Friday, April 14, 2017

In Defense of Small Homes




One of my favorite Dylan lines comes from the song The Ballad of Frankie Lee, in which Bob claims "It's not a house it's a home." A statement I've been chewing on since I was probably 17, when I first heard it. Serving forever as a reminder to me about what differentiates between the two, which I'm know varies from person to person depending on what it is we believe makes a House a "Home."

For me, it's a space that reflects something about who we are as a family, what we enjoy, believe, support and respect. This can be evident in the books and art we keep. And the overall vibe a home secures. In my opinion, size has very little to do with any of it. Our old house measured just under 2,700 square feet which by contemporary track home standards is not at all massive. But certainly not cramped either. A standard layout boasting three bedrooms (a casita detached outback we used only when we had renters) two and a half bathrooms, upstairs loft, dining room, and one roomy common area which included the kitchen. What we were using daily however, was much less. Basically two bedrooms. Three boys in one and one boy in two (depending on the night and his mood / preference) and rarely ever the dining room. Whereas the loft and kitchen were most "commonly inhabited." In hindsight, I'd say that the decade we lived in the house half of our square footage existed as positively beneficial. While the other half, more or less "bonus space" convenient upon occasion.

Small housing was a topic I started considering, more in depth, a few months ago once we decided to move and began looking into the reality of the real estate hikes that come attached to the beach towns we were seeking to settle in. We understood the next house had to be considerably smaller in order for it to suit our budget. But was that necessarily a bad thing? Fact is plenty of people we know are quick to deem this as a major sacrifice. Which I had to wonder if living in larger spaces somehow accounts for more well adjusted children? When really I almost think it's the opposite?

Usually upon my bated prompting - when I ask others to truly think about what areas of their house they use daily, I am always stunned to hear the majority of them admit to so many unused areas of their house. And kids, like mine, who go into their bedrooms mostly only to sleep. A habit that is surely subject to change during the teen years I realize. But I'd argue that the first half of childhood - as far as I can tell - doesn't seem very concerned with hunkering down in the bedroom for play. No matter how much we tell them we'd appreciate it if they would. I am an big advocate for shared bedrooms. And shared space in general. I've written in support of it here before and believe in the strengths and bonds it instills when you are forced to bunk with family no matter how big or small the home space is. Obviously for me, having same sex siblings close in age makes it an easy option. As long as there's been three they've never expressed an interest in being apart from each other or requested their own room. Even when another basically vacant room was there for the taking. I hear people say that as they get older they'll need their space. And I can respect that point of view. But I also think about how many of our parents grew up in houses half the size of these track homes and shared bedrooms up until college. A perfect example being every year when I head up north to Greenfield Ca with my best friend to visit her grandmother I'm inspired by the meager layout of her 60s style ranch house she raised seven children in, with shared bedrooms for most all of them. Seven kids who grew into seven well mannered adults that exist now as a close knit family. She says it worked out because it had to. Period.

I mention this because one of the places we are seriously considering at the moment is a two bedroom. Of which we would ultimately add onto but are still ok with the decent square footage as is. My ideal space being anywhere from 1,300 - 1,600 sqft) Which is cringeworthy to some considering the size of our family. Fun part though about working with smaller spaces is that it calls for more creative, intentional design where you can't just throw things out and hope it works because the value of your surrounding space is amplified when it's scarce. Forcing you almost to part with anything that you don't absolutely love or feel attached to. And isn't there some liberation in ridding your home of the senseless clutter we're all prone to and living instead with less but that which gives us pleasure? As of now, I have to hope so.

As for creative renovations, they certainly aren't to be overlooked while downsizing. Typically within minutes of touring a few of these houses Mike was already knocking around walls and climbing up into attics to get an estimate of what beams could be exposed to lift the ceilings, what walls could come down to open up areas or added to create or divide new ones. In one scenario he was able to envision the elimination of a laundry room and closet to be reconstructed as a small room with one pretty window where the only thing that would work would be a bed and dresser might fit but still provide a warm boon for one or two of the boys to call their own. This of course being one of the main perks of being married to a handy man. They see things you would never. And then manage to actually make them happen.

