A real estate agent walks into a 1950s-era fixer upper, pokes around a bit, looks at the potential home buyers, and says something like: We'll just blow out these walls between the living room and kitchen, really give you that open concept.

It's a script you'll witness on home buying or improvement shows on HGTV, on which peppy show hosts try to cater to couples who want an "open floor plan" that would allow them to supervise their children in the living room while they cook dinner in the kitchen.

For the last two decades, open-concept floor plans — typically combining a large kitchen with the dining room and living space — have been ubiquitous in new construction, particularly in urban areas where townhouses have less square footage than a single-family suburban home. And the idea of knocking down walls to create an open, multipurpose space sits atop renovation wish lists for older homes with more modular designs.

Open vs. Closed Floor Plans

OPEN FLOOR PLANS: Advantages —  Abundant natural light, open circulation plan, open sight lines, can accommodate larger and more of a variety of furniture.
Disadvantages — less intimate, less wall space for art and bookcases, noisy when crowded, kitchen odors can spread.
CLOSED FLOOR PLANS: Advantages — more intimate, wall space for art and bookcases, quieter.
Disadvantages — less natural light, circulation constricted, may require smaller furniture.
Move slider in middle of graphic to see the difference
JON SNYDER / Staff Artist

But trends aren't meant to last forever. And some area brokers, designers and architects have noticed a shift over the last couple years: More buyers are searching for a closed or a hybrid floor plan — one that provides for at least some separation of rooms.

The open floor plan started as a first-floor configuration without doors, and today it means a first-floor space almost entirely free of interior walls. This not only makes the area seem bigger but also allows for natural light to spread through the home and for guests to be together in one space during gatherings.

Reed Axelrod, a residential architect based in Rittenhouse Square, said the open-concept floor plan likely won't wane much for city dwellers living in vertical configurations because "space is at such a premium, and people want to visually borrow from other spaces." But, he said, in the suburbs and even "inner 'burbs" such as the East Falls and Mount Airy sections of the city where first-floor square footage is higher, the idea of having more separated spaces "seems to be what people are requesting."

There are a number of reasons for this, Axelrod explained, including that many offices today are wide open (which presents its own problems related to personal space) and could turn people off from wanting a similar feel at home.

"You don't want to spend your precious personal time in spaces that somewhat remind you of the space you're constantly clawing and clawing to stay on pace with," he said.

Axelrod added that millennials, who make up the largest share of home buyers, understand that housing prices are up and generally look at their house as an asset to building personal wealth over time. On paper, individual rooms can look more valuable, he said.

Among the biggest reasons for wanting more defined spaces is that open-concept floor plans provide little sense of privacy.

And as millennials start to have children, privacy becomes even more important, said Kevin Toll, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate who works in the Philadelphia region. (In an open plan, the only place to get away from your kids is the bathroom. Not to mention: When you have toys on the living room floor, you have toys everywhere.)

An example of a more closed floor plan in West Mount Airy.
Handout
An example of a more closed floor plan in West Mount Airy.

It is that lack of privacy that might have contributed to the rise of "man caves" and "she sheds" or other spaces individuals design to sneak away for private time, said Kate Wagner, an architecture writer and the creator of McMansion Hell, a website dedicated to critiquing suburban homes that use mass-produced architecture.

"Often the problem is there's no escape from children," said Wagner, who recently wrote about "The Case for Rooms" in CityLab. "If you had rooms that existed already … this wouldn't be so much of a phenomenon."

Wagner also pointed out that open spaces can be loud, particularly those with high ceilings. And other trendy features such as hardwood floors, stone countertops, and ceramic tiling can quite literally amplify the problem.

"You'd be surprised how much sound bounces off, and it becomes a cafeteria feel," Toll said.

Ultimately, some buyers are simply fatigued by the open-concept floor plan — even bored by it, according to Stephanie Somers, a Re/Max Access broker based in Philadelphia.

"'If you have seen one, you have seen them all' is a comment I hear often," she said. Buyers "want something different. That may come in the form of a more traditional or even modular floor plan where each room has its purpose and function."

Bored buyers or not, there's no question that open floor plans dominate new construction in the area, and few would argue that they aren't still popular.

Interior designer Christina Henck recommends setting up a living room in an open concept such as this one. The area rug and sofa configuration gives the room a sense of separation from the kitchen.
Sean Kane
Interior designer Christina Henck recommends setting up a living room in an open concept such as this one. The area rug and sofa configuration gives the room a sense of separation from the kitchen.

Christina Henck, a residential interior designer who is based in the city's Graduate Hospital section, said she sees "a lot of condos that are just vanilla boxes" without interior walls, a configuration that doesn't allow for many build-ins, bookcases or wall art and can make furniture placement difficult.

"If you're a normal person, and you're in this huge open room, you really feel kind of small," she said, "unless the furniture around you makes you feel protected."

But there are ways to decorate an open space to make the rooms feel separate or more individualized. Henck recommended anchoring the living room with a large area rug and two sofas that will sit on that rug and delineate the space as the living room. She said to keep the sofas relatively close to each other — that scale allows for conversation and keeps people from feeling swallowed in a large space.

In a recent project in Newtown Square, Henck used an area rug and two sofas in an open-concept living room to separate the area from the kitchen. In addition, she placed a table behind the sofa with two table lamps. This way, the back of the sofa wasn't an eyesore, and it served as a natural spatial divider.

"It affects the human psychology of the space by separating it a little bit," she said, adding that something as simple as a table or a tall plant can have "a palpable effect on the experience."