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.

Jordan’s 420 sqft Grosvenor Studio Apt

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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!

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more pictures:

Guiltless Shopping

If a year without buying clothes sounds too daunting, you could try a year without buying new clothes. When you purchase secondhand clothes, not only are you saving a little money, you are also extending the life cycle of the garment. You can think of it as “guiltless shopping.” Consider a few options:

Thrift Stores

There are all sorts of thrift stores – from the warehouses where you may have to dig a little to find the right piece in the right size, to the designer consignment stores with a curated selection of in-season wears. It just feels good to buy a pre-loved item and show it a new life. Here’s a list of my favorites, near and far:

  • Revolver Boutique – my all-time favorite classy consignment store. Guiltless shopping spree go-to. Located on South Glenwood in Raleigh
  • Raleigh Vintage – “quality vintage” from the 1920’s-60’s – you can find them at local markets or through their Etsy shop
  • Father & Son – a 5-story clothing/home-ware/furniture/everything thrift store Mecca in downtown Raleigh
  • Bargain Box – a basic discount store in a Cameron Village basement run by the Junior League of Raleigh
  • Fifi’s – I’ve heard good things about this new fashionable consignment shop in Cameron Village – can’t wait to visit!
  • Goodwill – we all know them, but have you been to the one in West Asheville, NC where you pay $1 per pound of clothes?
  • La France – a fabulous vintage store in Ybor City (Tampa, FL) with the best selection of era clothing – especially 1930’s gowns

If you know of any other must-shop thrift/vintage/consignment/antique shops, please do share in the comments below!

Clothing Swaps

ReDress Raleigh Clothing Swap

Photos by Redress Raleigh

Why is it that you can see so much potential in your friends’ closets, but not so much in your own? When your clothes are feeling a little lackluster, you can schedule a clothing swap with some friends. Or better yet, you can start a pile right now to bring to Redress Raleigh‘s “Swap Don’t Shop” event next month! Bring what you don’t want, take what you want. At the end of the day, the items that didn’t find a new home are donated. I’ve been to two of these events, and I’m already set with a load of clothes to bring to the next one.

Redress Raleigh - Swap Don't Shop 05-19-13Shop your Closet

The most guilt-free shopping is revisiting your own closet. Try that dress on again that you haven’t worn in a couple years, and combine it with a new accessory and jacket. Or, cut some raggedy jeans into long shorts for the summer. I’ve found knew life in many of the items in my wardrobe. Sometimes it helps to bring in a friend, with an objective eye, to realize new potential or uncover new combinations.

“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!

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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:

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We The Tiny House People (documentary)

Kirsten Dirksen of faircompanies creates videos as a means of exploring her interests in gardening, DIY, sustainable lifestyles, and small living. She stumbled upon the world of Tiny Houses, which opened the doors to a world of people choosing to live small.

In her documentary, We The Tiny House People, Kirsten introduces us to the small spaces of “People searching for simplicity, self-sufficiency, minimalism and happiness.” These spaces range from Tiny Homes on trailers in Sonoma Country, California, to a cave dwelling in the Pays de la Loire region of France (my favorite!); and from simple spaces made of reused materials, to kinetic spaces with custom furniture. What’s best, you learn what it’s like to live in each of these spaces as the residents share stories of the creation of their home, and how their lives have adapted to the spaces.

This weekend, in the midst of running errands and enjoying the company of your family/friends, I encourage you to take a break and curl up on a couch to watch this documentary.

The Many Chapters of Small Living

Conversations about small living quarters have “made it big” in the headlines the last few months. It’s been both exciting and overwhelming – exciting that new people are exposed to this idea and overwhelming to try to keep up with everything that’s going on!

My interest lies in the many “chapters” of small living. As my posts begin to get more specific to each of these chapters, I thought it’d be helpful to precede with an overview:

Accessory Dwelling Units

An Accessory Dwelling Unit, or ADU, is an independent, secondary residence to a single-family house – either attached or detached. There are many names for ADUs: granny flats, backyard apartments, in-law suites, carriage houses, backyard cottages, garage apartments, etc. Pictured above is one of my favorite ADUs in Raleigh. As an Architecture school project, I designed a backyard apartment, which exposed me to the alley networks of Raleigh’s historic neighborhoods and their many converted carriage structures. This is when my interest in small spaces began.

ADUs provide flexibility in living arrangements and a source of income for the owner, an affordable housing option near the city center for the renter, and more diversity and density for the neighborhood and greater community. In Raleigh, construction of new ADUs is prohibited, but this subject is currently under review in the new Unified Development Ordinance. Plenty more on this subject in posts to come.

Laneway Houses

Similar to ADU’s, Laneway Houses, or Alley Dwellings, are small residences in the back yards of single-family houses, but they are on their own lot. This usually involves an exhaustive zoning and permitting process of subdividing an existing lot, to create two independent lots, with the smaller lot usually accessible from an alley. A dwelling with its own address can then be constructed new, or existing infrastructure can be rehabilitated.