Practicality aside, I think I've always preferred good light / bones in a house as opposed to square footage. Some of my favorite homes are quaint but alluring, where square footage doesn't seem somehow definable. I know I always tend towards tighter, cozier spaces when I search ideally because I'm keeping my sights set on a mid century (or Spanish) single story fixer upper with good flow that entails at least one roomy common living area, where corners can be carved out by building custom nooks and comfy (creative) seating. Hygge inspired. And less to clean. I for one, don't want 3 bathrooms ever again. Unless one is a urinal - I'll take that. Because realistically two is perfect and yet still more than I care to tackle on deep cleaning rotations but obviously vital with a household this big (and reckless) when it comes bathroom manners.

What's even more intriguing to me too is how much different space is viewed on alternative coastlines. For instance the ladies I know in Brooklynn have far much more practical views of what amounts to ample living space in the city they inhabit. Where even the wealthiest people tend to live in close quarters where closets become sleeping spaces, and tiny nooks are made delightfully inviting because of the expectations being skewed based on the confines of urban living. Like when I visited my friend Latonya, and she gave me a tour of her stunning brownstone, proudly showing off her lovely bedroom that was tucked tight into room small enough that she had to climb into it via the bed. And yet it appeared smart and stylish, inviting, and not in the least way any kind of inconvenience. Just like the rest of her home where every basket had it's place and nothing was overstuffed or crowded. In other words, New Yorkers make it work. Because it has to. Same thing goes for other countries right? Where living with combined families is the norm and personal space shrinks as a result. A fact not to be scoffed at or resented either. Yet here - especially in California - we seem to think the more we expand, the bigger our house, the happier we'll be. I don't buy it.

My personal small home defenses being:
If we are close to areas we want to be outdoors (ideally, the beach) our home base becomes a haven for rest and nurture. Which can exist in any form. As a family, we don't spend all that much time holed up at home because we're out and about as much as possible, especially when the weather is nice. I know some people define themselves as "home bodies" but that isn't us.

Also, the idea of incorporating indoor / outdoor living is always an option to help open up a house and can instantly change the feeling of a space because it adds air to the interior and breathes new life to the overall flow of it. This is where replacing windows with french doors and front yards made into courtyards become game changers in our hunt. Two options we're always considering while looking at smaller homes. What are the possibilities, how can this be improved? Where can we expand with as little devastation as possible? And essentially: Decor > space. Because if a home feels altogether inviting because of the way it's laid out and arranged, size doesn't matter.

As of now we're still looking, debating and deciding, but I am always interested to know what others have to say on the topic, in relation to downsizing and altogether smaller living spaces. Some of my favorite people in life grew up in small homes themselves so maybe the proof is in the pudding. But I'd love to know: do you find yourself more attracted to big homes? If so, why? Are there benefits to living with less? And do you feel most of your house is used regularly?



- Photo from one of our recent small house contenders with plenty of room for creative interpretation. 


30 comments:

  1. There are three of us 1,300sqf and I can't imagine more! It's warm and cozy and easy to clean, our outdoor space is .25 of an acre in an urban area. We get a huge yard, a small home and downtown amenities. I love it!

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  2. We downsized right before having our second daughter last year. We're in a 3 bed - we hope to have another babe. We are intentional about our stuff and space. I figure, were a family and families should be close. Mentally, emotionally and physically. All this to say, I agree with you!

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    1. I love that outlook! Thank you. I've been thinking about it since I read it yesterday.

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  3. We have a 1250sqft 3-bed 1.5 bath apartment for five people (two adults, a teen, a preschooler and a baby) and I feel like it's a great size. I would say all of the space gets used pretty much constantly, except for my teen's room as she is often at school or staying at her dad's. The two little kids share a room and between baby naps and little kid games there is often 1 or more kids in there throughout the day. My husband works nights and I work days so our bedroom is being used for sleep about 2/3 of every day. The main living area is open plan and although I have areas designated the dining room, the office, the living room, etc, it's really all playroom and all gets used all the time.

