Architects weigh in on living small

Credit: Eric Odor tore out every wall on the main floor of his home to open up the space. Photo by Troy Thies Photography

Eric Odor of SALA Architects tore out every wall on the main floor of his 1,400-square-foot house near 42nd & Vincent. Before the renovation, he said he felt like he was eating in a well, with a dining room taller than it was wide. Compartmentalization is typical of many Minneapolis homes, he said.

“There is always a warren of little rooms, no matter what period they came from,” he said. “Mainly I tear down walls and put in windows. … It’s a way to make little homes live bigger.”

Home size is on the minds of many in Southwest, with new home design rules in effect and construction season underway. The Linden Hills Neighborhood Council recently put out a call for homes less than 2,000 square feet to participate in a “Little Homes Tour.” The concept was to showcase creative alternatives to teardowns and highlight design that maximizes a house while preserving the character of the neighborhood.

The precedent that Fulton architect Chris Strom likes to think about is Fonzie’s bachelor pad above the garage in “Happy Days.”

“He didn’t have much, but it was perfect,” he said. “He has exactly what he needs.”

Residents often wish for bigger kitchens and more cabinets, but Strom said there are many strategies to do more with less. He said people often store appliances or extra knives on the counter they don’t use. He suggests placing more items in deep storage, such as flatware for entertaining that isn’t used very often.

“If people are redoing a kitchen, they have a tendency to add cabinetry wherever they can find space on the wall,” Strom said.

But innovations in base cabinets under the counter, with features like peg systems for dishes, allow for more efficient storage and help open up the space, he said.

The same is true in small bathrooms, where a simple medicine cabinet and pedestal sink can help open up the room, Strom said.

Efficient space in a house becomes more important as increasing numbers of families raise kids in the city. 

In the last eight years, Jason Rathe’s clients at Field Outdoor Spaces have gone from 25 percent families to 75 percent. Rathe offered a few suggestions for small Minneapolis yards.

Most families decide they don’t need large play sets in their yards, he said, as they typically live a block or two from a park. Instead, they might add a small gravel area or sandbox encouraging imaginative play, or in-ground trampolines or a climbing wall.

“Usually we look at doing something simple — creative play areas that double as something else,” he said. “A little bit of lawn is a kid’s best friend.”

On the patio, some residents find that outdoor sectionals and coffee tables are more functional than dining tables.

“People are just as likely to eat on a sofa as a dining room table,” Rathe said. “More than 50 percent of the time people are going out there to crash.”

In a small backyard, Rathe recommended small trees, such as 15-25 foot Serviceberry, Crabapple or Korean Sun Pear trees.

“Nothing is more important in a small backyard than small trees,” he said. “That’s what gets it to feel really nice. The eye looks under the branches.”

When thinking about small interiors, Dan Noyes said he draws inspiration from sailboat design — the “ultimate small space.” Noyes is executive director of Vesper Atelier in Northeast, and said high-quality materials can boost comfort, similar to a sailboat’s holly, teak and brass interior.

“One of the first things I try to get people on board with is high-quality materials,” he said.

Noyes said built-in furniture can also help anchor a small space. Families who enjoy roasting marshmallows at their fireplace could design built-in bench seats, for example. It’s a personal touch inspired by built-ins in Frank Lloyd Wright homes.

Local architects offered several other suggestions:

— Instead of trying to navigate through cut-up rooms, architect Christian Dean emphasizes clarity of circulation to help small homes.

“It always starts with a clear circulation idea,” he said.

— Architect Geoffrey Warner, designer of the “weeHouse,” said he often removes walls to let in light from all sides of the house.

“A lot of our work, especially starting out, was concerned with bungalows,” said Warner of Alchemy Architects. “They’re the original weeHouse or small house model.”

— Warner said well-placed skylights can add a few extra inches of headroom in key spots, such as bathrooms. Skylights can be particularly helpful on the upper story of bungalows with low ceilings.

— At a split-level home in Northeast, Odor removed a 10-by-16-foot chunk of the upper floor to create a modern, open and light layout.

“My inspiration for the Northeast remodel was the Edward Larrabee Barnes portion of the Walker, with galleries for living spiraling around a central shaft of stacked bathrooms (in place of the elevator shaft at the Walker),” Odor said in an email.

Odor said he often finds himself suggesting smaller additions than clients initially propose.

“We figure out how to solve the problem in the existing envelope,” he said. “Most houses are big enough for what people need.” 


Backyard photo with swing by John K Miller Photography.* Backyard photo with red chairs by Hilary Bullock Photography. Interior/porch photos by Troy Thies Photography.

*Photo attribution is corrected to include John K Miller Photography