Making A Small House Work

A couple of posts ago, I told a story about how, once upon a time, a farmer proposed that nutrition be the Number One material consideration in a child’s upbringing. The post brought a range of comments. One was from dear Nicole, who said she’d considered moving to a smaller home to free up more money for GAPS food, but had worries about whether this would work for her family. I don’t know all of Nicole’s circumstances, but I can relate to her feelings of worry. When I considered moving to a smaller home, and then sharing it with another adult and a total of three young children, I definitely had concerns! For one, I wondered how a GAPS family could share with a non-GAPS family. More prominently, as an introvert who loves many hours of silence and solitude, I feared having no access to “sanctuary”.

Related to this was a final and distinct concern: The place we liked most had just one bathroom. I’m not only an introvert, I’m also a rather private person. Plus, as a child I was trained to always close and lock a door when using a bathroom (and even run tap water if anyone was possibly on the other side of that door and able to hear my body getting things done). Thus, even thinking about sharing a bathroom in this kind of setting left me red with shame. How could this possibly work? And suddenly, I remembered two good friends, T & G, a long-time couple who at the beginning of their very long (and still going) relationship lived in a van. They quickly learned to do all their toilet tasks in front of each other -into a pail, no less! Although they credit their deep closeness to this, among other things, there was “no way” I could take things that far. Thankfully, no one was asking me to, but T & G’s approach inspired me enough to believe I could do this! I could use a toilet with the door open, or while others were bathing, or let others use the toilet while I was bathing. I was willing to give this adventure a good go.

I took a leap of faith, and I have loved what has come!

I have found there are a number of benefits to sharing such a small space:

  • There is less physical area to clean -thus, there is more time for cooking, resting, soaking in detox baths, etc.
  • It is far easier to supervise young children. I can cook or type while the youngest bathes, because the kitchen and bedroom are mere feet from the tub! When they play in a room with the door closed, we can hear what they’re up to and know when we need to intervene.
  • There is less to pay for. Not only have I experienced a vast reduction in rent and utility rates, but we also need smaller amounts of cleaning supplies and furniture, and less amount of “stuff” needed to make the suite feel full and cozy.
  • It is faster and easier to track things. A small home encourages each member to own less, such that less time is spent wading through piles of extraneous things to find what’s actually needed in any given moment.

Here’s how we make two adults and three children in a small, two bedroom apartment (approximately 800 square feet) work:

