I made the transition three years ago. As much as I loved the creekside Berkeley cottage where I’d spent seventeen years and cared for two kids and a dog, its 1500 square feet were too many for me alone to use. I tried to occupy more of it by expanding into my kids’ old rooms but even then I was living in about 500 square feet. I decided to do something about that.

My daughter had already emigrated to Oregon. She and her husband started a family in Eugene, and they settled into part time jobs along with child-rearing and art production, a busyness almost certain to yield much joy and little income. So after discussing the arrangement fully (we hope), I decided to buy Eugene real estate, with a house for them and something small, already there or buildable, for me to live in part time.

I’d also need a place in the Bay Area, because that’s where I earn my living and have a social life, including my other kid, my brother and my mom, and (anyway) who gives up the Bay Area if she doesn’t have to?

Oh, and I don’t want to drive. I no longer have a car. So both places had to be walkable and near reliable public transportation.

It’s another three or four stories to tell how I arrived at my current situation; the synopsis is that I found what I needed in Eugene and Berkeley much sooner than I thought I would, moved into my Berkeley studio and started building in Eugene, sold my old Berkeley house, and finished building in Eugene. It’s been a couple of years since that completion. For most of the time I’ve lived in a 470 square foot studio cottage in a Berkeley back yard, with an adjacent patio/deck that leads to the small shed I use as gym and office. For about a third of it I’ve dwelled in my 585 square foot studio cottage in Eugene.

By the time we started building in Eugene I’d already lived awhile in the Berkeley studio. I had learned a bit about small space. I put some of that into the Eugene design.

But I wasn’t the primary designer. What I knew then was that I wanted a luxurious bathroom, one great room, and no more than about 500 square feet. I looked for one company that could do it all, because I wouldn’t be in Eugene for much of the construction. Word of mouth took me to Rainbow Valley Design & Construction, an on-site meeting sold me, and I never had a moment’s regret. I was impressed with everyone I met there, but I felt particularly fortunate to engage the brains and labor of starting architect Paul DeJong and seasoned project manager John Kraust.

By now I’ve learned a little more about small space dwelling. I don’t know if I’ll build again; I may have made my last move. But maybe you can use these:

It costs more per square foot to build a small space but less (because of those reduced square feet) to acquire the materials for it. And it adds nothing to the cost to build it smart.

The refrigerator is going to be the noisiest constant.

If the doors open outward there will be more space within.

Consider the laundry: where do the dirty items go before they visit the washing machine? And where will the recyclables gather before they head for the bin?

A high and varied ceiling makes a small space big. So does easy and regular access to outside.

Only cover a window if the window must be covered (sun or privacy). If you get to build a back yard cottage, you’ll probably situate it as close as permitted to two property lines. In that case, the windows on those property line sides ask a different question than the others and deserve a different answer.

High Costs, Low Costs, No Costs
It costs more per square foot to build small. This is because the dwelling needs systems that could serve larger spaces. You must have plumbing, sewer, electrical, and maybe gas. If your building is detached then there’s all the outside to construct. You have to spend some time on design, and small is a puzzle that can chew up many hours. Divide those costs by 500 square feet and it’s expensive. Really. In 2008 terms, using moderate materials and including every dollar necessary to move into the finished cottage: $368 per square foot. Happily there aren’t many square feet, so the total price was affordable. Probably I’ll spend less money in the future on repair and maintenance; certainly I’ll spend less time on cleaning. And because there are so few square feet, I can splurge on materials if I wish. I didn’t in Eugene, because I had to cut costs wherever I could. But I’m planning to replace counters and plumbing fixtures in Berkeley. The counters are so short that I expect to find pieces of exotic stone I can afford.

