THE small HOUSE CATALOG

Plans, Drafting & Design

downsizing

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.

Right Sizing Your Home

Jamie's MusingsJamie
BIG, Small, tiny...what's a good house size? 

BIG, Small, tiny...what's a good house size? 

Some time ago a woman making a comment on our site mentioned “right sizing” her life. I thought that was an apt phrase. We always hear about down sizing and super sizing (and even super down sizing!) but we don’t necessarily hear much about right sizing, which implies a great deal of consideration. It’s easy to go big…what can’t be fit into 3500 square feet?  It’s even easy to go tiny, in many ways. You just put everything into storage or "get rid of things". But what if you fall somewhere in between and want to make a conscientious choice that meets your current and foreseeable needs?

People considering building or buying a home are all totally different in terms of needs and really have to consider these issues carefully. It’s not an easy task, actually. It can be problematic to build or buy a tiny or small home and then find you actually do need more space. It can be equally problematic to find that you thought you needed more than you did and are now dealing with all that extra space. Personally, I’ve experienced both sides of this coin. Both have associated problems. 

So as a piece of advice to people planning to build at some point or are currently in process, I offer the following thoughts on design. Consider your needs carefully and thoughtfully and honestly. Try not to make your decisions based on what you think is cute, or works for other people (and therefore “should” work for you) or is somehow the “only” right thing to do. Sometimes all of these things coincide, but definitely consider your needs so that you can make a choice that will ensure a home that works for you for a long time to come.

  • Do you have a big family? Small?
  • Are you planning to have kids? 
  • Do you live alone?
  • Is your family still subject to expansion or are members just about to leave the nest?  
  • Do you do a lot at home in terms of business, hobbies, cooking, entertaining or do you prefer to be out and about, traveling often or eating out regularly?  
  • Do you live in a climate that has extremes that might make being indoors necessary for a good chunk of the year?  
  • Do you like cozy spaces or do they disconcert you?  
  • When you look around your current space, what problems do you see?  
  • Are the problems you seek to avoid replicating layout issues or do you actually have too much or too little space?  
  • How much can you afford and how much do you want to pay for in dollars, time, expenses, etc?  

I think there are probably a lot of other issues in there as well, but having a good solid question and answer session can be illuminating and might help to guide your design process so that you can come up with a small home that is the right size for your specific needs. Putting in the thought in advance can save you a bundle of time, energy and money down the line. Believe it or not, we have heard from people who have houses both too big and too small. Seeking a balance is a worthy challenge for prospective home builders as it makes it far more likely that your project will be rewarding to yourself and others for many, many decades to come.

THE small HOUSE CATALOG

Downsizing into the New Year

Jamie

A while back, around Thanksgiving, we watched a documentary of sorts about climate change. One of the main questions being asked by the documentary was why humans did little to stop climate change when they had the chance to do so.  A good question. A good documentary of any sort captures your interest and imagination enough to invite some self searching and criticism even and this documentary was encouraging in this fashion. I started to wonder in what areas I could improve my demands on the planet and the resources we have here. That in turn got me wondering how useful and helpful smaller homes can be in terms of a part of a more sensible approach to development on this planet.

Granted, I’m not so naive as to think that everyone in the world is going to move into a small house. I don’t even think that building more and more houses is necessarily a helpful solution. Imagine going bananas with downsizing and then throwing away things or building something that you later come to think was all a big mistake. Then you re-buy or re-build and voila, we have more waste than we started with! More reasonably, what I focused on are some of the things that go hand in hand when considering more size appropriate housing solutions. For one thing, many people properly considering downsizing, rightsizing or whatever you call it, for their living needs – myself included – go through a long period of analysis of their physical needs before taking the actual step of moving into a smaller space. For instance, the de-cluttering process comes to mind. People have all kinds of creative approaches to finding out what they really find meaningful among their possessions. Some people just go straight at it with the pick-up truck approach and make major donations to thrift stores, friends or neighbors in need. Yard and garage sales help too. And frankly, we can’t ignore the huge pile that goes straight to the landfill, still with us and generations to come, but no longer sitting in our closets. Some people try putting a lot of their excess in storage and then seeing what, if anything, they miss over the year. If nothing, they give it all away (or sell it, or what have you).

