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As CEO of Backyard ADUs, a company that builds small homes and ADUs, I think about living in small spaces a lot.
There are tons of cool and clever 200SF tiny homes out there, and I’d love to park one on a lake below a ski hill somewhere.
But there’s no way I could live in one for the rest of my life. I am not organized enough to hide my clutter, and don’t have the time to take advantage of all the neat convertible pieces of furniture integrated into these spaces. My small bad habits, like not putting the dishes away or moving stuff into drawers, quickly become very noticeable problems.
In this post I’m going to share my insights about how to design small spaces so people like me — and you — can actually live in them, and reap the benefits for ourselves, and the world.
Finding the right size
For me the goal of living smaller is to simplify, destress, and save money — but when I get too focused on being too small, it gets more complicated and stressful, not less.
I also want to help the environment. Smaller homes are good for that, because they use less materials and more importantly, pack more living space into a smaller envelope which will use less energy to heat and cool the space. But they only help the environment if people use them to replace bigger, more wasteful houses for regular full-time living — not supplement them as vacation places or eye candy.
At Backyard ADUs, we build and install what we call “oversized tiny” homes, usually in the range of 500-1000 SF. Meanwhile, the average home built in the US is about 2,700 SF. While our homes don’t meet the definition of “tiny” in IRC’s Appendix Q, they are a huge reduction from the American standard.
Oversized tiny homes, in my experience, don’t force the occupants to completely reinvent their lifestyles. And well-designed homes in this size range never feel small, even to someone downsizing from a larger house.
But good design is a challenge — these smaller spaces force designers to think carefully about the spaces that matter most. (For me, that’s the kitchen, family room, and places to hide your stuff without needing to spend too long organizing.)
Distinct spaces are important
When designing a small house (often an ADU) at Backyard ADUs, it’s tempting, and easy, to build something that is pure open space. This certainly maximizes the usable floor space, but it does not create the distinct spaces that we need to help divide our daily activities and help hide our stuff when we are not using it.
Distinct spaces include the obvious such as a bedroom, bathroom, storage, and kitchen/lounge space. Distinct space may also include the less obvious, like a place to work from home, crafting space or a place to take off your jacket.
Allocating space between these areas and regulating overlap of the space is the primary activity of designing a small home. And of course, everyone’s preferences are different. I personally lean towards allocating more space to the kitchen because my wife and I almost always cook at home so a small kitchen would force us to compromise this.
Factor in a Foyer
While it will be difficult to get a full mudroom into a small house, the placement of your primary exterior door is extremely important. From an emotional standpoint, an exterior door (not facing a private rear yard) represents the outside world, where a stranger could enter, and even danger. To quell this primal feeling when you are trying to relax you don’t want it near where you will sleep or immediately in the living room where you will be trying to relax.
The Japanese have a very interesting philosophy about inside and outside spaces and allocate a lot of time to separating them. I experienced this first hand buying a mattress on craigslist many years ago and was asked to take my shoes off before going inside (they noted it was part of their culture).
From a practical standpoint, it also important to create a space where you can trap dirt and transition to being inside. This means kicking off your dirty shoes, taking of a coat that is possibly dripping wet, and taking a moment to shake the shivers off when it frigid outside. In design terms this means trying to add a coat/utility closet near the door and even segmenting the space from the rest of the house with a wall if possible. The wall will take up space, but it will create a cozier atmosphere in the living area.
Carefully combine the kitchen and living room
Combining a kitchen and living room is not new, and has been a fad for the last few decades. In small homes, it’s virtually mandatory.
However, the two spaces should still be distinct. When designing, I am concerned with the placement of the furniture in the living room, finding space for a small dining table or bar top counter/island, and most importantly the flow between the activities that occur in the living room versus the kitchen.
Here are a few “flow” design questions: is it easy to access the refrigerator when you are not cooking? Do you interrupt someone watching TV to go to the kitchen? Do you have to shimmy by someone cooking to sit on the couch? These scenarios are really important as they happen on a daily basis and are an easy way to create aggravation between two people living in a small space.
Storage is another big one. When you move into a small house you will have less storage space than you had before, and when stuff overflows from cabinets or you don’t put it away it will always be in sight and cause stress. Hence the goal of storage in a small home is to make it extremely easy to get your stuff out of sight of the primary living area.
One of my core design principles with storage is that you can’t get overly fancy with your storage strategy. If your storage system is too complicated you won’t use it. Every extra step or action the system requires is a barrier to putting something away. When designing you must make space for traditional storage like closets, cabinets, and ikea-like closet systems that turn your closet into drawers, shelves, and hanging space. Drawers are great because they can either be well-organized or a place to just dump stuff quickly. The same goes for traditional closets and cabinets.
Finally, don’t forget to utilize unconditioned space for storage of items that can withstand temperature changes. Adding a shed is cheap and you don’t have to heat or cool it. They are a great place to store sports and outdoor equipment and other things that you don’t use on a regular basis.
Turn hallways into multi-purpose spaces
Hallways are a HUGE waste of space and in small homes and you simply can’t waste space on them. However, you can turn a hallway into a usable space. In our designs, we commonly create a bar top seating area adjacent to the hallway or use a hallway that doubles as a mudroom. Other strategies include creating a walkthrough (not walk-in) closet, hallway kitchens (which I hate as a cook), and passthrough rooms.
Here are two examples from small homes that we’ve designed:
Windows in a small house are like the infinity edge on a seaside pool. When included on all 3 sides of a house and facing a good direction based on the home’s surrounding terrain they can make 500SF feel like 1000SF.
Windows also assure that ample natural light will enter the space throughout the day. If your location doesn’t allow you traditional windows at eye level due to privacy concerns or the view is poor, adding awning windows higher up is a good option. They won’t make space feel quite as large, but they will let the natural light in.
Awning windows are also a good solution above bathtubs, a bed’s headboard, or anywhere where you want natural light but need flexibility in positioning furniture.
Integrated outdoor spaces
In the same stream of thought of using windows to make a space bigger, you should also plan outdoor space so it feels like an extension of your living space. You can do this by positioning windows to create sight lines between inside and outside living spaces. Adding French doors or a larger sliding door is another great way to merge the spaces.
To sum up
You can see some of these principles at work in a video tour of Backyard ADU’s first permitted project. But there are lots of ways to express these principles, as our newer models and custom designs show.
I believe that smaller homes can make a big contribution to the world — by lowering stress, saving money, and lightening the burden on the planet. But when designing for smaller, better lives, I think we need to be realistic about how we truly live from moment to moment. Considering all these little details — where you’re going to kick off your shoes, or the sight lines from your favorite chair — will help you create a space that nourishes you, and maybe even helps you give back to the world.
Feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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