It didn’t add a dime to the Eugene cost to build it so I can live in it for the rest of my life. The concept is called universal design, but I think of it as green building on the inside. I tried to envision my future desires about the place and the desires of residents after me. I tried to build it so it won’t have to be torn apart to improve it. It’s one level and the path to it has no stairs. The doorways (there are only three: front, back and bathroom) are all nice and wide. The kitchen is approachable no matter how you get around: it’s a corner of a big room. There is extra bracing in the walls of the bathing and sleeping areas, in case a lift ever needs installation. I couldn’t afford solar now, but the roof is sloped right and the plumbing and wiring are not far away. I didn’t install laundry hookups for future users; I had to save money and I knew I’d be using my kids’ machines in the big house. But Paul and I placed that big linen closet in the bathroom so it could take stackable machines, and the plumbing and power are right there. The exterior doors have levers instead of knobs, but that’s a mistake. I asked for knobs and Paul forgot. He probably lapsed into the common ADA/UD confusion, where a builder thinks universal design is for people with disabilities and forgets that it really is supposed to be universal. He didn’t ask, or I would have reminded him that the advantage to levers is how easy they are to open. And the disadvantage to levers, with toddlers or pets around, is how easy they are to open. If you’re into universal design, you think about this type of thing. It’s satisfying. And as I said, it didn’t add any expense to the project.

When you live in one room, you sleep in your kitchen. You soon discover that the chief source of noise is your refrigerator. And you want a small fridge, which usually means an inexpensive one, which also often means noise. Paul did a good search for me. He found a small expensive German appliance, but he also found an LG for one-third the cost. I may end up having to spend the money but so far, more than a year later and still going quietly, I am satisfied with my LG 1031. It won’t make ice for me but I’m okay with that – I think plumbing a refrigerator is just asking for trouble anyway – and it has silly shelf placement choices, but I like the freezer on the bottom, I appreciate the proportions (tall and slim), and the unit is quiet. I tried it out in Berkeley first, in the white finish, and then installed the model with titanium finish in Eugene. It cost about $700 in white and $100 more in silver.

The second biggest source of interior noise is the cable box. Its hum isn’t obnoxious – in the still of the night it sounds a bit like water in distant pipes – but it has a light too, and standby lights are becoming too numerous around me. There are green lights on power switches and smoke alarms and red lights on cable boxes and phones. There are glowing clocks on microwaves and coffee makers and computer peripherals. It’s not that I’m going for blackout conditions (or I’d cover more windows and shade the skylights), but I am suggesting something for future designers of studio dwellings. Kindly help us organize our power cords, and render us capable of flipping a surge-protecting switch that will extinguish many pinpoints of inside light.

Rhymes with Orange
I never noticed how front doors work, until I specified a Dutch door for Eugene. That made me pay attention. I realized that any respectable Dutch door opens out to the garden, and I observed that no other house doors do. Because not only does an out-opening door collect weather on its edges when it’s ajar: it presents its hinges to the world. I’d been looking at doors all my life and I’d never seen that. I noted that commercial doors open outward – and I remembered being taught that’s required, to allow maximum egress in the event of fire or other evacuating event. I am told that commercial and office doors have beefed-up hinges that can’t be easily popped off and disassembled for break-in.

My Berkeley place has out-opening doors. In addition to the front entrance, it has four doors to the patio and they all open outward. The reason is simple. There’s more space inside if the doors open out. So hinges show. A dozen of them from the patio view and four of them in front. To me, the loss in security is worth the gain in space. Almost no one knows the cottage exists. And if someone does find the place s/he can tell by a glance through a window that the room is too small to hold anything of value.

Eugene has an out-opening front door as well. Its back door opens inward but against the closet, so no space is wasted. The closet and bathroom doors are sliders. There I have maximum inside space and only four hinges to consider.

Both cottages have casement windows, out-opening doors, high ceilings, skylights, minimum interior walls. In those ways, both rooms are very big.

Cache Niche
When I moved into the Berkeley studio I brought waste baskets with me. I set one in the bathroom, one by the desk, and bought a big one for the kitchen. I couldn’t afford space for a can under the sink, so I found a white plastic container with wheels and a foot pedal, and I placed it next to the refrigerator.

Within a few weeks I learned that the small waste baskets were superfluous. I didn’t want to spend any time emptying them or any space displaying them. Nor did I want to look at them. Even bathroom trash can easily be thrown in the kitchen receptacle.