Pictured above is a proposal by in situ studio (where I work) and David Hill AIA for the HOME Competition. Our design of small, affordable dwellings builds on the idea of Laneway Houses. We leveraged the current zoning changes in Raleigh which will reduce the minimum size of a lot, and created a new zoning district, RA-50, made of the trimmed off excess land at the back of the lots. This would create an alleyway neighborhood in the centers of residential blocks. Learn more here.

Toronto is one of the leading cities of Laneway Houses, focusing on developing their inner residential blocks.  The Laneway House designed by Toronto architecture firm Shim-Sutcliffe is truly inspiring. I am equally intrigued by the alley structures that became homes at out necessity and accessibility, like Browns Court in Washington DC.

Tiny Houses

There is a growing number of people that have completely embraced small living, to an extremely small scale. Most commonly these are literally “tiny houses,” with gable roof and porch, scaled down in size to fit on a trailer for easy transportation. Pictured above is La Casita, the cherished home of Andrea and Cedric of Charleston Tiny House. Thanks to Andrea for the pictures. Keep an eye out for a post about La Casita coming soon.

Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company has led the Tiny House movement by selling plans and organizing workshops that empower people to build their own Tiny House while joining a community of supporters.

Micro-units

Some US cities like San Francisco, New York City, and Chicago, are revisiting the minimum size for apartments as a way of increasing housing options for singles and couples. The proposal of micro-unit apartment buildings in San Francisco as small as 220 sqft has stirred up both support and protest. Pictured above is a rendering of SmartSpace, championed by Patrick Kennedy. NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg launched adAPT NYC, a call for designs of micro-unit apartment buildings.

The Not So Big House

Sarah Susanka, architect and author, has been writing since 1998 about the “Not So Big House” – a residence that favors quality over quantity by reducing square footage. She was at the forefront of this modern perspective of small living, which has spawned a movement where Americans are reconsidering the size of their homes. I have come across Sarah’s collection of books more recently, and am really enjoying reading them while relating to my own experience of living in a small apartment. I’m currently reading The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Live and The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters, pictured above on my not-so-big sofa with a not-so-big pillow.

Simple Living

An edited lifestyle comes hand-in-hand with living in a small space. When you don’t have much space to store unused items, you begin to cut down on physical (and mental) clutter, and become more conscious of what you actually need to live. I realized a greater appreciation for a simpler life grew naturally out of living in my small space (pictured above). This is what interests me most about architecture – how a space can inspire your life.

Simple Living: The Oil Cleansing Method

Another theme I am exploring with this blog is “simple living” to make room in life for what’s important. It’s amazing how a space can influence the way you live. My small studio apartment has made me more aware of what I add into my life, what I keep, and what I throw away – and I love it! I focus more on eating healthy, reducing my waste, and minimizing the stuff I collect. This has helped me appreciate what I have and how I spend my time. I like to think of it as “living intentionally.”

In this theme of simple living, I am introducing The Oil Cleansing Method. If you look at the ingredients in a bottle of face soap, you might expect that half of them are difficult to pronounce and long enough to fill a Scrabble board for an immediate win. Seven months ago I started using the oil cleansing method, and I’m still impressed. Here’s how it goes:

1. Mix

The ingredients are simple: castor oil and olive oil (yes, real olive oil!). Mix them together equal parts. For oily skin use more castor oil, and for dry skin use more olive oil. I tweak the balance of oils depending on the seasons – hot/humid months vs. cold/dry months. What’s great is I don’t have to use a moisturizer. I keep the oil mixture in a small plastic pump (that I got at the dollar store), easy for daily use and travel.

2. Rub

With your face dry, rub the mixture into your skin. I use two pumps, so about a quarter-sized amount. It’s like a mini face massage. This is also an effective makeup remover.

3. Steam

Soak a small face towel in hot water and squeeze out the excess liquid. Place it over your face, and hold in place until the towel returns to room temperature. I love this part!

4. Wipe

To finish your face-cleansing regime, just wipe away the oil from your face with the towel. If needed, you can rinse the towel and wipe again.

5. Enjoy

You’re done! No need to dry. Seriously, I always feel like my skin is rejuvenated and has a natural glow.

Recap on why I love this: simple common ingredients, healthy and cheap, acts as moisturizer and makeup removal, easily modified per skin type, and it feels so good!

It’s not only for ladies! I’ve been trying to convince my boyfriend to give it a try. One day I will succeed…

You can learn more about the benefits and fine tune your method through this blogpost by Simple Mom. This is the guide I followed when I was first introduced to the Oil Cleansing Method. Thanks to our wonderful client, inspiring author, green-living guru, and hilariously honest bloggerAmy Worley, for introducing me to this!

Enjoy!