How to make the most of small spaces
Regardless of the size of your home, a sense of spaciousness can be achieved by creating calming, clutter-free houses that function seamlessly.
Australia is known for big things. There’s the Big Banana in New South Wales and the Big Pineapple in Queensland. Perhaps you’ve picnicked by the Big Prawn or posed for a photo with the Big Lobster? It seems that Australia is also recognised as a land of supersized homes. According to the latest data from CommSec, the average new house built in Australia in the 2020 financial year was 235.8 square metres, overtaking the United States and topping the global list for the largest homes.
Amelia Lee, an Australian architect and design educator with over 25 years of experience, has witnessed the changing shape of Australian homes. “Homeowners who are building and renovating see spaciousness as a means of achieving luxury in their home and lifestyles,” she explains. “And then they equate spaciousness with meaning a design that’s ‘bigger’ and ‘adds more space’.”
There is a definite appeal in the intimacy and cosiness of a small home, where physical proximity nurtures social interaction.
For Lee, a sense of spaciousness is achieved by creating calming homes that feel great and function seamlessly for its inhabitants, regardless of the property’s size. “By improving the convenience of your lifestyle and ensuring your home environment is a place that relaxes and restores you on a daily basis, you free up mental clutter, the biggest spaciousness killer of all,” she says.
Colin Chee, creator and director of Never Too Small, a popular YouTube series that tours small homes located across the globe, agrees with Lee’s sentiment. “Function is fundamental,” he says. ”It’s important to highlight that not all small spaces or apartments are great places to live, but a well-designed small space that gives careful and creative consideration to spatial design, ventilation, light and the lifestyle of its inhabitants can be a great place to live.”
Focusing on inner-city apartment refurbishments, Never Too Small uncovers how small-footprint design in urban settings can transform the way we live and interact with our cities. “We believe more and more people are interested in reducing their footprint on the planet, and living in a smaller home is an obvious place to start,” says Chee. Smaller-living advocacy is a personal matter for Chee, as his own home is a diminutive 40-square metre apartment in central Melbourne. “It has proven to be a healthier and more sustainable choice for me,” he says. “Living closer to work (and most of what I need) means less travelling and better choices for transportation such as cycling or walking.”
While oversized homes dominate the construction trends, many Australians are coming around to small-space living, by choice if not necessity. COVID-19’s waves of effect have changed the way Australians live. Tiny houses are gaining popularity, as more people choose to simplify their lives and live remotely in moveable dwellings measuring no more than 37 square metres. Alternatively, many singles and families are relocating to smaller homes to mitigate the financial burden of lost employment. Australians are beginning to understand that the benefits to downsizing are considerable, financially, environmentally and personally.
Australian house prices hit a record high in January 2021. Our nation’s outstanding mortgage debt amounts to 1.8 trillion dollars, according to CoreLogic, Australia’s largest provider of property data. Generally speaking, the larger the home, the more you will pay for it. Insurance and property taxes will increase as will the cost of upkeep and repairs. For those who aren’t interested in the behemoth builds dominating the suburbs, or for the savvy shoppers wanting to live with less debt, a smaller abode, with a price tag to scale, is a very enticing option.
The build or renovation of a smaller-format residence is likely to be gentler on the hip pocket in comparison to a large, sprawling project. With fewer materials and labour required for scaled-down construction, a little can go a long way. “Often I see those who are choosing to build smaller can spend their building budget on better quality fit-outs, fixtures and finishes, so they elevate the overall standard of their home and their lifestyle,” says Lee. “If you can choose quality over quantity, it really does improve your everyday life.”
According to the Department of the Environment and Energy, Australian households are directly responsible for about 20 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Heating and cooling account for 40 per cent of household energy use, making it the largest energy user in the average Australian home. With less metreage to temperature-control, smaller homes are an energy-efficient alternative.
The goal is to simplify spaces, but not strip them completely of the pieces that add character and embody your sense of style.
The construction or renovation of a petite property also treads lightly on the environment. “The construction industry is a huge contributor to waste and a big user of energy,” Lee explains. “Building materials can be highly consumptive in energy and have huge ecological impacts in their manufacturing. When we build smaller, we can make a massive difference to the environmental impact of our homes, both in their construction and in how we live in them.” Chee concurs, adding that budget-limited projects benefit from a creative approach to using sustainable resources. “There is a tendency to experiment with unconventional and inexpensive building materials or reusing or ‘upcycling’ second-hand materials to great effect,” he suggests.
Less cleaning, more enjoying
Do you know what less house means? Fewer surfaces to clean and tidy and more time to spend on life-enriching activities and moments. “Downsizing can mean being able to afford greater luxury in your lifestyle, and spaciousness with time and resources to do other things you want to do, rather than it all being invested in your home,” Lee explains. There is a definite appeal in the intimacy and cosiness of a small home, where physical proximity nurtures social interaction. In an oversized house, disconnected individuals will rattle around in the vast, vacuous spaces.
