Open Plan Living – Part 2

Jeanette Mercer Interior Design Leave a Comment

Open plan living

Part 2  – Making open plan living work for you

In Part 1 of this blog we looked at whether open plan living is right for you and your home. In Part 2, we’ll be working on the assumption you have decided to go ahead, and looking at how you can make open plan living work for you.

I’ve worked on the Ask an Expert stand at Grand Designs Live several times now, and one subject comes up again and again: open plan living. The people I advised varied in the stage they were at, had different questions to ask me, and the plans they brought with them showed a variety of layouts, but the overall theme was clear – how do we make this open plan space work?

I found myself repeating one phrase to almost everyone – plan from the inside out. Work out how you want to live in the space and then finalise where walls, windows and doors will go. As I’m an interior designer, you might expect me to be more concerned with interiors than structural walls, but there are some very practical reasons for designing an extension or a conversion in this way.

When you discover that an internal wall can be knocked down, or realise how much you can extend into your plot of land, it’s easy to get excited by about the quantity of space you will have. But extra space is only ‘extra’ if it allows you to do more than you could before, or live in a way that is somehow better than it was before. ‘Better’ can be a variety of things : more sociable, better views, more time with the family, improving mobility for a family member, using space that was hardly used and so on.

What you need to work out is what’s important to you. There is no magical open-plan layout that works for everyone in every type of house. There are some downsides to open-plan living – we looked at some of these in Part 1 – and it’s important to address these at the planning stage.

So here’s a little homework for you, if you haven’t already done this.
1. Make a list of all the activities that will take place in the new space.
2. Make a separate list of all the types of things that you plan to store in the space (group smaller things – eg ‘canned food’ ‘pans’ etc, but list larger items individually, such as the vacuum cleaner.)

Storage is crucial to the success of open plan living. If your plan involves knocking down walls and getting rid of cupboards or smaller rooms, think what was stored in those areas. Most of us focus on the bits we find interesting – new coffee maker / sound system – and forget the dull, everyday stuff. It’s really annoying to create a beautiful new space and then find you have literally nowhere to store the hoover, mop bucket and cat litter out of sight. And speaking of cat litter…. if you have pets, don’t forget their needs when planning your space!

Once you know what you want to do in the space and what you want to keep in it, you can start thinking of ‘zones’ – food preparation, dining, laundry, working, TV watching and so on. There may be an obvious layout for your space, or it may take many hours of puzzling to sort it out. The more you plan at this stage, the more accurate quotes from trades will be, and the less money you’ll waste moving things later. This is particularly true of plumbing and electrics.

Don’t be afraid to use professionals to help – kitchen designers plan kitchens every day and will have a good knowledge of the latest kitchen fixtures and fittings. Interior designers like myself can help you work through the space as a whole, and make the numerous decisions about style, materials and colour you’ll be asked for during the project.

Take your time over the larger purchases – kitchen (if appropriate), flooring, windows, heating, lighting, seating. Many decisions are interrelated – for example do you want underfloor heating? If you do, that will affect the type of flooring you choose. Are you having large windows or folding doors? In the UK most people want curtains or blinds to cover those for our colder, darker months (even if they don’t think they will at the start). But you would be surprised by the number of new properties or extensions I’ve seen where the glass goes so close to the ceiling or side wall there’s barely room to fix a blind. A little forethought can mean you have choice in window coverings, rather than limited options because most won’t fit.

Plan your lighting to be flexible. Rows of ceiling spotlights controlled by one switch may create a lot of light for cooking, but can be annoying for watching TV, chilling out or dining with friends. If your open plan space contains your only living room, make sure you have some ‘cozy space’ – seating that’s truly comfortable, lighting that provides atmosphere, somewhere you’d be happy to curl up on a dark winter’s night or after a hard day.

Open plan spaces, especially those with doors opening to a garden or patio, truly come into their own in warmer weather. I love nothing more than flinging open the folding door in our kitchen as soon as the outside temperature allows. Having a dining and / or seating area near patio doors means you can feel like you’re dining outside without worrying it might rain as you take the first bite.

Choose a liveable, adaptable colour scheme. Too neutral and the space can look bland and lack character. Too much vibrant colour and it may feel overly busy and never restful. Unusual colour combinations may feel dated quickly. If you get it just right however, you’ll have a scheme you’ll be able to update with small touches for years to come. Pay attention to the things you won’t want to change very often – the kitchen, tiles / splash backs, curtains, sofa, colourful appliances. That deep red range cooker is going to affect your colour options for years – make sure you love it! You can vary the proportions of the colours used in the different zones of the room, but the whole thing needs to flow together.

You’ll have gathered from all of this that ‘open plan’ certainly doesn’t mean ‘no plan’. In fact I would strongly recommend you become very familiar with those scale floor plans and set up a system early on to keep the many lists, samples and notes you’ll find yourself with. I’d also recommend taking care to choose the right team and having a contract in place – no decent builder will object to  signing one.

If the amount of decisions and the interrelation between them is looking daunting, don’t give up – it will be worth it. If you need help don’t just hope for the best – drop us a line at or give us a call on 07866 427557.


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