How to choose between broken plan or open plan for your project

The first thing you probably think about when planning a house extension or refurb project is ‘how many walls can we knock down?’ But before you get the sledge hammer out, it might pay to take a slower, more considered approach and think carefully about the type of spaces you want in your home – do you need quiet spaces? Room to reflect? Space away from the kids or a place to work in peace?

Open plan living – where separate rooms have been merged to create one large, airy space – has been popular for a while now. It offers plenty of mood-boosting, natural light and unlimited space for the whole family to spread out and occupy. If you’re looking for a show stopping space that offers the wow factor this big, grand gesture might be the right fit for you. But while it might seem like a fairly straightforward approach if you want to gain a few extra sqms of space, it might not always be the most compatible with our contemporary, nomadic lifestyle.

Plenty of families during lockdown realised that, as much as they love each other, they didn’t necessarily all want to be in the same room at the same time, all on top of each other. Lifestyle changes mean we now want more flexibility. Without the walls and partitions that divide up a space, open plan living can, in some instances, expose some fault lines – the extra noise the space creates or the inability to be able to hide away and seek some privacy. It can be especially tricky when you’re trying to juggle multiple functions and different generations in one space.

Broken plan living or split sections, on the other hand, link semi-private spaces and cosy nooks with small level changes or carefully positioned partitions. The specific uses of each room are retained, but they’re less prescriptive, allowing the spaces to become more personalised and responsive to your own unique needs. There’s still a sense of openness but not so much as to feel overwhelming. Most importantly, broken plan spaces play with privacy and views to create a series of spaces that offer greater intimacy and intrigue. This creates dynamic spaces that don’t reveal themselves all at once like an open plan space – they unfold and delight, holding back and wowing in a more subtle way with their own unique surprises.

With increasingly constrained urban plots or awkward sites, it often means getting creative with what you’ve got. Minimum space standards are often tight, but with a broken plan they can be manipulated to give a greater illusion of space by optimising the vertical height of a space rather than relying on opening out the floorplan. Glass balconies and semi-transparent partitions can provide links and views across and above, while dramatic double-height voids can give a sense of volume and generosity to small spaces. Home offices can be squeezed onto landings, cosy snugs shoehorned into larger spaces, and built-in joinery used to delineate different zones. Even corridors and transitional spaces between ‘rooms’ can become useful space.

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How to choose between broken plan or open plan for your project

How to choose between broken plan or open plan for your project

But which one is the right fit for you and your project?

Here we’ve outlined a couple of things to consider when weighing up the pros and cons of open plan vs broken plan.

Think about your personality – Well designed spaces should support our mental wellbeing. If you’re an extrovert who likes having people over to entertain, the social spaces of an open plan home might appeal. But if you’re introverted, a vast, busy, open plan space is unlikely to work. You’ll need smaller nooks for more solitary time alone or more snug settings for close, one on one conversations.

Think about the uses or ‘scenarios’ you need to integrate in one space – a well-designed home isn’t just about the aesthetics, it’s about creating a home that works for you. It might help to create a checklist of must-have functions and features so that you can start to prioritise certain areas in the home and create a hierarchy of spaces, ranking them in order of importance. That will help you create a layout that naturally flows and makes more sense when you finally come to use it.

Think about the placement of furniture and what existing pieces of design you might want to integrate in the space – An open plan space can often be tricky to furnish as you need to carefully zone the space to fit different uses comfortably next to one another. You’ve lost walls to put furniture against, so you need to think of more creative solutions or find furniture that looks good from behind. It’s therefore worth thinking about the furniture layout from the offset so you’re not left with an empty space and unsure how to fill it.

Think about light sources – if you’ve got a dark property, it might make sense to open everything up and get as much light in as possible. An architect can help you think about orientation and how best to maximise light and position certain spaces.

Think about noise conditions – noise travels quickly in an open plan space. You can still create a sense of openness in the home but you might need to think about introducing balustrades or partitions to help diffuse and soften the noise.

Open plan living hasn’t completely gone out of fashion and it can still work when designed well, creating a bright, spacious home that combines all the functions you need into one vibrant, multi-functional space. But broken plan living could demonstrate a solution for the future, offering a nuanced space that gives an element of privacy while keeping family life at the heart of the home. You don’t even need to go for an all or nothing approach either; you can take elements from each to create a space that’s uniquely yours, by joining up separate rooms and introducing new levels, half walls or architectural fireplaces.

About the Author: Cate St Hill

Author Cate St HillCate St Hill is a home interiors writer, stylist and designer. Her work focuses on simple, everyday interiors that endure beyond trends. Her ethos is all about curating a home with less but better – prioritising simplicity, sustainability and design built to last. Cate is interested in the relationship between wellbeing and interiors, believing that a home should be designed as much around how it feels to be in as the way it looks. Her blog, catesthill.com, has been rated one of the top ten interior blogs in the UK and her work has been featured in Grazia, Elle Decoration, The Telegraph and The Sunday Times.

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