Open Concept Done Right

By Jerry Kingwill  

   If the phrase open concept and the thought of knocking down a wall or two in your home gives you a little twitch of excitement, hold on. For those not yet in the know, open concept refers to an open floor plan where walls and other barriers between rooms are removed to create open, mixed-use living spaces. For example, rather than separate rooms for living, dining, and kitchen, walls are taken down to create an open, airier space. 

     It's a wonderful idea for Northern New England where small rooms can increase cabin fever in the long winter months. By contrast, large, open spaces can create longer sightlines and a sense of warmth in the winter and a breezy, open space in summer. 

     However, whether you're remodeling your current space or building from the ground up, there are several important factors to consider, not the least of which is, with all the excitement on countless HGTV shows for an open concept, some people launch ahead and tear down a load-bearing wall. A big and costly oops. 

     Here are some situations you may not have considered and food for thought when it comes to seeking help from a professional, which could result in a much better and perhaps less-costly outcome. 

how will this new design affect my lifestyle? 

     Are you a people person? If not, open-concept spaces might not be the right fit for you. Life without walls become a more intimate style of living. guests will be able to see all your personal belongings, and everyone on the first floor of the house will be able to see what everyone else is up to. Working at his desk, Dad may not appreciate his teenage daughter watching TV on the other side of the room and Mom making dinner not too many steps away. 

     With greater visibility throughout the home, it becomes imperative to keep your space neat. You will no longer be able to simply shut a door to hide a cluttered room. Less privacy also means that you will have to be ready and willing to take on a new open-concept entertaining lifestyle. 

     Another consideration that can get lost in the moment: If you remove several walls, people will be able to see thorough your entire house from the sidewalk. If this causes you to question your decision to open up your house, consider keeping some of your defining functional spaces intact or coming up with creative ways to define and break up the spaces where needed. 

where did all the outlets go, and where can we have the art? 

     When you remove walls, you remove surface area that once housed electrical outlets and provided space for art and photos. How will you plan to have adequate plug-ins for all your electrical devices? (Don't forget chargers!) And how will you hide the wires in your open floor-plan design? These are dilemmas that contractors can help you work through. Planning can save you here. Think about placing outlets on your kitchen island, or purchasing side tables that come with USB ports. 

     Planning can also help you understand the new decorating challenges and advantages of an open plan. For example, area rugs can help define spaces, and furniture can be used to create intimate areas within the space, Lighting and color schemes can also create new possibilities. 

What about flow? 

     How will people move from one space to the next? Is there a natural rhythm and flow to the room, or does passing from one area to the next feel awkward? Incorporating ample room for circulation will ensure that your life without enclosed hallways will not become a never-ending cycle of navigating around furniture to get from one space to another. You also don't want to defeat the purpose of an open floor plan by cluttering it with furniture and other items. 

     You might consider replacing your oversized family furniture with smaller, more streamlined pieces to conserve space. Furniture layout can also passively help guide movement through and around the space, as can lighting strategies such as stylish track lighting or rugs. 

Why is there an echo? and the picture window looks off! 

     Will the location of doors, windows, light fixtures, electrical outlet, columns, and partitions be affected by the remodel? Where are the plumbing, gas, and sewage lines located? How will you cope with the new acoustics of the space?

     How will you accommodate the new and more challenging task of heating and cooling the space? Where will you adjust the placement of bathrooms and stairways? This is where hiring the right contractor comes in. Look for a company with: 

  • a track record of successfully working with the architectural community, and 
  • an in-house staff that knows systems as well as general construction methods. 

     In the real world, you should never have one of those HGTV moments. A contractor should never come to you during the work to say, "Gosh, we didn't know that ductwork was in this wall." Not knowing the science of general construction and what to look for during an inspection can lead to delays and extra costs. 

No question here: quality renovation or building is in the details

     During a recent renovation project here in Concord, we were asked to take two lovely existing spaces, a formal living room and an adjoining sunroom, and remove the exterior walls, doors, and a chimney to make on larger, more informal space. Seems simple enough, but we identified a few challenges and resolved them before the work began and before they became expensive headaches. 

     These included: 

  • adding a steel beam to carry the second floor and roof loads;
  • removing a full masonry chimney from the roof line to the basement; 
  • upgrading the sunroom windows; 
  • patching existing hardwood flooring at the chimney footprint;
  • balancing heating and cooling needs;
  • upgrading the trim details in the sunroom to match the formal living room; and 
  • addressing new local codes. 

     The goal was to make the rooms look like they had always existed as one space. The client achieved this by allowing some of the hardwood flooring to be removed so new flooring could be woven in and finished to match. Period trim and crown and base molding also were templated and reproduced in a  custom millwork shop. 

     The architect on this project did a great job by designing a new, updated two-sided fireplace with unique trim details and solid surfaces that blended with earlier renovations to the home's kitchen. 

     Lastly, mechanical systems were updated by removing old knob-and-tube wiring and installing new wiring to meet local codes. WE also dealt with the two pre-existing heating systems that alone could not heat both spaces. A new split HVAC unit was added with a heat-pump element that balances the existing systems. 

     A word on codes: Building codes are always challenging to keep up with. Your contractor should advise you of any local requirements. It's a safe bet that if you are moving wiring or plumbing or structurally changing your space, a permit and code review will be required. 

     All the above may seems like a lot, but with a good plan and the right team, you can efficiently recreate the space in your home to one that feels natural, warm, and aesthetically pleasing- and increases the value of your biggest investment. 

 

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