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:

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:

Do-Ho Suh’s 310 sqft NYC Apartment – An Art Installation

Do-Ho Suh's 310 sqft NYC Apartment - An Art Installation 14

new doc

0 to 60: the Experience of Time through Contemporary Art is an exhibit by the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) and Penland School of Crafts featuring work from various artists exploring the theme of art and time. This is perhaps my all-time favorite exhibition at the NCMA.

I was particularly fascinated by Do-Ho Suh‘s piece, “348 West 22nd St., Apt. A, New York, NY 10011.” It is part of his “The Perfect Home” series where he creates full-scale replicas of his apartments – out of transparent nylon.

Do-Ho Suh's 310 sqft NYC Apartment - An Art Installation 01

The nylon walls hang weightlessly from a minimal metal frame. Suh recreates every element of his Chelsea apartment, including windows, doors, fireplace, appliances, faucets, and all the light switches. He even stitches a brick pattern around the fireplace and a tile pattern in the bathroom. I was amazed by his intricate detail.

Do-Ho Suh's 310 sqft NYC Apartment - An Art Installation 03

Do-Ho Suh's 310 sqft NYC Apartment - An Art Installation 04

This series speaks to his transient life between Seoul and New York City, with the works resembling the surreal memory of space and place. Learn more about “The Perfect Home” through this video of his installation at the Tate Modern.

Do-Ho Suh's 310 sqft NYC Apartment - An Art Installation 05

Do-Ho Suh's 310 sqft NYC Apartment - An Art Installation 07

Do-Ho Suh's 310 sqft NYC Apartment - An Art Installation 08

It was fun documenting this apartment even though it’s only a suggestion of space. I represented the space by a hand-sketched plan, and photographs capture the dream-like environment.  I was intrigued by the sense of being in this space, but also seeing the gallery and visitors beyond.

Since the 310 sqft apartment was only slightly larger than my studio apartment, I couldn’t help but compare the plans and the spaces they created. The layout was really efficient, with a bathroom and a comfortable-sized kitchen to one side, maximizing the rest of the studio’s living space. Suh’s apartment had a clearer definition of space, whereas the definition at my studio came from it’s length and added built-ins. I wonder how he arranged his furniture…

The exhibit is open through August 11, 2013, so make sure you stop by before it ends!

Do-Ho Suh's 310 sqft NYC Apartment - An Art Installation 11

See more pictures:

Joel and Jessica’s 265 sqft Studio in Paris

Photo by Joel Sadler

Photo by Joel Sadler

Photo by Joel Sadler

Describe your place:

Our apartment is in a very central location in Paris. It is a newer building (1968) surrounded by lovely older ones (1468). It was renovated just before we moved and maximizes the limited available space but also maintains a sense of style. It has the VERY rare distinction of containing a washer/dryer, dishwasher, and fridge w/freezer.

Photo by Joel Sadler

Photo by Joel Sadler

Photo by Joel Sadler

Photo by Joel Sadler

What do you love about your space?:

We love the balcony. The place is small but when you’re on the balcony it’s as big as the city itself. The hardwood floors are terrific. The kitchen is disproportionately large with lots of storage and counter space – great for keeping it cheap eating in. Perhaps our most beloved feature of all, though, is the low profile but highly effective AC unit. Honestly, between the appliances, balcony, and location, it is practically one-of-a-kind in Paris.

Photo by Joel Sadler

Photo by Joel Sadler

How would you improve your space?:

We’ve milked the cabinets, closets, and IKEA storage containers for all they’re worth but there’s no getting around the fact that it would be nice to have a little more room for hanging clothes. Also, with a place this small it looks like a flood has recently receded the way we have to hang our air-dry clothes after washing. Some hang-dry solution would be nice.

We can’t complain about having a washer/dryer and a dishwasher but, due to the plumbing, we aren’t able to run them simultaneously. You’d be surprised how often that comes up.

Photo by Joel Sadler

Photo by Joel Sadler

What do you like best about small living?:

We love how we are forced to live the way we really want to live: simply and without clutter or accumulation. We end up spending more time and money on experiences than belongings. Plus we can clean the whole place top to bottom in an hour.

Photo by Joel Sadler

Photo by Joel Sadler

Tips for fellow and potential small-space dwellers:

Take stock of everything you own and make three “piles:” essential daily/weekly items (shoes, toothbrush, computer, dishware); need to keeps (second suit, yearbooks, china, art); discardable. Put the first category in a few suitcases/boxes to bring with you; put the second category in cheap, long-term storage; sell the rest on craigslist and trash what doesn’t sell.

It’s like dancing. Over-communicate with your fellow inhabitant about expectations for cleanliness and schedule. There’s no autonomy in small spaces because every move requires the cooperation of the other. “I’ll do yoga while you’re in the shower” or “You take the dogs out while I cook dinner” or “Can you scoot over so I can get by” are typical exchanges.

Keep fresh flowers.

Plan on small-batch grocery shopping – bringing home a package of Costco paper towels would require moving furniture around.

Photo by Joel Sadler

Photo by Joel Sadler

A note from Nicole:

Jessica and Joel have the most amazing warehouse loft in downtown Durham, NC. In July 2012 they departed on a journey to live in France for a year. I must say, I’m quite impressed that they (along with their two pups) have been able to down-size from 2,100 sqft to less than 300 sqft.

Their studio apartment feels expansive and provides for plenty of storage – two things you wouldn’t expect from a place so small. The bathroom, entry, and closet are compact, leaving the rest of the apartment completely open. Perhaps the only definition of space is marked by the couch between the living and sleeping areas, making a private corner for the nifty twin-bed storage unit. A few unique features caught my eye: the built-in dish drying rack, the long low mirror as a backsplash to the desk, and the bold dash of color anchoring the end of the space and framing a playful painting. The main element that makes this space so wonderful is the balcony and large glass doors/window. Expanding a tiny space to the exterior makes all the difference…and being in the middle of Paris is an added bonus!

Thanks to Jessica and Joel for sharing your space! Since I didn’t have the opportunity to visit, I really could not have posted without your help. It was so fun comparing similarly sized studio apartments – in Paris and in Raleigh. Read/see more of their Parisian studio in Jessica’s blog post.

Photo by Joel Sadler

Photo by Joel Sadler

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

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