Tiny house trend: 6 style lessons for small spaces

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Gray walls keep this open space visually unified, while glass partitions section off a sleeping area.

Small is getting bigger for sure. The average American single-family house will drop to 2,152 square feet this year, 10 percent smaller than five years ago, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

But there’s a growing percentage who live large in much smaller quarters — less than 1,000 square feet, considered the benchmark for "small" by many, and closer to 200, 300, or 400 square feet to qualify as "tiny" or "micro."

Design experts are busy bringing out an arsenal of strategies to make small-scaled life comfortable, even liberating. Many homeowners know about using dual-functioning furniture, enlarging windows, expanding space through white palettes, and having fewer possessions. But in doing so, many worry about giving up style.

There’s no correlation. "Less really can be more if you have around you what you love, and what works for you at whatever time of life you’re at," says Sara Emslie, an interiors editor and stylist who lives in a 646-square-foot, two-story home on the outskirts of London, and has compiled ideas in her first book, "Beautifully Small: Clever Ideas for Compact Spaces" (Ryland Peters & Small, 2015). We talked with Emslie from her London home for advice about how to live stylishly on a small scale, which, she says, works well for small spaces in larger homes. Here are six favorite tips:

Play up architectural features. Start by taking advantage of the framework — walls, ceiling, floor, and especially a building’s history, which can add interest and character. A partial wall or ceiling beams can minimally and visually divide a multi-use space rather than chop it into tiny rooms. Changes can be made for better flow when there’s so little space to navigate, such as relocating a central staircase in a two-story space. Always look at the space vertically, too, especially if it has high ceilings or unused roof space. You might build in a mezzanine or loft level for work or sleep.

Rethink traditional living. You don’t have to have every space a traditional home does — for example, a designated dining room or area, if parties aren’t your thing and you’re content eating at a breakfast bar, for instance. Or if you’re not into cooking, devote less space to a working kitchen. Dual purpose rooms and areas also work well, such as a room with a bench for seating with storage underneath.

Go beyond white. White may be the go-to color to expand space, and there certainly are many white spaces in Emslie’s book. But it’s not the only effective choice. Grays are enjoying the limelight as a neutral that works as well. Emslie also suggests painting floors darker than walls if rooms have compromised ceiling heights. For rooms with lots of natural sunlight, she says, go with brighter hues; for rooms that are very dark, she recommends going dark — not to expand space, but make it feel intimate and cozy. Texture can also add color by offering a layered effect with tactile touches in velvet, chenille or leather.

Favor one style. Any style can work, and even clutter can be attractive if done with some restraint and organization. Emslie’s one caveat: Don’t make the final result so busy that the brain feels overloaded. How many is too many? It’s a subliminal feeling, she says, which requires practice. She also prefers objects grouped in an odd number, perhaps, three, five, or seven. "Nine may be too many in a small space, but it depends on the objects grouped."

Scale right. Small room proponents have all sorts of theories about small versus large furnishings; so does Emslie, who says it depends on the amount of other stuff in a room. A large sofa can work in a small living room if it’s not filled with too many other furnishings and possessions; same goes for a big bed in a small bedroom, or you can go with a smaller bed with a high headboard. Vintage furnishings were typically scaled smaller than modern pieces, so consider those, too. Again, hone the eye for what looks right.

Bring in the outdoors. Views draw the eye out and expand interior space. Or bring in the outdoors through your choice of artworks; perhaps, an image of a seascape by a window. And if you have windowsills for planters or window boxes then make the most of this — anything that links the inside with the outside will allow the eye to be drawn out and create a feeling of life beyond the room and the space outside.

What’s next for the small space movement?

More than 17 years ago, architect/author Sarah Susanka helped give birth to the idea of not-so-big houses with the launch of her first book, "The Not So Big House" (Taunton Press, 1998). Her concept stressed going with a quality design rather than a quantity of space. Others, such as architect Ross Chapin, took the idea one step further by encouraging clustered neighboring houses or apartments around shared open space.

Since then, houses and apartments have slimmed down much more, with the trend expected to continue in step with rising real estate, design and maintenance costs and interest in being greener. There’s no definitive number of people living in small homes — fewer than 1,000 square feet or tiny houses under 400, says Ryan Mitchell, who writes a blog, http://www.thetinylife.com. He also helped start the annual The Tiny House Conference, and lives in a tiny house of 150 square feet, though it sits on 23 acres.

Mitchell pegs advocates as primarily boomers downsizing and millennials not wanting to turn over their entire paycheck for a mortgage or lease. "They don’t want to repeat the mistakes of their parents and are very relationship-focused about socializing with friends," he says.

Even big developers like RMK Management Corp. are paying attention; at its 73 East Lake building in Chicago’s East Loop neighborhood, studio/one-bedroom hybrids average between 680 and 690 square feet, smaller than in other properties, says Diana Piettro, executive vice president. What makes them work: movable kitchen islands that can function as tables or buffets, opaque glass sliding walls that partition off a bedroom area, and multiple building amenities.

Cleanliness and frequent editing are also essential to make small spaces habitable, says New York City designer Shane Inman, who lives in a 275-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment and emphasizes not validating ourselves by our possessions. Instead, his goal has been to have an apartment to relax in before "heading into the crazy hustle and bustle of New York."

Even in Mitchell’s case, his tiny house offers proximity to big-city Charlotte, N.C., 15 minutes away, which reflects Susanka’s — and others’ — belief that living small is improved when a larger community becomes an extension of a home. Mitchell’s house reflects another Susanka mantra — making whatever space you have the best. He did so with beautifully crafted drawers with dovetail joinery instead of closets that would consume more space and 16 custom windows sited to capture views.

And while green is not a requirement, many advocates believe in using recycled and reclaimed materials. Social media/digital marketing specialist Emily Moorhead at InventHelp thinks the green movement has fueled the trend, along with an explosion of blogs and websites. "So many people want to be less dependent on the government for electricity, or grow their own food," she says.

The major obstacles are that many building codes require a house be at least 500 square feet to guarantee a tax base. "I built my house to code — even exceeded it in many ways, but technically my house is illegal," Mitchell says. He has no concern about resale.

"Most of us design for ourselves. I’ve been able to save enough to pursue being a full-time blogger and traveler. I spent four months in Croatia last year. Before, that would have been impossible," he says.

Ballinger is a freelance reporter for Tribune Newspapers.

SIDEBAR:

Tips for maximizing space with color

Color can be a magician; here are 5 tips from Jackie Jordan, Director of Color Marketing at Sherwin-Williams.

— Use light, fresh, neutral colors since they make a room seem larger — they visually recede and reflect more light into the room.

— Grays can make nearby colors seem brighter and, in turn, spaces bigger.

— Monochromatic schemes, even a variety of shades of a single color family, can work; what’s important is consistency to reduce the eye’s ability to perceive spatial dimensions.

— Strategically placed pops of color are fine; for example, paint two opposite walls with the same bright color.

— Painting floors with a light shade can open up a small room.