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Home design for small spaces

Terence Conran is a British designer, author, developer and entrepreneur who already has plenty of professional titles to fill a business card, but he could probably add “amateur philosopher” to the list. This sideline talent emerges in the introduction of his latest book, “How to Live in Small Spaces.” As the title suggests, the book deals with home designs and strategies for square footage at the lower end of the scale. No mega-mansions on these pages, which instead feature homes modest in size but rich in livability.

For British or European audiences, this is familiar territory. High population densities, centuries-old dwellings and cities built before the automobile age have all combined to create patterns of home different from those that emerged between American shores. The United States has had relative affluence and room to sprawl and always seems to push the bigger-is-better envelope, so we have gotten used to homes that are super-sized, at least relative to those found elsewhere around the globe.

For a number of reasons, though, the push for plus-size housing has taken a turn toward moderation. The economic aftermath of the burst housing bubble is a big factor, but it’s not the only one. And whatever the reasons we might have to embrace the trend, Conran sees smaller homes as no less worthy of our affection. Speaking like a pragmatic philosopher, he says it’s all in the attitude. Rather than seeing limits as an unwelcome sacrifice, better to understand the smaller home as a compromise with the usual scoreboard of things both won and lost. Then, he advises, focus on the gains:

— Better location potential: Almost any home-buying decision involves trade-offs, and paying the extra cost for more square footage diverts buying power that could be directed toward a more desirable location. You might “settle” for a smaller home but gain a better neighborhood, enjoy more convenient access to workplace or commercial areas, or get great views you otherwise couldn’t afford.

— Better quality: Whether you’re buying or building a home, keeping the size reasonable translates into more budget available for quality materials and workmanship, or custom features that you would have to forgo if you overspent on square footage.

— Lower upkeep costs: For a given amount of energy efficiency and level of materials quality, a smaller home will always reduce costs for energy usage and for maintenance.

— Limits on personal belongings: Anyone with hoarding tendencies might find this a touchy subject, but less space translates into less storage room for your stuff. Given that most of us could cull a percentage of our idle clothing, books and other items without undue harm, this creates a built-in incentive for a simpler life with fewer extraneous possessions.

— Efficiency: Whether it involves taking fewer steps across a kitchen while cooking or getting through cleaning chores more quickly, smaller spaces have a built-in efficiency that translates into more options for their owners’ time.

So there’s the “why” of small houses, according to Conran’s philosophy. For those intrigued enough to read further, he fittingly dedicates the remainder of the book to the “how.” These strategies are the secret to making the transition to smaller homes work.

For starters, take a personal inventory that includes not only what you own but also how you live, how your home functions with guests, and what kinds of changes you might envision for better aligning your living space with your needs and habits. Do you host get-togethers often? Do you work from home? Do you pick up groceries daily or buy in bulk and store the spares? Answers to these questions will help set plan priorities.

From there the book turns to specific solutions, such as how to build storage features into wall niches, overhead space and other “idle” pockets. Then there are the visual tricks for making small spaces seem larger — pass-thru openings and new doorways to extend sightlines through multiples spaces, skylights and end-of-hall windows to brighten dark areas, lighting fixture type and placement, and choosing paint colors and surface finishes that can make a small room seem larger.

Conran does a good job pairing the overall philosophy of smaller spaces with strategies that make them easier to live with.

Whether your home’s square footage is a matter of choice or of chance, making the most of it can start here.


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