Article – Small home design considerations

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Small Home Design

Why is small home design so important?

There are many problems with today’s typical house designs.  Perhaps the “biggest” problem is that homes are too big.  Yes it is what we have become used to and yes it is what we have come to expect – more personal space, more storage space, more options for entertainment, more space for potential guests, more separation between functions etc.  The issue with all of this apart from waste is that building costs are not getting any cheaper as time goes on, in fact they are getting exorbitantly more expensive.So, first off the land costs more because it has to be large enough to support such big sprawling homes, although having said that, the typical Australian residential block has always been large.  Now developers are carving up the subdivisions into smaller and smaller lots to try and make it viable.  We all may say the developers are getting greedy trying to squeeze as many blocks out of a piece of land as possible but the truth mostly is that all of the increasing service charges such as roads, sewer, water, phone, power etc and taxes on top of taxes are even making it hard for subdivision developers to make a buck.  Regardless, the larger homes require the more expensive blocks and compromise the lifestyle we Aussies are known for.  Gone are the days of backyard cricket and footy.Secondly, larger homes obviously have a lot more material in them and more fittings, fixtures and finishes etc, all bumping the price up.  If you don’t end up using the space much, it’s really money for nothing.  Cheap and nasty project homes are less expensive to build than custom built homes but even then the cost of materials is only getting higher.Thirdly, larger homes take a lot more effort to keep clean and maintained and a lot more energy to heat and cool.  The layouts are often not easy to close areas off and zone when not in use, so you’re artificially heating or cooling a large home of which you’re only using a portion most of the time.

Stuff!

Another reason we think we need larger homes is because we have so much stuff.  The funny thing is that when we upsize to a larger home we feel the need to buy more furniture and decorations to fill up the space.  I’ve actually had this conversation with somebody who was considering upsizing, when they stepped back from their situation to re-evaluate whether or not it was worth the effort, they realised the futility of it.  They said they were already shopping around for extra furniture for rooms they would probably rarely use so that the new house didn’t look empty.  Sound familiar?

George Carlin was a comedian who did a number of stand up routines.  One in particular is my favourite – he’s talking about “stuff” and I think it really sums up our lives, the vanity of the whole lot.  Here’s a bit of a transcript of the skit, Google George Carlin for the rest.

“I would have been out here a little earlier but they gave me the wrong dressing room and I couldn’t find anywhere to put my stuff, and I don’t know about you but I need a place to put my stuff, so that’s what I’ve been doing back there is just trying to find a place to put my stuff, you know how important that is, that’s the whole meaning of life isn’t it, trying to find a place for your stuff, that’s all your house is, your house is just a place for your stuff, if you didn’t have so much damn stuff you wouldn’t need a house, you could just walk around all the time.  That’s all your house is, a pile of stuff with a roof on it, you see that when you take off in an aeroplane, you look down and see that everybody’s got a little pile of stuff, everybody’s got their own pile of stuff and when you leave your stuff you’ve gotta lock it up, wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff, they always take the good stuff, they don’t bother with the crap you’re saving, aint nobody interested in your 4th grade arithmetic papers, they’re after the good stuff, that’s all your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.  Now, sometimes you’ve gotta move, you gotta get a bigger house – why, too much stuff, you’ve gotta move all of your stuff and maybe put some of your stuff into storage.  Imagine that, there’s a whole industry based on keeping an eye on your stuff.  Enough about your stuff, let’s talk about other people’s stuff, did you ever notice when you go to somebody else’s house you never feel 100% at home, you know why, no room for your stuff.  Somebody else’s stuff is all over the place, and what awful stuff it is, where did they get this stuff?  And if you have to stay overnight at somebody’s house unexpectedly and they give you that little room they don’t use very often, someone died in it 11 years ago and they haven’t moved any of his stuff, or wherever they get you to sleep right next to the bed there’s a dresser and there’s never any room on the dresser for your stuff, someone else’s sh*# is on the dresser.  Have you ever noticed how somebody else’s stuff is sh*# and your sh*# is stuff?”

Not sure about you but it makes me want to simplify my life a bit and live smaller.

What still needs to be included in a small home design?

