Tuesday, August 07, 2007

How Much House is Enough?

Recently I've been reading a few architecture books and interior design books on a quest to answer the question: How much of a house is enough?

After all if you are in a larger house than you need you will have higher mortgage payments, heating bills as well as other utilities. Basically buying the wrong house will potentially cost you $1000's over the years for a few extra rooms you might not even use. Yet for the average person, how do you know what is enough? Here is a few steps to help you determine that.

Step 1 - What do you do?

First off we need to determine what you use your current space for. Do you nap on the weekend on your family room couch? Do you watch two hours of TV every night? Can you remember the last time you ate in your dining room? Write down a list with what you typically do in a week and how much space you need to do it and how long you do it for. This is a necessary step to determine what you actually use your house for rather than what you think you use it for. I've often seen people get a house with a particular room and they think they will use it more. After two months they realize they never needed the room in the first place (the classic example of this is a formal living room which sits unused for 97% of the year).

Step 2 - Purge junk

People often cloud their idea of how much space they need to live with how much storage they need for their junk. The simple solution is get rid of the junk and then you can honestly say weather you need 1200 sq feet of living space or can get by on just 1000 sq feet. A good guideline is if you haven't used the item in question in two years then get rid of it. Or another way of looking at it is everything in your home should fall into two main categories: is it useful or do you find it beautiful? If it doesn't fall into either category then it is usually a good idea to get rid of it.

Step 3 - Change your thinking about rooms

Often a fatal flaw with people and their homes is they think they need a different room for each activity. Most of the time all you need is a different area for each activity. For example, watching TV really doesn't take up much sq feet to do. So why can't you also put in a space a small chair and a lamp for reading and perhaps a corner space for the family computer in the same room as the TV? Basically in this step you take your list from step 1 and review your house in terms of activities and areas. Be honest with yourself here. For example, I don't have a formal dining room. Why? I'm likely only going to use it twice a year and everyone would end up not fitting at the same table anyway. So I save the sq feet and just keep a folding table in the basement which I can fit between my regular eating area and my kitchen when I do need extra seating at a dinner.

Step 4 - Retreating and Gathering

Perhaps one of the most useful concepts I came across in my research for this post was the idea of retreating and gathering. Basically a home to work well needs space for people to be together (gathering - like a seating area or the kitchen table) or be apart (retreating - working on the computer by yourself or reading book in a corner chair). Yet to do this you don't need different rooms. You can create spots in a the same room all you have to do is define the areas a bit. Area rugs and furniture placement work well for this, but just about anything can help define a space (for example, a bookshelf, a lamp and a chair in a corner for reading).

An example of where this is useful for me was realizing I needed a second TV watching spot in my home. My wife and I usually watch completely different TV or movies so after the kid goes to bed it we can retreat to different areas and not want to steal the remote out of the other one's hand. Up until this house that second TV area was always in our bedroom or my study area.

So hopefully this post got you thinking about your space a bit. I obviously can't teach you everything in a few hundred words when it took me a few thousand words to get it myself. So for some additional reading I'll list a few different resources:

Living in Style without Losing your Mind - Marco Pasnella - At a 167 pages with lots of pictures this a short, but highly useful read on interior design is a must read for everyone. The book is funny and answers that eternal question of why does that paint color look so different on my wall than on the paint chip?

The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way we Really Live - Sarah Susanka - At 193 pages this is another great book that is short with lots of pictures. Written from the view of architecture this book provides some basic insight into why those McMansions in the suburbs never feel like home.


FourPillars said...

Very interesting post. I like point three about changing the way you think about rooms.

Part of the problem is that traditionally each room has one main function and that is that. A bedroom is a bedroom, an office is an office, dining room for dining etc.

We do use our dining room for eating in but there's no reason we couldn't put a little mini-office in there as well.


telly said...

Great post.

I think we're forced to make sense of our house because it was built in the 20's when they didn't invent rooms for other activities (except the homes of the very wealthy).

We use our dining room pretty much every night because our kitchen is tiny (no room for a table). We also only have one living area, 3 bedrooms (which we admittedly don't need yet) and one bath (though we very recently added one in the basement).

Every time I start to think that we should move, when I really think about it, I have no solid reasons.

BTW, has anyone seen the video of the woman with the 83 sq. ft. house?

Besides the no shower thing, it actually looks pretty comfy. :)

the money diva said...

I like this topic, and you have done a very good introduction to some essential concepts! I've been living by myself in 1175 sq ft for 10 months and I realized somewhere along the line that I hated it. Now I want to go smaller and own less until I find my personal minimum. (Not easy for a maximalist!)

It's all part of the North American approach of bigger is better and general wastefulness. But more and more people are starting to wake up to what our personal choices really mean. It's an awakening that won't happen overnight, but I welcome its arrival!


Canadian Dream said...


I agree that most of the problem is people are stuck on the idea they need a room for a function rather than an area.


There is a certain amount of reasonable space you can have and not really use. I know my current house is a bit too big, but that is mainly because we bought the place with the idea of having at least one more kid. So I have about an extra 200 sq feet I don't really use, but that isn't all that bad since I don't have to move down the road.

I LOVE that video. It just goes to show we can live anywhere if we want to.


I think there is a fair number of people that don't like their space, but don't understand why. So I wrote this post to help them understand a little interior design theory won't kill them and perhaps can make them a lot happier.

As for the bigger and better problem. I love this quote from Living in Style "Your decor should come from your personality, not from a marketing department. Remember, what's personal is more important than what's cool. Having a great home should not involve keeping up with anybody. You are the Joneses."

If everyone could learn that we would be set.


Kate said...

The video is of a Tumbleweed house designed by Jay Shafer. His site tumbleweedhouses.com has several plans for very small houses. I look at them often and sigh with longing. Unfortunately, I'd have to get rid of my husband to fit into one. Thanks for the post and comments.

Canadian Dream said...


Thanks for the link. I loved looking at those tiny homes!