homemaking | organisation and preparedness

living large in a small space

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townhouse As Australians, we love our big houses – four bedrooms, a study, a guest room, ensuites, an entertainment area and a formal living room, a backyard with plenty of lawn…

However, affordability, practicality and an increasing urban population are spurring a shift towards the smaller home.

If you have a growing family, small space living can present challenges that you don’t get in larger homes: where to store your stuff; finding space for activities (for each member of the family), how to find quiet personal space.

However, there are also benefits to small space living: smaller houses are often cheaper to purchase upfront; there’s less space to clean and maintain; you have less heating and cooling costs; there are more opportunities to flex your creative problem solving muscles when it comes to function; and more opportunities to practice the art of compromise and sharing.

Smaller homes like townhouses and units are also generally closer to amenities or public transport, reducing commuting time and the need for two vehicles.

We are a family of three (soon to be four) living in a relatively small three bedroom, two storey townhouse situated on a busy road, five minutes walk from a major shopping centre. While we no longer live in a city, we certainly live smack-bang in the middle of a major urban centre.

Until a year ago, I thought of this house as a temporary dwelling – a stepping stone to a ‘real’ house – the great Australian dream.

It’s only been recently that I’ve really embraced this as our home. I’ve realised we don’t need more space, we need smarter solutions. And that’s what we’ve been working on.

Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

small space living is an art

Being an artist isn’t just about learning different techniques, it’s about learning to truly see the world.

As well as seeing the objects that are being recreated through drawing for instance, an artist needs to see the whole picture, including the negative space – the space around the objects and the shape that space takes.

Developing an eye for negative space takes practice. From infancy, we are trained to see and focus on individual objects, not the space between them.

So what does art theory have to do with small space living?

Often what we lack isn’t space but the ability to perceive the space we have. We fail to see the negative (or in this case, the underutilised) space.

Think vertical space. Hanging space. Wall space. Roof space. The unused space under the bed. On the landing. Even up the stairs.

book storage
Admittedly this was a temporary solution, although a functional one we could have (and may still need to) continue. Makes for a great reading nook.

Think wall shelves. Hooks. Ceiling racks.

Do you need more space or less clutter?

When you take a good look at the things that you own, you might be surprised how much stuff you have that never gets used.

Despite decluttering regularly and getting rid of unwanted stuff, I still come across things I realise we no longer use or need.

And it’s amazing how much space you can free up once you get rid of all that clutter.

A tip for things like books, movies and music – digitize them. I am currently going through my ‘could-not-possibly-part-with’ cookbook collection and scanning any recipes that I want to keep, and then selling or donating the book. Some books haven’t been opened in years and in many of them, there are only a handful of recipes that catch my eye anyway.

Organisation – the key to managing small spaces

When living in small spaces, particularly with several people (and particularly with littlies), you don’t have the same freedom when it comes to leaving stuff lying around – good organisational systems are essential.

There are two aspects of organisation:

  1. stuff management
  2. task management

Stuff management involves having a place for everything. Clutter is usually the items that don’t have a home and you don’t know what to do with them.

Task management involves having a system for putting stuff back in it’s place. This is especially important for multi-purpose spaces.

These two keys to organisation work in conjunction with one and other: putting things away is easier if you have well organised storage. Conversely, your organisation systems work best if you’re maintaining them, i.e. not stuffing things back in willy-nilly.

As an example of what I mean: I’ve written previously about how I organise my sewing things in order to maximise craft time by storing everything I need for a project in a single box.

When you have a dedicated sewing space, you don’t need to worry about setting up and packing away. However, if you’re sewing on the dining table, then having all your tools together in a single storage box (that has it’s own home), ready to whip out and put away again quickly, and your materials, pattern and notes together also, makes managing small spaces easier.

Multi-purpose space and multi-functional furniture

Seeing space as multi-purpose rather than for a single activity only, expands your space.

As and example, we recently ‘converted’ our garage into a playroom (and everything else room).

And by convert, I mean we painted the floor and put down a cheap rug.

We realised that we had a whole room that wasn’t being used at all for ten hours during the day. We now have twice the living space we used to, simply by reinventing the space we have.

Once I started looking, I saw wasted space all around us.

Like the bedroom – another space that is only used at night time. Couldn’t that be better utilised during the day?

And I won’t bore you with all the plans we have for our Harry Potter-esque cupboard-under-the-stairs (they don’t include making it into a bedroom, though).

When it comes to multi-functional furniture, there are a lot of nifty solutions on the market.

But you don’t need specially designed furniture for it to be multi-functional.

Again, the dining table is a good example – not just for dining, but also an office desk, a sewing table, a craft space, a storage table, an extra cooking bench, a cubby house.

As I write this, I am sitting on my bed, a free, cardboard greengrocer box serves as my ‘office desk’.

And a final example, we’ve used the oven not only for cooking but also to stay warm and to dry clothes (by either sitting in the kitchen to read when cooking or putting the clothes horse in front of the oven when cooking).

