It wasn’t until the pandemic, and the necessary quarantine, that Debra Geller realized her Huntington Station house’s lovely open floor plan may have been a little too open.
"We have a ranch, and I was working in what was the dining room, and my husband was in the kitchen attached to the dining room, my daughter was downstairs, and my son in his bedroom," says Geller, 51, who had worked from home before the pandemic and now works from home as an information technology project manager for Maryland's Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. "It was a convolution of crazy noise, and concentration became hard."
She and her husband Gregg, 51, who owns a marketing and communications firm, realized they needed a way to cordon off areas of the house so they could continue to work from home alongside their two teenagers, but without losing the feeling of openness and flow Debra loved. While he has continued working in the kitchen, the old dining room formally became Geller's office, closed off by glass barn doors that let in light. The old living room is now a large dining room. The cost, including for electrical and painting, came to about $5,000, Geller says.
The new layout still includes a den, but the kids do their entertaining in the finished basement. Debra Geller says the family hadn’t used the formal living room much, so that morphed into a large formal dining room that was more important for family gatherings.
"I absolutely love it," she says.
A new need for privacy
America’s love affair with open floor plans is still ongoing — the grand sweeping views, the natural light, the ability to gather as a family. But the pandemic has exposed some flaws — lack of private space and echoing acoustics in wide-open spaces. Some homeowners, like the Gellers, are putting up or moving walls. Some are adding temporary nooks within the open rooms by adding half walls or screens. And pocket doors are making a comeback, which offers the flexibility of temporarily closing off an area.
For Maggie Keats, who sells luxury homes in the Manhasset area for Douglas Elliman, the kitchen/great room concept isn’t going away, but there she is seeing a new appreciation for separate spaces.
"Buyers are starting to realize they need noise barriers, spaces for privacy, walls to hang art," she says. "I don’t think we will see things compartmentalized, but relationships between rooms have become important."
Open floor plans got a huge boost when they became a staple on the popular HGTV "House Hunters" shows, which always include a large kitchen/living/dining area, usually called a great room. The shows feature a sweeping visual of the area, usually all white, which feels expensive and modern. The concept allows parents to watch the kids in the great room while cooking in the kitchen, and the layout is perfect for entertaining.
According to a 2017 survey by the National Association of Home Builders, while people love open floor plans, they also see an advantage to having some separation. The survey showed that 45% of homebuyers were looking for a completely open kitchen/dining area, while 41% said they preferred a partially open space.
Bari Klein agrees with the benefits of having some separate areas. Currently working with architects to design a new family home in Sands Point, she initially told them she wanted an open floor plan, she says. But when they explained just how open that would be, she said, "No! No! That is not what I want!"
She says she realized that with two children she wants a great room/kitchen layout, but also some separation in other areas of the home as well, for privacy. "The kids will have their own space, a play area," Klein says.
"People are really rethinking their lives," says Nancy Fire, of Nancy Fire Design of Manhattan and East Quogue, whose clients include HGTV and the Food Network. "People are figuring out how to live together and work together."
Families still want to have that one kitchen/great room area in which to congregate, she says, but personal space has become important, too, especially since remote working does not seem to be going away any time soon.
Making rooms multifunctional
Eric Smith of Eric J. Smith Architect of Manhattan, who does work in the Hamptons and the North Shore of Nassau County, says people are asking for a more hybrid open floor plan layout, such as a kitchen and family room, but perhaps with pocket doors that would close off some areas to create separate spaces.
"A lot of it has to do with traffic flow, and noise is also part of the conversation," Smith says. "Rooms are rooms, and they have doors and windows and privacy. There is a subconscious comfort that people have in those spaces."
Still, open floor plans have their benefits, including flow and light.
"My barometer is that you can walk through the house during the day without turning on a light," Smith says. "The work is how to make rooms multifunctional." One way is to change the use of a rarely used formal room, he says, much like what the Gellers have done with their living room.
For Kevin Lichten, a Manhattan-based architect based who also works on Long Island, there is a big call for separate office spaces. In a large house that can be easier, for example, turning a library or home theater into an office, but with smaller homes, there is less square footage to play with.
"For a long time, we did very large kitchens with family rooms with soft seating," Lichten says. "But across the hall from the kitchen, with pocket doors that you can open when you want that open feeling, and close into more discrete rooms." Pocket doors are being installed as large at 10 feet high by 10 feet wide, he added. "This way, when they close the door, the sound isn’t ricocheting all over the house."
Still, big rooms with large sectionals continue to be popular, as families spend more time together.
"I wouldn’t say open space is dead," says Ann Conroy, CEO of the Long Island brokerage division of Douglas Elliman. "The open layout makes the home look larger. I would say it’s part of the home, but it’s also about having places to retreat."
"COVID did really change what homes look like," she says.
Renovations are not always the solution to creating new personal spaces in a home for work, play and rest. Designers and architects have some advice on how to carve out niches in your home.
- Set up a corner using screens or other buffers to create a yoga or mindfulness spot.
- Consider outdoor spaces as sources of refuge, even in cooler weather. A pretty patio carefully landscaped can be a place of rest. Use outdoor heaters to keep warm.
- Use a "she shed" or "he shed" as a work space, as long as it has electricity, heat and WiFi. Although he had a beautiful home, novelist John Steinbeck used to write in a small octagonal hut on his Sag Harbor property.
- Turn rooms into hybrid spaces. A small foldable desk can be used in a guest room, and then moved out when needed for overnight visitors.
- Rethink rooms and their functionality. A formal living room that rarely gets used can be repurposed for more urgent needs, like office space or a playroom.