Monday, February 15, 2010

Open Plan Gone Awry

Well, I'm back. Have been in my too-small and insect-infested rental house for a month now...and have more than 60 mosquito bites to show for it...and we are desperately, daily, house hunting. And so far, the results of our search is, at best, dismal. Contrary to local myth, Johannesburg is much more costly than Cape Town, it rolls up its sidewalks at 6 pm (except for the unbelievable abundance of bars, clubs, pubs, and other watering holes), the roads are worse than any country road I've ever driven, at any given time half of the traffic lights in town are not functioning, the traffic is akin to LA's, and I don't think I have ever encountered so many rude, self-absorbed people in such a short time anyplace else in my life. To put it succinctly, Joburg sucks and I am not happy here. (And that is without even giving a passing mention to the absolutely horrific weather here.)

But despite my feelings, I am stuck here, at least until we can find a way back to the Cape and, because Hubby must pay back the cost of relocation if we leave within one year, we are pretty much stuck here for a while. (Don't even ask about the move...suffice it to say that my list of grievances against the moving company has more than 50 items on it, from breaking a piece of heirloom china to packing an antique doll beneath a cast iron door stop to finding my missing lingerie packed in a box beneath a soiled dog bed and blanket to damaged furniture.) Yesterday was Valentine's Day and after a sumptuous lunch at a landmark restaurant, Hubby and I hit the streets, looking for open houses (called "show houses" here).

I am not impressed with South African architecture, in the main, but then I'm not terribly fond of certain trends in American home design in recent years, either. I remember when the “open plan” concept, as applied to homes, began popping up on such programs as “This Old House” and Bob Vila’s home renovation shows. Touted as the latest and greatest thing in home design and already incorporated in newly-built tract homes, I was appalled at the blatant attempt on the part of builders to reduce their construction costs (fewer walls, less cost to build) by snookering people into accepting their self-serving, penny-pinching new design as something desirable. Two decades later, open plan is not only incorporated into newly built homes, you are hard-pressed to find a separate kitchen in even older, classic homes…everybody has jumped on the bandwagon and remodelled under the “open plan” banner. And, for the most part, the results I have seen have been unmitigated disasters.

I hate open plan. Just hate it. When I have spent hours banging about in the kitchen, dirtying pot after pan, piling the sink full of soiled dishes and littering the countertops with colanders, cutting boards, measuring cups, half-emptied cartons of milk and packets of pasta, why would I want the disaster-filled kitchen to be in full view of my guests? Or even my family, for that matter? Clean as I go along? Sorry, when making a choice between burning the chops or swabbing the sticky stuff in the sink, the chops win out every time. Besides, that is what kitchen doors are for…to separate the grunt-labour involved in putting a meal on the table from the innocents who should be allowed to eat their meal in peace, unburdened by the potentially guilt-inducing knowledge that their smiling hostess has just sweated off the equivalent of a marathon in her pursuit of their gastronomic happiness.

Think about it for a minute…have you ever worked in an open plan office? Think not? Do the words “cubicle” or “cube farm” ring a bell with you? If you truly haven’t ever been subjected to this kind of work environment, do you know anyone who has? Know any cube denizens who love working in a cube? There is no privacy…the sniffles of the allergy sufferer to your left cannot be shut out; the incessant and annoying giggle of the phone-addicted twit on the right cannot be silenced, and the toilet-mouthed guy with the booming voice over your third wall precludes any phone conversation you might want to make, for fear of the background noise of sniffles, giggles, and F-bomb backdrop offending your listener. You cannot speak freely as you most certainly will be overhead, and your activities (or lack thereof) are visible to anyone who happens to walk by your non-existent cubicle door. I used to laugh when given a “confidential” memo to type…just how confidential is anything you type up in a cube where anyone can stand at the entrance and see your computer screen without your knowledge because your back is to the doorway? Life in a cube farm is devoid of any kind of privacy, peace, or dignity…why would we want to replicate that in our homes?

But the marketeers did their jobs well, eventually convincing First World home buyers across the globe that spending more money for less privacy, fewer walls (and a lot fewer cupboards!) was the hip, modern, trendy thing to do (did I mention I also hate “trendy”?). Now, a couple of decades later, in order to attract serious buyers a house must have an open plan kitchen. And that is where it all started to go wrong.

You see, aside from the desire to save some money on construction and gouge gullible buyers out of a few extra bucks, the concept of “open plan” was supposed to be a way to keep the cook from being isolated from the family during meal prep times. Personally, I relished that brief respite from the demands of family life…let Daddy parent the little darlings for a while so I can vin his coq for him, steam a little asparagus and whip up some lemon butter and a mountain of fluffy mash to delight his taste buds. But sentimental home buyers…read that guilt-saturated career moms who left the fruit of their loins in daycare while they work…bought into the “spend more quality time” with their kids idea and the open plan concept took off.

