Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Open-Concept Cacophony

I opened one bleary eye and tried squinting to bring the clock into focus. My other eye was gummed shut thanks to a terrific cold that made me feel as if my nickname should be Lumby. Every word I said sounded as if it was struggling up through a pound of wet cement.

The clock read 2:17 a.m. I groaned and turned over, only to encounter my husband, staring intently at me.

"It woke you, too." He quietly observed. "What is he doing down there?"

It sounded as if my son was busily conducting a dish circus in the kitchen below.

"He's getting cereal, honey. He can't help it, he gets hungry. Growing boy and all that." I was trying to sound more cheerful than I felt. After all, my husband had to be up in four hours, it was his night's rest that was being disrupted.

"Are you sure he's not juggling dishes? It sounds like he's juggling dishes."

I had to concede that point, "For all I know he is. Or maybe he's fending off an intruder with a cereal bowl." Either way, the reverberating sounds had a more frantic quality than one might associate with snack-time. "It's the acoustics, you know it's the acoustics."

"Guh." My husband said eloquently, and rolled over.

Moving from our solidly constructed, 1912 brick bungalow had brought a lot of changes into our lives, not the least of which was the open-concept din. It wasn't just in the dead of night that sounds were magnified ten-fold by lack of room definition, and vaulted ceilings, it was just less likely to disrupt anything. At least, after the first week. When we first moved in we all had to adjust to the fact that sounds were magnified throughout the house, particularly if they came from the hall, the kitchen, or living-room.

I found this out when I set down a carton of books in the hall outside of my office. The most gentle of thuds may have resulted, but my husband and son came tearing into view from opposite corners of the house.

"Is everything all right?!?" My husband asked, clearly startled.

"Uh...? Yes. Yup, I'm going to go with yes, everything is all right. Why?"

Evidently from two separate areas in the house what I had interpreted as a small thud, had sounded to both of them as if I was busily pitching adolescents elephants about the place. We soon found this to be true with anything we did, from closing a door, to muffling a sneeze, to unloading the dishwasher. It didn't matter how carefully we moved, or that we put felt pads on the interior frames for the doors. Elsewhere in the house it always sounded as if we were midway through wrecking the joint with great fervor.

In all of the real estate shows I watch every would-be buyer is mad keen for "open-concept living". A defined kitchen means they will be shunted off into cooking Siberia. A family room with a door is not welcoming enough. A living-room with only one story's worth of ceiling is suffocating. Open it up, open it up they say!

I now wonder how these buyers feel two weeks after moving in, when they've discovered that sound carries, and it carries spectacularly when it doesn't have any walls to bump into.

I never cared one way or the other about open-concept. Well, that's not true. I don't like open-concept homes particularly. However, when we bought this house we assumed that we'd eventually have to redo the kitchen, and I fully intended to close it off anyway. Siberian cooking, it's the way for me. Now I wonder if I'll be so deaf by the time our remodeling projects get underway next year, that it will cease to matter.

Besides, any trend will pass. Particularly in decorating. The craze for open-concept has only one direction in which to go; the wave of the future will have to be closing things up. Defined-space is the most likely next trend, in part because the current one has removed so many walls, the only option is to start putting them back. That or pry off the roof, but even the most trend conscious designer might balk at beginning to actually eliminate shelter. I hope.

Vessel sinks look lovely until you actually spend some time cleaning around them. I once saw a decorating show in which the designer proudly installed a clear glass, vessel sink. I'm sure the homeowner quietly weeps while brushing her teeth to this day. I've got clear glass shower doors aplenty, and the only thing worse than trying to keep those clean, would be trying to keep presentable a sink used constantly throughout the day.

Those vast, echoing master bathrooms? Yes, I've now got one of those too, and I'm likely to be discovered, frozen solid in my shower stall come January. A bathroom that big is only suited to a hot, humid climate where steam and heat not building up are good things. Somewhere is South Dakota there is a home owner who has decided to eschew bathing in the winter months, rather than risk the exposure afforded by their master suite. In Colorado, we still bathe, but we swear more frequently while doing so, in our cavernous, drafty, expensive chambers.

