Intentionally Small: Urban Living in North Carolina

Hey there! Please excuse the lack of new blog posts lately. I have started taking my architecture professional exams to become a licensed architect! One test down, six to go!

New posts are in the works and coming soon. In the meantime, if you haven’t seen this video yet, it documents my story with small spaces – from my time living abroad and involvement with local issues, to my studio apartment and starting this blog. I hope you enjoy:

Thank you to Kirsten Dirksen of faircompanies for creating this film. Be sure to peruse Kirsten’s youtube channel for videos of the best small spaces and simple living stories.

“Tiny but terrific”

The News & Observer "Tiny but terrific" with Nicole Alvarez 1

Over a month ago I got an email from Stacy, a reporter for our regional newspaper The News & Observer, asking if we could chat about small spaces and my blog. I’m always excited to talk about small spaces, so we met that very weekend. Fast forward to this Saturday’s front cover of the Home & Garden section, and there I was! A huge picture of me in my new apartment filled up most of the space above the fold, with the article continuing onto a second page. There was even a headline on the newspaper’s cover directing to the article!

The News & Observer "Tiny but terrific" with Nicole Alvarez 2

The community support has been overwhelming! People reached out from all parts of my life, from my parents’ church friends, to my middle and high school teachers, to my grandmother. It meant so much to me. Thank you!

A special thanks to Stacy for doing such a lovely job writing the article. You can read the full article here:

The News & Observer "Tiny but terrific" with Nicole Alvarez 3

I’ve Moved!

It was so hard to leave my Lovely Studio Apartment! If you know me, you know how obsessed I was with that place. I mean, heck, I started a blog because of it!

But… I do have a greater love in my life: my boyfriend! So when Matt and I decided to move in together, we set out to find a new place to make our home. I had one condition, I couldn’t move unless we found a place that was absolutely amazing and equally as inspiring.

Nicole Alvarez and Matt Tomasulo

We found it! You may recognize the space from a previous post. Yes, it’s larger than anywhere either of us has ever lived, but it’s also right in downtown Raleigh, in a renovated department store, with a lively community, it’s super walkable … and we have our own terrace! We absolutely love it!

Nonetheless, my 300-sqft apartment will always have a special place in my heart. It has forever influenced the way I think about space and life – encouraging me to cut out the excess to leave room for only what matters.

Cheers to you, my Lovely Studio Apartment, and to our many memories:

Window Frame Display

Here’s a super simple way to clear your desk, create a display space, and decorate!

Window Frame Display 01

This window frame is from the local flea market. It was in great shape, so I didn’t have to refinish it at all. I leaned it up against the wall, like a headboard for my desk, to add some interest to an otherwise blank wall. As a renter, I try to minimize the number of holes I add to the walls.

Window Frame Display 02

The window frame makes a great display board. This window has two horizontal panes of glass, making a perfect ledge for double-stacking postcards, cards, and family pictures. The collection can get cluttered, but will always appear organized since it’s captured behind the framed glass. I also add fun sticky notes to remind me of my long-term tasks.

Window Frame Display 03 Window Frame Display 04

I would love to see pictures if you try it at your place!

Window Frame Display 05

Lighting a Small Space

Lighting can make all the difference in how a space makes you feel. The Danes know this well. Difficult to translate directly into English, the Danish word “hyggelig” embodies a feeling and atmosphere in a space – coziness, warmth, low lights, candles, delight, in good company.

Rather than defaulting to overhead lights at night, I turn on a few lights depending on what I am doing, from preparing dinner to reading in bed. This is how I have lit my studio apartment:

Lighting a Small Space - Year Round White Christmas Lights

Year Round Christmas Lights: This long string of white Christmas lights is enough to light my entire studio apartment at night, stretching from the kitchen to my bed. It’s my favorite way of lighting a space. I especially love that in England they call these Fairy Lights when it’s not Christmas time.

Lighting a Small Space - Kitchen Task Lighting and Paper Lantern Pendant

Kitchen Task Lighting and Paper Lantern Pendant: The most useful lighting I have is a simple string of Christmas/garden lights in the kitchen that provides under-cabinet lighting. I hung a paper lantern above my dining table for the main source of light in the kitchen. Functional decoration!

Lighting a Small Space - Candles

Candles: You can never have enough, and you can always find some on sale! I love working on my blog and sipping a warm cup of tea alongside flickering candles.

Lighting a Small Space - Accent Lamps

Accent Lamps: A lamp is an obvious way to decorate and light your space. It took me a while before I found the perfect lamp for this corner.

