Maximizing a small space

Living a frugal lifestyle may mean choosing to buy a smaller home.

Some architects and builders recognize that people want to live more with less and are constructing more compact homes, but doing so can be a big problem for professionals and homeowners.

“It’s much harder to do a small house,” said Lew Oliver, an architect who created “the Nest” series of small cottages at Serenbe, a community south of Atlanta.

The average single-family house completed in 2012 was 2,505 square feet, according to data from the Survey of Construction, by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Atlanta, tiny bungalows, condos, lofts and other homes can be found with as few as 500 to 1,000 square feet.

Architects and interior designers shared their moves for living large in a small space, for everyone from 20-somethings with a first home to empty nesters and retirees downsizing.

Using the nooks and crannies

Serenbe’s “the Nest” cottage floor plans, which typically range from 1,000-1,600 square feet, are an alternative for people who want to live in a smaller footprint, but don’t want a townhome, said Oliver, owner of Roswell-based Whole Town Solutions. The community in Chattahoochee Hills, south of Atlanta, has 15 eco-friendly Nest cottages built by Martin Dodson Homes, ranging from $260,000-$455,000.

“We’re consuming land faster than it’s being created, especially in a place like Atlanta that keeps sprawling outward. These houses are very frugal when it comes to land consumption,” Oliver said. “In that sense, they’re the ultimate in environmentalism. You can do single family on very compact lots and take up a very small amount of land.”

There are 12 two- and three-bedroom cottages per acre, and the cost of materials and power consumption are lower as well, he said. In the Nest model home, it takes about 20 steps to get from the front door to the kitchen, located on the other side of the first floor. A closet and a microwave with drawers are placed underneath the stairs leading to the second-floor loft.

Maximizing a small footprint in apartments and lofts with as little as 500 square feet also requires avoiding a “strict zoning of space” between hallways, bedrooms and other areas, said architect Brian Ward, associate principal with Niles Bolton Associates, an Atlanta-based design and architecture firm whose residential projects in Atlanta include 2115 Piedmont.

Sliding partitions, from barn doors to more contemporary walls, help separate spaces when needed for privacy. Being able to slide back those walls allows light to spill into the unit and create openness, he said.

“They can be a design element in and of itself,” Ward said.

Thinking unconventionally can help homeowners deal with a compact residence. Using smaller-sized appliances, such as an under-the-counter refrigerator, can make the space more functional. With fewer square feet in the kitchen, you can upgrade the countertops and backsplash to make them look less cookie cutter, Ward said.

“When the person opens the door for the first time, they are experiencing kind of an environment that is more exciting and immediately interesting,” said Ward, who has designed multifamily projects in states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Alabama and Georgia.

Connecting with the outdoors

Architect Andrew Rutledge believes the courtyard house concept (his designs average 2,000 square feet) can be an efficient use of space. Placing multiple homes around a courtyard can remove the 7 feet or so that otherwise would be unusable space meant to separate homes. By pushing the homes against one another, there’s more room to work with, and the unusable yard that separated the homes is collected into a usable courtyard with balconies, he said.

Some builders add porches that are accessible from the front as well as the master bedroom, such as in the Nest cottage model at Serenbe. If the residence doesn’t have room for a full balcony or deck, Ward said having a French door or sliding door with a Juliet balcony can open the residence to the outside.

Making ceilings count

Voluminous spaces with 10-foot or greater ceilings can create storage areas and allow for taller windows that bring in more light. One-and-a-half-story cottages and two-story lofts also can have a psychological impact on residents because they promote the feeling of space.

In a loft setup, access doors upstairs can lead to storage space that takes advantage of the height. Some of those areas could be tall enough to store a canoe, said Rutledge, principal of Rutledge Alcock Architects, based in Decatur.

“It is really maximizing your volume instead of your actual square footage,” he said.

Oliver recognizes that vast rooms may appear to waste space, but in homes with a small footprint, it can be a frugal decision, especially for an eco-friendly home with advanced framing techniques, geothermal systems and solar-powered features.

Planning for furniture

Laying out furniture is an essential step early in the process.

“Everything we do is based on furniture plans,” Oliver said. “If you can’t furnish it, it’s rubbish.”

Martha Ann Parks, owner of Panoply Interior Design and Consulting, based in Newnan, recommends mapping out the room with graph paper (one square represents a foot), then taking that information along when furniture shopping. Don’t forget the tape measure, either, which can keep you from buying items that won’t fit through the door or in the room.

Also, consider purchasing multipurpose furniture, such as an ottoman that doubles as a cocktail table, or an end table that can double as a breakfast table.

June Chamberlain, owner of Atlanta-based Chamberlain Interiors, recommends identifying favorite pieces of furniture and art, instead of trying to use every single item from a previous residence. Don’t think you only need small items, though, since one bigger piece can make a statement.

“It’s going to be cleaner if you don’t have a whole lot of knickknacks sitting around. Err on the side of something significant, like a piece of wall art,” Parks said.

From a contemporary condo in The Brookwood in Buckhead that won a 2013 Design Excellence Award from the American Society of Interior Designers Georgia Chapter to a traditional condo in Atlanta’s Druid Hills neighborhood, Chamberlain uses larger items such as a rug or sofa to anchor the room.

“Don’t be afraid to oversize something,” she said.

More design tips

Interior designers often apply these strategies to small spaces:

  • See through the tables. Using glass-top or Lucite tables can add transparency to a space.
  • Use mirrors. An oversized mirror in a tight foyer, for example, can create the illusion of openness, Chamberlain said.
  • Paint the walls and trim the same color. The trim could have a higher gloss than the walls, Parks said.
  • Seek simple solutions for windows. Instead of heavy drapes and valances, Chamberlain selected simple light-colored panels to allow as much sunlight as possible into the space.
  • Vary the heights of furniture and lighting.