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.

Jenny and Farzad’s 350 sqft Historic Boylan Studio Apt

Jenny and Farzads 350 sqft Historic Boylan Studio Apt 14

  • size: 350 sqft
  • type:  studio apartment in a historic home
  • location: Boylan Heights, Raleigh, NC
  • inhabitants: Jenny and Farzad
  • website and blog: ferrofabric.com

Jennys Studio Apt Plans

Describe your place:

Our apartment is a microcosm of Victorian architecture nestled in a vast century-old home that has been diced up into a handful of individual units. The miniature floorplan is compensated for by tall walls and ample sunlight. A tiny “foyer” immediately opens up into a room (our multipurpose bedroom / living room / dining room / office) with big bay windows and endlessly distant ceilings. The separate bathroom and separate kitchen have the same feel – small scale, antique details, lots of windows and vertical space. It’s cozy and open at the same time. The windows overlook busy Boylan Ave., so we have a squirrel’s eye view of quirky urban events like early-morning marathons, popsicle deliveries, and themed-costume bike rides.

Jenny and Farzads 350 sqft Historic Boylan Studio Apt 01

Jenny and Farzads 350 sqft Historic Boylan Studio Apt 06

What do you love about your space?:

I love that different parts of this space each remind me of places that I’ve lived in or visited in the past. I had big facade windows like this in a converted 19th century factory in London; the hardwood floors are the same color as the ones in my sunny LA apartment; the clawfoot tub and other Victorian details reference San Francisco. These memories make me feel closer to the ex-flatmates, roommates, and friends living in other parts of the world that I don’t get to see very often. It’s like living inside of a diorama, small and adorned with personal significance.

Jenny and Farzads 350 sqft Historic Boylan Studio Apt 03

How would you improve your space?:

The humidity and rain can speed up the deterioration of old places like this one. We can see signs of aging, and I worry about how long this beautiful historic home will be standing. I think it could use a new roof and other core structural restorations to prevent more water damage from seeping in.

Jenny and Farzads 350 sqft Historic Boylan Studio Apt 05

What do you like best about small living?:

It’s fun – it’s like living in a tent. Didn’t we all dream about that as kids? Small living also suits grown-up needs – it’s simple, easy, very very cheap, and prevents junk piles.

Jenny and Farzads 350 sqft Historic Boylan Studio Apt 08

Jenny and Farzads 350 sqft Historic Boylan Studio Apt 07

Tips for fellow and potential small-space dwellers:

I think other small-space dwellers probably do this intuitively, but it’s really important to scale down proportionately. Keep some walls empty and shelves unused, just as you would in a larger apartment. To me, this is the key to making a small apartment feel big and open. Rather than cramming all of your stuff in, get rid of most of it and just hang onto the most meaningful pieces. A bonus effect of this process is that it’s a bit like distilling – what remains will be the objects with the strongest personal significance.

Jenny and Farzads 350 sqft Historic Boylan Studio Apt 11

A note from Nicole:

Jenny’s apartment was like a secret tree house in the oaks  of a familiar neighborhood corner. It’s across the street from Boylan Bridge Brewpub, a local spot with the best view of downtown Raleigh. I could tell Jenny was an experienced small-space dweller as soon as I walked into her tiny apartment, it somehow felt both cozy and spacious. This space intrinsically has the two most important elements that make a small-space wonderful: tall ceilings and large windows. Then the rest is Jenny’s doing. The smart layout of her curated collection of furniture, pushed to the perimeter of the main living space, kept it feeling open and and comfortable. I loved the personal touches – her daybed, colorful floor pillows, and art adorning the walls. She speaks so poetically about making a place home, no matter how temporary the living situation. Thanks to Jenny and Farzad for welcoming me into your home, and thanks to Farzad for introducing me to Sekanjabin – a delicious ancient Persian cucumber drink - that I recommend to all!

Jenny and Farzads 350 sqft Historic Boylan Studio Apt 12

Jenny and Farzads 350 sqft Historic Boylan Studio Apt 13

more pictures:

Stacey and Ben’s 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome

Stacey and Ben's 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome 14

Stacey and Ben Plans

Describe your place:

Our location is incredibly convenient. We love being within walking distance of most everything we really need. Our proximity to the downtown center allows us to spend less time in the car, which is always a plus. Our home is part of a community. We live in close proximity to others and share both a courtyard space full of beautiful, mature trees and lots of wildlife as well and secondary space for grilling and growing a garden.

With sun exposure on three sides, our interior space receives an impressive amount of daylight. With a little less than 1,000 square feet, we are strategic with our purchases and reduce clutter as much as possible. Because every inch counts, our place is filled with things that are truly our style.