Under-mount sinks are also a craze, and I have to admit, in a bathroom, they are wonderful. They are also wonderful in a kitchen. Until the first time you have to thaw a turkey, or plop a stockpot full of liquid into one, at which point you will discover that what holds them up, often just caulking, is not equal to the task of facing gravity plus mass. However, a brace or two underneath helps. Almost every owner of an under-mount kitchen sink also has a suspiciously short-handled broom to go with it.

In decorating we all cast an appraising eye towards how something presents. In living, how it functions is far more important.

Of course, the last time the cat tossed his cookies, the resulting sound made me wonder if we were in the middle of a home invasion, conducted by ravenous space creatures. It's the only time in my life cat vomit was the better outcome.

I'm fairly certain that isn't a ringing endorsement of an architectural feature.


The Bug said...

Seriously, you are a nut. I'm liking my cozy house more & more...

DUTA said...

Personally I'm not in favour of 'open spaces'. I prefer rooms with doors that offer both privacy and functionality.

I've enjoyed your humorous way of describing how the sound "carries" in your house.

Delightful post.

PhilipH said...

It sounds, well, err - it sounds.

Tell you what though, I reckon you could learn to yodel. The accoustics would, I imagine, be just right.

Yodel oh de lay, yodel oh de lay,Yodel oh de lay, yodel oh de lay,Yodel oh de lay, yodel oh de lay,,,,

Yep, sounds just like an open plan Swiss chalet, the one on the left as you leave Zurich.

It looks a nice place Alane, very smart clean lines. If only ... well, you plan to do some work in a while, so jolly good luck with closing off the kitchen.

Jennifer D said...

You have made me love my tiny cabin and bitty bathroom even more, although the noise my husband makes while brewing coffee in the morning is something I'll never understand. It is something like your dish circus.

Merlin said...

All said, you have a nice looking house, especially the staircase :)

Kathryn said...

Well, it LOOKS nice! :)

I'm in favor of "open concept" between kitchen & family room. But i've never really lived that way. Our house is about as opposite open concept as you can get. But i do rather appreciate that. My husband's aunt & uncle have a house built similarly to ours, but they have a loft & vaulted ceilings in the living room. If we had that here we would not have our lovely, large master bedroom. We'd lose a lot of square footage that i very much appreciate.

When watching some of the shows you mention, i often wonder (when looking at "dated" kitchens & bathrooms) what will be the thing that dates houses built in the past 15 years or so. I was betting on granite counter tops & stainless steel appliances. (I can't imagine what will follow, however.) That it might be open concept had never occurred to me.

BTW, on your comment at my blog, i rarely visit with my folks either (about every 2-3 years) which was part of the reason this visit, only 2-1/2 months after we had seen them was so hard. For some of us, families can be so difficult. While i don't wish that on anyone, i sure am thankful there are others out there who understand. Thanks for your support. :)

Derik said...

You know, I've always had this sort of problem: I like to sneak about unnoticed by my parents, and it sounds like your kid wants to do the same; you've simply impaired movement through sound amplification. But without sound dampeners anyone can see an open space is a cavalcade of cacophony waiting to happen.

Also, we bathe regularly here in South Dakota--why, I take pride that I cleanse myself at least ever four days! I'm just kidding, but we're not so bad, really. WE hibernate in the winter months so we don't freeze to death since, you know, we don't have trees to keep the earth warm around here.

I hope things work out in the house;maybe you could consider some sound dampening decorations around the place to give your cat a little more privacy?

Land of shimp said...

The Bug, hehe, well at least I married someone equally nutty, so we get to be nuts together :-) Our old house was cozy, this one is pretty vast.

I think there's a lot to recommend cozy, but having a lot of space also suits us. I wouldn't say I love this house yet, but I like it. Although we do joke that if we're ever the victims of a home invasion, it might take as an inordinate amount of time to figure it out since we're becoming immune to noises.