Lighting a Small Space - Accent Lamps for Reading

Accent Lamps for Reading: I directed a bright yellow IKEA desk lamp to the back wall at my bed to provide an ambient light for reading. It also dramatically lights a special work of art made by my boyfriend.

One trip to IKEA provided for most of my special lights. They have a great selection of affordable lights that look great and are energy efficient. I use CFL or LED lights whenever possible, keeping my electricity bill low.

When lighting your small space, strive for a hyggelig atmosphere!

Espresso Cups: a storage and display solution for easy access

I love espresso, or as my Cuban family calls it, cafecito. I thank Abuela for showing me the ways of this social ritual!

When I added an espresso set to my collection of dishes, I had to find a way to store it in my small kitchen. The espresso cups weren’t as stackable as their saucer counterparts. Cabinet space was limited, and counter space was practically nonexistent. So I took the next obvious option… I hung them.

Small Space Solutions - Espresso Cup Storage and Display 01

The cups hang from individual hooks along the underside of my cabinets. Now they are easily accessible when I get that espresso urge, and it adds a nice texture to the kitchen – “functional decorating.”

Small Space Solutions - Espresso Cup Storage and Display 02

I used 3M Command cord organizers as hooks. They are cheap, and found in stores like Walmart, Target, or any office supply store. The adhesive is forgiving and easy to remove, a great temporary solution for a rental apartment. Also, since these hooks latch closed, they hold the espresso cups safely in place if I accidentally bump into them while washing dishes.

Small Space Solutions - Espresso Cup Storage and Display 03

So if you have an espresso set and need to reclaim some counter or cabinet storage in a small space, or just want to try some functional decorating, you should give this a try!

Small Space Solutions - Espresso Cup Storage and Display 04

Cork Accessory Organizer

In addition to studying small spaces near and far, I am taking on a variety of projects here in my own studio apartment to help organize, decorate, and better live in a small space. Consider my studio a testing ground.

First assignment: organize my necklaces! They were always in a tangled mess, so on my way to work in the morning, I’d have to forfeit a fight of pulling one from the bunch. The solution: a cork strip where I could hang each necklace separately.

It works great! Not only are my necklaces kept free of tangles, but now I can easily see all my options and make a proper selection. I had more than I remembered, so it also became an editing project, setting some aside to give away.

It gets even better. I wasn’t expecting to be able to organize all my accessories: necklaces, bracelets, watches, earrings (hanging and studs), and rings! Hanging the earrings was my favorite – studs were like pushpins and hanging earrings hover over the surface.

This was a fun project that really made a difference! All you need is 1/4″ cork glued to a backing (I used chipboard), and a bunch of little wire nails. You can get creative with where you install the cork organizer. I fit mine between the trim of my closet and bathroom doors – perfectly next to my clothes and mirror for easy decision-making. Another great thing about this project is you won’t have to patch a bunch of holes in your wall – #rentalapartment!

If you make your own, please share pictures and enjoy!

CNN Small Space Questionnaire

Small spaces have hit mainstream news with San Francisco’s legal push for smaller living units, and NYC mayor Bloomberg’s call for micro-unit apartment designs. Although the hype is focusing on the “excessively small” (as I consider it), the conversation has introduced many to a new perspective of living.

After CNN’s recent coverage on the subject, they had an open call for small space dwellers to submit pictures and share their experiences. If you are interested, you can still submit by the end of the week. As a follow-up to my submission, they sent a list of questions. So I thought I’d share my responses here. Enjoy!

CNN Small Space Questionnaire:

1. Why did you decide to live in a small space? How long have you been there, and were you living in a small space prior to moving here?

I came to this apartment already passionate about small spaces. In architecture school, I designed a small backyard apartment. That project really invigorated my interest in small, intentional, well-proportioned, and efficient spaces. My studio apartment epitomizes these characteristics. It has huge, operable windows that bathe the space with light all day long, making the space feel bigger. And it’s located in one of downtown Raleigh’s most walkable neighborhoods with everything from grocery stores to yoga studios to my office less than a mile away. I’ve lived here for a little over a year, and I can’t help but tell everyone about my lovely studio apartment. It’s amazing how much of a positive impact it has had on my life.

2. What was your initial reaction to moving into such a small space? Are you able to entertain– If so, how do your guests react?

Although my 300-sqft studio is small, it was the first place I lived on my own, without a roommate, after graduating college. I was thrilled to move in, and really make it my own. I kept some old furniture, and acquired new pieces to fit the space perfectly.

