Open Floor Plans: Balancing Energy Efficiency with Multi-functional Spaces, Aging in Place, or Multi-Generational Living

Home design continues to evolve rapidly, with architects, designers and homeowners embracing both innovative and futuristic concepts while holding on to some that have stood the test of time. One of those is the open floor plan. There are two primary types of layouts in modern construction: a closed floor plan and an open floor plan. Open floor plans prioritize open spaces, with fewer separations between major rooms, encouraging bonding and communication.

Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright began designing homes with large open living spaces in the post-war years, combining dining areas and living areas, that were typically separated and united by a large open fireplace. Formality was giving way to a more casual family and entertaining attitude, the result of the baby boom of the late forties extending into the early sixties. Young growing families were making traditional house footprints feel suddenly cramped, and the open floor plans of the midcentury modern decor style offered additional flexibility for reconfiguring the space as family needs changed.

The kitchen cooking area became the hub for social activity in open floor plans. Terms like open floor plan, open concept, or great room became a desirable feature when buying or building a home, and by the 1990s, open floor plans had become almost the norm for new construction.

The new millennium sparked a shift away from open floor plans. Open concept spaces can be more challenging to heat and cool effectively, and the increased density in Canada’s cities and towns was creating a desire for more privacy. Takeout and heat-and-serve meal options were replacing family meal preparation and just hanging out together in the kitchen. The biggest driver, however, was the rise of streaming internet services. Instead of families sitting together to watch a movie, binge-watch a TV series or enjoy a game, they had become segregated in individual rooms based on personal media preferences.

How the pandemic changed the way we live

During pandemic lockdowns, remote work arrangements and school closures, households were forced to spend more time at home. Almost overnight, our homes became the “everything space” for work, school, play, and socializing, and that has led to significant changes in daily life and a reevaluation of housing needs. Families found themselves cut off from the elderly, and family members needing special care. Supply chain issues had shaken people’s trust in the system, and many households desired to be more self-sufficient. These are some of the most significant changes:

1. A desire for more space: Families felt cooped up under the lockdown measures, which increased the demand for more square footage to accommodate home offices, gyms, larger kitchen and entertainment spaces and permanent play areas for children.

2. A shift away from urban centres: Cut off from the city amenities and the short commutes that had prompted families to settle in urban areas, they began to move out of the expensive urban areas. Living on a spacious lot with a garden, or perhaps a small homestead with livestock became the dream for many. This exodus contributed to the white-hot seller’s market in less dense suburban and rural areas, with a corresponding rise in housing prices.

3. Flex spaces: For families that could not afford to uproot and move out to the suburbs, with floor space already over-utilized, flex rooms offered additional functionality to the existing square footage. Flex rooms allow a space to fulfill two or more roles. An area may serve as a home office by day, but around 5:00 the desk is unplugged from the socket in the floor and rolled into a hidden closet. Bins with toys are pulled out for the children. The wall-mounted TV that displays Zoom meetings during the business day, and the couch in the waiting area now enable the kids to watch cartoons or play video games. The transition could also be from an office to a home gym or guest room.

4. Kitchens: The kitchen became the heart of the home again; the new living room. It’s where the family’s days begin, the place where meals are cooked and enjoyed together, the table or island on which homework is completed, and most importantly, it’s where the family catches up, bonds and creates memories. For many Canadian homes, it’s become the social hub and the most used room in the house, and they discovered the existing floor plan no longer worked.

5. Entertainment rooms: The pandemic caused a significant shift towards increased in-home entertainment and media consumption. The amount of electronic media equipment in homes, especially in children’s bedrooms, increased by 10-29% during the lockdown, reflected in the purchases of TVs, gaming consoles and smartphones. Subscriptions to streaming services increased by 16% during the pandemic, as movie theatres and other out-of-home options were shut down. Time spent on online TV/video consumption increased significantly, from 1.7 hours per week on average to 7 hours per week. As homes became the “everything space” an increased demand was placed on electronic media equipment and home theatres, with less emphasis on physical activity equipment and outdoor play.

6. Aging in place: The social and physical isolation of the elderly during the pandemic amplified the loneliness for many, cutting off those living in nursing homes and extended care facilities from their families. Depression, anxiety, and chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and death were some of the risks associated with feelings of uncertainty, isolation and loneliness in seniors. Post-pandemic, there’s a growing trend for middle-aged and senior adults to prepare a flexible space on the ground floor so they will be able to age in place when the time comes.

7. Multigenerational living: Also, in response to the isolation of the elderly during the pandemic, many families began renovating to create open-concept spaces that can be used as a suite for aging parents, college and university-age children, and those who are struggling financially.


1. Enhanced social interaction: Eliminating barriers between living spaces such as the kitchen, dining area and living room with open floor plans creates a seamless flow. This can encourage family members and guests to connect and converse more easily. In a multigenerational setting, it can offer the opportunity for more shared experiences, family gatherings and memories. Grandparents and grandchildren have the opportunity to develop a much deeper and more significant relationship. One of the greatest advantages of a multigenerational household is the significant reduction in the cost of living, providing everyone contributes. Sharing expenses can help you save for your children’s education, assist your parents, help children save for a home, or even afford a vacation home to give yourself a break.

