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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Open Plan

Hi.

We shall not wax poetic today. I trust this will not make you wax wroth.

Let's talk about the home. Um, your home. Er, my home. Ah, you know, homes.
Man that's a lot of ground to cover. Is there any advice I can give you about Homes, that's applicable to all of them, or at least many of them? I think so. We'll endeavor to leave local idiosyncrasies out of it, and stick to general themes that have served me and my clients well over the years.

1.Beware the open plan.
Look, I'm not telling you not to go to the zoo, but I am warning you against sticking your fingers into the cages without reading the signs first. The open plan has become the industry standard for housing layout in America. Every home improvement show for years had some avuncular host in a newly plastered room, waving his arms like Mussolini at the balcony and talking about "the space." Ah yes, " the space."

Now, I went to Architecture school in the seventies, and Bruno Zevi and his text, Architecture as Space was the default design text. I learned all about it. I got an "A." Aren't I swell?

Well, I took my "A," and then burned that book, and discarded all that hooey. The kind of affectation that it takes to say you're in a space, instead of a room, or a series of rooms, is beyond my meager ego. And every time I hear someone say it, I smirk, because I know I'm gong to hear something trite and silly in a moment, about "the space."

Worrying about "the space" is what designers who are amusing themselves and making an unlivable house are busy doing instead of their jobs. Which is to say, they're not thinking of the occupants of the house, and their comfort, but are looking to impress, to be heroic. Well, you can't live in the Arc de Triomphe, and you can't live in a space. You live in a series of rooms, which are defined in a myriad of ways, sometimes only as suggestions, sometimes as partitions, but always giving the occupants and their guests the visual and tactile clues they require to be comfortable in a home.

The open plan became an absolute good to the space crowd, and I've been in really enormous houses, tens of thousands of square feet, no expense spared, and the only difference between them and a two bedroom ranch with an open plan is that one is a bowling alley, and the other is a dirigible hangar. The effect is similar, though; the poor humans rattle around in there like pinballs, and never get privacy, intimate acoustic qualities, segregation of activity, or even the simple thrill of slamming a door on your antagonist in an argument.

The open plan was designed to accommodate post war America's very small house for the masses. Everybody needed a house, right now, and big Victorians and Colonial Revivals were out of the question. They had to be built right away, fit on small lots, and be affordable. So wise designers integrated several rooms together, to make the whole seem like more than the sum of the parts. They avoided claustrophobia by increasing sightlines in houses that were sometimes only 32 feet long. Well, I've been in many houses with open plans recently that have single rooms over twice that long. Linking them together willy-nilly is madness. It's not claustrophobia that's the problem anymore, it's agoraphobia.

The ultimate manifestation of this trend is the vaulted family room. The kitchen, dining, casual dining, and family room is all ganged together, and the family room has a trussed peaked ceiling, or worse, a plastered vaulted ceiling. Everybody sees that and thinks: how capacious, how luxurious, how easy it will be to accommodate my brood in that big space.

Then they try to live in it. The family room is the media shrine. You can fit some big couches in there, no doubt, and a big screen, and the cook isn't isolated in a kitchen alone, away from the family any longer. But the acoustics are AWFUL. The sound bounces around in there, and the dialog in movies, already mad indistinct with music and THX, is indecipherable because of the echo. So the volume goes up, and everyone in that home has to hear it, at flight deck volume, and the phone call becomes a plea to TURN THAT THING DOWN! What? What did you say? Bruce Willis just blew something up, and I didn't catch that.

Even simple conversation is difficult, and you grow weary of your voice clanging off that far away ceiling and making you shout, when a whisper should do.

And that open plan maybe doesn't seem so swell, when you've got several teenagers, and maybe a toddler too, and the zoo of noises makes everyone miserable, and makes every connected room into one big rumpus room.

Imagine this. The kitchen's really big, and has a table right in it, that can hold your family and the food, hot from the oven. Your children can do their homework under your watchful eye there too. The kids finished with their homework are watching the screen in room adjacent, a room with a lower, cozier ceiling height, and enclosed enough to allow some privacy. How about a big arched opening, with glass doors that can be closed to keep the sound in, and allow the studious cohort to concentrate, and the entertainment crew to avoid hearing the sink running, and the appliances, and so forth.

The parent can still see in there, through the glass, and know when to go in and say Knock It Off, as required. Add a niche somewhere, close at hand, with a table top for the phone, and perhaps a laptop, and the phone. There's room to sit, just a perch if need be, where you can talk a bit, and lean into an enclosed area, and hear, and concentrate, and not shout. There's a passage to the outside nearby, with a place to put your "going out" belongings and gear, but the slamming door and the blast of winter air, if you've got that, doesn't chill the occupants and distract.

If there's a stairs for access to the second floor, it's nowhere near the seating areas, it's enclosed in its own room, to keep the noise down, and the endless draft that rolls down it away from the seating area. And you won't have to hear the refrigerator hum all night even when you're uptairs, or the disconcerting plop of the icemaker turning over. The dishwasher churn and the clink of plates and so forth can be banished from the sleeping areas if you can close a door on it. And heaven help you if you have a pet and you want to keep them out of somewhere in an open plan, and don't own a cattle prod.

Well, you already spent those hundreds of thousands of dollars building the medieval hall for your common rooms, and housing doesn't allow many of us to tear it down and start over again. You can tinker, but you there's no do-over. The bones have to be good, or you'll never get the flesh on them properly. All you can do is suffer along with it, or move, and sell your house to the next guy.

You can listen to the realtor bring them in, wave their arms around in the cavern you tried to live in, and say " Just look at this space."

Try not to smirk.

Tomorrow:
Who needs a front door?

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