Open plan flat design

Posted on 13 June 2012 0 comments

New build flats in Britain are dominated by open plan layouts. How does this affect the design of these homes? In flats, an open plan layout usually means a combined kitchen/dining/living space.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of open plan layouts?


Better use of space?

Open plan layouts help give a greater sense of space by combining different rooms (kitchen, dining and living) into one area.

More social?

The kitchen is often described as the heart of the home nowadays – a place to socialise as well as to cook. (Whether this actually represents reality is another matter!) Connecting the kitchen to the living room facilitates this idea of a social space.

Entertaining guests might feel easier or more convivial in an open plan design: you can continue chatting to your guests while you prepare something in the kitchen.

Similarly, if you have young children, an open plan layout can help you keep an eye on them while you work in the kitchen.


In a double or dual-aspect home (i.e. with windows at the front and back of the house or flat), an open plan layout lets light flood in from two directions. In fact, creating a light and airy space is often touted as one of the principal advantages of open plan designs. Of course, you can have ‘light and airy’ rooms without them being open plan. And not all open plan layouts are light and spacious either.

Would you still opt for an open plan layout even if every room in your home felt light and airy? A layout where you can close off rooms with sliding partitions will only work if the rooms still feel spacious when they’re closed off.


There are some disadvantages to open plan layouts, some of which relate more to personal preference and habits.

Noise and cooking smells

Noise and smells from the kitchen can intrude into the living room when you have a combined kitchen and living space. This might not be a problem if you live by yourself, but if you share your home with someone else, will the noise from the kitchen disturb their activities? If you have a washing machine in your kitchen, the noise will be particularly intrusive. Even appliances like a refrigerator emit a low but audible hum.


In winter, you will be heating the entire open plan space even when parts of that space (such as the kitchen) are not in use.


Any clutter or mess in the kitchen won’t be hidden from view (not necessarily a problem for everyone)

Lack of privacy?

Sometimes an open plan layout can give you a feeling of too little privacy when you share your home with others. I mentioned earlier the example of keeping an eye on young children and how an open plan space can help in this regard. But what if you share your home with adults or teenagers? Would you prefer more separate spaces in this type of situation (e.g. a kitchen/dining room separate from the living room)? In an open plan home, if the bedroom becomes the only place to retreat from other household members, is that enough?

I think these advantages and disadvantages show that open plan living doesn’t suit everyone. Can any one design ever satisfy all these different needs?

Floor plans for flats

Open plan flat layouts can be designed with many different variations. The shape of the dwelling will affect the type of open plan layout possible.

Here is a common shape for a new build, one bedroom flat:

common shape for a new build, one bedroom flat

How would you lay out the interior so it includes a bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and some storage space? There's not much scope for variation. Would the layout be roughly similar to this?

common floor plan for a new build, one bedroom flat

The floorplan above is a typical layout used by the volume housebuilders. Is it possible to design anything other than this layout (with minor variations) given the flat’s single aspect constraint and the proportions of the space? Probably not. Perhaps that explains why architect-designed schemes tend to use the same layout too.

floor plan comparison of one bed flats
A collection of one bed flat designs. Click for a larger view. This graphic is from a previous post on the dismal state of housing design in the UK.

Here’s a photo of a fairly typical open plan, single-aspect flat. This is from an architect-designed apartment block. Is it unfair to describe this as a living room with a bunch of kitchen cabinets thrown across the back?

Interior of a one bedroom flat
Estate Agents have clearly discovered the wide angle lens. This picture, taken from a property website, appears to be distorted to give the impression of a room larger than it actually is.

The floorplan below is from a 1930s flat from an apartment block in North-west London. Would you choose this layout over the open plan design above? (I would!)

floor plan for a 1930s one bedroom flat

If we remove the interior layout of this 1930s flat we can immediately see that the shape of this space, with its wide frontage, offers much greater design possibilities than the narrow frontage flat we looked at previously.

empty floor plan for a 1930s one bedroom flat

Below is a layout for a one bedroom (single aspect) flat by Swedish practice White Arkitekter. This is just one apartment in a wider design of houses and apartment blocks that will form part of a residential development in Salford.

one bedroom, single aspect flat by Swedish practice White Arkitekter

Like the 1930s flat, this apartment also has a wide frontage. Here the kitchen is connected to the living room but retains some sense of being separate. The kitchen is also exposed to natural light and ventilation and leads directly onto the balcony (recessed to retain privacy).

Below is another flat design, this time from a volume housebuilder. You can see here that even a small increase in the frontage of the apartment opens up additional layout options: the kitchen here has it’s own window too.

one bedroom flat floor plan

Here’s our original single aspect one bedroom flat. If we can’t change the narrow frontage but we can make the flat dual aspect (i.e. with windows at the front and back of the flat), what design possibilities does that open up?

empty dual aspect floor plan for a one bedroom flat

Here’s an example of a double-aspect flat with a short frontage (and long length). It was designed by the German architect Heinrich Lauterbach and built as part of a prototype housing estate in the German town of Crailsheim in 1950. These were homes of small size and low cost construction. The estate was sponsored by the Building and Housing Research Association, Stuttgart.

double-aspect flat with a short frontage and long length

The double aspect nature of this flat makes a big difference to it’s layout when compared with the single aspect layout from earlier. The rooms are connected with sliding doors to open up the small spaces. There is no bathroom in this layout, just a toilet or WC. Bathrooms were housed separately in the basement of the housing block and shared by several families. Obviously this would be unacceptable today, but this flat design could easily be adapted to include a bathroom without a radical change in layout. Overall, this 1950s flat seems much more appealing and better designed than the single aspect flats so common today.

Mass or volume housebuilding will always give us homes of small or modest size. Do the volume housebuilders give us open plan layouts because it represents the best possible design solution? Or because it’s the cheapest option for them?

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