Don’t listen to Slate. Open kitchens are great!

August 13, 2013

There's a profound point in J. Bryan Lowder's entertaining jeremiad against open kitchens: People buy new homes imagining the amazing new person they will be when they move into them. Then they get there and fall right back into their old habits. A new house almost never means a new person.

It's a great insight -- but it's an argument for open kitchens rather than against them.


There's nothing wrong with this kitchen! (Photo by Lindsay Hobson/)

But we'll get to that in a moment. The aspirational thinking that drives home buying helps explain the oft-replicated social science finding that buying a new home doesn't make people happier. People think it will make them happier -- otherwise they wouldn't save for so long and sacrifice so much to make the purchase. But they're wrong.

This has proven true across a number of different environments. It's true for women in Ohio:

A 2011 study of about 600 women in Ohio found that homeowners weren’t any happier than renters. The study was conducted by Grace Wong Bucchianeri, then an assistant professor of real estate at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Indeed, homeowners spent less time on leisure activities with friends and reported that they derived some pain from homeownership.

And undergrads at Harvard:

As an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1990s, Dr. Dunn, the happiness expert, experienced the annual ritual, akin to the Hogwarts Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter series, whereby first-year students are randomly assigned to spend the rest of their college years in one of 12 dormitories or houses. In a longitudinal study published in 2003 with Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard, both of whom are known for their research on the link between decision-making and well-being, she found that freshmen expected to be much happier living in one of the more desirable — handsome, centrally located — of the 12. But those who landed in plum surroundings ended up no happier than students in less desirable houses.

And Germans:

Between 1991 and 2007, researchers tracked 3,658 people in Germany who moved to a new home because there was something they didn’t like about the old one. Although the participants reported a significant boost in satisfaction with their home for the first five years, they didn’t feel any better about their lives overall after they moved, according to the study, which was published in 2010.

So what does this have to do with open kitchens? Lowder's article relies on long hours logged before HGTV. He notes that the frequently used argument for open-plan kitchens is that they're better for entertaining -- which makes him suspect that the people buying them "are not actually doing much cooking or entertaining."

If they really were doing a lot of entertaining, the open kitchen's flaws would quickly become apparent. Cooking for 10 or 12 people makes a mess, and an open kitchen means guests can see every dirty dish and grimy pot. It means making mistakes, and an open kitchen means guests can see when you accidentally light the pan on fire or drop the carrots on the floor. And cooking for that many people is real work -- you don't want guests distracting you while you're frantically trying to assemble 12 plates of food.

So Lowder's right: People buy homes imagining all the entertaining they'll do and then they don't do very much entertaining. But that's exactly why open kitchens are great: They're very pleasant for people who aren't entertaining!

None of the objections to using an open kitchen for entertaining hold for everyday cooking. Who cares if your family sees some dirty dishes? Is your partner really going to argue with the five-second rule -- particularly when the carrot is being dropped into boiling water? And do you really need to devote your full concentration to making pasta with tomato sauce for the 4,000th time? Of course not. Meanwhile, it's nice to be able to talk to your family while you cook, or watch Orange is the New Black on the living room TV.

Aspirational thinking is one reason people end up thinking a new house will change everything only to find it changes nothing. But it's also the reason open kitchens are proving so popular. In a world where people entertained constantly, their flaws would quickly become apparent. But in a world where they rarely entertain, their virtues shine through.

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Ezra Klein | August 13, 2013