Smart Layouts for Small Spaces

A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language was written over 30 years ago, but remains a must-read for architects, designers and planners. After studying the language of how people live, author Christopher Alexander compiled hundreds of "patterns" which represent answers to common design problems and range from the micro scale of a single room to the planning of entire cities. These ideas are just as relevant today, especially for those trying to make the most of a small space. For insight into what makes a home truly inviting and comfortable, keep reading!

While completely worth reading cover to cover, A Pattern Language is a bit hefty and includes over 250 patterns. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Bed Alcove - By placing a bed in the middle of a room, the valuable space around it usually serves no purpose except for circulation. Alexander argues that the bed should be in its own cozy alcove separated from dressing, working, and storage of clothing.
  • Half-Open Wall - To strike a good balance and flow, rooms should not be completely open or completely closed to each other. In addition to a standard half-wall, this pattern could be achieved with a low shelving unit, a piece of furniture or a free-standing screen.
  • Open Shelving - Standard cupboards are often too deep and can be a waste of space. Instead, use narrow shelves of varying depth and organize your things so nothing is hiding behind something else. After all, living small is all about keeping tabs on what you have!
  • Waist-High Shelf - In every home there are certain objects (keys, cell phone, purse) that are handled daily - waist-high shelves in the main rooms of a home provide an easily accessible location that keep you from losing your things (and your mind!). Open shelving or cabinets below can also provide useful storage without taking up much floor space.
  • Built-In Seats - Everyone loves window seats and they can be a great space saver, but many times they simply don't work. Successful built-in seats need to be deep, padded with cushions or pillows and have access to sunlight.
  • Entrance Room - In many houses and apartments, the front door dumps you straight into the living room which can be awkward and make furniture layout difficult. An entrance room is meant to straddle the boundary between indoors and outdoors and provide a comfortable transition into the home. It doesn't have to be a full-fledged mudroom, even just a small bench and a couple of coat hooks provide a spot for people to pause.
  • Tapestry of Light and Dark - Creating alternating areas of light and dark throughout a home provides contrast, placing an emphasis on the brighter areas. Because people are naturally drawn to light, these spaces should be the most important in the home. Even if your home is tiny, varying the levels of light can provide much-needed distinction between rooms or spaces.
  • Farmhouse Kitchen - Isolated kitchens are a remnant from the early 20th century. Today, successful kitchens go back to the farmhouse model of bright and comfortable work spaces that include enough room for families to gather. In small homes, consider ditching the dining room for an informal kitchen table that can be used for dinner parties or extra work space.
  • Light on Two Sides of Every Room - When given a choice, people always gravitate towards spaces that have light on two sides.
  • Six-Foot Balcony - Everyone has probably lived in an apartment with a too-small balcony. Simply put, balconies and porches which are less than six feet deep are hardly ever used. Usable balconies can also serve as extensions of indoor living spaces, making a small home feel larger.
  • Sitting Circle - A sitting space should be protected and not interrupted by circulation paths. Arrange seating in a circular way to encourage gathering and make sure there are a variety of seating options, even if it's just a couch, a chair and a few floor cushions!

(Image: Apartment Therapy)