Since my husband and I bought our home in 2010 — a two-bedroom barely over 1,000 square feet — our family has doubled in size, and our children have doubled down on their sibling rivalries. By March 2021, a year into the pandemic, their shared bedroom had become a proving ground for squabbles so intense that not even a line of tape, a temporary wall or an elaborate room schedule could tame them.
With inflation soaring, mortgage rates at one point surpassing 7 percent and a housing market gone bonkers, moving to a larger place doesn’t make economic sense for us — or for many others.
Something had to give. We weren’t using our home in a way that promoted health and wellness, all because a space was labeled “primary bedroom” on the floor plan. I knew we could do better. So my husband and I gave up our bedroom to sleep on a Murphy bed in our living room. This is not an admission I frequently make. Who wants to be viewed (mistakenly) as unsuccessful or in a marriage without intimacy? But ditching our bedroom so our son and daughter could have separate spaces delivered a big boost to our household harmony.
Jamie Gold, a wellness design consultant and the author of “Wellness by Design: A Room-by-Room Guide to Optimizing Your Home for Health, Fitness, and Happiness,” says it’s important to consider mental health when determining how to use the space in your home. Designing homes from a wellness perspective is multifaceted, she says, and sometimes we have to tweak the functionality of the space to achieve comfort and joy.
“I’ve always been a bigger-picture person,” Gold says of her approach to design, “so I look at it from the larger level in terms of, ‘How can we make our homes better, healthier, safer, more functional and more accessible?’”
For my family, this meant ditching our bedroom, so each child could have a room of their own, and creating more flexible spaces in our home. This is not a new concept, Gold says. Flex spaces have been popular for some time, but the coronavirus pandemic — and staying home — accelerated the trend.
Alison Mazurek, a small-space consultant and blogger, says that “once our first kid was 4 months, we started looking at options to give up our bedroom.” With their infant sleeping in the living room, she says, she and her husband “were basically sitting in the dark and tiptoeing around, and were like, ‘This is not going to work.’”
Mazurek and her husband realized they needed little space for themselves. “As the kids got bigger,” she says, “we wanted them to have a little bit more room to play, and we just needed somewhere to lie.” Giving up their bedroom was the solution.
So the Mazureks added a Murphy bed — essentially a pull-down wall bed — to their living room, turning it into a space they could use as a bedroom at night. The bedroom/living room flex space worked so well that, when they upsized to a 900-square-foot apartment 7½ years later, they still opted for only one bedroom, and they now use a room built to be a den as a sleeping space for themselves.
Jenny Davis, a former writer and a stay-at-home parent, has been tweaking the functionality of her home for 15 years now. She lives with her family of five on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in a 650-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment that has a bright alcove and a generous foyer. Over the years, Davis has reinvented how she uses her living space each time her family has increased in size. From an alcove turned bedroom to tucking her twins’ mini-cribs into closets, she has masterfully made her small space work for her family.
Mazurek says that living small has allowed her family to maintain their metropolitan lifestyle while staying on budget. She estimates that, in her city of Vancouver, B.C., buying a place with an additional bedroom would have cost anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 more than what they paid, or at least $1,000 more per month if they were renting.
It’s even worse for Davis in New York. “Rent has become sort of unlivable for working families,” says the lifelong resident of the city. “I’ve never seen prices this high.”
Whatever the reason you’re doing it, offering up your bedroom to another family member (or converting any room) means planning, preparing, culling items and carefully relocating pieces you need to keep.
“Editing should be the first step in any redecorating process,” Gold says, “because you probably have more space than you think you do when you start getting rid of things you don’t need.”
That’s Davis’s current focus, as she prepares for yet another iteration of her home. Her 2½-year-old twins are ready for toddler beds, so she and her husband have given up their bedroom for their three children to share, and they’re carving out bedroom space for themselves in their foyer.
She’ll replace an antique dresser with a low cabinet-style Murphy bed. The shorter footprint of this style of foldout bed takes up less vertical space than a traditional wall-mounted version, which allows Davis to retain the decorative elements of the foyer that she’s fond of and that will keep the room from giving off bedroom vibes during the day. She also plans to install sliding doors that attach to the ceiling with hinges to enclose the space for privacy at night.
In all three cases — Mazurek’s, Davis’s and mine — shared family closets played a critical part in solving the clothes-storage conundrum when we repurposed a bedroom. “As long as everyone has their specific zone in the closet, it’s not that difficult” to share, Mazurek says.
As for other pieces that can’t be parted with, such as beloved antiques, family heirlooms or practical everyday items, she suggests looking at your space as a whole. “What do we have, what do we need to store and where can we find that storage?”
Gold likes casters in flex spaces, because they make it easier to move furniture around. And “if you need extra storage, … think about spaces that are not commonly used,” she says. “Like if it were a small bathroom … or even a bedroom, you can put a shelf above the door that runs the length of the wall and put bins and baskets above there.”
She adds: “Think multitasking and multifunctional furniture.” What used to be an end table could now be a nightstand, for example, or it can do double duty.
This isn’t limited to sleep spaces. Pantries can become micro-offices; dining rooms can act as exercise/home office/hobby/eating spaces. Even an unused open fireplace can be cleaned up and turned into a cozy dog nook.
Davis is glad that these types of design choices are becoming more common. “It is stigmatized,” she says of parents giving up their bedroom, “but you find out that a lot of people are trying to make it work in small spaces that are not as ideal as they’d like, so it’s nice that they now have resources and that we can normalize this a bit more.”
“What it comes down to,” Gold says, “is that your home should work for your family, your household, for the people and the pets in it. You come up with an arrangement that works for you, and it’s not up to anyone else to judge that.”
Jerica Pender is a freelance writer in Olympia, Wash.