Smaller Home Design: 8 Steps to Success

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Smaller homes are getting more and more popular as people 1) downsize in this economy, 2) want to live simpler lives, 3) become empty nesters, or 4) want to build for energy efficiency. Whether you are building new or remodeling, you can design and decorate a small space to make it feel grand. There are a few visual tricks you can implement to live in a small yet highly functioning home.

The basic tenet of living in a smaller home is to live with less. I cringe when I see more and more storage units being built. That tells me we have too much stuff! De-clutter before renting a storage unit or adding on to your house. You’d be surprised how many people add on a room or two, because they have too much stuff!

Get rid of what you don’t use or don’t need before making any design decisions. Sell on craigslist or eBay, have a yard sale, or give it away. My rule of thumb is: If I have not used it in a year, I get rid of it. I am really good at purging with no regrets. Look at what you use on a daily basis, examine your lifestyle, be honest, and don’t be afraid! Get rid of it!

Now that you have fewer possessions, you can design a comfortable living space. Here are two of the most important aspects.

Smaller home: making a list of your needs

Do you like to entertain? Do you want a library? Do you need a home office? Do you want a private bathroom? Do you want sunny windows for passive solar heating? Do you want solar PV or solar hot water? You will again be examining your lifestyle when planning life in a smaller home. Be honest, and write it all down. If you are working with a space planner, interior designer, architect or contractor, they will ask you detailed questions about your needs, so be prepared. This is the first step!

Creating a budget for a smaller home

How much can you spend? Are you going to get a mortgage, or will you pay as you go? If you need a mortgage, get qualified before you do anything, so you can see what you can spend. What we want to spend and what we can spend are sometimes two completely different figures. The amount you qualify for will determine how much construction you can do.

Designing the smaller home

Now that we have the boring-yet-crucial stuff out of the way, let’s talk about smaller home design.

1. Consider open plan
A home will feel bigger with an open floor plan. Walls chop up a space, and each room will feel cramped. Open up the kitchen/living/dining area, and create visual room dividers with arches or small columns, for example.

2. Lots of windows and natural light
Windows can be used to bring in natural light, which is more even and less choppy than artificial lighting. An attractive landscape view will carry the eye outside the building making a room feel larger. You can actually expand your living area outside with a well-planned landscape and outdoor rooms.

3. Create continuity with fewer types of flooring surfaces
Use the same flooring throughout the house, again, to avoid chopping the space up. The flooring will also carry the eye through to the next room. Someone will be curious to where the floor is flowing. Wood or tile flooring laid on a diagonal also creates the illusion of space in a smaller home.

4. Raised ceilings
A raised ceiling gives the sense of more room, although the floor space has not changed. If you live in a cold climate that needs winter heat for many months, I do not recommend this. Heat rises, and it will go right up into that empty space. A ceiling fan would help distribute it, but you will be using more fuel for heat, and you will not be as comfortable. If you want a raised ceiling, don’t make it more than 9’, a foot more than the standard 8’ ceiling.

photo: familymwr

5. Create continuity with one color for ceilings and walls
The same goes for wall and ceiling paint. Keep one color on the walls throughout your open space, and it will feel much larger. A monochromatic color scheme, with different tints and shades of one color also deceives the eye. Light colors also give the illusion of space, but a contrasting accent wall can carry the eye across the room and create visual interest.

6. Properly scale the furniture to the room
You do not want a king size bed in a 10’x10’ room. Neither do you want a large sectional sofa in a small living room. Furniture needs to be in balance with the size of the room in a smaller home. Aside from that, there are minimum requirements for human movement in a space. This is called anthropometric data. We need X number of feet and inches to move around and comfortably do activities associated with the various rooms. If you have a smaller room, you will need smaller furniture to allow for human needs.

7. Small or monochromatic textile patterns
Scale applies to textiles, too. Keep patterns small and unobtrusive with a monochromatic color scheme. Keep texture to a minimum. Draperies that run from ceiling to floor will carry the eye upward and give the illusion that there are big windows behind them.

8. Accessories should provide a seamless effect
Accessories should not be large, bright and shocking. Anything that interrupts the vision will immediately make a room feel small. You want the eye to travel around the room undisturbed for a sense of spaciousness.

From your floor plan right down to your accessories, you can design a small space to feel larger. In a small home, you will also have lower utility and maintenance costs, along with insurance and taxes. There are many benefits to designing small!

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.