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

NicoleAlvarez_StudioApartment

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

NicoleAlvarez_DowntownLoft

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

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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

NicoleAlvarez_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

NicoleAlvarez_House02

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.

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Bethany’s 385 sqft Garage Apt

 

Bethanys 385 sqft Garage Apt 14

 

Bethanys 385sqft Garage Apt Plans

Describe your place:

I live in a 1950’s, 1 bedroom garage apartment in north Durham. The garage is detached from the main house on the property with an unfinished workshop area downstairs and a one bedroom apartment on the second floor, accessible by an outdoor staircase. The neighborhood is a few miles north of downtown, near the intersection of Roxboro and Duke.

Bethanys 385 sqft Garage Apt 01

What do you love about your space?:

Everything! As soon as I saw the listing for this apartment online, I fell in love. Many of my favorite features are original elements like the wood floors, the bathroom fixtures, and the small, exposed shelves in the kitchen. There are also so many great touches added by the property owner. I love the stained glass “Welcome” sign in the front door, the small-scale stove and refrigerator and a beautiful painted metal bench outside. I love how much character the place has!

Bethanys 385 sqft Garage Apt 07

How would you improve your space?:

Many of the issues I had when I first moved in concerned the age of the property rather than it’s size. Old-fashioned features like 2-prong outlets, plaster walls, no garbage disposal in the sink, no dishwasher, no bedroom closet and no place for a washer or dryer made getting settled in a little more difficult at first but now I rarely even miss those modern luxuries.

Bethanys 385 sqft Garage Apt 06

I would also love to improve the outdoor areas. As a renter, I’m limited in what I’m allowed to change and what my budget can do. While the shared yard is meticulously maintained by the owner, I would love to freshen up the gravel driveway, repaint the siding and outdoor staircase and add a fence with some landscaping in the yard on the side of my house for my dog. But, despite the countless project ideas, I really am thrilled with the house overall and the very sweet, relaxed outdoor areas.

Bethanys 385 sqft Garage Apt 08

What do you like best about small living?:

It may sound redundant given the name of this blog, but I love how living small makes every part of your life become very intentional. How many possessions you own, where everything is kept and the entire flow of your day is affected by the limited space. While large homes can feel spacious and open, I often find they lead the people living in them to fill space with more possessions, making things harder to find and, in a very real way, adding stress to regular routines. Running several small businesses out of such a small space can still lead to stress and chaos but I love being able to pay attention to every nook, cranny and detail which I could never do in a larger house.

Bethanys 385 sqft Garage Apt 11

Tips for fellow and potential small-space dwellers:

Storage and organization are key. As a housekeeper and home organizer, I made sure that everything in my little house has a place and that very little space gets wasted. This includes high up shelves and the space under the bed as well as my ottoman which I refinished to create storage space for blankets and linens. Leave no space unused, but keep it neat!

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I also think that its also very important to have at least one area that is clutter-free and always clean. In a small space, a small mess becomes a big mess quickly. Especially since I use my kitchen and living area as work spaces for sanding, painting, sewing, crafting and many other hobbies, having an area that is always neat goes a long way to feeling comfortable and sane. For me, it is the bedroom. No matter how chaotic the kitchen, living room and bathroom are, my bedroom has little more than my bed, some books, my records and record player and my clothes neatly hung on the wall. Escaping to this room is always a welcome relief from a busy week or messy house.

Bethanys 385 sqft Garage Apt 12

More about Bethany:

I clean and organize houses for a living [www.YourHappyHomeSolutions.com], as well as making wood furniture and decor on the side [www.etsy.com/shop/aboveallgenuine]. Occasional jobs also include babysitting, pet sitting, seamstress work and home improvement projects. There’s always something to do!

I also have a booth at the Durham Craft Market across from the Farmer’s Market every Saturday between April and November from 8am to 12pm. Come out and see me!

Bethanys 385 sqft Garage Apt 05

A note from Nicole:

It was a pleasure meeting Bethany (and Elle!) and visiting their lovely home. Bethany was ecstatic to point out special elements that she loves and different DIY projects she undertook to make her place function better. She installed shallow shelves at every window – creating a deeper sill for potted plants, or creating storage opportunities above windows. She transformed a simple closet in the living space into a well-organized craft zone with hidden dog crate below.  In making her own home more usable, she has been able to turn her skills into a business, helping others organize and clean their spaces, and even selling spice racks that she first made for her own home. I love how passionate Bethany is about her small home!