    Our place is in downtown Vancouver, in a house divided into suites and we have a small backyard that we share with a couple other houses. There is also a park across the street, and it's only a few blocks' walk to bigger parks, beaches, and just a 15 minute drive to the mountains. I wouldn't mind having a single family home outside of downtown (not that I could afford one here, real estate in any part of this city is a nightmare) but I wouldn't necessarily want anything much bigger than what we have now. I wouldn't want MORE rooms, just maybe... slightly bigger bedrooms and bathroom? My teen's room is super tiny, and while the master is an ok size the closet is really small so a lot of the room is dedicated to clothing storage.

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  4. We only have 2 boys but we just bought a 1600 sq ft condo in Chicago. It's the biggest place we will have lived. We are currently in San Francisco where we live in 1000sq. And we previously lived in 600sq ft in Buenos Aires ( and pre kids 380 sq ft!!). I've never felt like we need more space but you do have to get used to a lot more happening everywhere. And some times I feel like I can't escape my kids. I'm hoping the extra 600 sq ft will give me a tad more breathing room. I don't actually have a lot of advice for small living though. It's just normal to me after like 16 years of living in tiny apartments. And if you do it, I'm sure it will just become your normal after awhile.

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    1. I think so too. And, 1,600 is like my ideal sq ft

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  5. Definitely consider a front courtyard if possible. We share a house with my parents, they have the downstairs suite but had to give up a backyard to live there. They put in french doors and converted the front to a lovely courtyard with a wood slatted fence. It is the envy of our neighbours who have the typical lawn suburban style front yard that typically goes unused.

    We live upstairs with two kids in 1200 sq feet and although we are comfortable, we do wish for some kind of rec room that would accommodate more kids when we have guests. For now it's perfect as long as we keep the furnishings minimal, functional and are able to embrace occasional chaos.

    Good luck on your search!

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    1. Yes, I've seen in many cases how much a courtyard changes the overall flow of a house. I've always loved them and we started to realize how almost any house can be altered that way, by adding one.

      Thank you for the well wishes!

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  6. Our family of four, sometimes five (2 parents, 2 babies, 1 teen who lives primarily with her mom) plus a dog live in an 830 square foot loft in Downtown Los Angeles. Sometimes we liken it to living on a boat. : ) But by international standards, this is a large amount of space, even for this many people. We love the challenges of living in what is basically one big room- it's forced us to choose items with care, have a place for everything, and respect not only each other's physical space but our aural and visual space as well. And it forces us outside and into LA when we need breaks! The creativity required for living in a small shared space is really energizing.

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    1. Love your outlook. And especially the boat reference. I think there is some romance to being in cramped quarters. If only because of the creativity it takes to make it work :)

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  7. We're living 2 adults and 2 boys in 1000 sq.food. It's what we Call hygge/cosy in Denmark. Our boys love it, they are 3 and 7 years old. The oldest say:"Mum, Our house might be small, but it is cosy/hygge." Maybe in a few years we'll look for something bigger, but not to big becaurse then it's not what we Call 'hygge'�� Thank you for a interesting view on how different we can choose to live as a family and it all depends on good values. Best regards Liselotte/Denmark

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    1. OH, I'm obsessed right now with the whole notion of Hygge in the home! I want to sit down and talk in depth to any Dane I can who can offer an authentic point of view in regards to living this way. I've been reading up on it but am desperate for more. So thank you for writing! I'm so excited to have a someone from Denmark following along. xx

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  8. I think being able to modify the space to your needs is what makes all of the difference. We're a family of three in a rented ~750 sqft apartment in Brooklyn, and while we're not short on actual space, the usability of it is what always drives me crazy. Our toddler's room is tiny, which is perfect for her, but our bedroom is (relatively) massive, and always feels like such an immense waste of space--we basically only use it for sleeping and getting dressed, but it is a big room with the best light in the apt. I spend a lot of time fantasizing about how I could redesign our space to get so much more out of it, but as renters we're doing the best we can with it.

