Musings on space

I like thumbing through Sarah Susanka’s architectural books in the “Not-so-big House” series. I interviewed her a few years ago for All the Money in the World, and have looked through those books far more than I do through the average book that a publisher sends me.

Somewhat ironically, around the time I interviewed her, my husband and I purchased a home that is, to be honest, not-so-small. That was one of our rewards for moving outside New York City. We have three little kids, and since I work from home, we’re there a lot. We use most rooms most days.

I know that over time one adapts to most things, and it turns out that our sense of what is normal for space has changed in the past few years. I have been reminded of this as we spend two weeks in our beach rental house, adapting to less square footage.

This little town on the Jersey shore is charming and quaint. One of the big appeals is that you can walk to restaurants, stores, the ice cream parlor, etc. We get ice cream most nights, I’ve taken the kids out for pizza, and I bought bagels at the bake shop the other morning. Of course, part of everything being walkable is that the houses need to be smaller and closer together. Also, since it’s just my immediate family here this time (rather than going joint on a house with friends or relatives) we didn’t need a huge place to fit multiple families.  

Some parts are cozy and nice. Other aspects — like all of us sharing one upstairs bathroom — are a little harder. Not being able to send the kids down to the basement to play, so their toys are all over the living room coffee table, is also a challenge. We have the beach, but not much of a yard to send the kids out to play in. So they can’t all retreat to separate spots. Hence the constant bickering.

We have no plans to move back to NYC, but if we ever did, I’m sure we’d eventually adjust to having less space more permanently. We somehow lived with four of us in a 2-bedroom apartment for years. But right now, while I’m loving the proximity to the beach and everything else, and I could see staying in this same place again in the future, I also realize that I really like having my own sink.

Have your thoughts on how much space you need — or at least do much better with — changed over time?

In other news: My story on Why Entrepreneurs Shouldn’t Do Everything Themselves ran at Women & Co.

I have a longer piece at City Journal called “If you serve it, will they eat it?” on school lunch, and the recent changes in the program. I’ll write more about this topic later, but please give the piece a read!

20 thoughts on “Musings on space

  1. Laura, you’re not getting your usual multiple comments on your blogs during these vacation weeks. Just want you to know you have at least one reader who is really enjoying them!

  2. I have moved from a minimalism-is-best perspective to more of a whatever-works-for-your-family perspective. We were in D.C. this weekend, without kids, and I said it would be hard to revert to our old two-bedroom and two-kids days, after having the extra room these past few years. Seeing the cool Georgetown houses and D.C. apartments just made me think “I couldn’t do that anymore!”. I like our third bedroom and our closets too much.

    1. @Katherine- I love those Georgetown row houses too…in theory 🙂
      We were back in NYC a week ago visiting a pre-school reunion for my oldest son. Some of the families still live in NYC, and one has 4 kids. The mom has this amazing bike that she uses to transport 3 of them around (the kids sit in front of her in a buggy, not the back — apparently it has to be imported specially from more bike-oriented countries!) It is doable. But I just don’t have that kind of energy… We are at a suburban stage of our lives right now.

  3. I’m an introvert and I need my space. Hubby is the same way, so we have never lived anywhere small. Each of us had a 3 bedroom house when we lived in Arizona and I think either one of those houses would have been “too small” for us to live together.

    I’m mostly kidding about that, but the house we have now, which is split-level and has an office with a door for each of us now, plus separate rooms for the girls and a playroom, is just about perfect. We can all pretend like we’re alone in the house when we need to 🙂

    Obviously we could make do with less if we needed to, but given our preferences I would much rather have more rooms. Not more stuff, but just more space.

  4. I have to say, living in a 400 square foot bus with three kids has really changed my perspective on space and what is necessary for comfort and hapiness. I’m still working through my shifting opinion, but let’s just say that the house we are building is 2000 square feet and 4 bedrooms and leave it at that.

    1. @sarah – I’m sure it will feel luxuriously large! But I imagine if you’d been living in 4000 feet, going to 2000 feet would feel different. It is all about perspective…

  5. We’re somewhere in the middle of the space continuum- there are four of us in a four bedroom house that is a little less than 1400 square feet. We also have a nice backyard, and live in a climate in which that yard is usable pretty much year round. We are doing OK for space, but my younger daughter, who lost the room lottery by virtue of showing up last, is really, truly out of space in her room. We’re debating whether to get her a loft bed with a desk and play area underneath or put one of those fancy prefab shed/office things in the back yard for me, convert the little room to our guest room/office for my husband, and move our youngest to a decent sized room. Regardless of what we do on that front, we’re definitely making some improvements in our backyard, because it is sort of our favorite “room.” I do grumble a bit about how we’re only out of space because everything that goes in a house- furniture, toys, etc- has been upsized over the years. You can see it really clearly looking at Fisher–Price Little People sets. A set that folded to be the size of a couple of shoe boxes 10-15 years ago is 2-3 times bigger and doesn’t fold now. But I can grumble all I like, and I still have to just decide how to deal with it!

