By Cyril Courtois (RCM CAD Design Drafting ltd.)
Topic: About smaller homes…
Within the last half century, North American homes have more than doubled in size becoming castles to impress by volume alone.
Real estate agents define a home by it square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms and pictures of luxuriously furnished formal living and dining rooms that are left unused by its occupants.
Due to high building and energy costs, dwindling investments, savings and pensions and an emerging consciousness not to waste and embrace “green concepts”, designing a home is now much less about impressing our neighbors and friends with size and wow factor.
Instead today’s house design trend is all about quality and function within a manageable budget.
Creating a house that nurture a personal connection to each rooms and is customized to fit our family life style and needs, becomes a home to be enjoyed every day by all.
1- Why downsizing your dream home…
First, the word “downsizing” is associated with economic recession and unstable business situation, hardly a positive concept.
In the 1950s homes averaged under 1000sqft and regular family size was huge.
Today family size is a fraction of yesterday’s, with retiring baby boomers being the bulk of new home owners.
We downsize because the huge houses we lived in during the 80s, 90s… do not make much sense anymore.
Planning a smaller home is smart because…
1- It is much more affordable as it requires less building materials, labor and land.
2- It cost much less to heat in winter, keep cool in summer and upkeep during its lifetime.
3-However the most powerful reason to go smaller is because the space defined by the rooms tend to be more to human scale, therefore cozier, with everything important within reach.
Massive great rooms with high vaulted ceilings do have that wow factor that is difficult to resist. It can be filled when you entertain large group of friends and it then feels great.
However if you are alone, you will (perhaps unconsciously) choose a smaller area within the perimeter of that room to relax like a bay window sit, an alcove with lower ceiling or even a corner by the fireplace.
If that large room has nothing designed for a simple single or double occupancy, then it will probably remain empty as you may migrate to that small den around the corner…
2- How to downsize the dream?
First understand how you live now by listing all your activities in each room and time spent using all those rooms.
This exercise will quickly help you identify the rooms you use the least and the most important rooms for your life style.
Rooms do not need to be conceived around a singular activity.
A room can be designed to serve many different functions especially if small alcoves are created for single use (reading, house bookkeeping, homework, internet surfing…)
A- The kitchen.
In the old days the kitchen was a private room by itself, out of the way from the main living area.
Today the kitchen has become the centre of activity of the household where family and even guests will congregate.
It is the heart of the home and needs to be open to the dining and sitting area. The kitchen is highly visible so it has become a show case room called the theatre gourmet kitchen.
It is so big, it is exhausting to work in, as appliances and work areas are so far away from each other.
Remember that kitchen square footage is the most expensive in the house.
Any professional chef will tell you that they would rather work in a compact kitchen where all is at hand with minimum walking around.
Managing storage space is a key to a great easy to use kitchen within a smaller space.
Lower cabinets should have drawers instead of shelves.
All content in open drawers are readily accessible and little space is lost above when closed.
Deeper counter from common 24″ deep to 30″ deep provides more working area and more drawer storage below.
Use ceiling height upper cabinets to maximize storage for rarely used items.
If you want to impress your friends, you can invest in multi function appliances to save space and have the latest from Europe.
The Multiplo from Scholtes is a great compact multi purpose counter top appliance that can roast, boil, steam, fry and slow cook within its own stainless steel containers, thus eliminating the need for pots and pans.
A large capacity oven with internal partition allows cooking different dishes at same time.
A Quooker’s instant boiling water tap saves much time when making tea, coffee, bleaching vegetables or sterilizing kitchen utensils… while probably using less energy than a kettle.
Add an island or peninsula for more preparation counter space, storage space below and a sitting bar to talk to the cook or have breakfast…
B-The dining room.
Some houses design have a large dining room with chandeliers, a nook off the kitchen and a eating bar at the island.
That is overkill for the smaller home concept.
I think a large dining table is a must if you ever will entertain.
However that table can be located right by the kitchen because everyone loves to be around the kitchen.
Dirty dishes can be stacked away in dishwasher, hidden in deep kitchen sink or behind a raised countertop.
At our house the dining table which is right along the kitchen is daily used by our kids for homework…
The dining table is a great place to hang out as a family when cooking meals.
C- The bathroom(s).
It is the second most expensive space in the house after the kitchen.
A bath for each occupants of a home is a cost that can be avoided.
In Europe the toilet with sink has its own private room and the bathroom means sink and shower (or bath tub).
If several people are likely to use a bathroom at same time of the day, split the toilet area from the shower/sink area.
Showers are much more in use by active professionals and elderly than bath tubs.
Stacked bathrooms at each level of living space is a good design option to consider.
The most common model is one bathroom for parents and one for children.
D- Rooms with shared functions…
A home office can be readily transformed into a TV room, a guest bedroom (with a murphy bed for example) or an away room for quiet times.
A back entry, mudroom and laundry are commonly combined into one.
The entry or foyer should have a cloak closet , a bench and shoe storage and possibly a powder room for guests.
The smaller home can not stand clutter.
To feel spacious it must have extensive built in storage to put away what is not in use or be seen.
Detail design is key for the smaller home just like on a boat or RV.
Do not hesitate to create storage under stairs, in no headroom area below the roof, under bay window seat, floor to ceiling closets on each side of corridor…
Add wall recess for custom cabinets and alcoves for small computer desk, sleeping booth and reading recess.
F- Tips to make the smaller home feel bigger.
Add decks, covered patio, sunroom, screened porch around the house to extend the house for outdoor living with matching floor patterns from inside outward.
Use natural light from two sides of a room.
Use light, color and scale contrast to expand a room space.
Work with the third dimension (ceiling and floor heights) to define different spaces in a room.
Use thick window/door jambs and large baseboards.
Avoid narrow hallways.
Design diagonal views within the house to make the inside space feel bigger.
3- Our dreams versus the hard reality of cost.
The cheapest house to build is a two full level rectangular to square framed box with vinyl windows and exterior siding, an asphalt roof on manufactured frame trusses, commonly called the colonial house. You get the most amount of living space for the least amount of exterior walls and roof cover.
Headroom is 8 foot high in all rooms with no vaulted ceilings.
Interior trim work is minimum, ceilings and interior walls are sheet rock.
It works as a starter home in a city subdivision but this is not the dream home for our retirement years after the kids move out…
The dream home has spirit and is a personal expression of your tastes and lifestyle.
It is specifically designed for your building site to take advantage of slopes, views and sun…
Quality of construction and quality of interior and exterior finishes is high, so more expensive than the regular city house.
It may be a house with much wood millwork and stain glass or the so popular timber frame home or even a handcrafted log home with those massive logs you see in magazines or web pages dedicated to that timeless construction style.
To fit your budget, a quality home may need to be scaled down so the dream becomes reality.
It too often comes down to a choice between how big and how beautiful and comfortable.
It does not mean settling for less but rather being smart with each square footage of space.
Detail design makes all the difference.
A 3000 square foot poorly designed unpersonalized stock plan can feel smaller and sterile compared to a cozy 1200 square foot professionally designed smaller home with private spaces and detailed storages like on a boat.
4- Professional design.
Hire a good house design professional that can help you make the necessary transition between wishes and reality by identifying what matters less for you to allow your house dream to come true.