But, like anything else, the basic reason for the whole concept became forgotten as the trend saturated the market and owners of traditional kitchens began dragging down cabinets and smashing down walls. Open plan as a concept, but devoid of reason, began to take over. Traditional houses, venerable older homes, seldom had family rooms and if they did, those family rooms were seldom adjacent to the kitchen. In the more classic home layout, the dining room was adjacent to the kitchen and the living room was generally on the other side of the dining room. In the frenzied stampede to jump on the open plan band wagon, homeowners overlooked the obvious: the room in which Mom slaves over a hot stove is NOT adjacent to the room where the kids sprawl out in front of the tube…but open plan now rules home desirability so dining rooms and kitchens began merging into a single open space. The fact that Hubby and kiddies were still in a separate room and Mom can no longer close the kitchen door on the mountain of dirty dishes and other detritus of meal preparation was immaterial in the face of the power of the trend.

The next phase of the movement returned to the new home build. I now live in a house that was built to have the lounge and dining room in a single open plan space. Interestingly, the living room is beyond the dining room and it has double doors on it to shut out the noise from the kitchen and the cooking smells! A large granite breakfast bar divides the dining space from the kitchen space…what kind of sense does that make? A breakfast bar literally beside the dining table! The purpose of the open plan concept is completely defeated in this house…Mum is still isolated from Dad and the kiddies while she cooks and they sprawl in front of the big screen, but now Mum can’t shut the kitchen door to hide the eyesore the kitchen became during meal prep.

Developers, however, are building on their success. If people will swallow the ridiculous notion of paying more money for fewer walls simply by telling them that this is a new trend, why not take it further? A couple of years ago we looked at a flat we were considering as a rental…until I saw the bedroom. The bathtub and the sink were in the bedroom, as was a shower stall. Only the toilet had its own walled-off space with a door. The salesman tried to tell me this was “romantic,” but I am sorry, as much as I love my husband, some things…like spitting toothpaste into the sink and gargling afterwards…should just remain private. Besides, who needs the steam getting into the closet and mildewing the clothes?

In our house hunting last week we saw a house that just floored me…this open plan bathroom thing had been incorporated when it was remodelled but they had just gone too far…from the bed you could see the toilet and there was no door! Speaking only for myself, there are times that being able to close the loo door is all that saves the rest of the family from being gassed in their sleep, such is the consequence of indulging in certain delicious but pungent and lingering culinary delights.

Maybe I am just getting old, but I value privacy. I want a door on my bedroom…a door that locks. It is nobody’s business but my own what goes on in there. I want to close my kitchen door when I bring out the roast so you don’t see the greasy pan, the gravy spilled on the stove, the mixer beaters coated with mashed potatoes still plugged into the machine…you should be looking at the art on the walls, the beautiful garden out the window, the perfectly steamed artichokes sitting invitingly in front of you. I want a door on my bathroom, too. There is nothing “romantic” about some of the ablutions and processes we go through to make ourselves clean, well-groomed and presentable. Give me a door and allow me to keep a little of the mystery alive, please!

Most of all, let’s stop getting sucked in by greedy corporations because they prey on our insecurities and lingering adolescent desire to be “cool.” Paying more money for a house that has fewer walls, less storage space, and deprives you of essential privacy because some marketing hack in a construction company tells you it is the “newest concept” (read that “trendy and saves us big money”) makes no kind of sense at all.


  1. Good to see you back. I must say I would never want a loo without a door, I could never use it.

  2. I also hate open floor plans. I have always thought the "A-frame" log cabins were beautiful and I always wanted one except for the fact that they have almost no inside walls. That would drive me crazy.

  3. SV,I am SO happy to see you back and blogging. I have always found your blog to be fascinating because it is so interesting to hear of a fellow American's experiences in a place that I am so unfamiliar with.

    Hahahahahaha--you would *hate* our house! We have an open kitchen--but you know what? I really like it because my husband does almost all of the cooking in our family and he is such a workaholic, he often doesn't return home from his office until 7:00 - 8:00 at night. It is during that time when he is cooking (and I am relaxing in my recliner in the family room that adjoins the kitchen) that we are able to catch up with each other. If he were in a separate kitchen, it would be much harder to do since I have a bad back and sitting in hard (small) kitchen chairs doesn't sound very relaxing. But I thought your perspective was very interesting! I never thought of this as a cost-saving measure for construction companies but your point is well taken! And here I thought our house, with its cathedral ceilings and open air design was built as a means of opening it up to be sunny and bright!

    Johannesburg sounds horrible, SV--I can see why you're unhappy there. And it also sounds as though the move was a little rough. I really do hope you find a great place (with a closed kitchen!) that you adore. You deserve it my friend.

    So glad to see you back to blogging!


  4. Oh, thank you thank you thank you!

    I googled "hate open floor plan" just to see if there was ANYONE else out there who wants to live in a house with actual ROOMS, with these things called DOORS that can be CLOSED.

    Ditto everything you said - I do NOT want my messy kitchen to be part of my living OR dining room! And I want DOORS that I can CLOSE to GET AWAY from things like tv noise and humming appliances, and - let's face it - sometimes i want to get AWAY from my family, not have to be in the same room with them no matter what room I'm in! It's called "peace and quiet and privacy" - when did it go out of syle, and WHY?