2. Improved natural light and ventilation: With open layouts, it’s usually easier to incorporate large windows and skylights that allow more light into your spaces. With fewer interior walls, natural light can penetrate deeper into your home. Increased exposure to natural light not only creates a more inviting and uplifting atmosphere but also reduces the need for artificial lighting during daylight hours, which can provide significant energy savings. Improved airflow in open spaces can enhance indoor air quality and comfort, especially when coupled with strategic cross-ventilation techniques. Cross-ventilation is the natural flow of air through a building that occurs by having openings, such as windows or doors, on opposite sides of the house, and by limiting the airflow restrictions caused by walls and partitions.

3. Flexibility in Design and Furnishing: The absence of walls and partitions in open floor plans provides greater flexibility in designing and furnishing your living spaces. Without predefined room boundaries, you can adapt the layout to suit your specific needs and preferences, whether it involves rearranging furniture for different functions or accommodating changes in your family’s lifestyle over time. This versatility can be particularly beneficial for multi-generational households, where diverse preferences and requirements are likely to exist.

4. Perceived spaciousness: If you’re renovating an existing home, you may not be able to do much about the square footage. Open layouts create a sense of expansiveness that can make homes feel larger and more airy. Removing visual obstructions and allowing for uninterrupted sight lines across multiple areas, can make open floor plan designs create a feeling of spaciousness and increased freedom of movement. This perceived spaciousness can also be advantageous if you’re trying to maximize the perceived value of your property without necessarily increasing its footprint.

Potential drawbacks

1. Challenges in Privacy and Noise Control: One of the greatest advantages of open layouts is they promote social interaction, but this can also present challenges in terms of privacy and controlling noise. Without the physical barriers provided by walls and doors, activities in one area of your home may disrupt family members within the same or adjacent spaces. This can lead to potential conflicts, especially in multi-generational households where individuals may have different schedules and lifestyle preferences.

The potential drawbacks of a multigenerational household are the relationships. If an in-law is difficult to handle every year at Christmas, that person could become impossible if under the same roof.

2. Energy inefficiency: The expansive, interconnected spaces in typical open floor plans can make it more challenging to regulate indoor temperatures efficiently. The desire to create custom temperature zones could lead to increased heating and cooling loads, particularly in multi-generational arrangements. A teen son may open the sliding door to let in the cool breeze, while grandma turns on a space heater because she then feels cold. The lack of physical barriers could result in heat loss or gain, particularly during periods of extreme weather, necessitating higher energy consumption to maintain thermal comfort for everyone.

3. Limited Storage and Organization Options: The absence of enclosed rooms and walls in open floor plans can limit your opportunities for storage closets and organization. Without designated storage areas or closets, you may find yourself struggling to find adequate space for stowing your belongings, which could lead to clutter and disorganization. This can be particularly problematic in multi-generational households, where the accumulation of possessions from several generations could exacerbate your storage challenges.

Achieving balance

To optimize the benefits of open floor plans, while addressing potential drawbacks, you can work with your designers to employ several strategies:

Integrate sustainable design principles: Whether you’re building a new custom home or remodelling, incorporating energy-efficient features such as high-performance windows, super insulation, and advanced HVAC systems can mitigate the energy consumption associated with open layouts. With a new build, passive design strategies, such as orienting the home to optimize solar gain and natural ventilation, can further enhance energy efficiency while minimizing the reliance on mechanical systems.

Implement zoning and flexible partitioning: Consider creating zones within your open floor plan to separate different functional areas, while maintaining positive visual connectivity. Movable partitions, such as sliding doors or folding screens, can provide more flexibility in space usage while accommodating varying privacy needs. Family members can customize their living space according to their preferences, while still enjoying the benefits of open layouts.

Design for accessibility and universal design: For aging in place or multigenerational living, integrating principles of universal design can ensure that your home is accessible and adaptable for household members of all ages and abilities. Incorporating features such as wide doorways, level thresholds, and barrier-free showers will enhance accessibility and promote aging in place.

Optimize your storage solutions: You’ll want to work with your designer to explore innovative storage solutions, such as built-in cabinetry, maximizing under-utilized spaces, and multifunctional furniture, to make the best use of the storage capacity within your open floor plan. Include organizational systems and decluttering strategies to maintain order and efficiency in a multi-generational living environment.

The takeaway

The debate surrounding open layouts in today’s homes reflects a complex interplay of factors such as energy efficiency, aging in place, and multi-generational living. While open floor plans offer quite a few benefits, including enhanced social interaction, natural light, and flexibility in design, they also present some challenges related to privacy, energy efficiency, and accessibility. By carefully balancing these considerations and implementing appropriate design strategies, you and your designer can arrive at an environment that optimizes the advantages of open layouts while addressing the diverse needs and preferences of your household.

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