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Aging In Place, Part 4: Right Sizing 101

aging in placeJamie PurnellComment
Serious thought about the right size of a YOUR house is important too!

Serious thought about the right size of a YOUR house is important too!

Big or Small? Right Sizing in a Nutshell

When designing, embrace the idea of right sizing over pre-conceived notions of small and large. It's entirely possible to design a space that's too small as well as too large. Either situation can make a house less optimal for people, and both situations can be prevented to a large degree by careful planning - so long as one has or takes the time to do it. If you're here, reading this, you are probably a fan of smaller spaces. But even for we lovers of small, it's important to keep asking, "What do we need from our homes to accomplish our goals as inhabitants?"  Some general answers might include shelter, safety, a place to enjoy and take pride in, a place near our work (or far from it!). But size matters here, too. Deeper considerations might assess specifics like needing (or not) a garage, a workspace, home office, bedrooms for kids or guests, garden spaces, kitchen with or without extras, areas for entertaining, outdoor rooms...these preferences are heavily influenced by really personal attributes. Do you have a big family? Do you love to entertain or host gatherings?  Are you a cook, an artist, a craftsperson, do you like big open spaces or small cozy ones? What's your climate like? Are you home much? Do you need a huge deck if you have an outdoor window of opportunity only a month or two long? Maybe. Maybe not. Not just our personal preferences, but even our geography can be an influencer in design priorities. 

We have a client NOT including private guest bedrooms as she doesn't want to encourage long visits from her many friends!  Having had too many visitors in past situations, she knows it detracts from her home experience, so she's allowing multifunction spaces to suffice. A space is there, but not so welcoming that it will make for overstaying. Another example...clients have a condo in the city and are designing a second home. It's meant for (big and fairly frequent) family gatherings. Though it won't be their permanent residence, they are even designing in kitchen features that allow for particular family members tastes and lots of bedrooms for kids and grandkids (not all of whom are even here yet!). The second home is, in fact, larger than their main residence - which is in a city and too restricted in size to serve these important needs. In both examples, it's the fulfilling of function that's critical to the client, not size alone. In a nutshell, that's Right Sizing. 

Make Your Own Right Sizing Design Checklist

When you start designing, be honest with your needs and try and make them conform to your own self rather than an imagined ideal. Shawn and I have always felt that most houses are too big, have a lot of wasted space and inefficiency built in. However, we have found, through experience, that 800 square feet is not enough for us. Why?  We both work from home. We also plan to rent part of our home out and/or have an autonomous space for visitors. We grow, cook and preserve a lot of our own food so space is needed for storage and preparation. We live in a climate with a long winter and have activities that we need some space to do inside. Importantly, we are embracing a Passive House building technology that requires even thicker wall assemblies than we've built before. Some of our square footage will be for extra insulation! These are some personal factors on our checklist. It's helped us when we first gape at our square footage calculations and react with "Oh, no, that's too big!"  It helps us answer that question more effectively. Your checklist should provide the same benefit.  Do you need a wine room?  I mean that seriously!  We have friends who are INTO wine - their collection brings them joy and satisfaction, and it takes up a corner of their dining room and expands under the house! Conversely, we are NOT into it - we don't even need a shelf in the pantry for it!  Go to a Home Depot and you'll see wine fridges all over the place as though everyone needs one. So ask YOURSELF the question!  Is this need real or is it put in your head by kitchen and bath design magazines? Either answer is okay if you use the information critically to design a better space for your needs!

If our homes are bigger than we need, they don't offer appropriate payback. They waste space and our time by requiring maintenance, conditioning, cleaning, time, etc. If our homes are too small, they can frustrate us and inhibit our goals. Well designed homes should be tailored to suit. Needs, like body shapes, are non conforming. Insisting that one size fits all isn't an approach that will reap great rewards. In particular when one is building a home to live in for the long term, it's important to have a good grasp of need. 

A Few Last Design Tips

Is the house you're designing too big?  Are you overdoing it on the "Well, I'm only going to build once!" excuse?  Remember that everyone has a budget...overextending it can make a dream home into a nightmare. I'd certainly suggest that building too small is better (or at least less costly?) than building too large, but taste the salt in that, too. If you end up remodeling or expanding when you hadn't wanted to, you're also potentially wasting time and money! Have you looked around the outside of your home for inspiration? Does the home achieve the aesthetic you are striving for?  A cute cottage design can get lost if it expands a great deal. Likewise, a modern beachfront design you love may not compress well. And surroundings can play into that as well. Does your surrounding support the aesthetic you're embracing?  It might matter. Does the space you are designing advance the "cause" of the inhabitants? Does it provide the shelter, comfort and safety you want? Does it promote creative or well flowing aspects of your life?  Does the size do something for you or does it make life more difficult?

