Downsizing Your Living Space Can Have an Upside, if It's Done Properly

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, May 7, 2005

Any home builder or developer who is paying attention knows there are more than a few homeowners out there who are ready to downsize. Empty-nesters with grown children, professional couples with no kids, single parents and those who are urbanists at heart have had it with yard maintenance, long commutes and owning rooms that are used only for special occasions.

They want a much smaller house and are eager for specifics. What would a 1,200-square-foot house -- about half the size of the one they own now -- look like? In downsizing, what should be eliminated? And, cutting to the chase, can you move from a big house to a much smaller one without undue compromise and without feeling as if you're perennially on a domicile diet?

There are architects out there with answers.

While acknowledging that a segue from the excesses of the 1990s to the essentials of today is quite a leap, Boston architect Jeremiah Eck said that when a house is thoughtfully designed, the owners will feel comfortable in it, no matter the size. Eck also stressed that such a downsizing is not merely a matter of lopping off rooms, though he agreed that some of those McMansion mainstays, such as the music room, the home theater, the sunroom and the six and seventh bedroom and bath, could be excised with little debate.

The best way to determine what specific downsizing is right for you, Eck said, is to catalogue where each household activity occurs, even the prosaic ones such as where you read a newspaper -- at the breakfast table, on the sofa or online in your home office.

Most households that carry out this exercise find that they spend most of their time in an eat-in kitchen/family-room type of space, Eck said. The differences are in "all the other activities they have dragged in there" that need to be accommodated.

Because this main living area will be much smaller in a 1,200-square-foot house, some households might decide to move some activities to a separate room nearby. Such relocated activities might include television watching, piano playing and tasks that require concentration, such as homework. The smaller room could also serve as an adult decompression chamber after a long workday or as an office for someone who works at home. With a full bath, the "other" room could also be a bedroom. The second floor could include two reasonably sized bedrooms and a single bath.

The archetype for such a house, Eck said, is the simple English-style cottage that was common throughout New England in the 17th and 18th centuries. That house was two rooms deep with two large back-to-back fireplaces sharing a single central chimney. The household spent most of its time in the larger "keeping room," where food was prepared. The smaller, formal "parlor" often doubled as a master bedroom. Two small bedrooms, up a very steep set of stairs, were tucked under the roof on the second floor.

The 2005 version would certainly be bigger, but schematically this house type lends itself to the long and narrow lots found in most new subdivisions.

Another source of inspiration when designing small houses is boats, Eck said. In those constricted spaces, every nook and cranny is used.

Adapting this approach to a house could mean running cabinets up to the ceiling and around a corner or tucking a powder room under the stairs.

Sarah Susanka, author of the best-selling "The Not So Big House" and a number of other books, said the archetype she would draw upon in designing a 1,200-square-foot house is the bungalow, which was built all over the United States about 100 years ago. One or two stories high, with one or two bedrooms, the bungalow was typically longer than it was wide with a front porch that ran the full width of the house. Geared to a modest, informal lifestyle, the house usually had a front door that opened directly into the living room. In adapting the bungalow for today, Susanka said the most obvious modification would be removing the walls that separated the small kitchen, dining and living rooms.

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