Stacey and Ben's 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome 01

What do you love about your space?:

The quality of daylight that channels through our windows, its proximity to coffee shops and the park, and that it’s sincerely us. We are cultivating a life here.

Stacey and Ben's 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome 04

Stacey and Ben's 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome 03

How would you improve your space?:

I would reduce clutter even more! While we have some amazing built-ins from previous dwellers, storage is always at a premium. Decorating has been a process. We are still rearranging and adding to our walls, in particular.

Stacey and Ben's 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome 06

What do you like best about small living?:

We like spending time together so we really love our cozy dwelling. Small living inspires us to spend our free time outside and really living rather than spending it in the confines of our home.

Stacey and Ben's 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome 07

Tips for fellow and potential small-space dwellers:

Be strategic with storage and organizing your possessions. Invest in items that you love; after all, there is less space to fill. Tidy up each day. Reduce clutter as much as possible. If possible, choose a dwelling with access to a greenspace and within walking distance to your favorite spots.

Stacey and Ben's 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome 09

Stacey and Ben's 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome 10

Anything else you would like to share?:

We make it work no matter the challenge. Our best stories involve building furniture in our living room or on the picnic table outside with extension cords galore. Small living encourages us to reduce our possessions and instead spend our days creating experiences.

Stacey and Ben's 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome 13

More about us:

Stacey: Day job – a designer working at Citrix. After hours – my favorite times are spent exploring the triangle, tasting confections at my favorite chocolatier (Escazu), practicing photography and delving more into the world of graphic design.

Ben: Day job – Product Manager. After hours – until recently he spent his after hours in graduate school, now he has rekindled his affection for running and spends his days cooking with fresh herbs from our urban garden, and partaking in local daily adventures.

Stacey and Ben's 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome 12

A note from Nicole:

Stacey and Ben’s place has such a pleasant atmosphere. It is filled with daylight from three sides making the original wood floors glow. Functionally speaking, the layout makes for generously open living spaces, while providing ample storage (including a murphy bed!).

What I admire most is their long-term commitment in making this their home. This townhome is a comfortable size right now for a couple, and it will be able to accommodate a growing family in their future – a truly sustainable model. They have taken their time selecting furniture and decorations that are beautiful, meaningful, and fit their home perfectly. Everything is in its right place!

Stacey and Ben's 920 sqft Raleigh Townhome 11

more pictures:

Jordan’s 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio Apt

Jordans 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio Apt 14

Jordans 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio

Describe your place:

Grosvenor Gardens is on Hillsborough St. roughly halfway between downtown Raleigh and NC State’s campus, so it was perfect for school and is still very convenient now that I’ve graduated. The apartment complex was built in the 30′s and encloses a courtyard/garden space on 3 sides.

Jordans 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio Apt 02

What do you love about your space?:

I love the old feel of the building; from the hardwood floors to the old panes of glass in the windows, it’s comforting to think about living in something that’s been standing since my grandparents were children. It’s also pretty awesome that the largest windows in my apartment are north-facing, bringing in tons of natural light but very little solar heat.

Jordans 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio Apt 04

Jordans 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio Apt 06

How would you improve your space?:

I wish I had a bigger sink. I know it seems strange but there are so many times I have to clear the sink to wash one large item, like my wok. Other than that, of course I wish I had a washer/dryer and a dishwasher, but those are luxuries I’m totally okay with not having if it means I get to stay in this apartment!

Jordans 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio Apt 08

Jordans 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio Apt 09

What do you like best about small living?:

The best part of small living is the intimacy. In such a small apartment, you really appreciate the closeness of everything in it. It makes having company a real blast too!

Jordans 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio Apt 10

Tips for fellow and potential small-space dwellers:

The only advice I have is this: keep your apartment clean and organized. In my experience, if you allow things to pile up anywhere in such a small space, cleaning it can be a real pain. And if there’s anything I’ve learned, cleanliness is next to happiness.

Jordans 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio Apt 13

A note from Nicole:

I’ve always admired the Grosvenor Gardens Apartments – its painted white brick, glass-block and metal windows, and perfectly pruned courtyard. There’s always a waitlist to live there because it’s one of the only apartment buildings of its kind in Raleigh – all units are either 1-bedroom or studio apartments – so people snatch them up fast.

Jordan’s apartment was very comfortable and real. The main space is his living/sleeping/office/music space, which has windows at both ends bringing in plenty of good-quality daylight. I absolutely loved the bathroom layout. It has a foyer-like dressing area with closet and a window, and then light can reach back into the tub through a subdividing glass block wall. The original windows and hardwood floors brought the perfect amount of texture to the apartment, almost acting as its own decoration. Plus, the view out the window was beautiful!

