12/05/2012 03:30 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Small Space Living


I love that folks are all riled up about the new "micro-unit" apartments that are being planned for San Francisco and New York City, because I lived in a one-bedroom, 250 square foot apartment with my wife and daughter... and I loved it. While a fierce debate rages over whether lowering the building code to anywhere from 220 to 275 feet will create useful, affordable housing for students, young people and elderly or unfriendly boxes that will turn us into animals, I think we should step back and realize that with good design, a space can feel as big as you want it to despite its square footage.

When I first moved back to New York City I was a student and then an elementary school teacher and my tiny home allowed me to live in my favorite neighborhood, near my friends and spend so much less on rent that I could live what felt like a very rich life. But I worked hard to redo my home multiple times to make it work, and I learned a lot in the process.

It was a big breakthrough to me, when I realized that space and how much you have of it is more of a feeling than a mathematical equation, which is to say spaces can "feel" big or small, open or cramped, comfortable or uncomfortable depending on how they are appointed and arranged. I thought that I had outgrown my little apartment a number of times and considered moving, but each time I decided to use my resources to redo my home rather than move, and every time I found my tiny space felt bigger and more comfortable.

The first thing I did was to remove as much loose furniture as I could in favor of built-ins. My whole bedroom, from bedframe to storage, was all built in, and later on, I had my thin galley kitchen totally renovated with built in cabinets to suck up every last inch of space. While gaining a lot more usable space, built-ins are easy on the eye and remove visual clutter.

The second thing I did was to install a lot more lighting. While most people's homes are curiously underlit, I installed the basic three points of light in each room and then added more inside of cabinets and closets to further illuminate the space (everything was on a dimmer for variation) and remove all hint of dark shadows. Where the eye can't see it doesn't go, which results in the "feeling" of a loss of space.

The third thing that I did was to remove a number of doors in the apartment. Doors take up a lot of space, don't allow you to place furniture close to them and, especially when you are living alone, are not always that necessary. I removed the bedroom and bathroom doors which swung open and replaced them with heavy sliding felt panels. This provided privacy, used up a fraction of the space, dampened sound and was cool to look at. I also replaced my awkward accordion closet doors with a heavy canvas curtain on a long curtain rod. With a light inside this closet it glowed like a window at night (people often thought it was another window) and allowed me to easily get in and out of 100 percent of the opening all of the time. It also dampened sound and added another cozy, bright texture to the room.

Of course, there are basic things I did as well, like painting all the walls in soft, off-white colors to reflect more light and staining the floors dark to add an illusion of the floor "falling away" from the walls which made them seem taller. I also came to realize the genius of clean windows. When windows are clean they let more light in, extend your gaze and reflect more light inside your home (like mirrors) at night.

And you do get used to living with less stuff, which is a lot easier than it sounds. In fact, one of the chief joys of small space living is not having too much stuff and knowing exactly where it all is.

Small homes are a lovely and very freeing way to live in a big city during certain times of one's life, where rents are high and space is dear. In America we tend to over focus on a blind need for space (perhaps it's in our adventurous expansive new world heritage), but if we can look past this for a moment and remember that the three biggest real estate rules always have been "location, location, location" and that having to move far out of the city center to get more space is counterproductive to what one wants in one's life. I have found in my life that I am far more willing to give up on square footage if it means being closer to the people I love, the neighborhoods I love and the work I love.

And I have learned that there are many powerful tricks for making whatever square footage you've got feel a lot bigger than anyone would believe.