Checklist for Creating Small Houses that Work

Consider alternatives to single-family homes. Cohousing and attached houses can allow combining of functions to eliminate redundancies. This is especially true with cohousing, where a common house can provide for guest lodging, larger entertainment spaces, storage for little-used shared equipment such as lawnmowers, and shop space.

Evaluate space requirements very carefully. Work with clients to carefully examine both current and projected requirements. How large is the family? Will it likely grow? Might it shrink? Is there—or might there be—a home office? How important is cooking? Do they entertain a lot?

Provide open-plan for kitchen/dining and living area. Separate, formal dining rooms are rarely used today. The same is true for separate, formal living rooms. Family members and guests prefer to spend time in the kitchen—provide for that in the design. In many cases it also makes sense to extend this open layout to the living area, so that one space serves all three functions.

Avoid single-use hallways. Design houses so that circulation areas serve additional functions—circulation through the living/dining area, or hallways that also serve other functions—library space, for example, or (with adequate separation) laundry.

Combine functions in other spaces. By combining functions in certain rooms, space can be optimized. For example: combine a guest bedroom with a home office; provide for both television viewing and music functions in the living room; put the laundry equipment in the mud room.

Provide built-in furnishings and storage. Provide built-in furnishings and storage areas to better utilize space. For example: storage cabinets and drawers built into the triangular space beneath stairways; bench seats built into deep window sills; library shelves along stairway walls; and display cases built into wall cavities.

Provide adequate storage. The desire for a big house may be driven by inadequate or poorly planned storage in the clients’ existing house. Begin planning for built-in storage early in the design process, and try to utilize spaces that would otherwise be wasted. Small windows in walk-in closets can make those spaces more inviting and better used.

Make use of attic space. A tremendous volume in most new houses is lost to unheated attic space. Instead, insulate the roof and turn attic spaces into living area—making use of skylights and dormers to bring in light and extend the space. Scissor trusses permit high levels of insulation to be provided in the roof while avoiding the use of large-dimension lumber. Having some rooms extend right up to the roof (cathedral ceilings) often makes sense, because variation in ceiling height can make small spaces feel larger. Even if a standard uninsulated attic cannot be avoided, at least design easy access and provide convenient storage areas so that the space can be utilized.

Don’t turn bedrooms into living rooms. The “master bedroom suite,” increasingly a given in upscale suburban “starter castles,” is actually little used. Even the wealthiest people use bedrooms primarily for sleeping and dressing. Keep them relatively small to avoid wasted space.

Provide acoustic separation between rooms. A small house will be more acceptable if there are no common walls between bedrooms. Closets can help provide this separation. Also consider insulating interior walls and providing staggered wall studs for acoustic isolation.

Provide connections to the outdoors. Providing linkages to outdoor and semi-outdoor spaces will both create a more pleasant house and make a compact house feel significantly larger. Careful placement of windows and glazed patio doors will increase the visual connection with the outdoors even during winter and inclement weather. Tall windows that extend down close to the floor help extend spaces to the outdoors.

Create outdoor living space through thoughtful landscaping. Carefully landscaped patios, decks, woodland sitting areas, and small lawn areas encourage the outdoors to become additional living space during good weather.

Provide a variety of ceiling heights. Create spaces with varying ceiling height to make a house feel larger even if it reduces somewhat the actual usable floor area in a house.

Provide natural daylighting and carefully placed artificial lighting. Try to provide natural lighting on at least two sides of every room to provide a feeling of spaciousness. Incorporate some natural and artificial lighting where the light source is not readily visible to make compact spaces feel larger. Uplighting onto ceilings also makes a space feel larger.

Provide visual, spatial, and textural contrasts. Contrasting colors, orientations, degrees of privacy, ceiling heights, light intensities, detailing, and surface textures can be an important design strategy for creating satisfying spaces that feel larger than they really are.

Use light colors for large areas. Most walls and ceilings should be light in color to make spaces feel larger. Use dark colors only for contrast and accent.

Keep some structural elements exposed. Structural beams, posts, and timber joists should be left exposed, creating visual focal points and texture. Be careful not to let these elements overwhelm the space however; too many exposed timbers can make a space feel smaller.

Make use of interior windows. Transom windows above doorways and interior windows that allow natural light from skylights to be distributed into adjoining rooms can make those spaces feel larger.

Design spaces for visual flow. Careful building design can make small spaces feel larger by causing the eye to wander through a space. A continuous molding line that extends throughout a house somewhat below the ceiling can assist with this visual flow. Continuity of flooring and wall coverings can also tie spaces together visually. With very small spaces, provide diagonal site lines that maximize the distance and the feeling of scale.

Provide a focal point for each room or space. Each space should have one particularly attractive or interesting building element, feature, piece of furniture, or work of art—a focal point for occupants.

Provide quality detailing and finishes. By limiting the overall square footage of a house, more budget can be allocated to the detailing, materials, and finish quality to make a house special. Minimizing house size may also be a way to include some of the “green” building materials and products that cost more (natural granite countertops, linoleum, certified wood flooring, top-efficiency appliances, etc.).

Design for flexibility and change. A small house should be adaptable to change—changes in family size, changes in lifestyle, changes in health of the occupants, the addition of a home-based business. A flexible house design will permit future modifications with low impact, and it will obviate the need to build big “just because you don’t know what the future will hold.”

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