When Lisa and Peter Rowley moved into their new timber home in Vermontville, New York, in 2013, it was a long-time dream come true. And at just about 1,200 square feet, the warm and cozy vibe they were going for was instantly achieved thanks to the intimate floor plan and small interior spaces.
The Rowleys represent a growing trend of would-be homeowners who are thinking small. While the average house size in America continues to rise (it was a little over 2,600 square feet in 2013), custom homebuilders insist that they work on plenty of small home projects for eager clients with an eye toward the future. “They’re looking forward,” says Bonnie Pickartz, owner of Goshen Timber Frames
in Franklin, North Carolina. “They’re thinking long-term maintenance and the energy required to heat a larger home.”
Mindful Design of a Smaller Timber Home
But choosing to build small doesn’t mean you can take shortcuts in the design process. In fact, Peter Rowley says, a small plan might demand even more design
attention because there’s less margin for error. He and Lisa carefully honed the plan for their home over the course of many months. “We came up with the design by spending an awful lot of time talking about how we wanted to live,” Peter recalls. Washington architect Greg Robinson tells clients who are planning to build small to keep their plans simple and consider their goals.
“How do they want to interact with family and friends in their new home?” Robinson asks. “Choosing to live in a smaller home is as much a lifestyle choice as it is anything else.” Pickartz, who lives with her husband in a 1,700-square-foot timber frame home, knows firsthand that living in a smaller home can be very satisfying. “Because we weren’t looking for ‘grand,’ we didn’t sacrifice anything,” she says. “The last thing we want for people is to feel that building smaller is sacrificing. We work on eliminating spaces they don’t use.”
All in the Details
Shaving down the square footage doesn’t guarantee a successful small home. “For a small home to live large it needs to have an open plan, be full of natural light
and be well connected to the outdoors,” Robinson says. “Carefully placed windows and outdoor rooms can greatly expand the feeling of space.” Libby Langdon, a New York designer and author of Libby Langdon’s Small Space Solutions
, agrees. “If you’re building new construction, one of the most important things is the placement of windows.” Space that’s not illuminated is wasted, she says.
Fortunately, timber framing allows for generous windows, because the frame, not the external walls, supports the roof structure. Windows placed high in the walls can bring light deep into a room. Indoor lighting needs to pull its weight, too. “You want to light all four corners of a room,” Langdon says. Providing plenty of light throughout an open floor plan
may call for floor outlets. “Pull wiring so you have lots of outlets,” she suggests. Talk to your timber framer or designer about a comprehensive lighting plan that gives you the light you need and plays up the home’s timbers.
Many small homes stretch their footprint with outdoor spaces, and double-duty or flexible spaces are perfect for small homes. Keep furniture in mind when adding these types of spaces. “The key to making it work is not cluttering it up with tons of little pieces of furniture,” Langdon says. “You might be better off spending a bit more money to buy a good desk with a hutch and storage. You could buy a bed with storage below and a nice dresser that can be a bedside table.”
At some point in the design process, you’ll face the issue of storage. You can trim your possessions to live in a smaller home, but you will still need to accommodate the essentials. Langdon’s advice is to measure the items you’ll have on hand in your new home. Will you display books and photo albums? Are there certain provisions you always stock in your pantry?
Measure these items and build shelving to accommodate them perfectly. Beyond pantries and bookshelves, Pickartz recommends looking for storage space under stairs and adding small closets wherever space allows. “We’ve all become accustomed to large walk-in closets,” she says. “Smaller closets can actually work really well — and sometimes better — and use less space.”
Big Rewards for Small Homes
Timber framing brings numerous benefits to small homes. The frame’s posts can help define spaces within an open floor plan, and the frame eliminates the need for halls and bearing walls, which can eat into floor space. Although few interior walls are needed, they can be easily added or removed as your needs change over the years. High ceilings, a natural feature of timber homes, make small rooms seem larger. “The vaulted space adds volume and a sense of space,” Pickartz says. “Lower ceilings in other rooms give the home character and dimension.”
The frame also makes a home special. “You don’t need extra furniture to make it a really dynamic home,” Pickartz says. “The timber frame is the ornamentation.” Most timber homes use structural insulated panels (SIPs)
for enclosure. The panels form a tight shell around the house, making it efficient to heat and cool. Owners of small SIPs homes reap double the benefits: A smaller home uses less energy than a larger one, and the super efficient wall system lowers that energy requirement even further. Small homes are easy on the budget, maybe allowing you to splurge on some areas of the home.
Living small can even seem like its own little luxury. “I think we can feel like our homes are running us,” Langdon says. “When you can live beautifully without all the stuff, it is one of the most luxurious things.”