The Open Floor Plan: History, Pros and Cons

Upscale Kitchen with High Open Ceiling and Wood Floor

Getty Images/ Perry Mastrovito

The phrase "open floor plan" when used in residential architecture refers to a house in which two or more traditional-use spaces have been joined to form a much larger space by eliminating some of the partition walls that normally divide rooms. This has been the dominant architectural trend in new residential construction since about 1990, and has also been the goal in a great many major remodeling projects in older homes, where the objective is to join kitchen and dining room, dining room and living room—or all three—into some form of communal living space or "great room."

Structurally, in open-floor plan construction, heavy-duty beams carry the weight of the floor above, not interior walls. Aesthetically, a sense of openness and greater traffic flow is promoted by an open floor plan.

Open Floorplan Configurations

Open floor plans do not mean that all rooms are connected, nor does it mean that there are no barriers at all between the rooms. open floor plans apply only to common areas. Exempt spaces include bathrooms, powder rooms, bedrooms, and home offices. Most often, open floor plans involve some combination of kitchen, dining room, and living room.

  • Kitchen and dining room: Often a kitchen and dining area share one common space. Sometimes a kitchen island or peninsula acts as a visual dividing line between the two areas.
  • Dining room and living room: A dining area and living room occupy one shared area. A visual dividing line may be in the form of a short set of stairs, two different paint colors, stairs leading to a sunken area, or a handrail.
  • Kitchen/dining/living room: All three areas may be connected in a very large great room, often with a vaulted ceiling.

History of the Open Floor Plan

An open floor plan is a relatively new concept in residential home design. 

Pre-world-war 2, most homes used a very basic floorplan in which the main hallway served as a kind of artery that provided access to branch rooms serving specific functions. In these floor plans, the kitchen was usually placed at the back of the house, because it was seen as a service area and not used for socializing at all. A rear door off the kitchen allowed for food deliveries or as an entrance for help staff. Entertainment until the 1950s was a fairly formal affair conducted in other areas of the house—served by a kitchen that was strictly off-limits to guests.

Even at this time, though the seeds of the future open floor plan were being sown by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, who began to design homes with a large open living space that combined dining areas and living areas, often separated as well as united by a large open fireplace. At this time, the kitchen was still a separate area, since it was still regarded as a utilitarian space.

The true open floor plan began to take hold in the post-war years, where formality gave way to a more casual attitude mandated by the hundreds of thousands of young growing families with children. An open floor plan, now beginning to include the kitchen, offered design flexibility for reconfiguring the space as the family changed and grew, and made it possible to keep an eye on kids during meal preparation and during cleanup.

Other changes also made the open floor plan more practical. To accommodate higher population densities, more homes were squeezed into the same amount of space, especially in urban areas. House footprints were smaller at the same time the families inside those homes grew larger, meaning that space was at a premium. Homes no longer had the luxury of official libraries or studies; instead, children needed to do their homework at the dining room table. Being able to keep an eye on the whole family from one area had distinct advantages.

Innovations in construction materials and methods also made open floor plans more practical. Steel structural beams, central heating systems, drywall, and cinder-block construction, and other innovations meant that it was now easier to build rooms that spanned long spaces and to serve them efficiently with heating.

The 1950s were the time when open floor plans began to appear with regularity, and they were regarded as especially modern. Today, one hallmark of the "midcentury modern" decor style is a home with an early version of an open floor plan, often featuring a fireplace open on all sides. In the open floor plan concept, the kitchen cooking center was now becoming the center for social activity.

By the 1990s, open floorplans became almost the norm for new construction, especially in suburban environments, and that trend holds true today, where being able to use the terms "open floor plan," open concept," or "great room" adds real estate value to a home. There is a small but recognized countertrend developing. Says Andrew Cogar, president of the Historical Concepts architectural firm of Atlanta:

“There’s been a slow but steady change. The thought was that an open and informal plan would create a sense of ease, but people are realizing that it also means everything has to be organized or else the house can quickly feel cluttered. Closed-off rooms allow people to cut down on some of that visual noise. It may sound counterintuitive, but people are returning to separated spaces as a way of simplifying how they live on a daily basis.”

Still, for the vast majority of homeowners, an open floor plan is highly prized when shopping for a new house, and creating an open floor plan is a major reason why people undertake major remodeling projects. Open floor plans allow for individual activities and social togetherness to coexist: family members can do their own activities, yet still communicate with one another. And for entertaining, the kitchen, dining room, and living room blend together into one large party space.

Advantages of Open Floor Plans

  • Better traffic flow. Without doors to open and close and no walls to hinder traffic, people can move through space unhindered.
  • Improved sociability and communication. Without walls, it's possible to talk to one another across rooms.
  • Shared light. Interior spaces that were once without windows now get natural light from windows in exterior walls.
  • Improved real estate value. In almost every instance, an open floor plan is highly desirable and increases your home's value to prospective buyers.
  • Easier to watch kids. Parents cooking in the kitchen or setting the dining room table can easily supervise children in the living room.
  • Layout flexibility. Without partition walls, it is easy to reconfigure furnishings and accessories to different room layouts.
  • Spaces can be multifunction. With open floor plans, a space can serve as a family room, a recreation room, a home office, or an entertainment space depending on your needs of the moment.

Disadvantages of Open Floor Plans

  • Costly to heat and cool. Great rooms with high ceilings are often energy drains, especially when the outer walls are equipped with large windows, as they often are. While traditional floor plans allow you to heat or cool only certain rooms, with an open floor plan, the entire space must be heated or cooled.
  • Higher construction cost. Without partition walls, open concepts depend on steel or laminated beams for support. These are costly to install.
  • Poor sound control. Without partition walls to block noise, open concept homes can be very noisy.
  • Spaces can appear cluttered. One advantage of traditional floorplans is that they confine furnishings and accessories to their designated spaces.
  • Lack of privacy. Open floor plans are great for social activity, but they make it hard to find quiet spaces for private reading or study.