Through his experience documenting compact homes across the world, Chee has picked up on a common thread in the small-space dwellers’ mindset. “There are links between living in a well-designed small apartment and the tendency to explore a more minimalist, mindful and even reductive lifestyle,” he explains. When you have to reassess what best serves your needs and lifestyle, “it can result in a better understanding of yourself,” Chee says. “Small-footprint living and practising mindfulness and active gratitude can work well hand in hand. There’s less likely to be space for excessive belongings, and only space for those things you love and value. It can be a road to a simpler life in that sense.”
For all the benefits small-space living brings, it can also be rife with a cache of frustrations and limitations, where the balance of function and style is hard to achieve. The goal is to simplify spaces, but not strip them completely of the pieces that add character and embody your sense of style. Whether you are downsizing due to financial necessity, a change of lifestyle or a shift in life stage, the following three focus areas will help you create an inviting home that feels right and functions perfectly.
Mindfulness is key to staying on top of the accumulation of physical objects. Most Australians could benefit from a good decluttering, whether they have downsized or not. A 2017 study by the Australian insurance provider Choosi found that the average value of Australia’s unloved clutter at home was $6623 per household or a national total of $59.4 billion. That’s a lot of unwanted stuff!
You don’t have to become a minimalist and discard your possessions to live comfortably in a compact residence. However, you have to be discerning and realistic about the purpose and importance of each item. It was the 19th-century designer and writer William Morris who said: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Lee subscribes to this thought. “Assessing whether the things you have are beautiful, useful or ideally both can be a good metric for what to keep and what to let go of. Aiming for as many things that are both beautiful and useful is a great way to reduce how much you own,” she says.
The easiest way to get started on your decluttering mission is to define each area’s purpose and subtract the furniture items that have no use. Is there an armchair in your bedroom that gathers dust? Remove it. Got a bench seat in the hallway that gets in the way? Pull it out. You don’t have to choose smaller furniture pieces to match your room’s compact proportions either — avoid the dollhouse effect. The trick is to be selective with the larger hero items you include. Allow for one or two hero pieces and position them to create clear pathways and a natural flow of foot traffic.
Maximise functionality by arranging the essential items first, and then think about the additional “beauty” elements. Decorative layers add personality but a petite space bulging with knick-knacks will become overwhelming and stress-inducing. Resist the urge to cover every surface with stuff. The room will feel calm and balanced if you keep some surfaces clear and clutter-free.
The saying “a place for everything and everything in its place” rings especially true for a small home. Storage is essential as chaos can quickly take hold when an element of organisation is lacking. Getting the storage right in your home will enhance your day, reducing stress and imparting a sense of control. “It can be a tool for convenience that keeps you and your family organised, and all the clutter tucked away from view,” says Lee. “Creating storage solutions that support your daily lifestyle and bring order to it can do wonders to creating spaciousness in your home and life.”
When selecting baskets, boxes and containers, keep the material and colour consistent to reduce visual clutter. Attach labels to make it clear what should be stowed where, and get all household members, young and old, into the habit of doing a daily collection of loose things. Arrange your storage according to frequency of use: position the items you use daily in an easily accessible spot.
Look for furniture pieces with extra storage capacities such as a coffee table with a shelf or drawers, a gas-lift bed that allows for stowage underneath or a hollow ottoman with a removable lid. Even choosing a bedside table with lots of drawers will help you hide bits and pieces in plain sight. The addition of floating shelves or wall racks will create storage opportunities in vertical spaces.
If you are on a new-build or renovation journey, consider customised joinery to maximise the storage in kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms, as well as any spare nooks or dead areas like underneath a staircase. You can utilise every precious centimetre of your home with custom storage solutions designed to fit the most awkward spaces. Lee offers a wise word of caution: “Be intentional about storage design though — otherwise, you can simply end up with more cupboards and rooms hiding all the stuff you’ve cluttered your home with.”
The illusion of space
The easiest way to create the illusion of more space is to paint the walls a shade of white and stick to lighter tones for the furniture and flooring. Natural light will bounce around the area like a ping-pong ball, even more so if you add mirrors or mirrored furniture. A mirror positioned to reflect the outside view will also trick the mind into thinking the room is larger. “Selecting materials and finishes such as reflective surfaces, or even a gloss paint finish rather than a satin finish, can make a big difference,” says Chee.
Conversely, it’s interesting to think about how dramatic hues can affect a room. “Many of the designs we feature on Never Too Small have strong personalities by virtue of bold material or colour choices that anchor their design, which perhaps debunks a common misconception that small spaces can’t carry bold colours and features,” Chee explains. For example, inky indigo walls will create a sense of infinity, especially when the skirting boards and ceiling are painted the same colour. The eye will find it hard to define where the room’s parameters start and end.
Whether you choose a light or dark palette, consider how contrasting colour affects the illusion of openness and continuation. To borrow an example from the world of fashion, wearing a nude-coloured high heel will give the illusion of longer legs, whereas a dark shoe caps off the leg length at the ankle. The same visual perception trickery applies to our rooms — a white ceiling against a darker wall immediately shrinks a space because your eye instantly perceives the room’s size. If you have lighter walls, choose lighter coloured furniture and joinery, and likewise for those who prefer to live with darker colour palettes. Keep it consistent and avoid stark contrast to avoid disrupting that sense of infinity.