Live Well in Less than 1,000 Square Feet: Living in Small Homes

1 / 13
Jay Shafer's Tumbleweed home features convertible, built-in furniture such as a pull-out dining table for one that also functions as a desk.
2 / 13
When Jay Shafer's first home didn't meet the minimum size requirement for an Iowa home, he put it on wheels and called it a trailer.
3 / 13
The cottage includes a small shower and portable composting toilet
4 / 13
A mini wood-burning stove can easily heat Shafer's tiny home, and built-in cabinets and drawers provide ample storage.
5 / 13
A quaint dining area is perfectly sized for two.
6 / 13
Outdoor living spaces surround Michael Ann Brown's home, allowing for a comfortable spot outside nearly any time of year.
7 / 13
Serial archways in Michael Ann Brown's home lead the eye through the living space and to the French doors leading outside, creating a feeling of expansiveness.
8 / 13
A partial wall or cut-out defines separate rooms without cutting off the long views that make a space feel large.
9 / 13
The enclosed porch on the east is wrapped in windows and glass for a strong indoor-outdoor feeling.
10 / 13
This 450-square-foot British Columbia cabin is so comfortable its owners decided to make it their full-time home rather than a vacation retreat.
11 / 13
Architect Henry Yorke Mann used tall ceilings, skylights and lots of glass to make the living space feel larger, while a sloping ceiling defines the kitchen.
12 / 13
A cozy sleeping loft topped with skylights offers views of the trees and sky above.
13 / 13
A narrow stairway is made navigable with ladderlike steps and double handrails.

During the past 60 years, the size of American homes has exploded, but the trend is now moving in the opposite direction, proving once more that bigger isn’t always better. In 1950 the average American home size was 983 square feet; by 2009 the average home was 2,343 square feet–even as family size shrank. Finally, it appears people are rethinking housing size. In 2010, average home size is down 9 percent, and many communities–such as California’s Marin County and Georgia’s DeKalbe County–have enacted laws limiting new home size. 

A moment’s thought yields a multitude of reasons to consider living in less than 1,000 square feet. Smaller homes generally cost less and require less maintenance than larger ones. A small house consumes fewer natural resources in construction and requires less energy for heating and cooling. But perhaps the most compelling reason for going small is that it feels good. People who live in small, well-designed houses say their homes feel cozier, and they love having everything they need within reach.

Design makes all the difference. A poorly designed 900-square-foot house can feel smaller than a well-designed 400-square-foot house. Homes feel cramped when they have small, dark rooms and insufficient storage space. Well-designed small spaces feel open, efficient and cozy. As architect and small-space specialist Henry Yorke Mann proves in his homes, living in a cozy space doesn’t mean sacrificing convenience or livability. “You don’t want to get too mean about things,” he says.

The Spirit of the Sea

Keith and Judy Scott loved the 450-square-foot cabin Mann designed for them on their British Columbia property so much that they moved out of their main house and now live happily in the small home. “We never thought we could live in 450 square feet,” Keith says. “The home we’d lived in was 5,000 square feet. But the spaces just work right. They’re not too big, and they’re not too small.”

How did the architect do it? “Anyone who’s lived on a boat knows that there are lots of things you can do to save space,” Mann says. He hid storage everywhere, including under the stairs, and he didn’t skimp on quality. The materials are beautiful and earthy. The kitchen and bathroom are efficient and luxurious. Keith calls the sleeping loft “a really comfortable nest.” The vaulted ceiling is expansive, and thoughtfully placed glass embraces the sky, trees, birds and water.

“A home has to have a spirit,” Mann says. “It has to have its own presence–something you can settle into, that you can be quiet in. It’s a question of design; that’s the most important thing.”

“It’s like a little jewel box, a beautiful piece of wood work,” Keith says. “I wish everybody would build half the size of house and use the space right–and use an architect to design it.”

Tumbleweed: A Tiny Home Tumbles Along

In the past 12 years, Jay Shafer has lived in homes with less than 100 square feet. At 130 square feet, the first tiny house he built in Iowa City, Iowa, was too small for the city’s minimum house size requirement, so Shafer put it on wheels and called it a trailer. Through his Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, Shafer  has spent the past decade designing and building tiny homes for those who share his love of intense coziness.

“When it comes to my domestic environment, anything that’s not working for me works against me,” Shafer says. “More stuff means more space and more cost. So I’m liberated by small spaces.”

It all comes down to quality of space, not quantity. And storage. “If your stuff’s not out of sight, it can drive you crazy,” Shafer says. “On the other hand, when everything you need is right there in reach, it feels great.”

Now that Shafer is married and has a baby, he’s added  another criterion. “To make a small space feel big, every individual has to have private space,” he says. Shafer designed a 400-square-foot home for his family, with private space for all. Someday, he imagines each family member having their own tiny house on wheels–“kind of a little family village.”

A Garden Home Grows Great Little Spaces

Michael Ann Brown wanted a small house in a large garden. Her 1,200-square-foot house just felt too big. She disliked unused space and fondly recalled once having lived in a small trailer with a big sunroom.

We designed a 996-square-foot, one-bedroom house, perched high on her south-facing slope. The main living areas face south for passive solar gain. Outdoor spaces include a screened porch on the east, a narrow porch on the south (to avoid blocking winter sun), a deep west-facing porch for shade from the hot afternoon sun, and a cool summer patio on the north. The outdoor rooms expand the living space and make the house more energy-efficient. “I absolutely love that west porch,” Michael Ann says. “I cook out there. I often bring out a glass of wine, sit in the porch swing and watch the sunset. Who needs more?”

Indoors, we used some classic spatial tricks. We kept the living spaces open to one another yet subtly divided, striking a balance between lots of small rooms, which feels cramped, and one big room, which is uninteresting. You can subtly divide spaces using ceiling or floor height. In this case, we designed the floor slab so it steps down two feet from a higher bedroom/bathroom/laundry/storage area to a lower living/dining/kitchen. This helps subtly divide the spaces and gives the living areas a space-expanding 10-foot ceiling while giving the bedrooms and bathrooms a more intimate feeling, and maintains money-saving flat ceiling framing.

Well-placed windows and French doors add to the feeling of space and light. “I like the amount of glass and the views outward,” Michael Ann says. “At the same time, I like how solid and cozy this small house feels.”

Carol Venolia is an architect who loves designing and living in small, cozy homes. She is the co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House and a Natural Home columnist.



Little Diggs

Small House Society

Small House Style

Tiny House Blog

The Tiny Life

This Tiny House

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company

Further Reading

The Big Book of Small House Designs by Don Metz, et al.

Compact Houses: Architecture for the Environment by Cristina del Valle

Little House on a Small Planet by Shay Salomon

Modest Mansions: Design Ideas for Luxurious Living in Less Space by Donald Prowler

The Small House Book by Jay Shafer

Tiny Houses by Mimi Zeiger

Tiny Houses: or How to Get Away From It All by Lester Walker

The Very Small Home: Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space by Azby Brown