  5. Well, it's 8 1/2 months since I made this entry. We have bought a house and moved into it. It has some "open plan" space (that we plan to close off!) and a separate kitchen...with doors. Unfortunately, the previous owner's remodel of the kitchen left a huge empty space in the middle of the room, blocked the natural cooling airflow of the original design (we have the original blueprints) and didn't put in a ceiling fan or other cooling device to make up for it, so we have to remodel the remodel...but it will have DOORS that can be CLOSED so that the normal hum and clatter of the kitchen doesn't become a nuisance to every one else in the house!

  6. I actually laughed my head off when reading this b/c I think the exact same as you!

  7. Loved this. Truly, it's to each his own, but people need to slow down and think about how they actually live before choosing a house because of the trend of the open floor plan. I've blogged about this also "An Argument Against The Open Floor Plan" A kitchen can be a beautiful escape, an intimate setting. I grew up in a small bungalow with an eat-in kitchen. I remember fondly sitting around the table with my family before and after dinner. My mom was often cooking or cleaning up but we were still in the same room -- however we didn't need a warehouse sized room. Had we had the warehouse sized room with the huge TV, I doubt we would have spoken at all, or faced each other and my mother would have been more like the servant piddling behind us in the kitchen. And what's wrong with a little one in a high chair while you're cooking? Then the mom/dad is only steps away from the baby, can talk to him/her, sing, share some cheerios, make eye contact. Again, with the large family room attachment, the cook watches the children/baby who is likely watching TV. I know people live differently than they did 100 years ago, but sometimes the trends take away some forms of living and entertainment that, if we had space to do it, we would still do. The spacious open floor plans leave less space for -- music! I have a piano, I play it, and so do my children. If we had a huge great room with no division it could only be played when the TV is off. One could not sneak away to play or listen to music while someone else is watching TV. Sadly, the TV would often win. The HGTV designers look totally stumped when they have to fit a piano into a plan. These open plans are made for watching TV and that's pretty much it. Oh, and for entertaining, but as you pointed out guests don't need to see what goes on in the kitchen. Plus whatever happened to serving courses, some of which are already prepared so you can actually spend time with your guests? Sit down? With no island in between?

  8. Thank you for trying to bust this insane trend and wake up home buyers. I have a classic home with separate rooms. I am trying to sell it and EVERY young couple that comes in (they usually don't have kids yet or have very small children) complains that it isn't "open concept", and therefore they will have to knock down all the walls. It is very irritating that they don't understand the beauty of having privacy. I hope this trend tanks like it should. It is amazing how many people jump on trends without thinking of what they really are getting. Great job of telling it like it is!

    1. I have two suggestions for you, Brenda: first, copy the sections of this blog post that ring true for you and paste them to a blank Word document...include the URL to this page. Then print that document out (include the URL) and give it to prospective home buyers who moan about the lack of open concept--they need more to think about. By including the URL, they can some here and read the stuff you left out of your copy/paste job. Make your Word doc no more than one page...people have short attention spans nowadays.

      Secondly, if you have previous electric and heat bills, do yourself favour and put together a little spreadsheet showing the average cost of heating (and cooling, if you have air conditioning) your house for a year, pointing out that you (and the prospective buyers) can better control the use of heat and a/c (and therefore their costs for energy) with rooms that can be closed off from each other. Heating large open spaces is much more costly than heating the individual rooms you are actually using.

      Best of luck in selling your home, and I hope someone who loves it just the way it is snaps it up!

  9. The open kitchen is a fad that needs to end soon. You hit the nail on the head when you wrote that home builders started the trend, trying to save on interior building costs or fool buyers into believing that small spaces were larger. The open floor plan looks great during a sales walk-through -- the kitchen's clean and pristine, and all that light and air seem terrific. But, walls and doors exist for very valid reasons; they muffle cooking noises, contain steam, smoke, and food smells, and hide dirty messes.

    Back in the day, low-costing, starter apartments didn't have kitchens. There'd be a kitchenette along one wall or tucked in a corner of the living room. When a person's financial resources improved, the individual would move to someplace with a real, grown-up kitchen. Now, homebuyers think that it's a nice thing to have that Early Graduate Student look, with kitchens smack in the living area!

    My kitchen has four walls and a door that can be closed. It has plenty of natural sunlight and doesn't make me feel the least bit claustrophobic. When I'm banging pots or using a noisy appliance, I shut the door. When I set a nice table for my family or guests, it doesn't come with a full view of messy cooking clutter.

    One of my best friends bought a new house in early-November. Her kitchen, dining room, and living room are in a single, open space; she'd wanted that arrangement and chose it. Within weeks, she hated her kitchen and regretted her decision. She prepared a beautiful Thanksgiving meal for guests, who spent dinner looking at her dirty counter tops, pots, and pans.

    I've lived in Europe, where kitchens are the cook's domain. Company doesn't wander into the kitchen and hang out; doing so would be rude and intrusive. Americans need to stop being snookered by the "open concept" and tank the idea.


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