Innovative architects with a love of walls are reconsidering the idea of the open-plan home.

Stuart Vokes is a radical architect. He likes rooms. Lots of them. Rooms for cooking, rooms for sitting, rooms for reading and rooms for watching TV — all of which might sound fairly normal except for one crucial detail: Stuart likes to keep these rooms separate. In the realm of contemporary architecture — which has been more or less dominated by open-plan design since the mid-20th century — that makes Stuart, along with his colleagues at Owen and Vokes and Peters in Brisbane, something of an anachronism. 

“We belong to one of the many generations that have been trained with modernism as the general premise for what we do,” he says. “So architects like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier typified that kind of teaching during our university days.” 

The theory goes like this: houses with a long, ‘skinny’ plan – which may only be one room deep – have maximum access to light and ventilation, while those with a ‘fat’ plan – such as heritage or project homes that are often two or three rooms deep – offer fewer of these amenities. Open-plan homes also have the benefit of being malleable, allowing occupants infinite ways to arrange their surroundings.

The problem, says Stuart, is that “certain events just aren’t well accommodated within a singular space. Classic things in a family house are kids trying to watch TV while mum and dad are cooking, and the noise coming out of the kitchen causes
the kids to turn the TV up, and then the parents are yelling at them. You know, it’s just the most obvious and banal stuff.”

"Open-plan spaces rewuire too much OCD!" says stylist Megan Morton, another advocate for defined rooms. "It takes a lot to keep them looking their best" (photography by Jason Bussch, taken from Things I Love by Megan Morton).

Walls – or, as Stuart likes to call them, his “allies” – are the obvious solution. “They’re the principal element for arranging space; together with a floor
and a ceiling, they help us craft the character of a room,” he says. Studying the work of architects like Louis Kahn and Adolf Loos led us to reevaluate the real assets of existing buildings.”

It’s not an orthodox approach, but it’s gaining traction. Last year, the firm’s West End Tower project took out the national prize for Residential Architecture – Houses (Alterations and Additions) at the Australian Institute of Architects Awards. Stuart describes the four-room timber Queenslander (now extended with an extra wing) as initially looking like “a total disaster in plan. Our client said, ‘Oh, of course we’ll knock out the wall [between] the interior room and the sleep-out’.” But Stuart had other ideas. “By retaining the enclosed verandah, we were working against convention and lengthening the footprint of the building by another room, so it’s essentially three rooms deep.”

The pay-off is a “rich series of connections,” Stuart says, between communal and solitary spaces. While areas on the periphery of the home, such as the kitchen, make the most of views across the garden, the dim interior rooms serve a different purpose. “You can actually tire from the exposure and the glare, and so you might retreat to those spaces that have a vastly different character and quality of light,” he says, adding: “How does a contemporary house with an open plan and big walls of glass satisfy someone with a common headache? When you come home from work exhausted, how do you escape the noise of the kitchen and the TV?”

But the virtues of rooms aren’t just pragmatic. In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton wrote about the connection between buildings and our state of mind: “Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better and for worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”

Open-plan living may still be the go-to design ethos for many, but spaces like this, inside Owen and Vokes and Peters' West End Tower are making homeowners think again about clearly delineated zones (photography Jon Linkins).

If it’s true that we are, at any given moment, doing different tasks and occupying different headspaces – thoughtful, sociable, industrious, playful – then it makes sense for a house to accommodate that. “Imagine if you had a home where there were rooms for the whole family; a room for 20 people; a room just for you and your partner; and a tiny alcove for yourself,” Stuart says, noting this approach doesn’t exclude open-plan areas altogether. “That’s what room planning is about – considering the scale of spaces all the way down to a tiny bay window, where you can lie on the edge of a bigger room and read a book, so you don’t have to participate socially but can still feel linked to your friends and family.” 

Creating a hierarchy of spaces can also teach children about different codes of conduct. “It’s a simple thing,” Stuart says, “but they learn that there is a set of behaviours appropriate for the library which is different to that for sitting around the dinner table or being in the living area.” 

Which brings us to that hallowed – albeit mostly forgotten – part of the home: the ‘good room’. “A lot of us can remember growing up in baby boomer houses with
a formal lounge no one was ever allowed in, although it was never actually used. So most people think of them as a waste of time.”

Now Stuart is among the architects who are reviving this concept: “I can see very strong reasons for making a ‘good room’. As couples with children head back to work faster than ever to sustain their modern lives, we’re all working longer hours while dropping the kids off at sport and all the rest of it. By the time you get your life back in the evening, you need a place where you can conduct good thinking and focus. Can you do that in the room that still stinks of dinner? Or where the dog’s snoring? You can’t just pull up a chair at the kitchen table …”

"For me, the values are colour, a good dose of visual interest, and comfort." says Megan Morton of her philosophy for rooms (photography by Jason Busch, taken from Things I Love by Megan Morton).

The modern good room is much more useable than those of the past. “We’re probably talking about a place with a really comfy reading chair and a wall of books,” Stuart says. “Or a great sound system and a rug to curl up on.” In the West End Tower, it takes the form of a library finished with warm timber flooring, views across the garden, and a loft, inspired by a treehouse, where the family can gather to read or watch a film. 

