The Importance of Open Floor Plans in Affordable New Home Design

February 2011

Written by Brent Norton

The Importance of Open Floor Plans in Affordable New Home Design When it comes to square footage and floor plans in new homes and condominiums, bigger is no longer considered better.

Today's American home buyer is thinking smaller and opting for affordable, more modestly-sized homes. With less overall floor space, the emphasis in home design has shifted from partitioned, single-use rooms to flexible floor plans that use all available space to accommodate a variety of uses and lifestyles, allowing buyers to custom tailor their homes to their specific needs.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) suggests the trend toward more-efficient homes will likely continue beyond the current recession. As a builder, you can capitalize on this trend toward smaller homes by offering customers a flexible floor plan.

Smaller homes call for open floor plans
The modern open floor plan was generally popularized over the last two decades. "[Older homes] used all the walls and doors primarily because of poor heating efficiency," says James Huston, owner of Huston General Contracting, Inc. in Hayward, California. "Homeowners wanted walls, doors and lower ceilings to keep the draftiness down and conserve on fuel consumption."

Many of today's homebuyers prefer more open, flexible spaces. Huston notes that most of the older home renovations he executes involve removing obstructions in order to create more space. In new construction, fewer walls and doors also typically equate to lower build costs, he adds.

For the homeowner, open floor plans lend themselves to a feeling of greater interior spaciousness, a key benefit in a smaller home. Such plans reduce the number of interior walls and doorways, allowing rooms to blend into one another while making mobility, entertaining or just keeping an eye on the kids a lot easier.

Designing an effective open plan
Principal Stephen Reilly of SLR Architecture, Inc. in Newton, Mass., employs several strategies to maximize smaller, open floor plans, including diagonal views and layering techniques. "Diagonal views are the longest in any room…if a building is planned so that rooms and spaces are entered at the corners that feeling of spaciousness is enhanced. Layering also helps with framed openings or windows that add to the feeling like there is more space than there actually is. To make homes feel larger, interior windows and diagonal views are maximized."

Reilly also notes that, where possible, consolidation of functional aspects of the home can open up more livable space in a small footprint: "Another trick that saved interior space was the front door and side door were combined which allowed for a more efficient and smaller floor plan, saving the budget for things more important to the owner," Reilly says of a home he recently designed.

And it's not just about maximizing the footprint, Reilly suggests. "Height is another important factor in the illusion of more space…even a small double height space or natural light from above it will make a space seem larger."

Adaptability and flexibility
A key benefit to open floor plan design is adaptability. According to registered interior designer Holly Meadows Baird, LEED AP, ID&C of Powell Design + Construction Studios in Nashville, Tenn., "In a small home, space is at a premium," she says. "An open floor plan allows the homeowner to decide how they need to use the space. And as those needs change, they have the flexibility to redefine and adapt their space as necessary." The flipside is that some buyers may have a difficult time establishing those spaces or desire more privacy from area to area.

"With strategic staging, a seller can showcase how the space could be delineated to create individual areas with furniture, lighting, area rugs, plants, or even room dividers," Meadows Baird says.

Beyond form, Meadows Baird suggests open plans also provide energy savings by way of sustainable design features: "Well-placed windows in an open floor plan home have a much greater effect, increasing daylight and views throughout the space," she adds. "Using daylight as the primary source of ambient light in the home will decrease energy costs. If the climate of the area permits, using an operable window to ventilate a large portion of the home in an open floor plan home and can reduce energy consumption as well."

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