Most of us don’t set out to create a small living space. Instead, we find ourselves in an existing small space and learn to make do. College students, urban dwellers, young families… anyone short on discretionary income lives tiny by necessity, not by choice. People in this situation can grow happier by maximizing the utility and style of their homes.
Who better to court this demographic than IKEA? A few years ago, the budget-furniture giant released a series of videos in which designers created small rooms that combined high function with their usual Scandinavian chic. The rooms include a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom, a living room, a family room, and a puny apartment for six. There are tons of clever ideas in here… like positioning your wardrobe to create a walk-in closet, and rethinking living-room furniture to make the space more versatile. I like the videos’ honesty, showing that the rooms are just sets built inside a factory. When you know these perfect spaces exist only in a vacuum, they challenge you to adapt to your own unique situation.
That’s good, because these ideas certainly won’t work for everybody. I don’t know why the kitchen and bathroom were included, except for the sake of completeness, since apartment-dwellers can’t reconfigure their fixtures. The six-person flat, with its bunk beds and central kitchen, resembles an alpine hut rather than a place to live comfortably for any length of time. But the key here is to spark your creativity so you’ll find some cool solutions for yourself. I always look forward to IKEA’s annual catalog, even though I live 200 miles from the nearest store and have all the furniture I need. Everybody can benefit from a little small-space inspiration.
In 1998, architect Sarah Susanka published her first book, The Not So Big House, with the premise that we should design our houses better rather than bigger. The book was a runaway hit, leading to a dozen or so sequels and boosting her studio to stardom. The Not So Big House website heaps with writings on the subject, useful links, and study plans of her home designs. If you really want to engage yourself, pick up one of her books… perhaps at your nearest library.
I think Sarah struck a chord with the American public at precisely the right time. We’re in the midst of an eco-revolution. We’d all love to save money, save the planet, get rid of excess… and for the first time in history it’s cool to live in a smaller house. Sarah’s books show you how to do it: she identifies the things that make a house function, the things that make it feel like home, and she gracefully eliminates everything else. Suddenly it’s an entirely attainable goal to simplify your life a little and fit your budget to a house that’s just a bit smaller and a lot smarter. A not-so-big house.
Sarah gets credit as a major inspiration behind this new house… we used one of her floor plans! Appearing in her second book, Creating the Not So Big House, it’s called “A Farmhouse For Our Time” and was actually designed by Jean Rehkamp Larson, who worked at Sarah’s firm then. With an open first floor, a kitchen perfect for entertaining, and the private spaces grouped upstairs, the floor plan suits this family’s lifestyle wonderfully while doing away with rooms they don’t use.
The cover of Sarah’s second book.
Our faithful reproduction.
Colin honored the sightlines and spatial organization of the original plan, as well as the classic farmhouse aesthetic outside and in. Our own architect crafted the Barn and breezeway to complement Sarah’s plan. Few spaces are wasted (the basement could’ve had fewer hallways in my opinion) and many spaces serve multiple purposes. The hearth blockout pictured above does quadruple duty as a fireplace, a duct race, a laundry chute, and over a hundred linear feet of bookshelves. Not only that, but it spatially defines the living room, secluding it from the high-traffic entry and hallway… all in about 30 square feet. Not so big, indeed!
When’s the last time you actually used your dining room for eating? Or entered a friend’s house through the front door? This article on re:form, entitled “Data-Driven Architecture”, tracks one family’s movements through their house during a typical week. The result: almost all the occupants’ time is spent in the kitchen and the family room. Over 60% of the first floor’s 1344 square feet are virtually unused.
By and large, housing developers – and owners with the luxury to self-design – base their layouts on social expectations, not real life. The result is wasted construction materials and high energy bills to maintain the unused space. Here in Vermont, Colin took a bold stroke and eliminated a formal dining room from the floor plan. His new dining area is an extension of the kitchen, reflecting how the family uses its current home. In a similar vein, Colin’s breezeway connects to the garage, mudroom, and central stairwell, making it a functional entry rather than an afterthought. The front door is purely for show; the wide, elevated porch redirects guests to the more comfortable breezeway. This house is designed to fit actual behavior patterns.
The re:form article contains a wealth of data demonstrating the benefits to individuals and societies if homes were built to better fit the occupants’ lifestyles. Author David Friedlander also maintains a wonderful blog, lifeedited, which I’ll spotlight in a future post.