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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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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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.