Intentionally Small Living

I had the wonderful opportunity of partnering with Liberated Wine to share my small story and what it means to live “intentionally small.” The following post was originally featured on Liberated Wine and I am so happy to share it here on my blog. Enjoy!

Intentionally Small Living

By now we’ve all heard something about the “small living movement” – whether it be about tiny homes on trailers, prefab micro-units in bustling cities, or baby boomers downsizing to enjoy their retirement. My personal interest comes from a different perspective, one that is ever-changing and redefined with each chapter of life.

My name is Nicole Alvarez. I’m an architectural designer living and working in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. I’m on the brink of turning 30 years old. At 25 I started my blog Intentionally Small about small spaces and simple living. It was the perfect culmination of my studies, interests, and life experiences.

I studied architecture in college. While in school, one of my favorite projects was the design of a backyard apartment. It was the first time that I thought about how a small space and a person’s lifestyle and routines could influence each other. A year later I studied abroad in the South of France. I shared a small apartment, featured in this mini-documentary, in the heart of the city and walked everywhere. It was a surge of independence that I had never experienced, having grown up in a car-dependent American suburb.

Chapter One: 300 sqft Studio Apartment


It was my experience living in a 300-sqft studio apartment a mile from downtown Raleigh that motivated me to start my blog. It was the first place of my own, and exactly what I needed at the time. I was immediately captivated by the big windows, built-in storage, and the subtle differentiation of uses, live/sleep/eat, all bundled into one intimate space. Everything intentional, and everything within reach.

NicoleAlvarez_StudioApartment 01

NicoleAlvarez_StudioApartment 02

It was the first time that I could walk to a coffee shop, a few bars, a yoga studio, even my job. I felt connected to my community in a way I never had before. I quickly realized that what I loved most about living in a small space was the way of living that inevitably followed. Less space meant less physical and mental clutter, and therefore more time to enjoy life.

Chapter Two: 960 sqft Downtown Loft


The time came to leave my lovely studio apartment when my boyfriend and I found an apartment to call our own. Our priority was walkability and bikeability, wanting to be as close to downtown as possible since that’s where we worked and played. We found the perfect place, a loft in an adaptive reuse of an old department store on the main street of downtown Raleigh.

NicoleAlvarez_DowntownLoft 01

NicoleAlvarez_DowntownLoft 02

At 960 sqft , 1 bed and 1 bath, it was the smallest unit in the building, but at the time felt huge to us. The living space opened up directly onto a terrace, extending our space to the outside. Our memories are of entertaining our friends and family, having the city at our fingertips, and creating our first home together. We were able to live the vibrant lifestyle we had both admired from our time overseas right here in our hometown.

Chapter Three: 1,170 sqft Our City House


We got engaged, got married, and bought our first home, just blocks away from downtown. Our home is 1,170 sqft, only slightly larger than our downtown loft but a world of difference – 3 bed and 2 bath, filled with daylight from every side, and a large yard. We were able to maintain the urban lifestyle we loved, and made an investment in our future while growing firm roots in our community. It’s a small home, but it’s plenty for us at our current life stage, with room to grow.

NicoleAlvarez_House 01


We have future plans of building a backyard apartment that we can either live in or rent to offset our mortgage. We’ve been living here for a year, and are taking our time making it home, along with our new family member, our pup Mayhem.

NicoleAlvarez_House 03

NicoleAlvarez_House 04 liberated

Small is relative. It changes with the context of each city and its density. It is so personal, redefined with each stage of the individual’s life. Yet, every small story I have heard has a common thread – it is about living intentionally. For me, living small and an urban lifestyle go hand in hand. By choosing place over space, the city becomes my home, the community my family, and there’s so much more room to enjoy life. A liberated and full life.

An Exciting Year!

Hey there! This past year has been quite an eventful and exciting year, which has obviously distracted me from my blog…

Architectural Licensing

Intentionally Small - Studying for Architecture Registration Exams

I’ve been focusing on my Architectural Registration Exams. In fact, I just took my third exam this week, phew! There are 7 exams total, so I still have a few more to go… slowly but surely checking them off. I’ll be a licensed architect by the end of the year, fingers crossed!

New Job!

Intentionally Small - New Job at Clearscapes Architecture in Downtown Raleigh

I am having a blast at Clearscapes! I’m inspired daily by my team in the most supportive environment. Clearscapes is an Art and Architecture studio in downtown Raleigh. We are currently working on some of Raleigh’s most exciting and influential projects: Union Station, Stone’s Warehouse, Chavis Park, and more. Coincidentally, Matt and I were living in a Clearscapes project, The Hudson, making for the most pleasant commute ever: a 2-1/2 block walk from city center to the warehouse district.

Newly Weds

Intentionally Small - Nicole Alvarez and Matt Tomasulo GOT MARRIED

Our wedding day was complete bliss. Everything came together so perfectly, with the support of family and friends. Our faces still hurt from smiling so much. So in love.

Our New Home

Intentionally Small - Our New Downtown Raleigh Home

As if that wasn’t enough major life changes in a year, we just moved into our new home in East downtown Raleigh. It still feels like we’re playing house since settling in will be a long process, but we’re thrilled to commit to our Raleigh community. At around 1150 sqft, it’s still intentionally small while leaving some room for the future. We bike and walk everywhere, and there’s plenty of yard to experiment with gardens, chickens, and one day an accessory dwelling (AKA backyard apartment)…

I started this blog three years ago as a way to explore my fascination with small spaces and simple living. With a recent feature by IKEA Family Live Magazine and being included in another small space article, I’m reinvigorated to continue to explore. So I just wanted to say that I’m still here, I’ve just been pleasantly distracted. Check back soon for new posts, and thanks for your support!

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:

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

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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

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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!

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

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


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