Architect Sam Klopper, at Perth’s Klopper & Davis Architects, is also embracing the idea. “We’ve kind of moved away from [open-plan designs] a little bit,” he says. “Two of the recent homes we’ve done have had separate lounges, which are intended as places where you can retire and escape to.” He’s even gone so far as to include the most old-fashioned of finishes – carpet – in one of them. “The space is actually elevated, so you have this beautiful, sumptuous, raised living area with a little fire and a TV,” he explains.

Another of the firm’s projects, the Florence Street house in West Leederville, features a music room at the front of the home. “And that’s made very much for adult things, such as the client’s guitar and computer, as opposed to being a space for kids,” Sam says.

Stuart takes this idea a step further. “I always joke with clients, like, ‘Bugger the kids! Why are we always making rooms for them while husbands and wives have to share the same one?’” he says, laughing. “I recently came across this family house in the Netherlands where a husband and wife share this tiny, tiny room – which is more like an alcove they sleep in at night – and then they each have their own sitting rooms, so she can do writing and pottery and he can do computer work and read in a chair by the fire… I think we can recognise the need for a room of your own. Why should we be deprived of a place to nourish your soul?”

While the West End Tower project was "a total disaster in plan", Stuart Voked is proud of the "rich series of connections" in the final design
(photography Jon Linkins).

But no room – no matter how architecturally sound – is capable of
doing that without the right trimmings. Enter Megan Morton, the internationally sought-after stylist and author of best-selling books including Home Love.
“I have always preferred houses with rooms that let you retreat or engage,” she says. “Put simply, open-plan spaces require too much OCD! It takes a lot to
keep them looking their best.” And what, exactly, makes a room look its best? “A room is like a great piece of music,” she says. “It can be underdone or overdone so easily – even with the most experienced hand guiding it. For me, the values are colour, a good dose of visual interest and comfort.” (Perth readers can learn more from Megan when she brings The School, her home-styling workshop phenomenon, to the city in June.)

“It’s easier to harness the particular character and qualities of smaller spaces,” Stuart adds. “A stylist would have a much harder time in an open-plan room because there’s no limit to it – there’s no edge. You kind of have to be into eclecticism and say, ‘How am I going to go from one end of the house to the other, through four suites of furniture and a kitchen?’”

There is, however, a difference between an open-plan space and a waste of space. Sam Klopper says he’s often had to talk clients out of features such as sculleries, twin bathroom vanities, or double showers – ideas which have become popular with the rise of project homes. “[Developers] with large marketing budgets start
selling this as a desirable outcome and it suddenly becomes something people think they want,” he says, “whereas it’s just another thing you have to buy, clean and maintain… We’re lucky because we design beautiful homes, so we don’t have to bolt on more things to try and justify ourselves to our clients.”

"I have always preferred homes with rooms that let you retreat or engage," says Megan Morton (photography by Jason Busch, taken from Things I Love by Megan Morton).

There’s something else that rooms – and the way they relate to each other – have
to offer. It’s a vague-sounding concept that architects refer to as ‘thresholds’, and everyone else knows simply by the experience of walking through a place. The sensation of climbing stairs or passing through passages and doorways – essentially transitioning from one area to another – can build a curious kind of momentum as structural details cue moments of tension and relief. It’s the sort of thing you might only notice on a subliminal level, but Stuart points to traditional Japanese architecture as exemplifying the concept. “One would cook on the dirt floor, then take off your shoes and step up half a metre to get on the tatami mat where slippers would be worn,” he says. “So there’s a character about being in the kitchen – where the ceilings were also much higher, for ventilation – which is very different to the character in a space where you might relax.”

Of course, open-plan homes can also create thresholds, but the inherent complexity of a building with rooms makes their impact more salient. In Mount Pleasant, Perth, Stuart has been exploring this in the garden of a home, where he has developed a ‘ruin’ concept. “It might sound a bit passé to talk about ruins,” he says, “but the important thing is thinking about rooms, and what you might take away and what you might keep as part of an enclosure.” 

One of the highlights of the space is a rooftop deck, which is accessed via a stairwell just 60cm wide. “So you go through this really narrow space, and then there’s this lovely moment of compression and release when you come out on top,” he says. “You get up there and the volume is infinite because there’s no ceiling. It uses the sky and the stars instead.”

On the idea of creating outdoor ‘rooms’, he says: “None of this stuff is a new idea, but it’s just such a powerful idea… We can create a sense of enclosure just by using plants. For example, knowing a tree grows to a certain point and it then throws a branch low enough to give you a sense of walking through a gateway.” 

The new wing of the West End Tower by Owen and Vokes and Peters extended the home's footprint by another room (photography Jon Linkins).

Whether a home is open-plan or not, Stuart says its success depends on how well it serves the lifestyle of its occupants. “So it’s not about good versus evil in terms of design, it’s about a particular premise from which you work: are you a room planner or an open-planner?” he asks. “There’s the argument that open-plan rooms enable amazing flexibility, but I guess we’re operating from a premise that suggests otherwise – that maybe the greatest flexibility comes from a house made of rooms.” You just need to think outside the box.


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