Monday, December 17, 2012

How To Work With Open Spaces

One of the problems I have seen time and time again when I'm called into a client's home is not what to do with too little space, but what to do with too much space. When renovating or purchasing a home, people are often drawn to wide open spaces, but once they have all that space it can be hard to know just what to do with it!

In my opinion, the 2 main things to think about when working with open spaces are continuity and definition.  A large open space is often required to fulfill more than one purpose which makes it like separate spaces, but because they are open to one another, it is also like one single space.  The key is to assign different purposes to different areas within the space, but maintain an overall sense of unity.

Very few of us want the interiors of our homes to feel like the inside of a warehouse (ie: a big room filled with lots of stuff).  It's important that the necessary functional areas within the larger space are clearly defined.  This gives purpose and creates order inside the context of the larger space.  Be careful that you don't cross-contaminate your areas (ie: don't place a computer too close to a dining area).  Use flooring, colour, and furniture groupings to clarify the purpose and function of each area within the space.

Small business open space divided into a reception area, waiting area, and nail-tech area.

Large open basement split into 3 distinct areas: sitting area, media area, play area.

Open main floor defined into dining room, kitchen, family room.

While we want the different functional areas of the space to be separate and clearly defined, because they are open to each other we also want them to feel like they belong together.  Does this mean that everything within the space needs to be the same?  No, but certain elements do.

Looking back to our design elements and principles, what we are trying to achieve is harmony, which is just the right balance of repetition (to provide continuity and flow) and variety (to provide interest and avoid monotony).  This is true in any space, but is particularly important to remember when working with connected, open spaces.

In my opinion there are a few things that can really define areas within a space.  In the following order they are:

- Walls and doors (obviously)
-  Flooring
-  Colour
-  Furniture


In an open space, we are often working with an absence of walls and doors, which means that the next way a space is most easily separated is with flooring. I have seen up to 4 different flooring materials used in a single open space, and it is way too much.  The problem is that it adds too much variety, overpowering repetition and loosing harmony.  The result is that even a big space can feel small, chaotic and disjointed.

Personally, I'm a big fan of unified flooring in an open space (ie: 1 floor), but 2 can also work.  3 can be done, but it's tricky and other elements will have to be repeated across the space to make it work.  I really don't think you should ever have more than 3 different floors in an open space.  Be mindful that different floors are going to chop up the space, so make sure you use them intentionally with purpose to define specific areas of your open space.

1 floor = maximum unity.
2 floors =  clearly defined spaces, but still balanced and unified.
3 floors = 3 very distinct spaces.  In this instance I would want to bring more dark wood  features into the family room to help create more unity.

If you believe that you want/need to use more than 1 flooring option in your open space, please remember the following rule:

Floors that are right next to each other need to be made from different materials and be significantly different from each other!

What that means is: DO NOT put carpet next to different carpet, tile next to different tile, hardwood next to  different hardwood, or even hardwood next to laminate (yes they are made from different materials, but they are not different enough).  I have seen this so many times, especially in homes that have been renovated by home-owners, and it just makes my teeth hurt.  It kills me because often the home-owner has made a significant investment (time and money) in this new floor, only to realize that it just doesn't work.  To fix it things will have to be ripped up, removed and replaced.  Such a waste.


Similar to flooring, the colours you choose to use are really going to chop up your space, and again if you use too many different colours in too many different areas, your wide open space is going to feel small, chaotic and disjointed.

Does that mean that you have to use the same colours throughout the whole space?  Not necessarily. While this is the easiest way to create continuity and flow, too much of the same results in too much repetition and not enough variety then again throwing off our ultimate goal of design harmony.

Personally, I generally like to keep the main wall colour consistent throughout the space, but add variety in the form of accents (both accent walls and accessories/furnishings). While these can be different in different areas, I like them to coordinate, or have just enough elemental repetition to still tie in together.  The result is that areas in the space are different and clearly defined, but still feel like they belong together as a group.

Same wall colour, different accent colours, but features (ie: curtain fabric) that tie both together = different, but corresponding.

A note about accent walls:
An accent wall is instantly going to draw attention and become a focal point.  Make sure you use them purposefully in areas that you specifically want to draw attention to, and that they are not going to compete with, or draw attention away from other features of your space that deserve attention (for more information on creating focal points see subheading "Emphasis" on "Elements and Principles of Design").


The way furniture is placed and arranged in an open space is going to define the purpose and function of that particular area. (ie: "this is the dining area," "this is the sitting area," etc).  I would generally suggest pulling main furniture arrangements away from the walls (because you have the space to do it) but maintaining tight groupings which define the area and create intimacy which can easily be lost in big, open spaces.

People often tend to buy big furniture pieces for big areas (ie: sectional couches).  While this can be perfectly proportional, you still want to be mindful of how this is going to divide the space and orient the flow of traffic through your space.  A sectional couch in an open space is really better thought of as a right-angled, short wall.  Make sure it's positioned in such a way so as to invite people in rather than block people out.

If you remember to create clearly defined areas within an unified space finding the right balance of repetition and variety, you will find yourself with a very lovely, harmonious wide open space.


  1. Awesome tips! So useful. I really wish I had the problem of 'too much space' haha.. I love your blog though! Will definitely be bookmarking it :)


  2. What program did you use for the rooms?