    We're currently working on a plan to move back to San Francisco and to get a multi-family building with my mom and sister (she's a disabled adult, they live together in an oversized house), and I am super excited about the possibilities of finding and making a space that suits all of our needs in ways that neither of our places currently do. Also outdoor space!! Not having outdoor space has always been rough, but now that we have a toddler...man-oh-man...

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  9. I love this. And I love the picture here, it looks amazing! When we moved, we ended up with a bigger house. Not on purpose, but it was the right house, few rooms but they are all large. I am pretty close now to both kids moving out and have been thinking how I really dislike cleaning a big house and taking care of a big yard. I do think that a small house, as long as the lay out is good, the windows are good, and there is plenty of outdoor space is better than a bigger house with more "space". I have been thinking that I'd rather save money on a home, and spend money/time doing things and traveling. Also, I have found that some people genuinely enjoy doing yard work, and I am not one of those people. Furthermore, having a messy yard makes me incredibly anxious. This realization will guide me as we navigate being empty nesters in the next 5 years or so...

    I can't wait to see where you end up. And as always, I love your writing.

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    1. Thank you!

      Love hearing from you and so many others on this subject. Proving that I'm not alone. And that you can in fact be happy and content in smaller spaces. Maybe I'll make it a series topic since there seems to be so much to say about it.

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  10. I'm so with you! For several reasons and let me tell you why.
    1.) You live in California where it's beautiful outside 90% of the time and like you said, you all are outside enjoying it as much as possible. As long as you can create an outdoor space you love as much as your last home, plus be near the beach, your family will thrive.
    2.) Mike can build anything! And you have such good taste and vision to make any space feel beautiful and homey. Match made in heaven.
    3.) The cleaning alone makes it worth it. Think of all the hours you'll save by not cleaning such a big space. You will be liberated to spend your time doing things you actually want to do instead of constantly tidying all the books and crannies that come with bigger homes. Our old house was a 1500 sq ft ranch and even if it was a complete disaster and needed a full on deep clean, I could tackle the whole house top to bottom in under 2 hours. But normally a half hour to run through tidying, vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms and making beds was good enough to reset or be presentable to guests. I seriously loved smaller living for the cleaning aspects. Now we live in a much bigger house with 3 stories, multiple living spaces, 3 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms....that pretty much always stresses me out when it comes to cleaning. If it gets out of hand, it seems insurmountable. I have a cleaning crew come once a month, just enough time to save me from drowning in chores. And I only have one kid!!
    Anyway, I fully support smaller living with 4 kids. Actually, *because* you have four kids. As a mom, you don't want to spend these years tidying and cleaning more than having quality time with them...or just freaking relaxing more because, hello, four kids is exhausting. :)

    Good for you for recognizing the gifts in smaller living. I love our home and wouldn't trade it but, man I miss how good I had it when it came to cleaning.

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  11. Oh and I do want to add that even if you have a small home, a large-ish kitchen is always a plus! Feeding that many people is a lot of work and it's nice to be able to spread out. Or push the mess aside if you need to Cooke and didn't clean from last time. ;)

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    1. Yep, I agree. Any house we've looked at so far we are quick to zone in on the option of opening up the kitchen to make it an inviting and practical place to gather. It's so important when so much time is spent there cooking for a family this size.

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  12. I grew up in a 1000 sq ft house with both parents, three siblings (with a 13 year age gap), dogs, cats, and during half of my life at lease one grandmother. At times it was chaotic but the point is, kids don't need much space to be happy. All they need is love, shelter, a place to run around, and each others company. While it may have been hard sharing a bedroom with my sister during her Nirvana stage and my Little Mermaid Stage, it has brought us closer together as adults. Some of the most 'bomb proof' people I know grew up in small spaces. These people make the best travellers, have a great sense of space, are considerate, and mindful. They know how to share, they're comfortable in their body (all that bathroom sharing comes in handy), and best of all, they can sleep anywhere.

    Personally, I find large homes sterile. And what makes a house a home to me is in part the noise, everyone hanging out in the kitchen, and the warmth you can only get in a small space.
    xox

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    1. Sterile. That's the perfect word. I should have included that because I totally agree. Obviously there are exceptions but for the most part the bigger the home the more "sterile" it is prone to feel.

