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.

Architect Barry Berkus of Santa Barbara, Calif., looks to another American classic, the country kitchen, when designing small houses. He favors a "one-wall kitchen" with all the appliances and food preparation area along one wall and a large dining table that can be used for food prep as necessary.

Agreeing that the eat-in kitchen/family room is the heart of most households, he would use the table to demarcate the eating and sitting areas.

Though some might balk at his kitchen layout proposal, Berkus said that you can be very comfortable with a well-designed, one-wall kitchen despite what homeowners who have always had bigger kitchens might believe, and "you pick up six feet of floor space."

Another space-saving economy that Berkus recommends: Eliminate the hallways typical of older houses, and instead have bedrooms open directly off the main living area. When budget allows, Berkus would enhance the living area with features such as a generously sized window seat that has storage below and bookshelves at each end. It can be a cozy spot for reading and a great sleeping arrangement for visiting grandchildren.

While getting rid of hallways would seem to be an easy way to pare down, Susanka cautioned that you still need to leave room for getting from one area to another, preferably about a three-foot-wide swath behind a furniture grouping.

She observed that when you routinely walk through the middle of a sitting area, it often divides the space into two awkward halves. Another issue when downsizing to a smaller house is furniture size; many people discover that theirs is too big. The overstuffed couches and arm chairs that look great in a big room with high ceilings can overwhelm a smaller space. Even worse, the bigger pieces often won't fit. Susanka said that Scandinavian furniture, including that from Ikea, which is designed for the smaller spaces of European homes, works well in smaller houses.

Susanka also offered a word of caution about room sizes. While you expect them to be smaller in a small house, they can only go down so far before the occupants will feel uncomfortable. For example, a bedroom that's less than 10 feet by 10 feet will feel cramped unless you build in some of the furniture, such as a loft bed with a desk below. She said that the differences between too small and just right can also be subtle. Many people balk at the idea of a master bedroom that is only 12 feet wide, but she said it can work well if you incorporate a window seat into one end of the room.

Katherine Salant can be contacted at

© 2005, Katherine Salant

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