DUTA, I'm with you. Give me rooms! Most of our noises problems will dissipate when we redo the kitchen, it's really sounds from in there that are ridiculously loud.

Thank you, Philip. It is a nice place, and whereas currently the noise isn't great, we did actually figure out the ways to "fix" the layout before we bought it.

You can see a couple of paint colors in the picture. One of the almost eerie things about the place was when we first bought it, it was all the same color from that vantage point.

And I've yodeled in here. We all took turns testing out the echo factor :-) We're easily amused!

Jennifer, good! Love it, hug it, keep it! Seriously, there are some downsides to having a ton of space....and yes, what is it with the amount of noise made in everyday tasks? Also, I don't know about your husband, but on the rare occasion mine cooks? He manages to drag into service every.single.pot in the house. The end result is me saying, "The Salad Spinner? Really? You didn't make any salad, how the..."

"I was using the bowl." "Ooookay."

Thank you, Merlin! I'm glad you stopped by, I'd misplaced the link to your blog so this gives me an opportunity to stop by again! Hope you're doing well :-)

Kathryn, I think "kitchen open to the family room" works pretty well, usually. Open + vaulted ceilings, and really...hoo doggies, the noise.

I'm with you, the granite and stainless steel of ubiquity will be the things that "date" a kitchen. They are the next generation's avocado green!

Derik, that's honestly part of it, and a really normal thing for someone his age. He likes to have some time alone, and feel autonomous. We've never been hovering/helicopter parents and he does have the entire finished basement to himself.

So yes, particularly in the summer, he liked to stay up to the proverbial "wee smalls" to have some time to himself. We've actually talked about that, so he knows that I know he likes to have that time to himself. I think that's pretty normal. He's a sunny kind of guy, but absolutely, he's at the age where he wants that feeling of having his own life.

Since he still chooses to hang around with me, and actually starts conversations vs. putting up with them, it's kind of a nice balance.

He likes having time where he feels really separate, and can do his own thing.

You're also right on the noise dampeners. We moved from a much smaller house, half the size, so we're still in the process of filling this joint. Part of what magnifies the sounds has to do with the construction, part has to do with the having too little of the space filled.

Thanks for the comments, everyone :-)

Amy said...

Hi Alane, Your post reminds me to be grateful for living in a 1970's size space. We have an open living, kitchen, dining area - mostly because we added 200 square feet onto the house 17 years ago, to create a spacious kitchen/dining area. Now the kitchen is dated - but I love it anyway because it WORKS - except for our 25 year old frig which died several days ago! Now I actually have a black one that matches the rest of the appliances we updated 17 years ago. Ironic? And I hear my butcher block island is coming back into vogue - not likely the porcelain tile counters will anytime soon though! And our bathrooms are really small, but it works for the two of us.

Company is coming next week - Elliot will be visiting Gramp's and Grammy's for the first time - I'm excited! Your house is lovely btw, what kind of remodeling are you going to be doing?

Merlin said...

I am very touched by the story you left as a comment on my blog.
You are an amazing person! That is all I can say.

Do you mind if I publish your comment in my next post?

Land of shimp said...

Amy, it's the "everything old is new again!" rule at play!

How wonderful that the baby is coming for a visit (and obviously, great that he brings along the people who produced him ;-) ). I'm sure you will have a truly memorable time. That's great news, little ones change so much in the first year, he'll have even more personality! I'll be you're excited.

We need to redo the kitchen, the layout is actually terrible for actual cooking. It's a big room, but the way it is laid out, we trip all over each other. All three of us. I'm talking very poor space utilization.

Plus, we need to replace the flooring. I think I've mentioned the prior owner's incontinent dog. Cute dog. Bad bladder. Whee. We've already set carpet shampooing records, but the first order of business is to heave all that carpet out and get it off the stairs in particular.

Someone who lived here had a vacuuming aversion, so the very edges are actually stained with dust (eek).

Merlin, I'm so glad you liked the story. He really was a lovely man, and a pleasure to have known. I enjoy your blog a great deal, and appreciate the kind words in return.

Absolutely, feel free. That's a very kind compliment :-)

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