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  13. I know you've been inundated with comments on this but I have to say...YES! We've been in just under 1100 sq ft for 11 years now, moved in with our first son when he was 4 months and now cram in 3 boys, two dogs, a house bunny and a recently acquired leopard gecko. I've found that a small home has really shaped so much of our family culture - my kids spend most of their time outside mountain biking and whitewater kayaking/tubing 2 blocks from our home and share rooms. For holidays/birthdays they don't usually ask for toys and "things" but for experiences (overnight trips, tickets to MLS game with friends, etc.) We have an attached apartment that we rent out to international School of Mines students and we've met friends from China, India, Africa, all over! We're planning to hopefully renovate in the next year but when I really sat with it I realized a mudroom, pantry and one car garage with an emphasis on function and design are all I really need. We have definitely made peace with our space but it is always funny to me when a new kid comes over and asks, "Where's the rest of your house???" or when relatives imply that we shouldn't have parties here because it's too small. I've asked a lot of people who come from large families and are close as adults what they think the formula is and very often the answer is growing up in close quarters. Best of luck to you on your search for the right home!

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    1. Oh man, people are so weird that way! I've had quite a few mention how people are quick to dismiss small homes are entertainable options. And yet some of my fav favorite homes to gather at are small spaces. And I LOVE my friends with cozy lofts in the city.

      And I appreciate your point about close knit adults attributing their bond to living in close quarters. Funny how so many people think more space equates to happier kids when what if it's in fact the opposite? I know my boys are always together even when extra room is available.

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  14. We live in about 1500 square feet (me, my husband, 18 month-old daughter, and Westie) and love it. We use every inch of the house right now. We have a small yard and a front porch. I can definitely see us needing more space - I don't live where we can be outside year round so in winter months, the quarters would likely feel tight - but it definitely works. And frankly, the bigger the house, the more to clean, and who wants to waste time doing that!!

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    1. one of the most appealing things about downsizing is less cleaning. Our old house felt constantly overwhelming to me so the idea of living with and inside of "less" I'm seeing as a definite perk.

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  15. There are 2 adults and 2 boys in our 2400 sq ft home. It's a split level and has lots of open space and high ceilings making it feel larger. We have a finished basement and backyard with a nice covered deck. There are 4 bedrooms and 2.5 baths. We have a dining room, living room and family room. We do use all the space but could easily do without a finished basement and the living room. Each boy has their own room and we use the 4th as an office space. I think if the space in our house was designed to cater to us more we'd have a larger kitchen that'd be a little more open to the family room and would have one less bedroom with larger bathrooms and closet spaces. If our kitchen was larger, I suppose we could do without the dining room too, though it is nice to use when we have company.

    It's all luxury though. We enjoy the outdoors a lot and have just as much fun camping with the four of us in a big tent, so I say do what makes you and your family happy.

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  16. 'Quaint but alluring' I love that... Really appreciating all of your sentiments on this subject (as well as the Dylan quote!). I found myself really obsessing over larger homes while pregnant this third time, thinking surely we were bound to outgrow a house, yet again. And more room seemed to promise a freedom of open space a small (old) house doesn't have. After baby though, I found we settled into a perfect inhabitance of our smallish house ( I think its about 1200 square feet). Almost as if it was too big for us before. I love the constant challenge of adapting to less space and moving things through our home that we no longer need or love, though I definitely haven't mastered it. I've also noticed that no matter where I've lived, when friends come to visit we inevitably find ourselves crowded on the front porch in summer or around the (tiny) kitchen table otherwise, and either are comfortable and lovely, even with little room to spare.

    Its funny how just looking at a smaller space as a positive rather than a negative can inspire so much creativity and beauty. I can't wait to see/hear more as you find your new home. xxoo

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  17. Just adding to the comments that a small house is far more efficient (heating and cooling), and if it's designed well can actually feel larger than many typical layouts in larger homes. So many houses waste space on unnecessary circulation and don't capitalize on flexible layouts. If only architects were more valued, most families could definitely be comfortable in less space than they think ;)

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