Building a small home has a big payback

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Posted Dec 26 2016 by Sigi Koko of Down to Earth Design

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.  Much cheaper and just as effective as a play room.

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!

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

Mini strawbale cottage on an old 2-car garage footprint.

4 Design strategies

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.

We replaced a small back door in this urban home with a huge sliding glass wall to connect the kitchen with a screened porch.

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 space…like 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 begins…like a set of columns, or a kitchen island, or a change in floor material, or a change in ceiling height or material…

These two columns separate the kitchen from the living room but still allow views & conversation between the two spaces.

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.

Final thoughts

Building smaller often affords you the opportunity to build with more care, greater craftsmanship, higher quality.  And the end result is something you cherish, not just a space that you occupy.

My approach to design

Sigi Koko is the principal designer at Down to Earth Design, which she founded in 1998 to help her clients manifest their dreams of living in a natural, healthy home.  She translates each client’s vision into a unique building design that reflects their personality and lifestyle, while responding to the surrounding landscape and climate.  Sigi’s uniquely collaborative design process provides a high level of information and support that encourages her clients to engage fully throughout design and construction.  Sigi also teaches natural building workshops that empower her clients to contribute creatively during the construction of their own home.All of Sigi’s projects are designed to function in synchronicity with their environment.  Each building relates to seasonal cycles of sun, wind, and rain to provide natural heating and cooling primarily from passive (free!) sources.  Her clients enjoy an average 75% reduction in total energy usage compared to conventional buildings.  She uses a palette of building materials that ensure healthy indoor spaces and minimal environmental impact.