After years of growth fueled by the rise of the McMansion, the average square footage of American homes dropped for the first time in seven years in 2016. Homeowners now report that they value a home with smarter features and customization over sheer size, according to surveys done by the NAHB.
“We are seeing [homeowners] in general really wanting to live smart,” says Jessica Steeves, regional vice president at Gaithersburg, Md.-based Builders Design. “They aren’t necessarily looking for a massive home that’s a status statement, but they’re looking for the right home with the right spaces that can really fit their family. They’re thinking about how each and every room can function for them.”
But in a smaller home, finding the space for storage can be an issue. Remodeling talked to designers about their techniques for maximizing small spaces with clever storage and transforming unused areas into something functional.
Build In, Not Out
Designers stress the importance of utilizing the wall space that already exists in homes to add storage or design details.
“We strongly believe that every wall has the opportunity for storage, and there isn’t one wall that couldn’t utilize it,” says Janet Bloomberg, principal at Washington, D.C.-based KUBE Architecture. Any and all kinds of wall configurations can be used for storage, whether it’s a low wall, a partial wall, or a wall with windows.
“We don’t think of a wall as just a wall; it is a divider and it has properties to it,” Bloomberg says. “We think of walls as having thickness to them, so we often do two-sided storage, which has just a little bit more thickness than a regular wall but is a usable space.”
Vladimir Radutny, principal at Vladimir Radutny Architects, a small design firm in Chicago, says that building in niches with shelving or using the wall space to add a pocket door instead of a swinging door, for example, are ways to maximize the space within a home without adding to the footprint.
“We try to apply a suppressive approach instead of an additive one,” he says. “You’re pushing things into surfaces, building within the thickness of materials, and carving out the wall spaces.”
Create Clever Circulation
The more you build into a small space, the less room there is to walk around—and when every inch counts, you don’t have any room to waste. Maximizing both the storage space and room for movement can be a tricky equation.
“There’s a logic to minimizing the amount of circulation necessary to maneuver around objects within the space, and circulation is also layered with function,” says Radutny. “If you’re utilizing a corridor you would also build in storage within that circulation space so that it’s not just a means of getting from point A to point B, but it also becomes a space itself.”
Designers agree that vertical storage is more efficient since it utilizes height, where space is often at less of a premium.
“Using a space vertically is very important. With a walk-in closet, you’re always wasting the walking space,” says Bloomberg. “We try to double up the circulation by having linear storage along it … and will run the wall storage all the way up so that you’re using the space in the air.”
When working in small spaces, floating the storage shelves and built-in pieces helps to open up the space.
“Try to levitate things or give things the appearance of being off the ground or off the wall,” Radutny says. “It’ll feel lighter, so when you’re in a confined space it helps give some psychological relief.”
Maximize Kitchen Storage
Building pantry storage into kitchen cabinets helps to utilize the space in a room where there never seems to be enough. In fact, 85% of home buyers say that they want pantries with built-in organization systems, according to an NAHB survey. Stacking shelves and trays, rotating lazy susans, or base cabinet pull-outs that are built-in to an otherwise empty cabinet maximize what a homeowner can store behind a regular cabinet door.
“We were able to create a hidden pantry in the kitchen that you don’t even realize is there because it looks like one of the regular cabinet doors,” says Bloomberg of a recent project. “When you open [the door], it’s fantastic because you had no idea it is a 12-foot deep storage closet.”
Adding open shelving in the kitchen or other areas of the home disguises storage by turning it into a decorative element. Bloomberg suggests using light materials.
“We use a lot of steel in our spaces because it’s very thin and lightweight,” she says. “We try to make it so that things in the space feel very unimposing and it feels very open, like decorative steel for stairs and railings.”
Transform the Space
Opening up closets or turning forgotten corners into functional nooks generates more storage and creates the illusion of depth. A living room corner where clients may put a decorative piece—or leave empty altogether—is an opportune spot to create a corner nook with built-in shelves, utilizing the otherwise overlooked space.
“If you’re adding multiple functions in a room, it makes it feel larger because you can do more in the space,” says Steeves.
The space under the stairs, for example, has the potential to be a versatile closet, a built-in hideaway office, or even a wine cellar or dog nook. Steeves suggests taking the doors off closets and adding built-in desks and shelves to turn the closet into a functional room. Making these spaces decorative with glass cabinets or doors, colorful paint, and attractive lighting pieces will turn a previously forgotten space into both a practical element and a design statement.
“We grab every piece of space and make it useful for rooms that need it, rather than making it a hall closet for example, and we attach [the space] to a functional room in a clever way,” says Bloomberg. “You can’t let even one inch of space get away.”
For more on how to inappropriate these design ideas into your next remodeling project, check out some savvy products that create more storage in small homes.