Jordans 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio Apt 12

more pictures:

“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

Matt’s 960 sqft Downtown Flat

Matts 960 sqft Downtown Flat 02

  • size: 960 sqft
  • type: 1-bedroom apartment
  • location: The Hudson, downtown Raleigh
  • inhabitants: Matthew Muñoz
  • occupation: Partner and Chief Design Officer at New Kind
  • twitter: @matthewmunoz

Matt Munoz Plans

Describe your place:

The Hudson is sandwiched between Wilmington and Fayetteville St in downtown Raleigh. There are great things always going on, and I’m within walking access to tasty food, drinks, and cultural adventures. The space is above it all on the second floor, with my unit spilling onto an ivy-covered terrace. The big room contains the kitchen, office, and living area. At the center of the room sits a well-used, farm-inspired table. A long, book-lined hallway joins this room with the front door, bedroom, and bathroom.

Matts 960 sqft Downtown Flat 01

What do you love about your space?:

One word: Terrace. Beautiful place to sit outside, with two double doors that open into the living room, office, and kitchen. Perfect for a book and coffee or people and cocktails.

Matts 960 sqft Downtown Flat 04

How would you improve your space?:

Put a window in the bedroom.

Matts 960 sqft Downtown Flat 06

What do you like best about small living?:

It’s efficient — just the right size. I don’t have a lot of room for stuff, so I don’t collect much. With the clear exception of books. I LOVE books.

Matts 960 sqft Downtown Flat 12

Tips for fellow and potential small-space dwellers:

It’s obvious, but in a climate like Raleigh, find a space that allows you to keep the doors and windows open for the seasons.

Matts 960 sqft Downtown Flat 14

A note from Nicole:

Matt welcomed me into his home in November, and I immediately fell in love with the space!  He has since moved, so I’m glad I was able to capture his apartment as it was. The apartment is amazing in itself – in the middle of downtown, a private terrace, high ceilings, built-in storage, and wonderful daylight. He did a great job decorating the apartment. His furnishings are sparse and were carefully selected, feeling as though they belong in the space. Matt has truly mastered the editing aspect of small living, keeping only what’s important to him – well-designed furniture, bikes, succulents, and awesome graphic design posters. I can’t wait to see his new place!

Matts 960 sqft Downtown Flat 11

 

More pictures:

Adam and Auditi’s 1450 sqft Family Home

Chasen Residence 1450 sqft 02

  • size: 1,450 sqft
  • type: 2-bedroom (one day 3-bedroom) home
  • location: 827 E Hargett St. Raleigh, NC
  • inhabitants: Adam Chasen and Auditi Hussain
  • pets: 2 dogs, 6 tropical fish, a conch, a handfull of snails, a starfish, and hermit crabs
  • twitter: chaseadam, 827ehargett, goober9
  • architect: in situ studio
  • construction team: Axiom Green Build and Dopko Cabinetry

Chasen Residence

Describe your place:

Auditi: Small but spacious, with more light than you can image.

Adam: Our house is located in East Raleigh. When I started looking for a house, I said I had to live within a 1 mile radius of the state capitol. I fell in love with the 827 location and got to know the neighbors. No other locations I looked at had a comparable proximity to downtown.

Chasen Residence 1450 sqft 06

Chasen Residence 1450 sqft 04

What do you love about your space?:

Auditi: The master bathroom shower, all the sunlight, and the downstairs heart-pine floors.

Adam: Open, compact, reused materials, natural light, pushing limits of space and materials, simple space with complex process.

Chasen Residence 1450 sqft 07

How would you improve your space?:

Auditi: I’d love to include a proper mud room, i.e a space where we can dump our jackets and muddy shoes before we enter the house.

Adam: We need to work on finish furnishings (couches, chairs, etc.), and organization.

Chasen Residence 1450 sqft 08

Chasen Residence 1450 sqft 09

What do you like best about small living?:

Auditi: It keeps Adam and I from accumulating unnecessary stuff. Everything in the house is exactly and only what we need. We don’t believe in uni-taskers (besides the fire extinguisher and our currently used toothbrushes), so everything in the house must have a dual purpose.

Adam: Awareness of “stuff” (and limiting it). Small living doesn’t mean you can’t entertain. There is a lower cost of living (build price, tax, energy). Less to think about (decorating, etc.).

Chasen Residence 1450 sqft 10

Tips for fellow and potential small-space dwellers:

Auditi: No uni-taskers allowed, besides a fire extinguisher, and ok, perhaps a toilet bowl cleaner. Everything should have dual-function.

