With More Working From Home, Rethinking the Open Concept
By Ariana Speyer
Used to be that all rooms had doors that could be closed and very specific functions, with the kitchen generally in the back of the house where it was out of the way. Since the ‘90s (often pegged to the rise of HGTV), the idea that the kitchen should be the command central, with a seamless flow from kitchen to dining to living spaces — has been the dominant, if not universal, way of life.
Open concept enables families to spend more time together more easily, and signalled a movement to a more casual lifestyle where cooking and entertaining are meant to be shared and celebrated. It’s also known for bringing a lot more natural light into a space than would be possible in walled-off rooms. For older and disabled folks, it represents an easier layout to navigate, without the hurdle of multiple thresholds. And it even has a distinguished, not to mention unlikely and little-known pedigree: Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Prairie Style,” which, in the early 1900s introduced open floor plans, among other canonical design innovations.
As popular as it’s become, the layout has always had its critics. From the mundane (all of the kitchen mess on view for everyone to see all the time, not to mention cooking odors) to the aesthetic (it’s a modern look with less places to hang art and photos and personalize the space) to the substantial (more expensive to build due to the requirement for hefty support beams), people seem to either love or hate it, with not much middle ground.
A writer in the New York Times rallied against it a couple of years ago, citing the idea (among others) that there’s “nowhere to hide.” And according to Houzz’s 2021 Design Predictions, open-concept may be on its way out, albeit with a bunch of caveats.
Adapting Large Spaces to the New Reality
The consensus is that open concept is here to stay, but our new patterns of living call for some adaptations that provide more privacy, flexibility, and bang for buck. The good news is that there are a few easy fixes and upgrades that will boost the rentability of your properties by appealing directly to families that are craving a way for Dad’s Zoom calls to not resound throughout the house.
“Absolutely everyone still wants the open concept — as much openness as you can get,” says Billy Wardlaw, Mynd’s senior operations manager and head of its construction services division.
Still, over the past year, Wardlaw has seen how people need more flexibility, especially when it comes to accommodating multiple family members working from home and children going to school remotely.
A Mini-Backlash Against the Open Concept
There’s no getting around the fact that when everyone’s home, trying to work and attend classes, as was the case with many families over the course of the pandemic, open concept enforces a lot of togetherness. Since there are no walls to block sound, it can very quickly get cacophonous when there are multiple work calls and Zooms happening simultaneously. And what about the simple idea of personal space?
At the start of the pandemic, The Atlantic aptly pointed out that personal space has evolved to become a low priority not just at home but also at work, with cubicles a thing of the past and communal, even rotating seating (also known as “hoteling”), the new norm. The pandemic starkly highlighted the downsides of this approach, and a correction (which open-plan critics have been calling for for years, usually with no traction) seems to be taking place.
Architectural Digest recently delved into the idea that, while it will likely never die, experts are looking at how residential open concept floor plans might evolve and adapt to our changing world. Robert Rodriquez, a Boston realtor, told the magazine, “Real estate post-Covid is all about flex space,” citing “amenity rooms” and “plus rooms” as examples.
So now that it feels as if the world is at the cusp of regaining some kind of normal, what should the smart investor keep in mind when considering and renting properties?
MAKE AN OFFICE
“What I did notice,” Wardlaw notes, “is people were sticking a desk in the bedroom to make a piece of it like an office. Even better, you can take an extra spare closet — add a window, make it into an office space.”
Allison Tick, a New York City-based interior designer, agrees: “If the guest room didn’t have a desk in it, it does now. If you have an extra bedroom or guest room, a room that’s not used every day, that’s where we would go first to make it into an office or a multi-functional space.”
No matter how you go about it, designating an office area will bring more versatility and appeal to a rental property.
Major: Take an underused space like an extra closet and transform it into an office by adding a window and some furniture. Cost: Approximately $1000-$5000 (plus furniture) depending on framing requirements.
Minor: Insert a desk and chair in a guestroom or other underutilized space to give it the functionality of an office. Cost: A couple hundred dollars for a new desk and chair.
Katherine Crosby, an interior designer based in Baltimore, has lots of clients requesting doors to divide — when you want — the open-concept flow.
“Sliding doors are huge,” Crosby says. “Pocket doors are all the rage. That way, it doesn’t feel like you’re dividing the space, but when you want to close off the dining room you can. But putting in pocket doors tends to be more than you think it’s going to be—usually the walls aren’t thick enough to accommodate the doors, so you have to reframe the wall.”
Adding doors to the dining room or any multi-functional space creates privacy and more options for usage, from a quiet homework area to a dual office space where more than one family member can work simultaneously, while there are sound barriers to allow for meetings online.
Major: Add pricey pocket doors to the dining room threshold for the ultimate in space-saving flexibility. Cost: $700-$4250 for the framing, depending on existing walls, plus the doors themselves, which average around $700
Minor: It’s fairly easy to install a sliding door on a track to frame the dining room. Cost: $250-$1650 for labor, plus the door, starting at $500
CREATE AN OUTDOOR ROOM
And what about outdoor space? Both Crosby and Tick have noticed more requests for outdoor rooms that extend the livable space to the outside, and not just for the summer. Tick says there’s a trend to “make each space live as long as it can,” so instead of just a summertime hangout spot, an outdoor area can be used year round with the addition of some strategic amenities like heat lamps.
“People are making their outdoor spaces truly into rooms,” Crosby said, “expanding the footprint of their house to the outside with pop-up tents, fans, outdoor lighting—new LED lights that you can recharge so you don’t have chords hanging everywhere. If you’re not doing a structural addition like building a roof, just adding a patio with some shade protection creates another option for people to be outside together.”
From adding on a patio to simply stringing some LED lights near a couple Adirondack chairs and a fire pit, the possibilities are many when it comes to utilizing the outdoors and increasing your property’s attractiveness.
Major: Building a simple patio area highlights outdoor space that tenants are eager to use for gatherings, not to mention extra elbow room. Cost: Approximately $4,000
Minor: Adding a fire pit and an Adirondack chair, or even just some simple LED lights, will enable tenants to see the advantages of your property’s exterior space. Cost: Get a fire pit, lights and an Adirondack chair, each for less than $100