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  • Unagru Architecture & Urbanism

How is Open Plan different from Broken Plan?

Davide was invited by Built It Magazine to discuss on the topic of broken plan in our residential projects. This article was written by Built It Magazine, and published in the issue December 2022.

Peckham Courtyard by Unagru Architecture Urbanism

Peckham Courtyard, photo by Sara Moiola

A broken-plan layout seeks the balance between a traditional, fragmented floorplan and one that’s completely open. The entire space is tempered with architectural features that provide pockets of privacy, changes in the atmosphere and – in the right scenario – the option to close a door to contain noise, kitchen smells or heat.

The difference between open- and broken-plan can be subtle and often rests on the designer’s intentions. To help clients craft their own broken-plan concepts, we pinpoint three characteristics typical of this kind of layout. Firstly, we aim to facilitate openness when moving from one area to the next, which is why we tend to avoid doors and corridors. Where absolutely necessary, partitions or entrances are either sliding or lead directly into cupboards.

The second factor is about creating a design narrative. We strive to produce homes that require attention to detail, where the character and design unravel the longer you spend inside. A successful floorplan might reveal hidden corners, protruding volumes and unexpected layout twists that require you to move further into the house to discover what’s there.

The third element of a successful broken-plan layout hinges on how interesting the space feels. As a practice, we err towards a minimalist aesthetic, though we love to embed as many points of interest as possible. Design features might include interior windows, steps, bench seating cut into bespoke furniture, steel columns, rooflights, lightwells, slatted screens etc.

What are your tricks for zoning the space effectively?

I follow a three-step process. First, I imagine the room as a series of distinct uses separated by filtering or threshold elements. The areas are interconnected, but do not merge into one. Secondly, I identify strong and weak zones. The former are noisier and more rigid in terms of function – kitchens are a good example. Weak uses are ideal threshold zones for creating distance between the strong areas. For instance, the dining and entrance spaces form distinct, transitional zones. Finally, I separate each section within the whole sequence by incorporating architectural features, some of which are mentioned above.

What are the key design pitfalls to avoid when planning a broken-plan layout?

I would generally advise against incorporating a kitchen or a central island that’s too dominant. It works well to have the culinary zone slightly peripheral to the rest of the space, positioning it so it’s not always the main focal point. Careful planning is required if you want the kitchen, dining and sitting areas near one another. In several ways, employing the broken-plan technique helps avoid the risk of over cramming the space. At the opposite end of the scale, too much separation between zones can be detrimental.If there are too many fixed obstacles and architectural features, you run the risk of recreating the boxy Victorian interior but with the accompanying noise of an open-plan layout.

What’s the best way to achieve this type of layout on a tight budget?

A lot depends on the condition of the house. In some cases, you can’t avoid structural work if you need to remove walls. If you already have an open-plan layout, you might be able to use furniture to create distinct zones. Bespoke joinery also goes a long way to establish areas that can be flexibly separated.

What structural work is required?

Most of the time, you’ll need to join several rooms by (at least partially) demolishing the existing dividing walls. This often entails knocking down a structural partition, which requires the insertion of a steel or glulam supporting beam. The new support may provide an opportunity to incorporate a striking aesthetic feature, for instance, if you paint overhead steel beams in a bold colour.

Do you have any further advice on how to craft a broken-plan layout?

At the outset of the design process, always imagine several different layout options and iterations – even when the principal solution seems evident, you’ll find that new ideas spark when you’re open to fresh concepts. Another useful exercise is to format the spaces you’d like to include into a list. Assign each area with its own name and try to get a feel for what its character might be once the project is complete. For instance, some zones perhaps receive a cold, northern light while others will be brighter. Some will be loud and others will be quiet. You can use this process to hone your vision for how the entire space will be.


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