Irish homes have been losing doors for years. With new homes now built with super A BER levels of insulation, there’s been less need to compartmentalise ourselves, especially for the sake of saving on the heating. The gradual slide towards open plan that we’ve been experiencing for two decades has turned into an all-out push for open plan.
Older suburban homes, which are being restored and insulated, have long been brought back to life equipped with the ubiquitous modern kitchen/diner/living room extension and, these days, some are going even further by opening this into the original and traditional brace of interlinking receptions.
The open-plan revolution is also being pushed along by small and tiny home restorations, whereby opening a ground floor up entirely with only support walls remaining is now a necessity for those who need to squeeze every ounce of space out of a weeny cottage or a restrictive two up, two down.
Like it or not, big open ground-floor spaces are with us for the long haul. Dana Kallo, interior architect and Principal of Black Fox Interiors, sees the popularity of open-plan layouts as a reflection of a fundamental change in the way we live. “People live more connected lives, where cooking is an activity for the entire family and time is a luxury. We don’t want to waste it being stuck in a small room away from everyone else.
“People usually opt for open plan because they want a brighter, less cluttered space,” Kallo says. “But different dwellings have different requirements. House-dwellers typically ask for an open-plan layout either when they’re building a new extension or because their existing rooms are too small. Knocking down the wall between a pair of poky rooms is a straightforward way of creating a more functional family space.”
Apartments are slightly different. “Most of the time in apartment refurbishments, we see small, awkward kitchens with not enough natural light. Often the kitchen is not even completely separated from the living area,” she explains. “The storage space is limited, the position of appliances is uncomfortable, and this makes it difficult to keep the space clean. In these situations, opening the kitchen becomes a natural choice.”
Opening up a layout usually means removing at least one wall between rooms. While it might seem obvious, before you do this, always, always, always talk to your builder. A member of my family recently removed a connecting wall when attempting to enlarge their bedroom. Over a number of days, they became aware that the ceiling was several centimetres lower than it used to be. A builder was consulted, but couldn’t get to it for a couple of months. Pending a rescue package, my family member inserted a sturdy metal pillar. This kept the ceiling in place but, given that it was in the middle of the bedroom floor, nighttime trips to the loo became rather more hazardous. After one of them had knocked themselves silly, the other wrapped the pillar in multi-purpose reflective insulation. The moral of the story is – remove supporting walls at your peril.
The next step, Kallo says, is to find out if the new layout complies with fire regulations. If it doesn’t, it will make it difficult to sell the house. And you could burn in your beds. Once these issues have been resolved, the next step is to decide if the advantages are worth the investment. Taking down walls can be expensive. So can fitting new floors and relocating switches, sockets and radiators.
“If the budget has passed with flying colours, there is one more thing to consider. Have you truly considered the repercussions of an all-open layout? Especially in a family setting. It can get quite noisy at times, cooking smells and dishes can pile up fast.”
Just because the neighbours did it, and it looks good in their home, doesn’t mean that it will work in yours.
One solution – and I like this one a lot – is to create a flexible space that can be opened out or divided using sliding or pocket doors. Pocket door systems are a wonderful invention and involve sliding doors that disappear, as you open them, into a compartment in the adjacent wall. The disadvantage is that good pocket doors are expensive and even the good ones don’t offer the same degree of noise insulation as a wall.
If, for whatever reason, open-plan layout isn’t going to work in your home, Kallo suggests there may be ways of obtaining similar results without demolishing walls.
“It helps to see a virtual simulation of the space before any walls are removed – it might save on budget and bring new solutions to the table.”
This is where interior design and video gaming collide. A virtual reality headset can allow you to see a simulated space in 3D. Augmented reality headsets, such as the much-hyped Magic Leap, are still prohibitively expensive, but it’s only a matter of time before this technology becomes commonplace. When it does, you’ll be able to see how digital furniture looks in a real-life room. It’s not magic, but it feels very like it.
Back in the mundane world, open-plan layouts don’t always work. They can seem empty and unfurnished. “A large bright room with a lot of down lights can feel cold rather than spacious, if the lighting and furniture layout is not thought out properly in advance,” Kallo says. “In these situations, we try to visually divide the areas, create smaller pockets of comfortable seating with table and floor lamps. Sometimes we create dividers by using a three-sided open fireplace, an interesting bookcase or even a few plants.”
For inspiration on how this can be done, high-end brands have a lot to offer. Roche Bobois, for example, show how rugs, seating and ambient light can create an island of cosiness within an open space. The Informel sofa (€1,870 to €3,030) works particularly well in the round, but you can mimic the layout with any seating that looks as inviting from the back as it does from the front. If the supplier has it up against the wall, they may have something to hide.
“In larger open-plan spaces, the see-through shelving is great for dividing the space to delineate function,” says Emily Maher of Lost Weekend. “They’re great for books, but they can also be used decoratively by displaying objects and artworks. Sangiacomo has a really nice range of drawers that are finished on all sides. It can be placed in the centre of a room and the drawers open from different sides within the same unit.”
A small sideboard or shelving unit from the Sangiacomo range starts at €1,000, but most people spend between €2,500 to €5,000. Again, less expensive furniture can be used in the same way, but check out how it looks from behind before you commit. In some ways, it’s just like buying a dress. A lumpy backside can ruin the look.