House Watch: Smart planning can make smaller houses feel not-so-snug

Photo by James Wilson for Builder Magazine - Most homeowners think a family room should be huge, but Denver architect Mike Woodley has found that a modestly sized 14 by 16-foot space like the one shown here works well.

When you opt for a smaller house, you can’t have everything.

While this seems a statement of the obvious, architects say that most homeowners haven’t gotten the message when the planning process for a new house begins.

“The homeowners say, ‘I only want 2,000 square feet,’ but when they say what they want in it, it’s all the components of a 3,500-square-foot house,” said Memphis architect Carson Looney.

His first task in working with such clients is getting them to pare down their must-have list to what they really need. Likening the exercise to an old movie in which an experienced sergeant orders the new recruits with all their gear “to strip off the junk you don’t need and just use what’s important,” Looney said that when clients focus on what they actually do in their homes, “most say the most important space is the kitchen, eating area and storage, not extra space in the bedroom.”

At that point, Looney said, the clients are willing to jettison the home office (with a laptop computer they can work anywhere in the house), the formal living room (it’s rarely used), and the fourth bedroom (house guests can use a sleeper sofa in the family room). But that’s still not enough to get down to 2,000 square feet. To reach that point, dining has to be consolidated into one place. Looney would excise the formal dining room in favor of an expanded breakfast room because that’s where most families eat most meals.

Eventually, the clients agree on what’s in and what’s out of their new house. Most spaces will be smaller, but not all of them, Looney said. In fact, some things should be larger than they are in most houses built today, whether they are big or small, and, he added, “These things will make any house feel bigger than it actually is.”

“These things” would be the hallways, doorways and stairs, all details where just a few inches can have a surprising impact, Looney said.

Most builders allow 36 to 38 inches for hallway width, but this is too narrow. It feels uncomfortable, and in some parts of the house it’s “downright dysfunctional,” Looney said. In the garage hallway, where you are constantly carrying stuff in and out of the house, you need at least a 40-inch width to avoid hitting the walls. Adding another two to five inches of width to hallways throughout the house to make them 42 to 45 inches wide “would feel wonderful, and you will definitely notice the difference,” he said.

Most residential building codes mandate 32-inch wide doorways for everything except bathrooms, but Looney said a 36-inch opening is optimal and that this is another instance where you would sense the difference immediately. Not only does the wider opening feel more comfortable as you pass through it, rooms will feel bigger when they are entered through a wider opening from a wider hallway.

Stairs are another seemingly minor detail that has a major impact, Looney said. When stairs have shallower risers and deeper treads, weekend warriors with arthritic knees, older homeowners with balance issues, short adults, children and small dogs will find them easier to navigate. Builders have resisted this idea because it increases the length of the stair run, but Looney said the pluses of the more benign stair vastly outweigh the minuses.

The owners win because it makes the house more comfortable from day one, and, as they approach their golden years, a second-floor master suite will still be accessible. The builder wins because it’s more cost effective to incorporate the master suite on the second floor than to build a bigger foundation, more roof and more outside walls by adding it to the first floor.

How about all the rooms that the doors and hallways connect? Vienna architect Bill Sutton said that homeowners have had it with the 45-degree angles that were so common in the 1990s. Although the angles created some dramatic vistas in larger houses, they also created a lot of unusable space, and now, Sutton said, “homeowners are tuned into space utilization and say, ‘How can I put my dining table in a room shaped like a Chevrolet symbol?’ ”

Denver architect Mike Woodley said furniture sizes loom large when designing smaller houses, but most rooms, including the family room, can be smaller than homeowners realize. “Everyone thinks [the family room] must be huge, but in this space, most people watch TV or talk, and they don’t need a big room,” even when the household owns a larger 50- to 60-inch flat-screen television, Woodley said. In a modest-size, 2,000-square-foot house, he has found that a modest-size 14-by-16-foot family room works well.

The ungainly size of many family rooms in both large and small houses is often due to the need to incorporate circulation in it, Woodley said. For this reason, he prefers a “destination” family room, with the circulation incorporated into an adjoining area of the eat-in kitchen space, which he likes to organize into an L shape. He puts the family room activities in one leg, the dining in the other and the kitchen in the area where the two legs join. Characterizing this configuration as a “triangle,” Woodley said it functions well because family members naturally gravitate toward each other, and this arrangement enhances that.

The master bedroom is another place where the room can be smaller without sacrificing utility, and here most owners do not need to be persuaded, Woodley said. More and more, people are saying they only use the bedroom for sleeping and late-night television, and they’d take a smaller sleeping area to get a separate dressing room with open hanging and drawer storage and a decent-size bathroom.

One indication of how much the master bedroom has shrunk from the cavernous excesses of the 1990s and early 2000s: Woodley said that in his designs, the master bath routinely exceeds the size of the bedroom, even in his smaller houses.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com.

 
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