One of the wonderful things about living in a small space, is it encourages you to get out and meet people in public spaces. And with tons of restaurants and bars within walking distance, I do just that! But I do occasionally have people over for a drink to start the night. People are really excited to see my apartment. It’s rather unique and urban for Raleigh. Since I love it so much, I constantly post pictures on social media outlets and have a website, so people love to hear about my studio. Now if they see an article about a small space, I’m the first person that comes to mind. It’s great!

3. What about living in small space do you appreciate the most?

Everything is intentional, and everything has its place. The built-in at the entry has hooks for coats and bags, a double-sided bookshelf, and an integrated pantry. Just outside the bathroom is a collection of shelves and cabinets and a closet, perfect to store shoes, clothes, accessories, and linens.

Living in a small space has really influenced my lifestyle. I am more selective when purchasing anything for my apartment, because it can easily become over cluttered. I am more conscious about my waste, recycling as much as possible, and I even started vermicomposting my food waste. And I walk more often! My small studio influences me daily.

4. Do you ever find yourself frustrated with living in small space? If so, provide some examples.

The only amenity that would improve my apartment would be a dedicated outside space like a balcony or roof terrace, to be able to relax outside or grow more of a variety of plants. But fortunately, I can walk 5 minutes to my favorite park in Raleigh, and commonly picnic there. So that park has become my backyard. And my window sill has become home to a collection of potted plants helping liven up my space.

5. How do you make the most of your small space? Any tips/tricks for fellow iReporters who either live in or want to live in a small space?

Living comfortably in a small space is all about editing out what you don’t need. I have minimal pieces of furniture, and bountiful built-ins for storage. Keeping a small space open and clutter-free really helps expand the space.

6. Anything else you’d like to add?

I have never been so excited about a place where I’ve lived. Living in this studio apartment has truly had a profound impact on my way of living and interest in space. As an architect, this studio has also influenced how I design for others. I can’t wait to design my own small space!

My 306 sqft Studio Apartment

Facts:

  • size: 306 sqft
  • type: studio apartment
  • city: Raleigh
  • inhabitant(s): just me!
  • my info: website | twitter

Describe your place:

My studio apartment is one of 5 apartments located above a dentist office, on the edge of Cameron Park historic neighborhood. It’s in one of the most walkable parts of the city. I live within a mile of so many amenities: a commercial center with 2 grocery stores, a couple yoga studios, a great park, a few of bars and restaurants, and even my job.

Although it’s small (306 sqft), my studio feels really spacious and open, thanks to big windows, built-in storage, and minimal furnishings. It has hardwood floors, mini-appliances, and a basement with laundry facilities and plenty of extra storage space.

What do you love about your space?:

Every part of my apartment feels intentionally designed and appropriately scaled.

The large operable windows really make the space. There are three windows in the main space and one in the bathroom – more than enough light to keep my studio naturally lit during the day. The west sun glowing through my translucent curtains makes me smile when I return home in the afternoon, especially when there’s a breeze and Broughton High School’s bells are ringing.

Also, the amount of built-in storage is incredible. The hook/shelf/pantry combo at the entry, and the nook just outside the bathroom accommodates everything: books, keys, food, cleaning supplies, clothes, shoes, linens, and more.

How would you improve your space?:

The only amenity that would improve my apartment would be a dedicated outside space like a balcony or roof terrace, to be able to relax outside or tend to a garden. But fortunately, I can walk 5 minutes to my favorite park in Raleigh, and commonly picnic there. So that park has become my backyard. And my windowsill has become home to a collection of potted plants helping liven up my space.

What do you like best about small living?:

This way of living has really influenced my lifestyle. I am more selective when shopping for anything from clothes to furniture, only purchasing what I need and what will last a long time. I am more conscious about my waste, recycling as much as possible, and I even started vermicomposting my food waste. And I walk more often!

Loving where you live really makes a profound impact on your life. My small studio influences me daily.

Tips for fellow and potential small-space dwellers:

You can make a small space feel spacious. Decorating can become overwhelming quickly, so keep furniture selections as petite and simple as possible. Having a few, key, and appropriately scaled items is the way to go. If your space is scaled down, so should your furnishings and decorations.

Living comfortably in a small space is all about editing out what you don’t need – both in your physical environment and your general lifestyle.

Anything else you would like to share?:

I have never been so excited about a place where I’ve lived. Living in this studio apartment has truly influenced my way of living and perception of space. As an architect, I can’t wait to design my own small space!