Welcome to the latest contribution to the Small Family Homes Blog Community! This month’s topic focuses on the necessities of small space living for a family. I feel like I’m constantly curating a list of small space necessities in my mind as I discuss our living situation with others. I think this list is especially relevant when I contrast our family life (two adults and a 1-year-old in a 590 sq ft flat) to similar families in either townhouses or houses. What is essential to how we live compared to families with more space?
1) Lifestyle Enrolment
When we moved to Hong Kong we knew our living situation would be quite different than our North America norm, and Braden and I both happily commit to downsizing. It was an exercise in understanding our priorities and also a bit of guessing about what we would need – and not need – in our new lifestyle. Fortunately we loved our new little flat and settled in quickly to small-space living. When we learned I was pregnant it was clear to both of us that our little one-bedroom 440 sq ft space, while possible to potentially make it work in the short term, was not going to serve us long term and we concluded a move was necessary. We had long discussions about what our priorities were, knowing that with our budget a significantly larger space would not be possible in our current neighbourhood. In the end a short commute and love for Wan Chai won out, and we agreed to move in to another small (albeit slightly larger) space. If one of us had felt differently and begrudgingly settled I think it would be much harder to be happy in our little flat, especially with the complicating addition of a baby. Almost every day one of us states how much we love our little home, which says to me we are in the right spot and small-space living is serving us well.
2) Planning Strategy
Before signing our new lease we (I!) created a detailed floor plan, incorporating all of our existing furniture, to understand not only what would fit, but also what we would need to buy. With the exception of a few minor items, everything we already owned worked in our space. This gave us peace of mind around our budget but also an understanding with respect to our former space (which worked) that we would be fine in our new place. The unknown – of course – was what we would need for the baby. I did my best to research and also plan practical solutions for the baby’s space and I think we’ve done quite well the first year as a family of three.
3) Practical Solutions
We don’t have the luxury of dedicated spaces only used for specific tasks – as much as possible in our place needs to meet many different needs. For example, our footstools are storage cubes and the TV console holds all of our paperwork and office supplies. The absolute winner we could not live without is our kitchen island. It basically triples our counter space, holds half our kitchen supplies, it’s where we sit to work, where Campbell’s highchair lives and (when the highchair is removed and stashed) where we can entertain. A less practical solution would have been a simple dining room table, which I know we would have regret daily.
4) Flexible Furniture
We love the furniture pieces we’ve acquired and they work individually, but they also pair well to create various permutations. This is in part due to selecting items in a reasonably neutral palette ( in our case, dark timber, grey and white) and also the style (clean lines and simple designs with a few classics thrown in). The reason this works for us is furniture can transition between rooms (as they did when we moved flats) and also flex to accommodate different needs within our space. I learned this trick from my former boss (check out her creative website here). She was a master at utilizing items in her small house in unique and practical ways; constantly shuffling things around and no matter where things ended up they always seemed to work together.
5) Scaled Storage
While we might like to think of ourselves as minimalists, I’m positive we’re not quite there. We still have more than enough possessions instead of an abundance of empty space. We’ve seriously curated our list of belongings we keep in HK (and sheepishly store a LOT at my parent’s house #basementenvy) but that doesn’t mean we don’t have stuff we need to keep tucked away here too. Seasonal clothing items (yes, it gets chilly in HK), Braden’s oft-discussed golf clubs, 4 pieces of luggage, extra linens, tools etc. all need homes. The same applies to various smaller scale items such as extra toiletries, books, candles, etc. We have addressed ways to store larger items (under the bed), mid-size items (bins on the upper shelves of our wardrobe) and small items (storage bags or boxes tucked into furniture). What’s more, we planned these zones as we planned our space so we didn’t need to be reactive later.
6) Organizational Commitment
I guess if you’re messy you could still live in a small space but personally I think I would go crazy. Complicate that by adding more occupants into the space and I think everyone would drive each other crazy. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, I hate searching for things. Inevitably, when we end up looking for things when we’re trying to get out the door or on a timeline and that’s never fun. And second, in a small space if you’ve got eight things lying around, each on a different surface, quite quickly the entire room feels disorganized. Call me obsessive compulsive, but I cannot handle clutter. In the end, Braden and I are in agreement that an organized and tidy space makes us feel calm and happy. While our accumulation tendencies differ (I’m a stacker and he’s a scatter-er) neither method work in a small space. We both [mostly] honour our commitment to each other to not let things get to an even mild disorganized state and just put stuff away.
7) Plan B
At the end of the day, things don’t always go 100% to plan or our small space doesn’t always serve us perfectly. For those times, we have a contingency plan ready. For example, when Braden needs to be productive and work from home he does not do well with distractions (aka me in a chatty mood or the baby anytime ever). The easiest Plan B is for him to work in our building’s common room. Or if one of isn’t feeling well and needs to rest, it’s impossible with Campbell babbling on the other side of the wall. We give each other space by taking Campbell out for a walk. We also need to be realistic with our entertaining plans and always check with each other before inviting anyone over.
8) Stuff You Love
We know a few people in Hong Kong who moved here with very limited personal possessions and rented furnished apartments. Practically speaking, this is a smart solution to save moving costs and eliminating the need to shop in an unknown city upon arrival. It also means they are existing in an anonymous space that doesn’t feel like home. I believe so strongly (as does my design-is-important converted husband!) that you should love your home – and the items in it – in whatever way you interpret to matter to you. For us it means our space, small as it may be, reflects our personal style with art and is peppered with possessions that mean something to us.
I come from a family that saves a lot and sees the potential in lots of little things. There was never a shortage of used twist-ties, rubber bands with life left in them, or a collection of yogurt containers ready to hold applesauce for the freezer in our house while I was growing up. We were re-purposing and up-cycling long before it was trendy and I think this practice still holds merit. However…this needs to work within realistic space constraints. If I hang on to something it better be multi-purpose (ie the little chalkboard I can turn into a sign for any occasion) or be small enough to save (ie large pieces of wrapping paper and lengths of ribbon to wrap gifts). Anything else is out the door. We try to donate, pass on or recycle as much as possible. Of course not acquiring things in the first place is ideal, but save that, we are constantly evaluating what we have on hand and culling our belongings as we go. This has the added bonus of being freeing (I literally sigh with relief when something we don’t need leaves the house) and it feels great if you can pass something on to someone else who will put it to good use.
10) Go Digital
Now, keep in mind this is coming from someone who is highly un-tech savvy. But the more I learn about digital storage, app capabilities etc, the more I’m convinced of their benefits to simplifying. I love keeping lists and hate little random piles of paper. I now use the Wunderlist app to keep track of all of my to-do’s. Now that Campbell is older and starting to get out and about more, we’ve started using the Cozi app to coordinate everyone’s calendars and making planning easier. And not that Campbell is producing any art masterpieces yet, but I think apps to store photos of artwork will be brilliant; Keepy, Canvsly, and Artkive all look like great solutions. In the meantime I’m trying to organize the zillion photos of Campbell’s first year into one print album, and doing all the work online using Mixbook (no elaborate scrapbooks here!) I would love to hear other suggestions of great apps / digital solutions.