Sometimes what we need aren’t bigger solutions, but better solutions. If the alternative is upsizing to a larger house, then decluttering and reinventing the space you have can potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars in mortgage interest repayments on that bigger home, not to mention the extra costs of maintaining it.

*Top Tip: There is one piece of equipment that is essential for keeping your sanity when living in a small space – especially with many people: earphones. While compromise is a skill worth practicing, earphones means you don’t need to suffer through the sounds of monsters dying in Diabolo III and other such noises.


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  1. Emailed from Babara,

    “with regard to using space more constructively: treads (not risers) on staircases can be removed and replaced using hinges at the rear side. they can then be lifted by the overhang and the interior ‘space’ becomes storage for all sorts of small items. on an average staircase of twelve (in the USA) stairs that’s a lot of unused space.
    a shelf completely around a room at the level of the top of the windows and door also provides a load of space for attractive baskets and boxes filled with ‘stuff’. can you tell we lived in a very small house with two children at one time?”

  2. Hey Melissa,
    Just ‘found’ your blog through Rhonda at Down to Earth. Yay! Am very excited and will be trawling through your archives! I have 3 young children and am a stay-at-home mum so I am always interested in ways to live happily but more simply. Good on you for blogging and enjoy your pregnancy, Emma.

    1. Hi and welcome! Hope you find the blog useful. Enjoyed looking through your farm picutures on your blog, reminds me of the scenery around where I grew up (although I was a townie too).

  3. I certainly agree that there is no need for a big house. After 6 years in a 200m2 house we have just downsized to a 78m2 flat. Got rid of a lot of stuff we didn’t need.

    One source of info I regularly read it the TINY HOUSE BLOG: http://tinyhouseblog.com/

    Lots of posts about people living in small spaces

    1. Thanks Brian, interesting blog! I’ve seen a couple of the houses on Treehugger. I love the creativity needed to work with small spaces!

  4. Hi Melissa, this post resounded with me! I have more kids than bedrooms – not common these days. Might I add small houses have a smaller environmental impact. I certainly don’t have ‘being organized in a small space’ down pat, but wouldn’t have it any other way! I love new small space ideas so thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi Linda, very true about the reduced environmental impact of small houses! I don’t have being organised down pat either, but I’m working on it! 🙂

  5. We are planning a rebuilding on our property. Just a 3 bedroom place, with a some multi purpose zones.

    Friends are horrified when they find out that there will be no parents retreat, kids retreat etc. Normally we love a guest bedroom due to family being interstate, but we have worked out a way to incorporate one into the craft/library/study zone.

    My sister had a gorgeous book on living in small spaces. Wish I had borrowed/kept it 😉

    1. Parent’s retreat….now that would be nice :). I substitute with the lock on the bathroom door and and iPod with earphones lol.

  6. We moved to a smaller house earlier this year & it is great! and it keeps getting better as we restore things to working order. The bid house we had before used to depress me & I always felt overwhelmed by it, especially when it came to cleaning!
    We now have a bigger yard & spend more time outdoors & doing projects, which is better than just being inside all the time.
    Thanks for an enjoyable post.

    1. Thanks Karen. I find our house gets better too, the more we work on making it suit us.

  7. Thankyou Mel, another great post/ wealth of ideas. Love the stair library. Might I ask, do you have a backyard? Do you count that as an extra room? I would love a part “B” post about outdoor space use. (or a round up of the stuff you already have…just remembered you’ve already shown your outdoor space on the compost post.)

    Emma, welcome to Frugal and thriving, AWESOME isn’t it 🙂

    Barbara, thanks for the stair storage idea 🙂

    1. Hi Rachel,

      A backyard is the one thing I would really, really like!! Especially as the little fella gets bigger. It’s something I miss from my childhood. A smaller house with a decent backyard would be perfect.

  8. http://www.ikea.com/aa/en/catalog/products/20176376/ I just wanted to add these make a great gift idea (under $10) for people living in small spaces or you could make your own using the basic idea. I like to add a photo. A practical and cute framed photo with storage 🙂

    I am also a big tea drinker and find this can display what teas I have for easy access and decoration on my fridge. Instead of having a huge list of choices I just show guests the fridge and tell them to take their pick. These are also great for holding tablets out of reach of children. Stationary items (out of harms way) and so on.

    I find some inspiration on you tube, but most of the stuff is directed at very organised and tidy singles. As you know Mel the older and more mobile children get the less “up high” storage is available.

    1. Thats a great idea. I never think to look on YouTube for stuff. And yes, lol, I’m running out of up high places.

    1. My ‘ideal’ laundry solution would involve, ahem, other members of the household picking up their dirty clothes and putting them in the wash themselves :). But yes, we too have laundry everywhere some days.

  9. Our house was our starter home but will be out home now until we can no longer climb stairs lol! I always wanted a bigger house, I begged for it, considered worse areas, needed it craved it… but we can’t afford it nor need it. I have learnt how to de-clutter, re organise, keep things tidier and now love our home. We live in a 84m2 townhouse (including staircase).

    1. Us too, a starter home, that will be the family home for a few years to come at least. And it’s grown on us.

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