JP Observer: A second look at ‘open floor plan’ living

Jamaica Plain tends to embrace cutting edge concepts readily. Focus on the environment and shopping locally started decades ago, for example, and has expanded. But people in JP have also been known to dismiss popular trends such as building parklets in parking spaces.

In that spirit, maybe it’s time to also examine more closely the fashionable “open floor plan” design for new and remodeled living spaces here. Open floor plans feature no walls between living room, dining room and kitchen.

Open floor plan fans want party guests to see each other and mingle easily, according to the Home and Garden TV (HGTV) website. The designers add that “blending functions” of the three rooms also makes the space look bigger.

They admit that any clutter is more obvious. The kitchen, for example, should be straightened up every time it’s used.

“Cluttered homes are mentally draining,” the Feng Shui Happy Home Zone website says.

Residents who share common space without walls also risk giving up quiet and privacy. Any TV show, music, conversation, food preparation, board game or telephone call is shared with everyone, unless special steps are taken. Good luck trying to concentrate on reading a book in the common space when others are home.

Photos of several houses in the Sept. 7 Globe Magazine showed open-plan kitchen counters and stools. Placed next to the open dining area, as they often are, the redundancy looks silly—and makes the space function more like a bar, fast food place or cafeteria than a home. The high stools are uncomfortable, especially for children, and encourage brief stays.

Feng Shui Happy Home Zone warns against open kitchen/dining combinations, saying exposed surfaces attract clutter, while “secluded” dining rooms invite conversation.

Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the open floor plan in the early 20th century, but it didn’t catch on widely. The style got a boost in JP when the loft craze in New York City spread north in the 1980s. Factory buildings with few interior walls, such as several in the Brookside neighborhood, made great “artist live/work spaces,” and a change to the Boston zoning code allowed that.

New loft units with open “bedrooms” (sometimes on raised platforms built by the occupants) were then marketed to everyone. The full loft design morphed back into living spaces with actual bedrooms in the 1990s. To this day, many new units have no walls in common areas, keeping builders’ costs lower. Removing walls in older houses, on the other hand, is often quite expensive.

Even if the occupants are tidy, it’s hard to make big, open living spaces look attractive. The function areas can’t be given distinct styles and colors, or the space would appear chaotic and jarring. With no walls to separate them, it is thought that furnishings have to blend. That means the décor tends to be bland.

For JP residents who become disenchanted with the open floor plan, there’s good news. It’s relatively inexpensive and easy to put up good looking, functional walls.

Sandra Storey was the founding editor and publisher of the Gazette and lives in Jamaica Plain.

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