My last bit of advice is to keep asking these and other questions as you meander the design process. A key to aging in place successfully is for our homes to be scaled to the users and rightly sized.

Place: You can't live without it.

Shawn A. DehnerComment

(From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Emily Fox of Michigan Radio reporting).

This four minute radio segment is about a couple who built a tiny cabin in the woods of a northern Michigan town named Cedar. It's perhaps slightly bigger than a typical "big" tiny house. Both the health department and zoning officials say their home is too small and deem it uninhabitable. The story expands my caveat from two posts ago about not only having a place to build, which is so important, but also comprehending the legalities of your place.

At its very best a house successfully joins a place; at its worst it ruins it. Whether it's a traditional house or a tiny house on wheels, a house designed to not be a part of any place risks being a mistake. Plan carefully because there are many legal obstacles. On a good note, however, some places are beginning to open up to new ideas, so don't be gloomy - be realistic. Know your situation. And remember: place is vastly important; place is the starting point. Don't go (building a) home without it.

Small Footprints (Orcas Island, WA)


We live in an area right now that is sort of an old beach town currently undergoing a resurgence in popularity as the children who grew up playing here in the summers are now of an age to bring their own kids down for the summers to repeat history. Rusty old cabins in various stages of dereliction or upkeep are being reinhabited, torn down, renovated – the works. In this process, we’ve seen 600 square foot beach cabins torn down and replaced by newer, much larger homes as well as vacant lots purchased with modern sized homes (some of which can be very very large in comparison with the old beach cottages) built right next to old places. The resulting juxtaposition of a large, modern home next to a 60’s cabin can be a little curious.

What urges me to mention this is not so much to make a judgment, exactly, of any kind. It’s merely to note that it is not frequently (if ever) mentioned in lot or land covenants, that homes built in the area must not exceed certain square footages. Yet, property values (as well as the character of neighborhoods) are affected when a huge (or even just a large) home is built next to a small home that has been around for a long time, regardless of the home’s condition. The building of large homes can also damage property values, but this fact doesn’t seem to be noted with the same fervor that the opposite does.This past weekend we took a trip to look at some properties for sale in an area that we were considering moving to. The process of trying to imagine where to site a house, orchards, the garden and other things was enjoyable, though none of the land turned out to be suited to our needs or our budgets, quite. One thing that was thought provoking, though, was our examination at the end of the day of some paperwork relating to one of the properties we had looked at. Looking through the covenants relating to the set of acreages (these properties turned out to be “developments” in the loosest sense of the term. They weren’t gated communities and didn’t have matching houses, but the original division of land into acreages had details that went along with them, cc and r’s I guess is how you’d describe these restrictions). Among them was an architectural provision that insisted that all homes built in the area would be no less than 1200 square feet. I voiced some surprise at this limitation and the realtor was quick to point out that the thinking behind that provision was to protect property values in the area. That was fine with me, in particular since we weren’t going to be buying the property anyway (especially after seeing that provision!). But as with many things, the idea stuck in my mind and I’ve been thinking about it ever since the weekend.

A small bungalow turned restaurant. Located on Orcas Island in Eastsound, WA.

A small bungalow turned restaurant. Located on Orcas Island in Eastsound, WA.

I’m only musing in this blog entry, and I should wrap things up, as one person’s musings can become awfully tedious after the second paragraph! Let me just conclude that it has often been noted that the cultures of “the west,” in particular the US, is very individualistic in its focus, outlook, character, etc. But in many ways, we are a very homogenized culture. There is a tendency to only see in one direction, and that direction is generally to follow the way that the herd is going. It would appear that homes beneath 1200 square feet are sometimes regarded as a drag on property value, which is rather interesting since only a short time ago that very size was considered suitably large. Apparently we can’t really imagine a neighborhood of mixed sized homes that would individually suit the needs of the families they are supporting, be they retired couples, young families, multi-family homes, or single people. Perhaps this is a function resulting from the tendency of people to move frequently for their work, rather than to settle into places for the long haul. In any case, it will be interesting to see how the wider effects play out as we continue to follow the trend toward smaller, more human scaled and generally more efficient housing. That trend is here to stay, for certain, and I wonder if someday folks will be wandering a five acre lot somewhere only to find covenants restricting the building of homes over 1200 square feet.