The same thing happened in Eugene. I placed a good can in the kitchen area, but not under the sink. And although I stuck a small receptacle between the toilet and the wall in the bathroom, I don’t use it. It never holds anything except empty toilet paper rolls. I’ll probably give it away.

When you live in one room you want to limit the locations of garbage in your midst. The solution to the trash issue is one easy-to-reach container. But the problem of temporary trash is bigger.

Temporary trash is my term for any undesirable item that needs storage for a short time. Specifically, this category comprises recyclables which haven’t yet made it to the collection bins and laundry which hasn’t yet made it to the washing machine.

I puzzled about these subjects before moving into the Berkeley cottage. I was accustomed to sorting the recyclables into blue bins in my utility room and carting those bins to the curb once a week. In my reduced situation, the blue bins are at the side of the big house. That’s about thirty steps from my front door, but the steps are boardwalk, concrete stairs and a narrow path: not terrain you want to be tripping on late at night if you don’t have to.

My solution has been to establish a temporary collection space. In Berkeley it’s a leather-wrapped cardboard waste basket about three feet tall. It sits near the bookshelf in my kitchen area, and it holds paper and most plastics till I take them to the bins (I tend to move cans and other wet-food containers out immediately; I make the thirty step walk for that and don’t mind it).

In Eugene, the pathway is uneven. We reused the old driveway by cutting it into squares and placing them as stepping stones. If I ever need more accessibility we can just pave the path, but for now it’s a bumpy walk that I don’t want to make at night if I’m making it only to visit the recycle bins. So I’ve placed an old white lidded waste can on the front porch, discreetly tucked behind the rocking chair, and it’s working, for now. But I suspect this is a problem I’ll revisit. And I wish we’d thought of it while designing. I think something could be done while constructing the walls, to give the inhabitant a built-in bin. Maybe it could be opened from outside the place as well as from inside.

Dirty laundry is a bigger puzzle. It needs a niche. I understand I can buy a hamper. Periodically I look at hamper design, or think about it, and imagine something in a corner. But so far I haven’t been struck by the combination of form and function it would take to excite me. So far I’m using the closet.

I asked the guy from whom I bought the Berkeley cottage. He admitted that he just threw dirty clothes on the closet floor. But the closet is only three feet by three feet, and I have too many shoes to cover them with laundry.

For now, I have a collapsible stand-up laundry bag in my Berkeley closet. It’s convenient to fill and cart to and from the laundry area, but it takes up a third of my closet floor space. And my laundry isn’t that dirty; if it were I’m sure I wouldn’t want it spending time with my clean clothes in that enclosed space.

For now, I have a big laundry bag on a hanger in my Eugene closet. That closet is twice the size of Berkeley’s, and that bag isn’t using floor space, but it’s a bit inconvenient to get items into it, and it seems too temporary a fix. I wish I had some built-in bin between the wall framing, in which to collect dirty laundry.

Houses used to have ironing-board cabinets and flour bins. Surely we can use that kind of thinking for laundry cabinets and recycling bins.

Hoisting the Tent
I knew I loved the look of the Berkeley room the moment I walked into it, but it wasn’t till after I moved in that I began to appreciate the ceiling. It rises to a peak over the middle of the room, and it also has an angular nook above the closet, lines and planes over the dining and kitchen areas, and thick cuts for the skylights. Waking in my corner bed, stretching and looking up at it, reminds me of opening my eyes to dawn in the wilderness, in a sleeping bag. And the high tent-like feeling above me, when I sit on the loveseat on a mild night, increases the impression of being in an open-air pavilion.

I didn’t know enough to appreciate ceiling height when I started on the Eugene place, but Paul did. He gave me a feeling of room by hoisting the north side of the place, and he angled the south-sloping roof to provide maximum shade in the summer but allow sun in the winter. He added a room-high wooden beam around the inside of the place. He gave me all that and two motorized skylights, with the result that I wake to upward beauty in Eugene too. I am eye-pleased when I do abdominal crunches on the rug. I am amused when I let my unfocused bedtime vision turn the beam into a sword or other shadow-sculpture, before I slide into sleep.