Bethanys 385 sqft Garage Apt 04

more pictures:

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:

Elizabeth’s 480 sqft Brooklyn Apartment

Elizabeths 480 sqft Brooklyn Apartment 08

  • size: 480 sqft
  • type: 1-bedroom apartment
  • location: Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY
  • inhabitants: Elizabeth “Beef” Bridenstine 🙂
  • my info: vimeo editing reel

Elizabeth Bridenstine Plans

Describe your place:

This apartment has become my haven in the city. It’s on a quiet tree-lined street in Bushwick. This has been the first place I’ve lived in on my own and I felt I could finally make a space my own. I wanted the apartment to feel comfortable and inviting, and there are a lot of Southern touches throughout.

Elizabeths 480 sqft Brooklyn Apartment 01

What do you love about your space?:

I love that each room has it’s own feel, which makes this small apartment feel much larger. I love the parque floors. I love the view of the city from the roof. I love the light in the afternoon as the sun sets.

Elizabeths 480 sqft Brooklyn Apartment 04

How would you improve your space?:

I would like there to be more counter space and I think the living room set up could use work.

Elizabeths 480 sqft Brooklyn Apartment 07

What do you like best about small living?:

How little time it takes to straighten up.

Elizabeths 480 sqft Brooklyn Apartment 09

Tips for fellow and potential small-space dwellers:

If you have separate rooms, make each room feel completely different from the next to expand the space.

Elizabeths 480 sqft Brooklyn Apartment 10

Anything else you would like to share?:

I’m heading to the Bay Area in March and will be a little bummed to say goodbye to Suydam Street. Luckily, a good friend with good energy is taking over and I couldn’t be happier.

Elizabeths 480 sqft Brooklyn Apartment 12

A note from Nicole:

An NC native, Elizabeth is one of my closest friends. I was so excited to visit Elizabeth in December and finally get to see her beloved apartment!

So much about living in NYC is about finding the right neighborhood. She moved to an interesting neighborhood of Brooklyn, Bushwick, to have her own place. While she has lived there, she has seen the neighborhood grow with new restaurants, bars, and an organic food store. She’s close to a subway stop, and can bike everywhere. Bushwick also has an impressive collection of street art. Plus, the view of Manhattan from her roof is absolutely amazing (thanks for the photo Elizabeth!).

For NYC standards, Elizabeth has a lot of natural light and a pretty big apartment, especially since it’s all to herself. She has made a perfect environment where she can both relax and get work done. She works from home for a neat startup, Scenios, and does freelance video editing, so her work space has everything she needs for production and editing, from her snazzy computer to a legit microphone. There’s an incredible amount of storage with built-in closets and cabinetry, and plenty of space to add more storage furniture if needed. Of course, it wouldn’t be Elizabeth’s place without a few album covers and posters of Michael Jackson and Prince scattered about. I can’t wait to see what her SF apartment will be like!

Elizabeths 480 sqft Brooklyn Apartment 13

Elizabeths 480 sqft Brooklyn Apartment 14

Abuela’s 540 sqft Attached Apartment

Abuelas 540 sqft Attached Apartment 04
  • size: 540 sqft
  • type: 1-bedroom attached apartment
  • location: Tampa, FL
  • inhabitants: Mercedes Alvarez (AKA Abuela)

Mercedes Alvarez Plans

Describe your place:

This is my grandmother’s home. She is 92 years wise, and lives in a one-bedroom, attached apartment in Tampa. My aunt, and her family of four, live in the main residence. The 2-car garage that once connected them was converted into a hair salon for my uncle’s business. It’s a really interesting and progressive living situation: both multi-generational and mixed-use.

There is an independent entrance for my grandmother’s apartment, and a second entrance that connects to the main house by a hallway. These doors are usually kept open during the day, to freely move from one space to the other. I love her apartment . She was able to make it her own, and it feels so appropriate. My grandmother brought her original furniture into the space. Although it can make the apartment feel crowded, she has space for all of her grandchildren and extended family to visit. It’s a common sight to see her dining table full of relatives.

