For those stuck working at home during the pandemic, we’ve seen the struggles. Lackluster lighting, bad backdrops, and subpar sound have all become staples of our day-to-day work lives.
One unspoken contributing factor to our ongoing work-life battle? The ubiquitous open floor plan in homes.
It’s a design trend that’s dominated residential real estate over the past few years. Turn on HGTV, and you’ll likely see a show extolling the virtues of a space unencumbered by walls and an interior that flows seamlessly from one space to another.
But now, some have pointed the finger at the open floor plan as the culprit for a lack of privacy, terrible acoustics, and unavoidable background noises. Also known as a “great room,” the large space that combines family room, dining room, and kitchen doesn’t feel so great right now—especially when everyone at home badly needs to focus.
Even as pandemic-related restrictions are lifting, it appears that the work-from-home trend is here to stay. A CNBC survey found that many people currently working from home don’t want to go back to the office, even after businesses reopen. Of those surveyed, 24% said they’d be happy to continue working from a home office, and 60% said they felt as productive or even more so working remotely.
“Our homes will change post-COVID-19. This pandemic is hardly just an annoyance, but rather a significant lifestyle change,” says Bret Parsons, a real estate agent in Beverly Hills, CA, and founder and executive director of the Architectural Division at Compass.
“I predict the pendulum moving back to more traditional homes, with segmented rooms for multiple uses, including office suites, an exercise room, and a separate en suite for multigenerational living. Who wants [parents] in a care facility anymore?”
Even so, homes with open floor plans are still selling and it’s still high on many buyers’ must-have lists. We spoke to a few real estate pros to get their takes on the future of the open floor plan.
Back to the future—bye-bye, open floor plan
“These open floor plan homes … look sexy, fresh, and exciting. However, there are major unseen drawbacks,” says Parsons. “First, they are noisy since they contain hard, expansive surfaces—cement, tile, or stone floors [and] glass walls.”
In other words, modern dwellings are full of cool and sleek surfaces, but sound reverberates without any walls to muffle them.
“Second, cooking smells from the kitchen permeate every corner of the house. Fresh baked bread, great … fried fish, not so much,” he continues.
“Third, they are expensive to maintain. For example, the HVAC needs to run often as these homes feature huge expanses of glass, which the sun beats upon all day, thereby increasing interior heat,” says Parsons. “These homes are simply not environmentally sensitive, which is top of mind for more and more buyers these days.”
Parsons predicts a return to walled-off spaces.
“As an agent, give me a more traditional home any day,” he says. “They are easier to sell [because] there are more buyers for them. I don’t know of one ‘open floor plan home,’ which has sold for the second time. These homes look great when they’re new, but they simply don’t wear well.”
Long live the open floor plan
But not all experts are willing to sound the death knell for the open floor plan just yet.
“I completely disagree with the great room being a thing of the past, and I don’t foresee a major correction for the open-plan home beyond the pandemic,” says Sven Simon, an agent with Swell Property in the San Diego area.
“The open floor plan mostly relates to the kitchen, dining room, and living room blending together into one large space to entertain, for a larger feel and natural light,” says Simon. “Those are the public areas of the home. People changing their work habits will not change that.”
Simon sees the open concept prevailing over time, that buyers won’t want to give up that coveted open flow.
“For the most part, people want their homes to be their home—not their office. The office can be a small section of their home. The home is about livability and will never become about office efficiency,” he explains
Open—but not wide open
Michael Ackerman of Coldwell Banker Bain Seattle agrees that the open floor plan is here to stay, because once people get a taste of the “light, the energy, and the flow of a great room, they don’t want to go back to a more formal design.”
Homeowners simply have to get more creative in finding private space to work, he continues. “People are setting up workspaces in their garages, in their bedrooms, in their spare rooms, wherever they can find the space.”
The pandemic could influence home buyers to be more aware of smaller, more private spaces in open floor plan homes, he adds. Savvy shoppers may look to pinpoint a space where they can set up a home office.
“People will always be asking, ‘Where’s my private space?'” he says.
Clever great room hybrids
While open floor plan homes may be inconvenient for the time being, John McCulley of McCulley Design Lab in Solana Beach, CA, believes there’s no reason the great room can’t function as both a family gathering center and an office and a school room.
“We just need to think about setting things up differently,” says McCulley, who’s working with clients who have a lovely home in a great location, who suddenly find themselves with their college-age children back home and taking classes remotely, while both parents are also working from home.
McCulley is helping the family “reformat the space,” which entails setting up a series of zones with desks that can fold out from a vertical surface. He’s working on hidden panels that can slide or fold out, all with connectivity abilities so that laptops and other devices can easily be plugged in.
He notes that homeowners need to rethink the traditional workspace, and focus on today’s needs.
“Desks don’t have to take up so much space now,” he says, explaining that the concept of the huge desk was conceived when people spread their work out horizontally on a flat surface. Now, with most of us hunched over laptops, huge horizontal space isn’t a necessity.
He also believes that people who live in areas with mild climates will seek out ways to adapt outdoor spaces for work functionality. It’s not such a strange idea—we often work from cafes or benches in a pinch during normal times. Why not set up fold-out desks and workstations that can be hidden when not in use in your own backyard?
It’s curtains for this particular open floor plan
Still, the wide-open loft—popular in areas where old factories and warehouses have been converted into trendy residential space—is proving especially challenging in today’s environment.
These cavernous spaces with the bathroom as the only walled-off room? It’s not as enticing these days.
Heather Sinclair, co-founder of The Agency in Aspen, CO, had clients who bought a beautiful loft in Aspen. They thought it would be the ideal place to shelter at home since it was far from an urban center and had easy access to the great outdoors. But after a week or so of the husband trying to work while the wife was doing dishes and other chores in the background, they returned to their large home in Atlanta.
“Do you really want a home with no interior walls?” Ackerman is asking his clients. He tells the cautionary tale of an empty-nest couple in New York living happily in a 900-square-foot loft—until the pandemic hit and their college-age kids came home to study and live.
“Four people living in 900 square feet with no walls? Let’s just say it’s not ideal,” he says.
One real estate trend, regardless of floor plan
Regardless of the floor plan, a number of agents agree that what buyers really want is out of the big city.
“What I and others predict are families who have the financial means will opt to reside outside of urban areas. In cities, density and viruses are a deadly combination,” says Parsons. “COVID-19 has confirmed that we don’t need to physically be in an office, or our cars, nearly as much as assumed.”
Sinclair agrees that many new telecommuters have proved that working remotely is a solid option. She thinks more folks will flee densely populated areas like New York and Chicago, and settle in areas where they can more readily enjoy outdoor activities and wide-open spaces.
But not too wide—she says she and her 11-year-old twins enjoy their community of Basalt, CO, about 20 minutes from Aspen. It’s small but all sorts of amenities are within easy access.
“Now that it’s been proven that some people can work from just about anywhere, why wouldn’t they?” she asks.