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.


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.


CNN Small Space Questionnaire

Small spaces have hit mainstream news with San Francisco’s legal push for smaller living units, and NYC mayor Bloomberg’s call for micro-unit apartment designs. Although the hype is focusing on the “excessively small” (as I consider it), the conversation has introduced many to a new perspective of living.

After CNN’s recent coverage on the subject, they had an open call for small space dwellers to submit pictures and share their experiences. If you are interested, you can still submit by the end of the week. As a follow-up to my submission, they sent a list of questions. So I thought I’d share my responses here. Enjoy!

CNN Small Space Questionnaire:

1. Why did you decide to live in a small space? How long have you been there, and were you living in a small space prior to moving here?

I came to this apartment already passionate about small spaces. In architecture school, I designed a small backyard apartment. That project really invigorated my interest in small, intentional, well-proportioned, and efficient spaces. My studio apartment epitomizes these characteristics. It has huge, operable windows that bathe the space with light all day long, making the space feel bigger. And it’s located in one of downtown Raleigh’s most walkable neighborhoods with everything from grocery stores to yoga studios to my office less than a mile away. I’ve lived here for a little over a year, and I can’t help but tell everyone about my lovely studio apartment. It’s amazing how much of a positive impact it has had on my life.

2. What was your initial reaction to moving into such a small space? Are you able to entertain– If so, how do your guests react?

Although my 300-sqft studio is small, it was the first place I lived on my own, without a roommate, after graduating college. I was thrilled to move in, and really make it my own. I kept some old furniture, and acquired new pieces to fit the space perfectly.

One of the wonderful things about living in a small space, is it encourages you to get out and meet people in public spaces. And with tons of restaurants and bars within walking distance, I do just that! But I do occasionally have people over for a drink to start the night. People are really excited to see my apartment. It’s rather unique and urban for Raleigh. Since I love it so much, I constantly post pictures on social media outlets and have a website, so people love to hear about my studio. Now if they see an article about a small space, I’m the first person that comes to mind. It’s great!

3. What about living in small space do you appreciate the most?

Everything is intentional, and everything has its place. The built-in at the entry has hooks for coats and bags, a double-sided bookshelf, and an integrated pantry. Just outside the bathroom is a collection of shelves and cabinets and a closet, perfect to store shoes, clothes, accessories, and linens.

Living in a small space has really influenced my lifestyle. I am more selective when purchasing anything for my apartment, because it can easily become over cluttered. I am more conscious about my waste, recycling as much as possible, and I even started vermicomposting my food waste. And I walk more often! My small studio influences me daily.

4. Do you ever find yourself frustrated with living in small space? If so, provide some examples.

The only amenity that would improve my apartment would be a dedicated outside space like a balcony or roof terrace, to be able to relax outside or grow more of a variety of plants. But fortunately, I can walk 5 minutes to my favorite park in Raleigh, and commonly picnic there. So that park has become my backyard. And my window sill has become home to a collection of potted plants helping liven up my space.

5. How do you make the most of your small space? Any tips/tricks for fellow iReporters who either live in or want to live in a small space?

Living comfortably in a small space is all about editing out what you don’t need. I have minimal pieces of furniture, and bountiful built-ins for storage. Keeping a small space open and clutter-free really helps expand the space.

6. Anything else you’d like to add?

I have never been so excited about a place where I’ve lived. Living in this studio apartment has truly had a profound impact on my way of living and interest in space. As an architect, this studio has also influenced how I design for others. I can’t wait to design my own small space!