So it’s with some experience and much passion that I recommend a high and varied ceiling above a small living space. That’s not hard to design for a detached studio, but it can be a challenge in a multi-unit residence. A solution is to make the stories taller in a dense building. Instead of one-floor units, build them with an extra 10 or 12 feet in height. Use those extra feet to raise the ceiling above some parts of the room and provide storage/equipment space above others.

And try to make the outdoors part of the small space. My 470 square foot Berkeley room seems half again as large because most days at least one door to the deck is open. Eugene’s deep front porch keeps inviting me to step outside. My computer there is in a window bay at the front of the house, with a continual air show by river birds, so sometimes I feel like I’m working on the bridge of a ship. At the least, I recommend a deck or veranda for any studio dwelling.

Eying the Place
The more elaborate the window covering is in a small space, the more the space seems to shrink. So the best window treatment is no treatment at all. If the place is in a back yard, it won’t get looks from pedestrians, bikers, or people in cars. It may not require much covering for privacy. If it’s well-insulated it may only need selected protection from sun glare.

In Berkeley I have a picture window next to the dining table. It faces southwest and gets full-strength afternoon sun. The guy I bought the place from told me he regularly moved the dining table away from the window to dodge the glare. I installed a pleated shade that’s only down when needed. I never have to move the table.

In Eugene I put similar shades on a few windows, to block the afternoon sun and to make the bathroom private.

My Berkeley cottage was built as a guest house in 1944. It’s in a corner, on two property lines. As a result the north and east sides of the cottage are without windows. The place has good light because the other walls are mostly glass and because there are four skylights. The windowless walls make the room rather cozy.

We’re no longer allowed to build like that. We have to leave space between the property lines and the structure. But the Eugene cottage is tucked as closely into its corner as those rules permit. We went with big casement windows all around. If I had it to do again I’d explore other options.

Don’t get me wrong: the casement windows are lovely. They’re wood-framed on the inside and fiberglass on the outside, they’re big, and they open fully, because that’s the nature of a casement window. I couldn’t ask for better windows, on the sides of the house that face the garden.

But casement windows present problems on the property line sides. Not only are they potential obstacles for anyone making a circuit of the house, but they invite spiders and insects to inhabit the areas between the open windows and their screens.

I’ve thought a bit about those windows, prodded by this writing. They are above the kitchen sink, in the bathroom, and at the head of the bed. Good places for windows. You want them to open. But not outward. Sashes won’t work, especially above the kitchen sink. Hmmm. What about some sort of sliding window? That might be the way to go.

Have I mentioned how much I enjoy thinking like this? Living like this? I’ll close now, and spend fifteen minutes cleaning my house.

July 2010

4 Responses to House

  1. Stuart Michael Burns says:

    How you love to write about minutia! And how well you do it. I do hope that I was expected to read every word; however, as a man who has installed thousands of windows and hundreds of doors, I will admit that I enjoted your deflowering of the mysteries ~ SMB

  2. siskinbob says:

    An enjoyable and thought provoking read while I stopped work for a coffee. I have often wondered about doors and the direction they open and you are right about how much space they consume. I had an extension built a few years ago, with four doors. The builder didn’t seem to understand what I was saying, or why, when I asked him to hang the doors the opposite way to that which he had planned. He gave in and did as I asked. I also agree with you that it isn’t necessary to cover windows although my wife doesn’t agree with me. It has only taken me about twenty years to convince her that it isn’t necessary to have curtains, and my pet hate, voile (nets) on every window. I guess you had the luxury of starting a build and being able to make the choices right at the start. Most of us have to make many compromises when choosing a place to live. The construction company architects have made all the decisions and have already made oodles of compromises based on costs and local authority regulations. In the middle of that they lose sight of what we really need in our homes. But now I’m getting up on my soap box. So I’ll stop right here. I’ll read more of your blog and thank you once again for a really pleasant read….Bob

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