s always critical to talk to a structural engineer before you begin an open-space renovation, but if you’re working on a home built before 1980 or so, it’s especially important. “Older houses are structurally set up for divided spaces,” says Seattle-based architect Milan Heger. Because of issues with floor and ceiling joist lengths in older homes, he says, it can be very costly to open up some historic homes’ interiors. “Any renovation that starts with divided spaces and intends to create open spaces is tricky and by all means requires a structural engineer,” he says. “No one should take it upon themselves to take out structural walls without a structural engineer involved. The seismic strength and lateral stability of the building is essential to protect the people inside.”
Another practical consideration when thinking about opening up your floor plan is the placement of spaces like bathrooms and stairwells. Brenda Be, principal of Mosaik Design in Portland, OR. During the many renovations in which she has opened up living spaces, Lord learned what the most common potential pitfalls are with these boundary-free floor plans. “Unless you live alone, you really have to ask yourself, ‘Am I okay with sharing this space?’” she says. “Imagine somebody’s clanging pots and pans in the kitchen while someone else is trying to watch something on one TV and maybe a child is trying to watch something on another TV. Those are big considerations to think about.”
Another consideration is that your old furniture might not work in the new space. When designing spaces, Lord works with clients to make sure they have the right furniture for the new look and feel of their home.
And if you have children, consider that your space will now be their space and vice-versa. Kricken Yaker, a partner at Vanillawood, a Portland, OR–based design-build firm, creates open floor plan spaces for many clients. A mother herself, she understands the need to come up with a space that works for the whole family. “Especially when you have younger children, you can still capture some sort of space within the house that is kind of the flop room,” she says, noting that half-walls, screens, and sliding wall barriers can be a good middle ground for families who love to be together but who still occasionally need to have separate spaces.
Designers say solutions like these will usually work for homeowners who want to live in open-space floor plans. “Most of today’s existing homes have an outdated layout with wasted spaces such as narrow hallways, cramped rooms, and unused guest bedrooms that don’t at all reflect today’s changes in lifestyle or our society,” says Hlobil-Emmenegger. “More and more people are starting to realize this and are looking for home designs that reflect their uniqueness.”
If you think opening up your home from the inside out will work for you, here are some tips to help smooth the transition to a less constrained house plan.
Prepare for Decorating Changes and Challenges
If you have an Italian buffet or heirloom Persian rug that you love, be sure to mention it to your architect or designer. “When you’re doing something fresh and new and then you move in all your old furniture, it can be quite a letdown if we haven’t designed around the furniture,” says Lord, who designs around homeowners’ prized possessions to ensure that they work well in the new plan. “But more often than not, the homeowners’ furniture doesn’t work anymore, and they want to live differently in this new and different space. After all, that’s why they remodeled in the first place.”
Another potential pitfall is the new acoustics that come with very open spaces. With fewer walls and sometimes higher ceilings, homeowners may experience issues like echoing or cross-room conversations that sound garbled and less crisp. “The easiest way to address this is with the right window treatments and floor coverings,” says Kati Curtis, principal of Nirmada Interior Design in New York City. “Softer materials can absorb sound yet not detract from the open, airy feel of the space.”
The smaller details may get lost when you’re considering larger issues like determining if taking out a wall will cause your roof to collapse, but if you don’t take the time to think about them, you won’t like your open floor plan lifestyle nearly as much. “If your kitchen is open to the rest of the house, think about investing in that really quiet dishwasher or raising an island bar a few more inches so you can’t see the kitchen when you’re sitting on the couch watching TV,” Lord says. “If you don’t want to have to do dishes every night but you don’t want to look at clutter, go ahead and get that extra-deep sink where you can hide your dirty plates.”
Be sure to consult with your designer about places in the home where you need storage. “If your child’s play area or your office is located in the open area, make sure everything has a place and can be put away when guests come for dinner,” Curtis says.
The Bottom Line: Choose What Works for You
“You either love it or hate it, and people should think hard before deciding for a costly remodel,” Heger says. “On the other hand, once you get the ‘bug’ of living in a loftlike space, you may never go back to a traditional house.”
Make sure an open space reflects your personality. Designers say that opening up your home can be like opening up your life. If you’re a very private person, you may not enjoy life without walls, even if it appeals to you aesthetically. “Open floor plan is modern, contemporary, artistic, urban, and social all at the same time,” Heger says. “My clients usually love other people, company, and friends. I’m not a psychologist, but there’s something about this connection. Open floor plans have no secrets.”
The Challenge of Electronics in Open Floor Plans
When you’re looking for a light socket, cable outlet, or phone jack, you usually go straight to the nearest wall. But in open floor plans, plugging into the nearest wall may mean running unsightly wires under rugs, around baseboards, or, worst of all, across a walking area. If you’re thinking of knocking down walls, keep the following advice in mind, courtesy of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA):
- Hidden installations: Electronic systems contractors (ESCs) can create hidden installations where home electronics blend seamlessly into the living area, storing bulky components in one central location like a closet or cabinet.
- Wiring: It’s important for architects to incorporate wiring systems into floors and ceilings, so they’ll reach throughout the house without dragging wires and cables all over the place.
- Integrate controls: If you’re redesigning electrical and wiring systems, consider choosing an integrated control system that will allow you to activate lighting, control HVAC levels, open and close window treatments, and manage media components in central locations. “Open plan spaces are especially tough when it comes to locating the switches and control interfaces found in a modern home,” says Ray Lepper, president of