Shawn and I have had an interesting, multi-year and ongoing de-cluttering process that has been both intentional and accidental. We sold our house in Washington state – including most of the furniture in it to the buyers. We hadn’t intended to, but it seemed sensible at the time since we were planning a move across country and the less we’d have to haul, the better. We also enjoyed a huge yardsale of things that we really didn’t have a lot of need for.

Once we reached Maine, we rented an abominable seaside cottage. It should’ve been wonderful overlooking a quiet cove but, unfortunately, many of our things in boxes were ruined by mold. This was an accidental downsizing, but aside from a few items and the intense irritation that came with the experience, we didn’t really miss much of what went into the trash.

Than, after spending nearly three years building a wonderful house in Maine, we decided to move back to the west coast.

Believe it or not, we had another moldy rental experience when we came back to the west coast that caused more irritation and more losses, but we’ve dealt with that as well. Now that our home is small, we’ve continued to be critical about the things we bring into our life and after several years of this, we find that we have a lot of things that are really nice in our lives, but it’s not a major overflow. We’re pretty darned satisfied, and like most of us in wealthier parts of the world, we still have an abundance.During the months leading up to this return move, we decided to further scale back belongings, keeping the things we loved most and that had strong sentimental value to us, along with the practical tools and things we use and enjoy on a daily basis. We’ve always been book hounds and it was surprising how long it took us to pass along certain books we’d lugged about with us for literally thousands of miles! We still have a pretty large personal book collection, but we’ve been happy with the change; we’ve kept the useful and dearest of our books, allowed the others to have new homes and now use our library a lot more than ever before.

So what about all this musing? Can smaller homes be a part of the solution?  I think perhaps best in the sense that if careful thought and planning goes into the idea and eventual process of downsizing, we may find that we come to a better understanding of what we actually need in our lives. Maybe the physical limitation that comes with less space encourages our thinking about what we really need and want to include in our possessions. This mindfulness in turn helps us (or can help us) be more aware of our purchasing in general and we may truly find that we do less of it. And, quite honestly, you don’t need a tiny house, a small house or anything besides what you already have to get this ball rolling. For mindfulness, all we need are our minds engaged and our actions to follow.

I’m still not sure if I’m an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to the future of humanity and the other living things our behavior so strongly influences on this planet. But move forward we must – and will. I appreciate being able to make changes along the way in my life and hope that cumulatively, the actions of many of us can make a lasting impression on the larger world.I don’t think small houses in and of themselves are a total solution to the challenges facing the planet and its entire population, obviously. Indeed, constant building of any kind uses a great deal of resources and requires changing our landscapes in ways that are ultimately permanent in terms of local ecosystems. We should be critical of our buildings and make sure we ask pertinent questions when building and changing our surroundings. But that seems to be a strengthening process. Because if we’re asking the questions and taking the time to consider our real needs, we are part of the way toward asking that question wherever we go in the world. And if some of us are starting to ask that question regularly enough to incorporate the questioning into our behavior, then we may have influence again on people we know and on and on, and so forth. In fact, all of this can come to fruition regardless of whether we actually take the further step of downsizing, building small, or doing anything at all outside of living our daily lives in a slightly different way.

Here’s to a thoughtful, critical, joyous and mindful 2013!

A simple Christmas celebration in our tiny Moschata Rolling Bungalow.

A simple Christmas celebration in our tiny Moschata Rolling Bungalow.

I’m still not sure if I’m an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to the future of humanity and the other living things our behavior so strongly influences on this planet. But move forward we must – and will. I appreciate being able to make changes along the way in my life and hope that cumulatively, the actions of many of us can make a lasting impression on the larger world.I don’t think small houses in and of themselves are a total solution to the challenges facing the planet and its entire population, obviously. Indeed, constant building of any kind uses a great deal of resources and requires changing our landscapes in ways that are ultimately permanent in terms of local ecosystems. We should be critical of our buildings and make sure we ask pertinent questions when building and changing our surroundings. But that seems to be a strengthening process. Because if we’re asking the questions and taking the time to consider our real needs, we are part of the way toward asking that question wherever we go in the world. And if some of us are starting to ask that question regularly enough to incorporate the questioning into our behavior, then we may have influence again on people we know and on and on, and so forth. In fact, all of this can come to fruition regardless of whether we actually take the further step of downsizing, building small, or doing anything at all outside of living our daily lives in a slightly different way.

Here’s to a thoughtful, critical, joyous and mindful 2013!