Open plan design gone mad?

Issue 16 Words: Dick Clarke

Open plan design has many benefits, but also potential drawbacks in loss of control over noise, heating and cooling, says building designer Dick Clarke.

If there’s one idea that has permeated contemporary home design more than any other, it would be “open plan design”. Open plan living has many tangible benefits, but also some serious drawbacks if not done well.

Combined living, kitchen and dining areas should be no larger than 70 or 80 square metres – any bigger and things get out of control. It’s reasonably well known that houses with large living areas and circulation spaces which connect the house from one end to the other have poor thermal control, but if they have lots of exposed thermal mass inside, such as concrete floors and masonry walls, they may also have extremely poor acoustics.

The concept of open plan living comes from our love of big living areas with plenty of light, where all household activities happen in close proximity. This is in stark contrast to houses built before the 1950s, where kitchen, lounge and dining activities each had their own separate room, quite disconnected from the rest, and certainly disconnected from the outside world.

During the 1950s and 1960s, lounge and dining often came together in one larger space, with direct access to the kitchen. Then during the 1970s the kitchen was liberated from its second-class status, freed from isolation and brought joyfully into the core of the household.

This progression is unsurprising when we look at the social history of Australia – the steady unwinding of many old social mores and taboos closely paralleled this change in domestic architecture.

Women’s gradual progression from “housewife” to “self-made woman” had a lot to do with it. Ironically, women’s emancipation from being solely responsible for kitchen responsibilities mirrored men’s increasing interest in the kitchen. All these social changes were needed and good, and adoption of open plans was generally good too. But then something happened in the late 1980s, and became gradually worse right through the 1990s

Open plan living went from being the golden child of domestic architecture to the megalomaniac that took over the whole house.

Above image: The first thing to do to improve the acoustic performance of a home is to separate the main living area from the rest of the house by inserting a solid door, recommends Dick. This door will also keep conditioned air in, so heat won’t be lost down hallways into unoccupied rooms.

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Cover of Issue 16
You can read more about Open plan design gone mad? in Issue 16 of Sanctuary magazine.

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