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Open Plan Living: How to Get It Right

Open-plan interiors
(Image credit: Nigel Rigden)

While we have all thoroughly embraced the trend for open plan living, shunning the now old-fashioned idea of lots of separate rooms, open plan spaces do not always work well. In the main this simply comes down to bad planning and a failure to envisage how the new space is actually going to work on a day-to-day basis.

Thinking through what you will need from this space and how it will serve your lifestyle, as opposed to simply copying an idea you have seen in someone else’s home, is key to making open plan work for you.

Imagine Invisible Walls

When designing your open plan space, it is useful to imagine where walls might be. This might sound odd, but visualising the space as a series of rooms, as opposed to one open space, forces you to think about proper circulation, storage options and lighting and furniture placement.

Consider Broken Plan

More and more people are now aiming for ‘broken plan’ – sometimes described as semi-open plan – recognising the importance of quiet zones, teenage spaces, home offices and grown-up living rooms.

Open-plan oak frame kitchen

The broken plan design in an oak frame self build provides connection between the spaces while also offering clearly defined zones for family living. The frame was provided by Border Oak. (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

The best open plan layouts incorporate methods for closing off spaces when required. Sliding doors, or even better, pocket doors that glide away into cavities within the walls when not needed, are a great example of how open plan layouts can be kept flexible.

Bifold doors are another option, although one that takes up a little more space than a slide-away design.

Glazed walls and doors are a great idea too — allowing light to move through the layout, while keeping zones separate.

Zone Spaces

Using room dividers is key to breaking up open plan spaces and avoids that vacuous cold feel that some large spaces suffer from.

One of the most commonly used methods is seen in kitchen diners, where breakfast bars or island units are used not only as a handy extra spot for storage and to eat or work, but also as a way of keeping the two spaces separate.

Constructing partial walls is another way to maintain a sense of flow, whilst creating zones. Stud walls can be built as high or wide as you wish, perhaps spanning half a room at half the wall height.

Timber frame longhouse in Scotland with open-plan interior

A change in ceiling height provides clear demarcation between spaces in this timber frame longhouse, as does the central woodburning stove. This timber frame was designer by its architect owners Helen Lucas and Malcolm Fraser, with the frame provided by Carpenter Oak & Woodland.  (Image credit: Nigel Rigden)

Storage units are another great way of creating partitions whilst serving a useful purpose in solving the problem of a lack of space for shelving. Units on castors provide a flexible option as they can be rearranged or pushed out of the way should the need arise.

A popular trend now is for central or double-sided fireplaces, or freestanding stoves. They work especially well between living rooms and dining halls and bring a sense of homeliness which is often lacking in open plan layouts, whilst still allowing light to flow. They should be planned in at the design stage of a build.

Visual Room Divides

Simply choosing different wall colours within an open plan space will add interest and break up any stark expanses of wall. Painting the kitchen area of a kitchen diner a light and bright colour, for example, while using a warmer, more convivial shade for the dining space, immediately sets the areas apart from one another.

Open-plan interior in a church conversion

The exposed timber trusses and large island in this converted Victorian tin chapel help to zone the living area from the kitchen-dining space. (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

Flooring should also be considered. Tiles in the kitchen, timber in the dining room and perhaps carpet in the living area of a large open plan space will visually separate the areas while also making practical sense.

Otherwise, simply choosing varying shades of the same material or using rugs in order to visually define the spaces can be a good alternative.

Consider too how the layout and shape of rooms can lend definition. For instance, L-shaped rooms work particularly well, with the dining area tucked out of view from the kitchen. This leaves the two spaces connected but the sight of dirty pots and pans won’t spoil relaxing meal.

Consider Floor and Ceiling Levels

Using a split-level layout is an ideal way to ensure open plan spaces can be organized into zones. Living spaces accessed by two or three steps from the kitchen diner, for example, clearly stand out as a relaxing area, without being shut off completely. Varying ceiling levels is a good idea too, perhaps using a slightly lower ceiling height in a dining room to that in a kitchen, for an intimate feel.

The use of beams can also be employed to indicate a change in use from area to area. This is a really practical method for renovators opening up a number of small rooms to one another as steel beams are usually required as a means of support.

Don’t Forget Lighting Schemes

Using different lighting styles within an open plan space is key to creating character and interest.

Within the kitchen, task-based lighting makes sense — this means lights positioned to illuminate the work surfaces, hob and sink. Spotlights recessed into the ceiling work well as general lighting in a kitchen and are all the better if they can be set on dimmers or zoned.

Open-plan kitchen-diner in contemporary self build

Pendant lights over the dining space help to create a zoned feel in this contemporary self build designed by Adrian James Architects. (Image credit: c/o Adrian James Architects)

Within a dining space, pendants hanging relatively low over the dining table are a great idea, while wall lights will provide an added level of ambient lighting.

You need to think creatively when it comes to lighting open plan spaces where the reduced number of walls can limit your options. Floor lamps and side lamps add another level of lighting, while concealed LED strip lights can be used to help create character at the same time as defining zones and highlighting notable features.

Using lights inset into the floor or along the bottom of walls provides a distinction between spaces and fitting uplighters beneath a central fireplace will highlight it as a divide.

(Find more inspiration for clever lighting design ideas here.) 

Prioritise Extraction and Soundproofing

Open plan spaces can make it hard to keep cooking smells and steam contained within the kitchen area, and noise will easily travel too, with no walls to muffle sound.

Ensure there is sufficient means of extraction within the cooking space and locate your cooker and hob near a window and ideally at the point furthest away from living spaces.

From a sound-proofing point of view, opting for soft flooring over hard should minimise noise, as will plenty of soft furnishings, such as heavy curtains and upholstery. If you are really worried about the problem of smells and noise, consider fitting sliding doors.

Open-plan interiors

Using large pieces of furniture will ensure open plan spaces don’t feel too bare or un-lived in whilst also acting as room divides, as in this home on the Dartmouth estuary, designed by architect Robert Seymour.  (Image credit: Nigel Rigden)