My Slow Home: An Experiment in Small and Simple Living

Seattle, Washington

When my husband and I purchased our house in 2006, we were looking for a small, urban home in need of some serious TLC. After a house-hunting experience worthy of its own reality TV show, we finally found an 800 SF, 1910 fixer-upper that hadn’t seen a real upgrade in forty years! Since then, we’ve spent the last five years reinventing our home with thoughtful decisions and creative strategies that make the most of a small space and modest budget. Ultimately, our Slow Home goals are to create a home that is comfortable, efficient and will be around for the next 100 years. Learn more about what principles we've adhered to and tips for reinventing your own space after the jump!

It wasn't easy, but one of the best things we did was to spend the first year resisting the urge to start major projects and instead getting to know our house a little better. During this time we came to understand what rooms got good natural light, how the flow of our home worked and what elements we were missing. This process allowed us to look at our home holistically and put together a plan of action that was budget-conscious, DIY-friendly and met the functional and environmental goals that we set for ourselves.

If your home is small and in need of major upgrades like mine, here are the Slow Home elements you can put to use:

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Location and Size

  • If you're in the market for a new home, look for a small house on an existing lot that is within walking distance to restaurants, shops and parks. Living in the city isn't always the most economical option, but the savings in commuting, quality of life and personal time has been a worthwhile investment for us.
  • Buying or renting the smallest home that works for you is the best move you can make. You'll use less energy, water, materials and spend less time cleaning and buying things to put into your house.
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Space Planning and Design

After finding a small house in an urban neighborhood, we spent a lot of time brainstorming ways that we could improve the layout and flow of our home. Even though the 1910 floor plan (which included a kitchen with 5 doorways!) no longer worked for the way we live today, with a few careful moves we realized we could incorporate a second bedroom and sleeping loft without adding on to the house.

  • Don't be afraid to go against the norm. If you have a formal dining room that never gets used, consider turning it into a bedroom, den or office space. If you own your home, removing a wall or two can do wonders.
  • Utilize every nook and cranny. In our home, we turned a crawl space into a conditioned, "short basement" with lots of room for storage. Part of our attic was converted to a sleeping loft, providing the perfect spot for guests without the need for a formal guest bedroom.
  • We chose to keep our bedrooms and bathroom modest in size (but well organized!), giving more square footage to the communal spaces of our home.
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  • Set-up rooms so they serve multiple purposes. Our second bedroom is currently acting as a den, but could easily be converted to an office, bedroom or extension of our living space.
  • Replace swinging interior doors with sliding doors. Sliding doors free up floor space and can serve as a fun element in a room.
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Creative Storage

Throughout our remodel we've made a concerted effort to pare down our belongings to what we truly love and use. Finding storage in a small home with no closets is a challenge, but we made it work by getting creative: a long shelving unit doubles as a stair guardrail, a recessed shelf in our kitchen island hides the microwave and dog bowls, and a coffee table with storage inside keeps clutter under control.

  • Shallow shelving can be a life saver for keeping things organized with limited space. Use a mixture of open and closed shelving to limit visual clutter while putting the focus on the things you love.
  • Look for furniture with hidden storage compartments and take advantage of shallow spaces like under a bed or couch.
  • If you don't have the luxury of a walk-in pantry, install pull out cabinets that blend in with the rest of your kitchen.
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Energy and Water

It may not be the most glamorous part of homeownership, but replacing old and inefficient systems should be done as soon as is practical. In fact, we made it a priority to upgrade our systems before buying a new couch or other nonessential large items.

  • In our home, we replaced our ancient coal-turned-oil furnace with a high-efficiency gas furnace and swapped out our old hot water tank for an efficient and space-saving tankless heater. In our temperate climate, we rely on well-placed windows and fans for warmer days and don't have an air-conditioning system.
  • Don't forget about passive strategies. Our home had no insulation in the walls and leaky aluminum windows. Improving our home's envelope means we're more comfortable, spend less money on heating and don't have to worry about unwanted mold and mildew.
  • Water usage can be a bid deal in older homes with inefficient appliances and fixtures. In our home we installed a low-flow, dual flush toilet, low-flow shower head and an efficient dishwasher. We also made the conscious decision not to install a garbage disposal, ice maker, or other appliances that weren't really necessary.
  • Give careful consideration to the logic behind your home's lighting and use natural daylight to the fullest extent possible. By installing four skylights and using reflective white paint, we've dramatically brightened our home and rarely turn on any lights during the day.
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Materials and Air Quality

With each project that we've tackled, we've experiment with products, materials and finishes that are less toxic, durable and won't feel dated in a few years. To improve our indoor air quality, we converted a front porch to a mudroom and replaced any carpet with easy to clean hard surfaces.

  • For more permanent items like flooring, cabinets and furniture, choose things that you can be happy with for an extended period of time and rely on accessories, fresh flowers and other small items to add color to the space. Putting an emphasis on quality up front means a less disposable life style and money saved over the long haul.
  • Try to avoid impulse buys and look for ways to reuse or salvage local materials and products.
  • A comfortable home is one that doesn't make you sick. Identify areas that are prone to mold, mildew and other contaminants and figure out ways to remedy the situation.

We still have plenty of projects on our list, including ongoing efforts to improve the yard by removing impervious surfaces, planting natives and increasing the size of our veggie garden!

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(Images: Lauren Zerbey)