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Shrink to Fit: How To Design a Small Timber Home

A small timber frame home may be the ultimate luxury.

Small timber great room

Smaller spaces, such as this inviting great room, offer coziness and comfort.

Lisa and Peter Rowley can’t wait to move into their new home in Vermontville, New York. The small timber frame home is just about 1,200 square feet, but will be a dream come true. “I liked the idea of exposed wood,” Peter says. “I knew I wanted a place that had ambiance and would be warm and cozy.”

When Janice and John Sutton move into the new home they’re building in western North Carolina, the small home will feel spacious: They’ve been living in a camper on their site for more than a decade, dreaming all the while of a small timber frame home that will be easy to maintain and live in throughout their retirement.

The Rowleys and Suttons represent a growing trend of would-be homeowners who are thinking small. Bonnie Pickartz, owner of Goshen Timber Frames, works on plenty of small home projects for eager clients with an eye toward the future. “They’re looking forward,” Pickartz says. “They’re thinking long-term maintenance and the energy required to heat a larger home.” In fact, the American home is expected to keep shrinking: The National Association of Home Builders predicts that by 2015, the average home will top out at just over 2,100 square feet. By comparison, the average home measured 2,500 square feet in 2007.

Mindful Design

Choosing to build small doesn’t mean you can take shortcuts on 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 small 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 to feel is that building smaller is sacrificing. We work on eliminating spaces they don’t use.”
Murphy bed

Space-saving furniture, such as a Murphy bed, minimizes impact on the overall room and creates multipurpose functionality.

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. If your goal is to make your small home as “green” as possible, make sure to buy the best windows you can afford. High-efficiency windows will help you realize even greater energy savings. And, as you design your home, remember that window style helps define a home’s overall look.

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. The Suttons’ home offers a small entry porch as well as a side porch with a heated floor, which may double as a sleeping spot for guests.

Double-duty or flexible spaces are perfect for small homes. “Talk about space that will be used part of the time,” Pickartz says. “Maybe you can have flex spaces, like an office that becomes a guest room.” 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.”

Paring Down

At some point in the design process, you’ll face the issue of storage. “We all have a lot of stuff, and a lot that we don’t need,” Langdon says. 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.” Collectors can live small, too. “If you do have collections, think in terms of getting them up on a wall,” Langdon says. “You don’t want that stuff on a tabletop.” Focusing the collection into one area also helps reduce the feeling of clutter.
Built-in bookshelves

Utilizing otherwise unused space allows homeowners to fit more into their small homes without sacrificing anything.

Big Rewards

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 SIP 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. “We didn’t sacrifice luxury,” Janice Sutton says.

Their new home boasts custom tile work, in-floor heating and an oversized master bath. Living small can even seem expansive. “I think we can feel like our homes are running us,” Langdon says. “I know how fantastic I feel when I just clean out a closet or clean off my desk. When you can live beautifully without all the stuff, it is one of the most luxurious things.”

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