Domestic architecture seemed to be taking a turn toward the rustic. But I would have been wrong. Although these houses bring all the exterior trappings of beloved vernacular houses of the past, they do not extend that to the interior plans. In fact, the open concepts from the oversized houses of the pre-recession era have only gotten more open. The open floor plan as we currently understand it—an entry-kitchen-dining-living combination that avoids any kind of structural separation between uses—is only a few decades old.
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The interior-wall-free open concept became popular starting in the s, evolving from the cedar contemporary homes known for their tall ceilings and windows, and from styled ranches whose steeper rooflines allowed for newly in-vogue cathedral ceilings. Overall, the open concept was a reaction against years of small, low-ceilinged living, which felt restricting and stuffy to a new generation of homebuyers.
However, to me, the mess kitchen offers hope for a transitional period where open spaces may become closed again. That this would start with the kitchen is not surprising. Historically, the kitchen was the last room to be integrated into the open concept. The conventional narrative is that, historically, houses had floor plans that were closed, and then they began opening up.
But it is important to understand that this argument centers on the homes of the affluent classes.
Social changes that arose with modern industrial capitalism, such as the transition away from live-in servants to commuting wage-workers, also reduced the number of rooms in upper-class houses. However, in the homes of the working and lower-middle classes, these same factors of social change and modernization created an opposite progression.
The story of common houses is a story of walls. The number of rooms in working-class homes increased with the number of products and amenities that became readily affordable through industrialization, modernization, and mass production. Beginning in the s, work increasingly took place outside of the home, and the application of mass production to housing reduced building costs.
During this period, the average number of rooms increased, to three to five: a kitchen, a living room, and one or two bedrooms. In these early industrial-era homes, the threshold between working-class and middle-class was determined by amenities like a dining room or a front porch.
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By the s and s, mass single-family housing shipped to the site by rail and truck had come into its own. Now sizes and types of wood, nails, and other construction materials had become widely standardized across the building industry. During the second half of the 19th century, a key development— balloon framing —allowed for more inexpensive construction, since the cheap materials nails, studs, and 2x4s were readily available and did not required skilled labor to assemble, unlike timber framing.
Long, lightweight studs and the clever, basket-like technique of assembly enabled taller and longer homes to be built by as few as two people and with relatively little waste. Two of the most common and recognizable types of vernacular American housing—the bungalow and the Foursquare—became massively popular during this time.
The average number of rooms per house increased once again. Working-class homes now had three to five rooms; middle-class homes, six to eight.
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Whether or not a home was determined to be working- or middle-class depended on whether it had indoor plumbing bathrooms! Only in more elaborate middle-class bungalows is the wall between the living and dining room separated by a partial wall or colonnade. This feature was more expensive to construct, because it required structural loads to be redistributed to other walls or fixtures. Structural reasons in general were why, in common houses, open spaces would not become more widespread until changes in construction made them more affordable.
Even as plans in elite houses continued to open up throughout the s, the common house retained its interior walls. In many respects, closed rooms existed to maintain a semblance of privacy. Homes were smaller, but families were bigger than they are now: The average number of people in an American household was five in and 4.
By the end of the s, the large, old-growth trees that produced the long studs central to the technique of balloon framing became scarce, leading to new techniques that could be completed with smaller spans of wood. These small homes relied on interior walls to ensure spatial privacy not to mention aural, olfactory, and visual privacy in cramped situations. The closed floor plan also represented security, isolation, and control, concepts that were important in a moment that emerged from the Depression and then World War II, and deepened through a period of intense racial tension and Cold War paranoia.
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The ranch and the split-level, both of which originated in the mids, drastically changed patterns of dwelling in the American home. This is often cited as the spark that lit the fire of the open concept. The reorientation of the ideal American home, from vertical, two-story Cape Cod to horizontal, one-story ranch, certainly did open up floor plans. By this point, a continuous living and dining space was commonplace. Kitchens have been closed for most of the history of common housing. In elite houses, kitchens were places of work, where servants were kept out of sight of residents and guests, often relegated to the cellar or guesthouse.
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