Abuelas 540 sqft Attached Apartment 05

What do you love about your space?:

Abuela: I love that I am independent, but close to my family. I am able to keep my apartment as I like it. Although I might not have as much independence as I had before, with the added help I am able to rest or enjoy my time much more.

Abuelas 540 sqft Attached Apartment 03

My apartment has all the necessities – washer, pantry, kitchen, dining area that’s not big but can seat many. It’s more than perfect. Since it’s small, everything is within hand’s reach and accessible. My apartment is cozy.

Abuelas 540 sqft Attached Apartment 08

How would you improve your space?:

Abuela: I have a walk-in-closet, washer, kitchen… I am satisfied with the way it is. I would do absolutely nothing to improve my space. I wouldn’t change anything. It has what I need. I don’t need anything more.

Abuelas 540 sqft Attached Apartment 11

What do you like best about small living?:

Abuela: I use to have more space than was being used. Here I have less space, but I don’t lack anything. I didn’t use the space as efficiently before, so I have had to make this space efficient. I have adapted and made the space that I have, work for me. Now I clean less, and work less.

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Tips for fellow and potential small-space dwellers:

Abuela: It’s a lot better! I have had no problems. As long as you have everything you actually need, size doesn’t matter. This is a comfortable way of living. It is great for elderly to be close to their family, but maintain as much independence as they want.

Abuelas 540 sqft Attached Apartment 14

A note from Nicole:

An attached apartment is a type of accessory dwelling unit (ADU), or a secondary residence on a single property. It can be used as additional living space, or rented out for extra income. They are commonly called “granny flats” or “in-law suites.” It is becoming more common for families of multiple generations (including grandparents and adult children) to live in the same house, or on the same property. This cuts down on costs, helping everyone involved.

The benefits of having a grandparent live in a secondary apartment, either attached/detached,  is starting to catch on locally. Read on:

Abuelas 540 sqft Attached Apartment 01

Matt’s 653 sqft Live Work Apt

Describe your place:

My apartment is in a mid-century office building above an eyewear center and a dentist. It’s one of four apartments tucked away in the corner of the larger commercial building. We have entrances along Saint Mary’s Street and in the back parking lot. The building is across from Broughton H.S. and next to Fred Fletcher Park. Cameron Village and Glenwood south are both a 10 minute walk away. Lastly, it’s only one block away from my girlfriend’s apt (interesting tip: it’s Nicole – the author of this blog).

As far as my apartment goes, it opens up to a main foyer, which often times I store business stuff in, hence live/work. The CityFabric studio is located in my living room.  I have a physical and a digital work desk perpendicular to each other, situated next to the windows for maximum daylight.

What do you love about your space?:

I love being able to work, host and live in my space. The apartment feels bigger than the square footage because the space is divided into so many different areas. My bedroom is in the back and easy to close off which makes office visits feel more professional. The space is versatile – place to meet and greet and host without it feeling like my apt. I have three large closets that really help organize all my business stuff. The built-ins help with storage and de-cluttering.

How would you improve your space?:

Bigger Windows: Even though the apartment is a couple flights up, there is not too much natural light due to smaller windows and a large, old-growth tree. Better Ventilation: The ventilation is not so great either since all the windows are along the same wall.

No carpet! I would have hardwood floors for cleanliness reasons and light.  Open up the kitchen: would help make socializing while cooking much easier.

What do you like best about small living?:

Location location location!  Having the choice and the ability to walk or bike around town, grabbing food, meeting up with friends, having a drink, or just wander through the adjacent park is much more important to me at this point in life than doing yard work.  Living closer to a lot of different people allows for the casual encounter or spontaneous interaction throughout my neighborhood and park.  They are unplanned and wonderful.

Lastly, living in a smaller place forces you to be selective with what you own and it keeps life simple.

Tips for fellow and potential small-space dwellers:

A lot of natural daylight and big windows really helps make a space feel welcoming.

It helps to play around a lot with furniture. My living room ended up being much cozier after simply shifting the coach 3 feet after living there for a full 5 months.

More about me:

I run CityFabric, a small business focused on stitching together people and places through civic and social innovation and design. We have a full line of civic-minded products, and have recently launched a few projects focused on walkability called WalkRaleigh and Walk [YourCity]. Currently, this apartment is CityFabric Headquarters, with satellite offices scattered throughout downtown coffee shops, most commonly Helios, within walking distance.