    1. @Cloud- I kind of like the idea of the office/shed out back, especially since you can have a place without too much exterior/climate control fanciness given that it is 70 degrees year round. And if you’re using the home office more frequently, it’s nice to have a separate space. You could give yourself a “commute” of walking across the yard to add a little separation of work and home life. I’ve always thought about having such a place, though it’s never happened in reality. Lofts can work for kids but it’s also nice to spread out.

  6. This is the question I’m struggling with: how do you know when you’ve truly grown out of a place? It’s generally possible to make smaller spaces work for you, and the maintenance can be easier. I think the smallest house that works is usually the best bet. But families grow, and needs change, and so it’s hard to plan when that next size house will be appropriate.

    1. @Leanne- yeah, this is a tough question. I know the assumption in organizing circles is generally that your space is fine, you just have too much stuff, but I disagree with this. The kids need their own beds, if not their own rooms, and my work just requires some stuff — books, files, printers, etc. — that it’s hard to keep too stashed away, meaning when my office is in my bedroom, I’m looking at them. Five people require dishes, and shoes, and outfits, and toothbrushes, and enough food storage space that you don’t absolutely have to shop daily. All of this is hard to pull off in smaller spaces.

    2. I think it also depends on your family’s personalities and tolerance for togetherness 😉 One of the big advantages we gained after doing our huge remodel/addition was that my husband can now work from home most days because he has a quiet work space with a door. That has changed our lives quite a bit for the better. We didn’t *need* the extra space, strictly speaking, but it has really made us happy.

  7. I think the house itself can be smallish. In fact, once we get rid of most of the kids, I would love for hubby and I to build one of those tiny Tumbleweed houses.

    But for me, the key to a happy marriage is separate bathrooms. And closets. I don’t like sharing with my wonderful but messy husband.

    And small bathrooms are a hassle when you have little kids who still need help pottying or with handwashing or teethbrushing. Big bathrooms means you’re not constantly bumping into things or having weird door configurations so you can walk in.

    I’ve discovered that I dislike large kitchens. Too much to clean and they attract clutter.

    1. @Carrie – the bathroom thing is key. With 5 of us we run out of counter top space with toothbrushes alone in one bathroom!

  8. For us, a lot depends on the outdoor environment. Here we can’t do anything in the summer so we need a larger house than we did the year we lived in a nicer climate and could go into the backyard at any point in time. It’s nice the way the kids can literally run around the house when it’s 100+ degrees outside, but much nicer to send them to the backyard when it’s 76 degrees.

    1. @nicoleandmaggie – not too hot here, but our rental house is pretty close to the neighbors…and they’ve already complained. Sigh.

    2. I often wonder about this factor when I see the cost of living comparisons. Yes, San Diego has really expensive housing. But… you can buy smaller and assume you’ll do any entertaining outdoors. You can plan outdoor (and free) activities without trouble. I don’t belong to a gym anymore. I miss the weight room, but I can generally exercise outside… And so on and so on. So how much does all of that offset the cost of housing? That’s not to say that I don’t love some other cities with less easy climates- there are several cities I love that have cold winters and/or hot summers. Many of them have far lower housing costs. But we never really seriously consider moving. Climate really does matter A LOT. I am ridiculously spoiled now.

  9. We carefully chose our house to have the most space (and separation) we could manage in the city. We have very large bedrooms (the boys bedroom is ENORMOUS, we could fit several more kids with beds and toys in there!), our bedroom is not as big but is on its own floor, with a deck, so its a sanctuary. If I want to get away, I go to our bedroom. My husband goes down to the basement to get away. The boys retreat to their room or go outside. We both grew up in the south where houses are generally big and modern and spacious, so a teeny tiny house where everyone is on top of each other wasn’t going to work, no matter what other lifestyle changes we’ve embraced.

  10. Our house (which we get to move back into on FRIDAY!) is 3 bed, 2 bath with an open plan kitchen/dining/living space and a separate living area off our bedroom that we use as a study. I’m inclined to think it is the perfect size for us. We’ve lived in a smaller house in NZ and I liked it – cleaning was fast, I was more disciplined on managing ‘stuff’ because there was nowhere to put it – but it was a bit space deficient for kids play. However, we spent very little time at home so didn’t go too nuts. We’ve spent the last three months at my parents in their 5 bed house… When it was just the 3 of us it felt stupid big. But for a few weeks it’s been 5 adults & 2 kids here and not too small at all!

    The weather does make a difference too. Like n&m, we have unbearable 100+ summers. While our house is big enough I really wish we had garden space for a pool…

  11. We are in the process of moving our family of 3 from 500 sq ft to 1800 sq ft. We keep getting lost in the new house. Even my husband is worried that its too much house for us.

    The only way the 500 sq ft apartment worked for us was that there were 2 bathrooms and 2 floors. We’ll see how we fare in our new house which is far from giant in today’s world.

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