One of the biggest misconceptions about small home design that needs to be cleared up is that you do not have to squeeze into a shoe box and compromise everything you like about a regular home, you just need to start with a more clever layout and use space efficiently.

I think we have established that it is good to concentrate on smaller homes into the future, due to waste, energy consumption, building costs, reduced land sizes etc.  The question though is to what extent should the size of a house be reduced and what are the acceptable compromises we are willing to make?  I often say that if we can happily live in a tent for a week or so on a camping trip, why should we need soooo much more space in our homes?  Let’s say the average dome tent is 2.5m x 2.5m, that is 6.25sqm of floor space.  The average house floor area might be say 200sqm.

Does that mean that a family should need 32 tents to live in?  Seems excessive, but that is what we do, so much wasted space.  It’s because we have so much stuff but also because we appreciate a bit of personal space and don’t want to be living on top of each other all of the time.  Some families are closer than others and can tolerate each others company but i think at some point we all need a space to escape to, just maybe not 32 tents worth.

The extremes

At one extreme is the McMansion movement of home design where every room is maximised and the number of rooms / functions is maximised.  As mentioned in a previous news letter this would include everything from formal and informal living and dining areas to theatre rooms, self contained guest suites, games rooms etc.    Also extensive hallways, entry areas and other circulation spaces.  Some of these styles of homes can be over 300sqm, often to the boastful delight of the owners trying to keep up with the Jones’, although I bet they rarely make use of the spaces.

At the other extreme is the small space living movement where tiny spaces are multi-functioned and all together in the one volume.  This does away with wasted space but I feel it also does away with any privacy or personal space, two things I think are critical in a family home.  Might as well be living in a caravan if that is the case.    We all need to escape to our own space at some time, even if we are sociable creatures.  The other problem with this type of tiny home is that to achieve the multi functional spaces, expensive, complex and custom designed joinery is involved so the cost per square metre of space is much higher, thereby wasting the effort of downsizing to an extent.

As humans living in a first world country, we have become used to spreading our wings a little bit, not cramming into tiny spaces.

The key word as with most things in life is balance.

To the point then…..

So what are the essential requirements in a family home while not going too far and wasting space?

Bedrooms, usually at least 3 in a family home for resale value or future family needs – I like to have minimum dimensions of 3m x 3m plus a built in robe.  Anything smaller than that can start to feel a bit cramped.

Bathrooms – it is good to have a main bathroom with toilet, basin and shower, a bath is nice but not always necessary.  Sometimes you might want the toilet in a separate room but not always necessary.  In addition I feel the master bedroom should also have an ensuite so that families can do their things without getting in each others way.  The ensuite used to be a luxury but these days people have come to expect it, good for resale value as well.

Laundry – a laundry in a cupboard saves a lot of space and is just as practical, just means that you can’t pile junk or dirty clothes up in there.

Kitchen – a decent sized kitchen makes a huge difference, this is one space i think should not be compromised too much or the whole house can feel cramped.

Open living and dining area – to create a sense of spaciousness, there is no need for a dividing wall as these spaces are usually used at different times.  It would also be good to have either another sitting nook, kids space or seating area in the master bedroom so that the family doesn’t always have to be on top of each other.  Kids want to play noisily while mum and dad want peace and quiet to watch tv or read a book.

Storage – one of the biggest requests when renovating old smaller homes from past generations is storage, storage and more storage.  This can be in the form of large cupboards or even a dedicated storage room. (We all need somewhere to put the junk we can’t bring our selves to throw out).

Deck / Patio – The Australian way is to live a large portion of our lives outside enjoying the open spaces and our varied climate.  A deck or patio needs to be wide enough to furnish with an outdoor dining setting, BBQ and other socialising space or play space for the kids, at least 3m if possible.  It goes without saying that it should be directly accessible to the living areas to enhance the openness of the home.

Hallways should be minimized as they are not usable space and do not contribute to the openness of the home.

A good example of an efficient layout with all of the above requirements is the “Snapper” 3 bedroom home design on the Elements Of Design website.  It achieves spaciousness, openness and privacy at a very efficient 136sqm (plus decks and carport).

Goes to show that small home design does not always mean compromise.

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