How to go open plan in an old house

Knocking down walls to create a more open plan layout is an increasingly popular trend in period homes, but it must be handled with sensitivity. Architect Neil McKay explains the main considerations

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Period homes are not often thought of as generous open plan spaces conducive to modern living. The very idea seems to go against the character of cosy cottages and pretty terraces. Yet, older properties are increasingly being adapted in order to suit the growing desire for large, light and airy spaces.

When done well, an open plan redesign can enhance your lifestyle as well as the building itself; but older homes are imbued with history and character that once stripped out is hard to return. Knocking down walls in a house that was designed to have smaller rooms will forever alter its atmosphere, so it’s important to ensure you are making the right decision and not fighting the character of the original property.

Open-plan country cottage kitchen-diner with post

While often avoidable with the use of steel beams, timber posts can prove attractive dividers and subtly zone areas in a room, such as in this dining area. See here for more kitchen diner inspiration.

Why go open plan?

Depending on the age and nature of the house, there can be a lot of challenges to creating an open plan layout in a period home. Before assuming that adapting to changing lifestyles requires a wholesale reorganisation, it’s worth asking yourself exactly what you want to achieve in your home, and whether there are easier ways to do it.

Do you want a better connection between spaces? More natural light? Views to the garden? If your home doesn’t really suit your needs or tastes, could it be more economical to move? Could you rethink the way you use the existing rooms? The advice of a good architect at this early stage could save far more than it costs.

If you’ve only recently bought your home, it’s worth living in it for a while before committing to building works. Find out as much as you can about its origins and history. Experience it in every season and get a feel for its existing character before deciding what changes you want to make.

Removing plaster between timbers to create an open plan feel

Removing the plaster in between timbers can be a sensitive option for creating a more open plan feel without knocking down the wall

Will an open plan layout work for my house?

  • Some homes suit being opened up more than others. It’s all about the right context and respecting the character of the building.
  • In cottages, enclosed cosy spaces are part of the character, so going open plan may impact negatively on the feel of the house.
  • Barn or industrial conversions lend themselves better to open-plan spaces, as that is how they were originally intended.
  • Many Victorian semis or terraces can be opened up if they are simple in their interior design.

If you decide you want to open up the interior, firstly check whether your house is listed as, if so, any changes will require listed building consent, even if they are wholly internal. Seek advice from the local conservation officer. Most homes are not listed, but it’s still vital to conserve historic features wherever possible.

Open plan kitchen diner apartment

A central island is a stylish and practical divider in this kitchen-diner. Retaining original features such as fireplaces and mouldings is key

Knocking down walls

It’s important to consider the structural implications. Almost anything can be achieved if you’re willing to pay for it, but working sensitively with the existing structure is likely to look better and cost less. Be aware that it’s not always obvious whether a wall has a structural function – even lightweight timber partitions may be providing support or stability, so ask a structural engineer early on.

Find out more about the how to open up your house by removing or altering internal walls

When it comes to supporting the new opening, the default option is usually to use a steel beam. You could go for exposed timber beams, although you will need more timber for the same span that steel can create. People often want to avoid timber posts in the layout, but they can be attractive features that also help subtly divide areas.

Choosing the right builder

With any works to a historic property, make sure you get the right builders, who understand the nature of old buildings. Traditional construction is generally based on lime mortars and plasters rather than cement and gypsum. Lime allows for flexibility and vapour permeability, and these features are essential to the functioning of older properties.

A good builder will not be short of work, however, so you may find that just taking down a wall is more expensive than you realise.

Internal doors to zone open plan areas

Adding large glazed doors offers the flexibility of closing off areas when needed, but maintains the sense of flow and natural light

What type of open plan layout works best?

In terms of layout, a “dumbbell” plan – where spaces that are less reliant on natural light, such as the kitchen, are placed in the middle, perhaps with the living room at the front and the dining room at the back – can work well.

