Monday, February 9, 2009

Small Living

We live in a small condo, about 660 square feet, 36 square feet of which is an unheated porch off of the master bedroom. We moved here from a 450-square-foot awkwardly-arranged apartment when our daughter was almost a year old. This condo with it's open floorplan and 200 additional square feet felt like a palace.

In the nearly two years we have lived here, it's gotten smaller. Perhaps the suburbs are attacking us with an evil shrinking ray. More likely, we have been adjusting and accumulating a lot of junk we don't need.

Of course, we are not just accumulating stuff; we're about to pick up a whole new person. In June, a new baby will be arrive together with a mountain of gear. We just moved our daughter H up to a twin-sized bed so that we can move the crib into our room for the new baby (if you saw our room, you'd ask us where it will fit). Her twin bed is really the bottom half of a bunk bed which seems like it will fill the entire room. While we were rearranging furniture, we started to wonder how we are going to fit baby clothes and diapers into dresser drawers that are now packed with our daughter's shirts, pants, and sleepers.

We plan to stay in our current condo for at least five years (and we'd prefer to stay even longer), so in the interest of our continued sanity, we are trying to liberate ourselves from some of our junk. We started in the porch, which was the place that we threw anything we didn't know what to do with. Now it's a much tidier room that is holding the contents of our spring garage sale. After the garage sale, it will hopefully become an indoor garden.

Next, we moved into the kitchen. We had big plans for a kitchen renovation, but our dreams are bigger than our tolerance for chaos or our willingness to put forth serious effort. We still hope to buy a portable dishwasher, hopefully used (although I have to say that buying heavy used things is difficult for a carfree lesbian couple). Right now, we are focusing on streamlining our kitchen and making it  as usable as possible.

We also have plans to clean out H's room and put in additional storage. We have a large number of clothes handed down from other kids. Those that are too small or too large are organized in bins in the basement (that's the only organized part of the basement), but we are swimming in things that are the right size for H that she just doesn't wear (H, like her mothers, wears the same 2-3 outfits repeatedly).

Then there's our room, which needs both purging and additional shelving. Of course, our clothes need an overhaul (whose don't?), and we have to repeatedly excavate the top of our dresser. After that we have to tackle the back porch (or the trash pit, as some would call it). Finally, we must wrestle with the basement. I don't know where all of the stuff down there came from or how to convince it to go back. If you ever want to feel completely powerless, just go down and look at the stuff in your basement. You don't want any of it (if you did, it wouldn't be in the basement), but it all seems impossible to get rid of (what if we need that window AC or the paint or the old plastic dishes?) and the pile grows each month as you move stuff that you once thought was important down into the subterrainean clutter pile.

Honestly, all of these complaints are exactly what's great about small-house living. Humans have a bad habit of collecting, and a small home gives you a natural limit on that tendency. We have to be serious about getting rid of stuff that isn't important for us, because soon we'll be down to 165 square feet per person. That also makes us serious about not bringing new things into our home and thus helps us live a sustainable life.

Small houses and condos are cheaper to buy and cheaper to maintain. We have a small space to heat, illuminate, and cool. We can furnish the place cheaply, in part because we can't buy too much furniture. We don't buy too many toys for our daughter because we don't have any place to put them. That helps our wallet and gives us a refuge from material culture.

A small house is also much easier to clean. Even when our house is a
wreck, we can get it into passable shape in an hour or less. If we have
two hours, we can give it a really deep cleaning. Having a small house gets us outside, even in the winter. This keeps us healthy and connects us with our neighbors.

So we love living little, but we still have more junk in our house that we need and we still get frustrated with the confinement. Here are our strategies for living cramped but happy.
  • Purge repeatedly. Each time you can dig deaper and get rid of more. For instance, we had to purge books about five times before we got ourselves down to the 110-120 books we have now. That number seems outrageously high, so we're due for another round of shedding. You also need to shed repeatedly because despite your best efforts, clutter will creep into your home.
  • Have a place for everything, and keep everything in it's place. We tend to have a pretty bare and sparse house (for instance, we just put up our first pictures on the wall after living here for almost two years). However, we have some neighbors that have a place just as small as ours that feels comfortable and homey and contains many more objects and knickknacks. Their secret is simply having a home for each object. This is not our strong suit, but we're working on it.
  • Pickup and clean daily. For instance, we clear our dining table every night of the clutter that has accumulated during the day. We spend much more time on daily maintenance that we do on deep cleaning, so if you come into our home you will hopefully be able to sit down at the table to eat, although you may notice that the carpet if full of mashed peas.
  • Don't bring new items into your home without getting rid of old items. We're not always very good at this, but we're working on it.
  • Folding furniture is your friend. We have folding chairs that we can stash out of the way, a dining room table that folds down from large to medium to small, and a folding table that doubles as a play house for H. Non-folding furniture may look beautiful, but it is much harder to deal with in our space.
Now it's your turn. How do you keep your small space livable? Do you love your small house or hate it (or both)? Do you aspire to shrink or to grow?


