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Thinking Small

Architects’ top tips

My friend Lisa lives on a narrowboat moored on a London canal. With a total area of under 40 sq.m one would expect it to be a tight squeeze inside, but it feels surprisingly spacious. Life on the water though, isn’t for everyone, so I got to thinking about how we might be able to take some of the principles of boat living and apply them to small houses. After all, going small is a great step in the direction of sustainable living (have you seen Downsizing!?) and when designed really well, small homes can be extremely cost-effective.Often, when looking at tiny homes, we tend to immediately jump into the detail, like how a table might fold out, or how dining benches can double as storage for bedding. But let’s start with an overview.

House by FAM Architekti,Feilden+Mawson in Doksy, Czech Republic (2014) Images by Tomas Balej.via

I realized that what really made Lisa’s boat feel so generous was that the large windows allowed a strong connection to the water. The floor of the boat lies below water level, so it really feels as though you’re living right in the canal. As we sat drinking tea, a family of ducks swam by. Quaint, yes, and delightfully peaceful. In a small house, maintaining that openness to the outdoors by allowing for plenty of windows, is key to helping your home feel bigger than it is. By keeping windows tall, you will have a view of both the ground and the sky, which will increase that sense of space extending to the outdoors. The fact that the narrowboat had windows on both sides also helped to create that sense of lightness, so aim to have rooms that have more than one aspect. To enhance this feel even further, keep the windows themselves as simple as possible, by using large expanses of glass with minimal or no frames. This house by Leeton Pointon Architects (below) shows how a large window can connect a living space with a courtyard and increase the sense of space.

Park House by Leeton Pointon Architects via pinterest

 Multipurpose spaces are the way to go, so get used to open plan living. You will need to be mindful of building codes and regulations (such as those relating to stair dimensions, fire exits running through kitchens etc.) but raised loft beds and mezzanine spaces over more functional spaces like bathrooms can help to save space while creating a feeling of openness. To get the most space on a tight footprint, think vertical! Top tip: You can get away with minimal floor to ceiling heights in small spaces like hallways, kitchens or bathrooms, once they are visually connected to a more generous space – it’s all about compression and release!

La Casa Pequena, Mexico by Aranza de Arino. via 

Sliding walls or doors are a great way to open and close spaces in a small home as necessity dictates, and using glass partitions will divide spaces that need to be separate while still allowing the spaces feel bigger visually.


Keep décor simple. Lighter colours on walls and ceilings will make rooms feel bigger by reflecting light. Mirrors will reflect light. Make sure your furniture is neat and elegant rather than chunky or oversized, and keep it away from walls and floors. For example, a sofa with small legs rather than one that rests directly on the ground will trick the eye into thinking the floor space is bigger than it really is.​Finally, if cool and minimal is just not your thing, you could just ignore everything I’ve said, break all the rules, and go full throttle in the other direction. This home by Éléonore Bridge follows a more is more approach, and we’d happily while away an afternoon here!

interior design by Éléonore Bridge. via

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