Building Small Has a Big Payback

Let's get one thing straight right away...When I say "small", I don't mean living in a shoe box.   What I mean by "small" is living in a space that is designed...well designed...for your needs...and no more.  A small space doesn't mean cramped.  What makes a space feel comfortable in a home is not how big it is.  Actually, an expansive space can feel intimidating and alienating, instead of intimate.  Great for large gatherings, but otherwise rarely invoke comfort in a home.

A space that feels comfortable is appropriately sized for its intended activity.

For example, the nook above is in a house with kids.  The parents wanted a game & homework spot for their kids.  We could have designed an extra room, a play room with desks.  But this disconnects the kids' area from the family.  So instead, we designed this nook with built-in benches & a table that is right off the living room.  The kids play games and do homework at the table, and can leave everything out and messy without adding disarray to the family living space.  And the size is less than 25 SF instead of 150 SF for a play room.  At construction costs over $125 per square foot, that puts the direct cost savings at over $15,000.

Why build small?
Building to the size you need (and no more) offers many tangible benefits (besides feeling more comfortable and intimate).  The most obvious benefit, is that a smaller building means fewer materials, which means lower upfront costs for construction.  A smaller house also means lower ongoing bills, since there is less space to heat or cool.  And my personal favorite benefit, is that a smaller space means less to clean!

4 design strategies
So how to build smaller without feeling cramped?  Below are 4 design strategies that make small spaces feel comfortable without feeling claustrophobic.

    1. connect to outdoors

    One way to make a small space feel more expansive is to connect it visually and/or literally to the outdoors, using windows or glass doors. When you can see beyond the room you are in, your brain sort of "borrows" the space beyond and adds it to expand the one you are in. This is true whether connecting two interior spaces together or adding a visual link to outside.

    2. excellent well-lit space

    A well-lit space feels larger than a dark space...and natural sunlight creates the best quality light. Designing for excellent light quality means each major space should have sunlight entering from windows on at least 2 directions...that includes light from above. Light entering from two different sides of a room fills in shade spots, balances the light, and reduces glare. Light colored surfaces also help to bounce light within the space.

    3. delineate space without walls

    There are many, many ways to demarcate where one space ends and another begins without using solid walls.  And when you combine uses into a single cooking with eating...the total footprint can be smaller with the same functionality.  That's because the circulation space is shared.  (Circulation space refers to the floor area needed for moving around.)  So, if you aren't using walls to separate the space, you can use other strategies to mark where one ends and the other a set of columns, or a kitchen island, or a change in floor material, or a change in ceiling height or material...

    4. integrate storage

    There are so many creative strategies for integrating storage throughout a house...under stairs, built-in benches with storage, shelving within the wall thickness.  You can store more stuff in less space with a well-designed cabinet than you can in a closet, especially a walk-in closet.  Kindof like a boat interior...where no space is goes wasted.

    There are some great books on designing appropriately-sized homes.  Any of Sarah Susanka's "Not So Big House" books are fabulous (my favorite is below).  The others here offer inspirational photos & examples of small home designs.  Click the book covers for more info or to purchase.



    For more photos & tips for designing smaller, smarter spaces, see our facebook album.


    1. My dream cob house will integrate living and kitchen and one of the two bedrooms will double as a small living room. My idea is to have the bathroom between the two, with doors in each of them, making two suites. Does it soud like a good idea?

      1. Absolutely! It's a great idea. Just be sure to lay it out so that you eliminate or at least minimize any hallways.

    2. I love the idea of a small house. I've read the books you've recommended. For years I've followed the movement. I love the idea of a well built house with attention to details. I love the small footprint idea. I suppose I am somewhat of an enigma though, because I've had 12 kids. And I meant to. We are currently building our own house (and I DO mean BUILDING, not acting as the general or just designing it.) I love the nook! I love the ideas in your blog. Thanks for all you do.

    3. Hey what i see and hear here ...thank you ...I have the gift of converting my old garage here and wonder where I can advertise for earthy, naturally creative slow people who will help me achieve my compact n bijou living quarters full of crafty love, who will enjoy the journey with beautiful digs and food and love and support in exchange....any ideas?


    Post a Comment