Adam: Have less “stuff.” Be aware of your guest’s expectations of space. Be prepared to educate family and friends on “why.”

Chasen Residence 1450 sqft 14

Anything else you would like to share?:

Auditi: Nicole rocks!

Adam: Thank you to Nicole for being involved in the process! Also, we bought all our kitchen appliances from Craigslist or through auctions. We have a solar hot water. The upstairs floor is a finished plywood subfloor.

Chasen Residence 1450 sqft 05

A note from Nicole:

I admire the idea of making a home that you can grow into with your future family. It may not be “small” if you are strictly looking at square footage, but considering the lifecycle of the house and the future growth of your family, it is appropriate and responsible. This is what Adam and Auditi had in mind when they approached the architects about designing an affordable, modern home in East Raleigh. The Chasen Residence was one of the first projects I saw develop from concept through construction at in situ studio.

The house is compact, yet spacious. On the ground floor, the entrances, kitchen, 1/2 bath, closets, and stair are aligned to one side of the house, opening up the rest of the space for living and dining, from the front porch to the screen porch. A double-story living space at the front of the house fills the spaces with light from all sides, including the ceiling. A lofted office space looks down to the living space and out to the street. This loft can actually be converted into a third bedroom when the family grows, while the future closet space makes a perfect desk nook in the meantime. The master bedroom is humble in size and closet space, yet has wonderful views outside, including the Raleigh skyline.

Adam and Auditi bring a special character to their home: their bikes hang from the screen porch ceiling, the flexible living space accommodates small and large dinner parties enjoying their baking/cooking talents, and an extensive, large salt water fish tank separates the den from the rest of the living space. They have collaborated in making a custom home to suit their lifestyle. Thinking further about “aging-in-place,” they hope to build an accessory dwelling unit, or garage apartment, to rent and/or expand their living.

We were able to get creative with low-cost, special details. I especially love the reclaimed doors on tracks to hide closets and a bathroom. Read more about the house and see more pictures through in situ studio: the Chasen Residence.

Chasen Residence 1450 sqft 11

Raleigh Backyard Cottages

Today I am officially launching Raleigh Accessory Dwellings (ADUs), a website about ADUs or Backyard Cottages (BYCs) in Raleigh. I created this website as a resource for the Raleigh Community to:

  • explain what ADUs are
  • share their benefits, to the owner, renters, and community
  • discuss the current zoning/code changes in Raleigh
  • explain current and proposed regulations
  • share resources for more information

When I started the website, I didn’t expect that when the topic of ADUs came to City Council for review, it would become a heated discussion, with active and divided conversations from leaders and community members, both for and against ADUs in Raleigh. Now the website has evolved to also:

  • follow the current discussions about ADUs in Raleigh
  • notify of upcoming public meetings
  • explore both perspectives, of those for and against ADUs

This website is a continuously evolving project, and online resource for the Raleigh Community. If you would like to learn more about this topic, follow the conversation, or contribute to this public resource, please contact me.

The next Comprehensive Planning Committee Meeting, today at 2pm in Council Chambers, will continue the discussion of Backyard Cottages.

Why I am interested in ADUs:

An undergraduate architecture project initially sparked my interest in ADUs in Raleigh, and small spaces in general. Within the historic neighborhoods of Raleigh, in backyards and along the inner alleys, there are many old carriage structures or garages that have been converted into apartments. I fell in love with their intimate scale, efficiency, and sustainable life and housing cycle (see diagram above). These original structures were grandfathered-in, but construction of new ADUs has not been permitted since the 80′s.

I researched the subject further years later through my thesis, which led me to start Raleigh Accessory Dwellings to record and share my research. Since changing a city’s code and zoning regulations is a long and arduous process, I saw my online-resource as a way to engage the Raleigh Community in the meantime.

I was not expecting Raleigh’s proposal of legalizing Backyard Cottages to become such a heated subject.

Now I am an active member in the conversation of allowing BYCs in Raleigh. I spoke in support of Backyard Cottages (BYCs) at the last Comprehensive Planning Committee meeting. It was interesting to hear the different perspectives during the public comments, from both supporters and protestors. The issue is still not resolved, and the Committee will be researching more topics to see if and how BYCs will be allowed in Raleigh. See a video of the meeting: visit City of Raleigh RTN, click “Other Government Meetings,” and find the video on November 14, 2012.

I will be at today’s meeting, and I will continue to contribute to Raleigh Accessory Dwellings. If you are interested in becoming part of the conversation, please contact me.