Small is Beautiful: Design Tips for Living Larger in Less Space

As a natural builder it has been fascinating to watch the explosion of interest around the tiny house movement in recent years. Building a tiny home, much like building a home using natural materials like straw or cob, has captured the imaginations of people because it presents a solution to a big problem – affordable shelter. Of course there are other motivators associated with both movements – the quest for autonomy, simplicity, beauty, improved quality of life, etc. And in many cases both movements are ecological at their core. Natural building achieves this through the use of raw or minimally processed materials like straw and clay, and a “pinch of muscle, a sprinkle of wits, and a dash of willingness”1. Tiny house enthusiasts, on the other hand, use size as their tool, building ‘micro-houses’ that have all the creature comforts packed into 1/10th or 1/20th the space of a typical home.

I’m not here to debate whether living in 100 square feet is desirable or simply the result of a housing situation, and perhaps a world, so out of balance that people are willing to do anything to gain a little agency over their lives. That must for you to decide. My interest, and what enamours me with tiny homes, is their incredible use of space. Because there is so little space to work with, all of it is used well. I’ve also been impressed by the number of ‘tiny’ spaces made to feel large, made possible through careful attention to spacial arrangements.

This is of particular interest because I’ve seen a growing number of natural homes, straw bale or the like, that are big and sprawling, lacking the intelligence found in a well-thought-out compact design. There is no blame here. I’m well aware that the pattern language relating to these matters has all but vanished from the building professions and, when it comes down to it, in the words of Tiny House pioneer, Jay Shafer,

Square footage is about the cheapest thing you can add onto a house. At the core of most homes you’ll find that the electrical system, plumbing, heating, appliances and structural components are similar in at least one key way: they’re expensive. The costly core is housed in the relatively cheap volume that surrounds it. Because the price of extending core components outward to accommodate additional space isn’t all that high, and open space itself is priced at next to nothing, square footage is (at face value) cheap.”

I believe people are building larger because it’s easier, it’s relatively cheap to do so, and because they feel justified, perhaps in part, because they have chosen a more ecological building method.

inside a large natural home.Despite the ease, and even the logic, for building bigger, this fact remains: It is far easier to reduce the ecological footprint of one’s home by building smaller than it is to substitute low-embodied energy materials. By virtue of their size, tiny homes, regardless of the materials used in their construction, will have a significantly smaller footprint than a ‘typical’ 2,200 square foot home, ‘green’ or otherwise. This does not mean that we shouldn’t strive to find healthier materials, it simply means that we have a great opportunity to take elements of both approaches – designing small, comfortable, and highly usable spaces and choosing materials that are non-toxic, raw or minimally processed, and most of all, fun to work with. But as architect Bob Theis explains, “small houses are not big houses shrunk down. They require a different set of formative patterns to work well and not feel cramped, but cozy.” This is what we’ll explore next.

Building Smaller, Smarter

You might be saying at this point, if I can get more bang for my buck building slightly bigger why would I build smaller? After all, we eventually want a family; we love to entertain our friends and neighbours; we’d like to have a spare bedroom for guests; we each need our own space; I ‘need’ a pool table; etc. This is a fair question but as Sarah Susanka, author of Creating The Not So Big House, states, “comfort has almost nothing to do with how big a space is.” It comes down to good design and quality. A Not So Big House is one that is “not as big as you thought you needed…As a rule of thumb, [it] is approximately one third smaller than your original goal but about the same price as your original budget…[It] feels more spacious than many of its over-sized neighbours because it is space with substance, all of it in use everyday.” As many of us have experienced directly, small, ‘cozy’ spaces are often more useable, inviting, and pleasant to be in than big, sprawling spaces that offer no “guidance” on how that space best be used.

  plastered straw bale wall small design  

Of course there are countless side benefits to building smaller – lower overall cost, reduced utility bills, smaller ecological footprint, less stress in getting the project finished, less time for cleaning, less space for clutter, fewer repairs, etc. And by removing square footage that’s seldom used, while making the most of the spaces that are included, the space is created to put money into details, craft, and features that are unique to each of us, crafted in a way that suits our particular life patterns. It’s what makes a house a home. But how do we get here? How does one make the most of a space? What criteria are used to make decisions and how does one come up with spaces that suite their unique patterns and needs?

tiny homes by lloyd kahnFor starters, there are endless online resources with photos of well designed tiny homes. A few of my favourites are,, and And if you’re like me and appreciate sitting down with a good book, then Lloyd Kahn’s Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter (2012) should not be overlooked. With thousands of photos and stories of people living in 500 square feet or less, it’s one that gets the imagination firing. There are also several great books that put good design into words: The first is Shay Salomon’s Little House on a Small Planet: Simple Homes, Cozy Retreats, and Energy Efficient Possibilities, the second is Sarah Susanka’s book Creating The Not So Big House.

Though certainly not exhaustive, here are seven tips & ideas that have proven helpful for us in bringing small, cozy spaces to life:

1. Stack functions (a.k.a. Make spaces do “double-duty”). Rather than building one room for one function, think of how spaces may be shared. Perhaps an office could double as a guest bedroom or a space for doing yoga. A cozy built-in dining area may be used as an office or sewing “room”.

2.Take it to the floor. A low space can be made to feel spacious by moving activities to the floor. By using area rugs, mats, and pillows, much as many Asian cultures (think of the tatami mats in Japan) do, an otherwise uncomfortable space may become the coziest. Photo credit:

3. Create levels. By separating activities and views vertically, either adjusting the floor or ceiling height, horizontal space can be eliminated without a perceived loss of space. Photo credit: Ted Owens, from Building with Awareness: The Construction of a Hybrid Home.

4. Create alcoves. Whether a window seat, a loft, or a sleeping nook, set in a wall or floating above the main living area, these spaces are loved by adults and children alike. Built into a space, they add room without increasing the footprint.

5. Give walls texture and colour. Adding texture, an earthen plaster or even a textile, adds warmth to a small space. While some people believe lighter colours make a space feel bigger, Shay suggests it’s more complicated than this. “Painting adjoining walls two contrasting colours can have the effect of “loosening the corners,” which may appear more spacious.” Avoid colours that stimulate too much, as this can be draining after a while.

6. Create separation. Surrounding an opening with trim can subtly communicate change, giving the spaces on either side their own identity. Photo credit: Sarah Susanka, Creating The Not So Big House

7. Diagonal views. Susanka says, “We know from geometry that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is its longest side. We can use this dimension in home design to increase the perceived size of a house. If you arrange a space so that you can look along the diagonal…you are looking along the longest view, [making] the space feel larger than it actually is.” Photo credit: Ted Owens, from Building with Awareness: The Construction of a Hybrid Home.

A House That Fits

In the end, many of us committed to “sustainable” shelter are striving to align our values and ethics with the material reality of building a home. There is, no doubt, more than one way to get here but shelter is made whole when we can tailor it to the way we really live, “and to the scale and proportion of our human form.” To do this we must be mindful of the unquestioned assumptions we hold about what a house should be, and ask ourselves, honestly, what do we really need to be fulfilled. We are all unique, so why wouldn’t our homes be as well?

In praise of small,


p.s. The advice found in Christopher Alexander’s (with contributing authors) enduring books a href=”” target=”_blank”>A Pattern Language and A Timeless Way of Building is no doubt some of the best out there. These books strike at the heart of good design, outlining the essence of what ultimately brings joy to individuals and society alike. Don’t be surprised if you emerge from these books a different person.


1 Better Off: Flipping The Switch on Technology (2004) by Eric Brende.

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