As Australians, we love our big houses – four bedrooms, a study, a guest room, ensuites, an entertainment area and a formal living room, a backyard with plenty of lawn…
However, affordability, practicality and an increasing urban population are spurring a shift towards the smaller home.
If you have a growing family, small space living can present challenges that you don’t get in larger homes: where to store your stuff; finding space for activities (for each member of the family), how to find quiet personal space.
However, there are also benefits to small space living: smaller houses are often cheaper to purchase upfront; there’s less space to clean and maintain; you have less heating and cooling costs; there are more opportunities to flex your creative problem solving muscles when it comes to function; and more opportunities to practice the art of compromise and sharing.
Smaller homes like townhouses and units are also generally closer to amenities or public transport, reducing commuting time and the need for two vehicles.
We are a family of three (soon to be four) living in a relatively small three bedroom, two storey townhouse situated on a busy road, five minutes walk from a major shopping centre. While we no longer live in a city, we certainly live smack-bang in the middle of a major urban centre.
Until a year ago, I thought of this house as a temporary dwelling – a stepping stone to a ‘real’ house – the great Australian dream.
It’s only been recently that I’ve really embraced this as our home. I’ve realised we don’t need more space, we need smarter solutions. And that’s what we’ve been working on.
Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
small space living is an art
Being an artist isn’t just about learning different techniques, it’s about learning to truly see the world.
As well as seeing the objects that are being recreated through drawing for instance, an artist needs to see the whole picture, including the negative space – the space around the objects and the shape that space takes.
Developing an eye for negative space takes practice. From infancy, we are trained to see and focus on individual objects, not the space between them.
So what does art theory have to do with small space living?
Often what we lack isn’t space but the ability to perceive the space we have. We fail to see the negative (or in this case, the underutilised) space.
Think vertical space. Hanging space. Wall space. Roof space. The unused space under the bed. On the landing. Even up the stairs.
Think wall shelves. Hooks. Ceiling racks.
Do you need more space or less clutter?
When you take a good look at the things that you own, you might be surprised how much stuff you have that never gets used.
And it’s amazing how much space you can free up once you get rid of all that clutter.
A tip for things like books, movies and music – digitize them. I am currently going through my ‘could-not-possibly-part-with’ cookbook collection and scanning any recipes that I want to keep, and then selling or donating the book. Some books haven’t been opened in years and in many of them, there are only a handful of recipes that catch my eye anyway.
Organisation – the key to managing small spaces
When living in small spaces, particularly with several people (and particularly with littlies), you don’t have the same freedom when it comes to leaving stuff lying around – good organisational systems are essential.
There are two aspects of organisation:
- stuff management
- task management
Stuff management involves having a place for everything. Clutter is usually the items that don’t have a home and you don’t know what to do with them.
Task management involves having a system for putting stuff back in it’s place. This is especially important for multi-purpose spaces.
These two keys to organisation work in conjunction with one and other: putting things away is easier if you have well organised storage. Conversely, your organisation systems work best if you’re maintaining them, i.e. not stuffing things back in willy-nilly.
As an example of what I mean: I’ve written previously about how I organise my sewing things in order to maximise craft time by storing everything I need for a project in a single box.
When you have a dedicated sewing space, you don’t need to worry about setting up and packing away. However, if you’re sewing on the dining table, then having all your tools together in a single storage box (that has it’s own home), ready to whip out and put away again quickly, and your materials, pattern and notes together also, makes managing small spaces easier.
Multi-purpose space and multi-functional furniture
Seeing space as multi-purpose rather than for a single activity only, expands your space.
As and example, we recently ‘converted’ our garage into a playroom (and everything else room).
And by convert, I mean we painted the floor and put down a cheap rug.
We realised that we had a whole room that wasn’t being used at all for ten hours during the day. We now have twice the living space we used to, simply by reinventing the space we have.
Once I started looking, I saw wasted space all around us.
Like the bedroom – another space that is only used at night time. Couldn’t that be better utilised during the day?
And I won’t bore you with all the plans we have for our Harry Potter-esque cupboard-under-the-stairs (they don’t include making it into a bedroom, though).
When it comes to multi-functional furniture, there are a lot of nifty solutions on the market.
But you don’t need specially designed furniture for it to be multi-functional.
Again, the dining table is a good example – not just for dining, but also an office desk, a sewing table, a craft space, a storage table, an extra cooking bench, a cubby house.
As I write this, I am sitting on my bed, a free, cardboard greengrocer box serves as my ‘office desk’.
And a final example, we’ve used the oven not only for cooking but also to stay warm and to dry clothes (by either sitting in the kitchen to read when cooking or putting the clothes horse in front of the oven when cooking).
Sometimes what we need aren’t bigger solutions, but better solutions. If the alternative is upsizing to a larger house, then decluttering and reinventing the space you have can potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars in mortgage interest repayments on that bigger home, not to mention the extra costs of maintaining it.
*Top Tip: There is one piece of equipment that is essential for keeping your sanity when living in a small space – especially with many people: earphones. While compromise is a skill worth practicing, earphones means you don’t need to suffer through the sounds of monsters dying in Diabolo III and other such noises.