You also need to think about creating a utility space for noisy appliances, such as washing machines, which can be disruptive when relaxing or entertaining.

How to zone areas

  • Even in big open plan spaces, you have the option of making smaller areas feel distinct.
  • A change in floor level can subtly zone spaces.
  • The use of timber beams acts as an informal divide.
  • You can fit doors to give the flexibility of being able to close off smaller sections where needed.
  • To maintain a sense of flow in the space, you can fit the same flooring throughout, which can also be continued outside, over a level threshold, to link to the garden.

Preserving original features

Original fireplaces, plaster mouldings, internal joinery and windows are very important and you should avoid removing or replacing them at all costs. They give your home its character and add to its value, so plan alterations around them or reuse them elsewhere in the building.

Disrupting the floorboards is also an issue when taking out a wall. Consider whether you can lift and replace original boards, or used reclaimed flooring.

Modern open plan kitchen diner extension

A modern extension to a period home can offer the best of both worlds, and is often preferred by the planners. Here, a change in floor level helps divide the space

Extending to go open plan

Moving walls is not the best option for all period homes, so you may want to consider extending to gain an open plan space. This approach will allow you to enjoy the best of both worlds by keeping intimate rooms full of character in the historic building, while creating light, clean, open spaces in the extension.

Find out how to extend your period home

Planners will want to ensure that the addition is subservient to the main house, and it is often appropriate to create a contemporary design to contrast with the historic building. This gives more scope to accommodate modern lifestyle needs.

In terms of joining the extension, planners tend to prefer a linking element to give a clear visibility of separation – this may be a small glazed section. Victorian terraces have more scope to open up the rear of the house and directly join the extension.

Permitted development rights have relaxed to allow extensions of up to 6m if an attached house and 8m if a detached house, although this is less if you live in a Conservation Area.

If your home is listed, you will need to apply for listed building consent before extending or knocking down an internal wall. Contact your local authority for more information, or visit the Planning Portal.

Amelia Carter open-plan coastal kitchen-diner

The position of large items of furniture is important in order to break up the space. Maintain a walkthrough and use seating to separate areas, as in this coastal-inspired project by Amelia Carter

Interior design for open plan layouts

Creating an open plan layout can make an older property feel rejuvenated, but there are some important points to consider when it comes to interior design.

  • Think about the flow of the room as well as visuals through the space. The layout will most likely still be zoned – for example, living or dining areas – so consider how these will run in to each other and how you might differentiate the individual spaces.
  • There are a number of options to zone areas. Using different types of flooring is an effective solution. Also consider the placement of big pieces of furniture, such as consoles and sofas, to break up areas, or to create more of a divide use decorative screens. 
It is important, however, that an open plan space flows, so be conscious of how furniture is placed in relation to doorways and walkthroughs.
  • Structural posts can be an issue in open plan layouts, so it is sometimes worth spending a bit more if they can be avoided. However, you can also incorporate them into the room and build storage around them, or use them to help you zone.
  • Light is an important factor, both in terms of natural illumination and the placement of fittings. If your home is listed, lighting needs to be considered particularly carefully as you may not be able to use spot lights, or even wall lights. When designing a scheme, think about which rooms are in your open plan design, what their uses are and how often each room is used.
  • Going open plan is a modern concept, so to retain the characterful feel of a period home, use exposed details from the original building. It’s important to work with features such as fireplaces and windows, and to be careful with new fittings you choose. If you go too modern it probably won’t work, so try to keep it subtle. Fabrics and textures on furniture and soft furnishings can help a home retain character.

 Amelia Carter, London based interior designer

Contemporary open plan kitchen diner

Awkward timber posts can be cleverly incorporated into the design, such as in this modern kitchen diner. The beam above subtly zones the separate spaces

Photographs Jody Stewart, Kirsty Noble, Bridget Peirson, Jeremy Phillips, c/o Amelia Carter