Live Large in a Small Space

Anne, a reader from England, recently sent an email saying that she was surprised by my idea of photographing outfits to post on a closet inspiration board.  "This won't apply to many people in England," she wrote.  "Our houses have become very much smaller over the years. . . because housing is so expensive over here."

I was interested to hear how Anne and her husband live comfortably in their small home (53 square meters/570 square feet).  Here in the U.S. the average size of houses keeps growing, and of course bigger houses cost much more.  People seem willing to accept a huge mortgage, literally signing their lives away ("mortgage" originally meant "death pledge") in order to purchase and furnish as large a home as possible.

Why do we carry such a heavy debt?  What are we looking for?

Living in a smaller home forces us to think about what we own and how we use the space.  My husband and I live in about 700 square feet (65 square meters).  We don't have room for paperwork to pile up, so we deal with mail, filing, and bill paying immediately.  We don't let laundry pile too high either.  Jon is a teacher, and when he's grading student essays or 11-by-17-inch (A3 paper) maps for geography tests, he takes the entire dining table.  That means he must tidy things away before meals.

As Anne expressed it, "Living in a small space has made us more aware of the impact that 'what we do' has on each of us.  Maybe this is a lesson for use in a wider context, each person having a greater awareness of their impact on others."

Do we want larger homes so we don't have to share space?  As house sizes have increased in North America, family sizes have decreased.  Far fewer children grow up sharing a bedroom, and some don't even share a bathroom.  Family members have their own computers, TVs, and phones.  They may eat in the kitchen, in the home office, or on a couch – and all at different times.

Are we simply avoiding each other?

My teenage brother had reason to complain about how long my sister and I spent in the bathroom, just as we had reason to complain about his loud music.  But learning to get along and live together was good for us.  Smaller spaces require more communication, more negotiation, and more awareness of each other's needs.  Being thoughtful about how much noise you make, or how long you monopolize a space, is good practice for living in a crowded world.  Clearing up your work materials or hobby supplies when you are finished for the day, or when others need the area, is simply thoughtful behavior and not a bad habit to cultivate!

The world needs us to learn to be content with what we already have, which for most of us is quite a lot.

Of course, you can make a small home or apartment seem bigger, with more comfort for those who live there.

14 Tips for Maximizing a Small Home

1.  Have a place for everything and avoid duplication.

If you always keep your scissors in a certain drawer, you don't need a second pair of scissors.  This is true for pens, flashlights, the hammer, personal grooming tools, condiments, and many other items.  Multiply the effect by all the things you use, and it's clear that basic organization can save a ton of space and make duplicates unnecessary.

2.  Evaluate possessions critically.

My philosophy with most items is that if I don't use if for a year I can and should get rid of it.  It's just taking up space, so why keep it around?  If you haven't used sports or hobby equipment, kitchen items, clothing, or other things in a year, either use them now or consider donating or selling them.

3.  Choose less but more meaningful d├ęcor.

It's tempting to fill limited wall space with all the things you like and think you want.  But this makes walls crowded, with no focus.  The same is true if your shelves and tables are packed with knickknacks and mementos.

When you choose fewer items, your tastes and interests become clear.  Take time to select your favorite items with the most meaning, and you'll be able to see and enjoy those things even more.  Added bonus:  Your home will look more classy and less like a shop.

4.  Use fewer pieces of furniture.

Don't clutter your living room with chairs that no one sits in or tables that just gather dust.  If you have the option, choose floor or pendant lamps instead of table lamps, sleek and trim instead of overstuffed, and seating that accommodates the family plus one or two visitors (you can always bring in dining chairs if you have more company).  Think about one large bookcase instead of several smaller ones, or one large dresser instead of several small chests.  Each larger item might take more floor space, but fewer pieces in total will seem more spacious.

5.  Buy foldable furniture.

This might include a fold-out couch to provide extra sleeping space, or a table with leaves that can be kept small most of the time and expanded when necessary.  A couple of folding chairs can live at the back of a closet until they are needed.

6.  Show some leg.

On your furniture, that is.  When you can see more of the floor, a room feels larger.  So a couch, dresser, or cabinet with legs will look less bulky and make the space feel more open.

7.  Use a trunk.

Add storage by using a trunk as a coffee table or at the foot of your bed.  In the living room, you could store hobby supplies or board games where they are hidden but handy for use.  In a bedroom, you might store extra sheets and blankets or out-of-season clothing.

8.  Let there be light.

A small home can feel claustrophobic, so dress windows lightly and take advantage of natural light whenever possible.

Hang curtains on wide rods so they clear the window when open.  Place rods just below the ceiling with curtains touching the floor to make the space look taller.  If you prefer blinds, choose wider slats for more light and views when they're open.  Your room will be brighter, and an outside view makes your interior feel larger by extending your sight lines.  It's an optical illusion, but it can change the way your home feels.

9.  Hang a mirror.

A mirror reflects and enhances light, the view out a window, and the size of your rooms.  Trick your eyes into thinking you're looking farther than you actually are with mirrored closet doors, a large bathroom mirror, or a mirror in your entry or dining area.

10.  Paint walls a pale color.

Light colors (especially cool tones like white, gray, green, or blue) create a sense of openness, and eggshell or satin paint finishes will add a subtle sheen that bounces more light around the room.

Paint walls, ceiling, and trim the same or a similar color throughout the house.  This creates a seamless look so your eye doesn't stop to measure where one surface ends and another begins.  If you want to use wallpaper, choose a focal wall and a large-scale print.

11.  Create a private nook.

Even a corner of a room can be your personal spot.  Maybe it will house a favorite collection, a comfortable chair and a few treasured books, or a music stand and your violin.  It might be a dressing table topped with favorite photographs and personal care items, or an area arranged for yoga or prayer.

You and each of the people you live with can have a personal oasis, providing a sense of privacy even in your small home.

12.  Keep kitchen and bathroom counters and the refrigerator door clear.

If you want these rooms to look larger, declutter all the extras so you can put your most-used items inside the cupboards, out of sight but easily accessible.  Keep just one or two things on the counter, such as a thriving plant, a bowl of fresh produce, a crock of cooking utensils, or a pretty soap dispenser.  And that cluttered refrigerator door looks tacky.  Find a better way to keep photos, kids' art, and your appointment reminders.

13.  Share ownership.

If you have large items that you want but don't regularly use – luggage or camping equipment, for example – perhaps a friend or family member with a larger home would be willing to share ownership with you.  Your friend could use the item whenever they wish in exchange for storage, and you retain access without needing more space.

14.  Find a third place.

Enlarge your home by spending some of your free time somewhere else.  A third place is a comfortable, familiar spot where you connect with others over a shared interest or activity.  It could be a pub, coffee shop, diner, bookstore, place of worship, hair salon, dog park, or somewhere else.  You're away from the problems of work, but you're also not shut up at home with a pile of laundry.  People get to know you as you socialize, learn, discuss, play, or work for a cause you care about.

When you find ways to use space wisely rather than moving out or adding on, you make it possible to be happy in a smaller home or apartment than you might otherwise have chosen.  This lets you save money and time, gaining freedom to do other things with those resources.

Want more?  "Rethink the American Dream"

Photo by Nathan Oakley on Unsplash


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