Leigh said...

My son is a week old, but I am loving my choice to stay in our three room apartment with him for now. I can't imagine how much harder getting up four or five times in the night would be if his crib was not 4 feet from my bed and the change table 2. I can get to him before he get himself worked up or for feedings even really cries. The only downside is no guest room.

Sor Cyress said...

before we got ourselves down to the 110-120 books we have now. That number seems outrageously high,

...*whimper!* I can definitely understand and support the small living concept (yay dorm rooms. :P) but books have always been my biggest weakness, and the concept of that few being considered outrageously high...

More shelving seems to be the best way of dealing with living in a small space --in any given space, there's a lot of vertical space that just doesn't get used. Short of causing things to float up near the ceiling until you need them, shelves are more or less the only way to deal.

(This is Kat, bytheway.)

Dorea said...

I used to feel the same way about books Kat, until I realized how nice it is not to have them. Are you really going to read that novel you loved again? I don't watch movies twice. I don't even knit the same pattern twice, so I'm probably not going to read something twice either.

It's even more lovely to pass on the books that are only on the shelf because you think you *should* read them. Ahhh. Immediate guilt reduction.

Not having books certainly doesn't mean not reading. We are both avid readers. The secret to cutting back is to think of the library as your own personal bookshelf. We endeavor to keep only books that we actually use on a day to day basis, that are thus impractical to request from the library, so usually this means reference only. Angela still thinks my knitting library is too large (at about 10 books or so), but I use every single one, so they stay. Cookbooks also make a strong showing at about 17. Though we could probably cut by a few here, we do use most of them.

Sor Cyress said...


Ah, that seems to be most of the difference between us --I do reread books, and often, and I also like to, with extremely special books, scrawl notes in the margins or underline the perfect turn of phrase or whatever. The library does not seem to approve of this.

This is what limited what I originally brought north with me for college --the only books I should have on my shelves are things that I'm going to read in the near future (and not just in the guilt way, but actually will read when I get the time, like "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!" or "Wyrd Sisters") or stuff that I reread often enough that I want to have access to my copy RIGHT NOW when I get a craving, like "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" or "Boy Meets Boy" or the comic "Fell".

If I didn't reread things so often, I would probably just use the library more often too.

Angela V-C said...

Hi Kat! I am also a huge re-reader, unlike Dorea. I do have a precious few books that I reread frequently (such as LOTR), but mosly I've grown to enjoy letting the library check and recheck them out to me. It's been interesting to me how as I've gotten into letting go of books, it's gotten easier and easier today.

Still, lots of compact shelving can help for the book lover who must have a certain about close at hand. We're trying to get more built-in shelving, but it's taking a while.

Oh, and believe it or not, after I counted up all of the books, Dorea and I said, "Wow, I can't believe we have that many! We can cut that down for sure!" :)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MN_homesteader said...

We are a family of 4 humans, 2 cats, 1 turtle, 2 lizards, several fish, and German Shepard who live in a 1500sq ft house with 800 sq ft of livable space, so we know small living. We are currently going through our stuff again to determine what we REALLY need versus what we think we need. A big part of it like you said is organization, planning and neatness. We lack on all accounts, but are trying.
Good luck

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Beth said...

Purge Purge Purge, I am in the process of adding a room for a little one too, lots of stuff to get rid of.

UrbanCycleJockey said...

Great list of tips for living in a small space and keeping it uncluttered. Its a tough battle, empty spaces have a tendency for filling up with piles of stuff.

Downsizing is the antithesis of the "American Way" of the last half century.

Andy @ Retire at 40 said...

I'm doing the same and doing wave after wave of purging. I don't seem to be buying much recently but when I do I need to be sure to purge more than I brought in. I too am living in a pretty small place and I'm loving it, except I still have stuff to get rid of.

Pippi said...

We live in a small space with a toddler, too. The hardest part for us is that it's an apartment and we don't know how long we're going to be here so we don't want to invest too much in furniture that might not fit in our next space. We also have very little storage so one of our two bedrooms is really a storage room -- it sounds like your basement.

We are also due for a book purge. I used to love having lots of books -- until I had to move across the country with them. Then I donate a bunch and started using the library. Now I only get books that I have already read more than once and intend to reread.

I just found your blog and I'm enjoying it. We love biking, too. My daughter just learned to say "bike" and "weeee!" which she now does frequently :)