One of my favorite Dylan lines comes from the song The Ballad of Frankie Lee, in which Bob claims "It's not a house it's a home." A statement I've been chewing on since I was probably 17, when I first heard it. Serving forever as a reminder to me about what differentiates between the two, which I'm know varies from person to person depending on what it is we believe makes a House a "Home."
For me, it's a space that reflects something about who we are as a family, what we enjoy, believe, support and respect. This can be evident in the books and art we keep. And the overall vibe a home secures. In my opinion, size has very little to do with any of it. Our old house measured just under 2,700 square feet which by contemporary track home standards is not at all massive. But certainly not cramped either. A standard layout boasting three bedrooms (a casita detached outback we used only when we had renters) two and a half bathrooms, upstairs loft, dining room, and one roomy common area which included the kitchen. What we were using daily however, was much less. Basically two bedrooms. Three boys in one and one boy in two (depending on the night and his mood / preference) and rarely ever the dining room. Whereas the loft and kitchen were most "commonly inhabited." In hindsight, I'd say that the decade we lived in the house half of our square footage existed as positively beneficial. While the other half, more or less "bonus space" convenient upon occasion.
Usually upon my bated prompting - when I ask others to truly think about what areas of their house they use daily, I am always stunned to hear the majority of them admit to so many unused areas of their house. And kids, like mine, who go into their bedrooms mostly only to sleep. A habit that is surely subject to change during the teen years I realize. But I'd argue that the first half of childhood - as far as I can tell - doesn't seem very concerned with hunkering down in the bedroom for play. No matter how much we tell them we'd appreciate it if they would. I am an big advocate for shared bedrooms. And shared space in general. I've written in support of it here before and believe in the strengths and bonds it instills when you are forced to bunk with family no matter how big or small the home space is. Obviously for me, having same sex siblings close in age makes it an easy option. As long as there's been three they've never expressed an interest in being apart from each other or requested their own room. Even when another basically vacant room was there for the taking. I hear people say that as they get older they'll need their space. And I can respect that point of view. But I also think about how many of our parents grew up in houses half the size of these track homes and shared bedrooms up until college. A perfect example being every year when I head up north to Greenfield Ca with my best friend to visit her grandmother I'm inspired by the meager layout of her 60s style ranch house she raised seven children in, with shared bedrooms for most all of them. Seven kids who grew into seven well mannered adults that exist now as a close knit family. She says it worked out because it had to. Period.
I mention this because one of the places we are seriously considering at the moment is a two bedroom. Of which we would ultimately add onto but are still ok with the decent square footage as is. My ideal space being anywhere from 1,300 - 1,600 sqft) Which is cringeworthy to some considering the size of our family. Fun part though about working with smaller spaces is that it calls for more creative, intentional design where you can't just throw things out and hope it works because the value of your surrounding space is amplified when it's scarce. Forcing you almost to part with anything that you don't absolutely love or feel attached to. And isn't there some liberation in ridding your home of the senseless clutter we're all prone to and living instead with less but that which gives us pleasure? As of now, I have to hope so.
As for creative renovations, they certainly aren't to be overlooked while downsizing. Typically within minutes of touring a few of these houses Mike was already knocking around walls and climbing up into attics to get an estimate of what beams could be exposed to lift the ceilings, what walls could come down to open up areas or added to create or divide new ones. In one scenario he was able to envision the elimination of a laundry room and closet to be reconstructed as a small room with one pretty window where the only thing that would work would be a bed and dresser might fit but still provide a warm boon for one or two of the boys to call their own. This of course being one of the main perks of being married to a handy man. They see things you would never. And then manage to actually make them happen.
Practicality aside, I think I've always preferred good light / bones in a house as opposed to square footage. Some of my favorite homes are quaint but alluring, where square footage doesn't seem somehow definable. I know I always tend towards tighter, cozier spaces when I search ideally because I'm keeping my sights set on a mid century (or Spanish) single story fixer upper with good flow that entails at least one roomy common living area, where corners can be carved out by building custom nooks and comfy (creative) seating. Hygge inspired. And less to clean. I for one, don't want 3 bathrooms ever again. Unless one is a urinal - I'll take that. Because realistically two is perfect and yet still more than I care to tackle on deep cleaning rotations but obviously vital with a household this big (and reckless) when it comes bathroom manners.
What's even more intriguing to me too is how much different space is viewed on alternative coastlines. For instance the ladies I know in Brooklynn have far much more practical views of what amounts to ample living space in the city they inhabit. Where even the wealthiest people tend to live in close quarters where closets become sleeping spaces, and tiny nooks are made delightfully inviting because of the expectations being skewed based on the confines of urban living. Like when I visited my friend Latonya, and she gave me a tour of her stunning brownstone, proudly showing off her lovely bedroom that was tucked tight into room small enough that she had to climb into it via the bed. And yet it appeared smart and stylish, inviting, and not in the least way any kind of inconvenience. Just like the rest of her home where every basket had it's place and nothing was overstuffed or crowded. In other words, New Yorkers make it work. Because it has to. Same thing goes for other countries right? Where living with combined families is the norm and personal space shrinks as a result. A fact not to be scoffed at or resented either. Yet here - especially in California - we seem to think the more we expand, the bigger our house, the happier we'll be. I don't buy it.
My personal small home defenses being:
If we are close to areas we want to be outdoors (ideally, the beach) our home base becomes a haven for rest and nurture. Which can exist in any form. As a family, we don't spend all that much time holed up at home because we're out and about as much as possible, especially when the weather is nice. I know some people define themselves as "home bodies" but that isn't us.
Also, the idea of incorporating indoor / outdoor living is always an option to help open up a house and can instantly change the feeling of a space because it adds air to the interior and breathes new life to the overall flow of it. This is where replacing windows with french doors and front yards made into courtyards become game changers in our hunt. Two options we're always considering while looking at smaller homes. What are the possibilities, how can this be improved? Where can we expand with as little devastation as possible? And essentially: Decor > space. Because if a home feels altogether inviting because of the way it's laid out and arranged, size doesn't matter.
As of now we're still looking, debating and deciding, but I am always interested to know what others have to say on the topic, in relation to downsizing and altogether smaller living spaces. Some of my favorite people in life grew up in small homes themselves so maybe the proof is in the pudding. But I'd love to know: do you find yourself more attracted to big homes? If so, why? Are there benefits to living with less? And do you feel most of your house is used regularly?
- Photo from one of our recent small house contenders with plenty of room for creative interpretation.