  • A Yard – In our search for a new home, this piece was critical for me. I wanted a yard for the kids -access to fresh air, soil, and grass; a garden for understanding where food comes from and the opportunity to taste the freshest options possible; and room to run, play, jump, and cartwheel without my having to pack food and haul them to a city park. This has been amazing for all of us! When the kids have an excess of energy, or need space from each other,or  either adult needs a bit of space, or both adults need to converse privately, anyone can access the great outdoors. It also gives us room to store our bicycles, so that we don’t have to have them inside. In our hunt, we were surprised to find a number of urban apartments, not to mention copious “secondary suites”, with yard space attached. In keeping with the “less to take care of” theme, we opted for a small yard.
  • Space Designation – In our suite, there is no longer a “bedroom”. Well, there are two spaces we imagine the builders intended to be bedrooms, but we don’t use them that way. The front room became a cozy living room. As it is right off the entrance and kitchen, guests can hang with us while our private spaces remain private, people ready for noise can get going while the sleeping areas remain quiet, and the kids can play right near us while we work in the kitchen. The living room became a master bedroom for my partner and I, but during the day, its queen-sized bed serves as cuddle space for anyone who climbs in, a cozy space for dad and child to explore math homework, or a soft space for parents to chill and read while the kids play actively nearby. The room’s floor space is used as needed for LEGO and art. The other former bedroom holds the children while they sleep, but also hosts a large table for homework and art or, while the kids are out, my own work. This way, we all have access to the brightest space for work in a room to which the door can be closed.
  • Declutter – Do a big declutter over the course of a few months. After that, maintain your space by decluttering weekly (after the major declutter, the weekly process will be super fast). The kids love “finding” toys they’d forgotten about. And they know that each session of decluttering is followed by a treat -a baked good, a new craft kit from Michael’s, or an activity such as ice skating. (I named this process “Release and Receive”.) We all get really into it! The kids decide what (from their stuff) goes, and I’m consistently surprised to see how easily they release stuff. My son was initially resistant, and I would set a number for how many things would need to go (and then he would choose which ones). I coached him through the possible approaches, such as assessing, “What do I have several of? What is broken? What can I easily get again if needed? Which things are most important to me and how much room do they leave?” He now releases things quite freely. (Click here to check out how one family went even further than I do -I find this inspiring!)
  • Minimize Furniture – Only after spending a month or two focusing on decluttering any excess, determine your actual storage needs. After the kids did a massive “release”, they “received” an IKEA storage tower each. (This was a once-in-a-lifetime-sized “Receive”!) Everything they own -clothes, books, stuffies, toys, personal art supplies- fits inside their personal tower. When there is too much, we announce another Release and Receive. The stuff belonging to my partner and I must fit on one of two shelves, on a clothing rod, and inside a filing cabinet (the kids don’t need to keep six years of tax records each). A final piece of furniture -a credenza of sorts- holds LEGO in the top two drawers and craft supplies in the cupboards.
  • Tidy daily; clean regularly – A small space feels larger and much more comfortable when it’s clean and tidy. Once you’ve decluttered, it will be much easier for the kids to put their things away after playing, before leaving for school, and again just before bed. The same is true for adults. Also, with little taking up floor or counter space, it takes little time to sweep and wipe. To kids, a small space feels as manageable as a doll-house, thus pitching in on the cleaning can feel doable, welcome, and exciting to them. After 20 minutes of work, they see a major accomplishment in having thoroughly cleaned an entire bathroom or floor, and feel so proud.
  • Eat well – Living in close proximity means we each need to be as grounded, calm, peaceful, and open as we can. When we eat a nutrient-dense meal every couple of hours, this is the natural outcome. In that period of intense stress I spoke of last week, I recognized that I had a responsibility to my four “roommates” to attend to that stress and heal myself as efficiently and thoroughly as possible. And when the kids eat well, they too are happy, peaceful, grounded, sharing, and cooperative. (When they eat poorly, the difference really shows.)
  • Take turns having sanctuary – When I need breathing room, my partner will take all three kids out for a walk. Or, if the kids are making great use of the house, one adult will stay home with the kids while the other may go for a walk or spend even 30 minutes at a nearby coffee shop. Each child and adult is encouraged and supported in requesting space and silence. The first person to need space will go into any one room and close the door. No one else is to go in unless absolutely necessary, and even then we knock first. If another needs quiet, too, he or she will take the second room-with-door. If more people need space and quiet, we call a “quiet time”. Sometimes we set the period of time, for example “one hour”. Sometimes we don’t, and we allow the space to fill again organically. Also, the first person to wake trots off to the cozy living room for reading, daydreaming, crafting, or writing. As each person wakes, each in turns follows suit, until the living room is full of quiet people doing quiet activities -and perhaps starting to chat. The house stays quiet, though, until the last one wakes and joins in. And then the party begins!
  • Early bedtime – If we let our kids stay up til 11pm, a small house can feel too small. If the kids’ routine involves them going to bed at 630 or so, there are several advantages: the kids are well-rested, thus infinitely more grounded, calm, and able to process expectations during the day; the children have sanctuary, i.e., time to daydream, ponder the day, or listen to the leaves rustling in the trees just before sleep; the children learn how to be present with and for themselves, rather than distracted and entertained all day by others; the adults get some time together (or alone), in undistracted peace, which gives them emotional and physical energy to be fully present to parenting all the next day; and the children get to wake whenever it is natural for them to do so, without a jarring alarm. We don’t require the kids to be asleep at 630 or 7 -one cannot necessarily control when sleep happens. We simply require them to move into quiet stillness in their beds at that time. Most often, they are asleep within 10-30 minutes. The oldest sleeps until about 7am; the middle one sleeps until about 730 or 8am; the youngest sleeps until 8 or 830 (or even 9!) am. We thought this would be a difficult adjustment for the two who were used to a much later bedtime. Boy, were we all surprised to learn they love it!
  • Use other spaces – Rather than maintain a home large enough to serve as a personal community centre, use the actual community centres, parks, swimming pools and ice rinks in your neighbourhood. We welcome friends to our home, but more often we suggest meeting them at parks and free community events such as craft sessions. We are home a lot, and love it for cooking, baking, bathing, crafting, playing board games, watching movies, and more, but we also spend at least half of each weekend riding our bikes, visiting the library, joining community workshops, or accessing other free or low cost community events.

I ponder my childhood, growing up in a very large house. I came from a big family but even though I shared a room, I felt isolated and sad much of the time. When I finally had the option of having my own room, I appreciated that during the daytime but found myself dragging my mattress back into my sister’s room at night -I missed the comforting sound of her breathing!

As an introvert, I have been surprised to find I absolutely love sharing 800 square feet with four other people! The key was to find ways to make it work. There are so many benefits, including vastly more time to just hang with the kids, building our relationships with them and attending to their emotional and psychological needs. But another benefit is the additional financial room to ensure the most nutrient-dense diet possible, which I view as the primary investment -including financially- that anyone can make.

All of this said, as with all things GAPS, I recommend each person take their time in finding their path. In the GAPS Guide book, I recommend a slow, gentle transition to the dietary aspect of GAPS. Likewise, changing homes can be a major decision -affecting one emotionally and psychologically. I recommend doing it if needed, but do definitely care for yourself in the process, too.

Question: How do you make a smaller home work, especially one which includes tweens and teens?


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4 Replies to “Making A Small House Work”

  1. I love this post! My family of three (2 adults, one 16yr old) lives in a house that is small, and we, too, have found all of the above works wonders. Well, the 16 yr old doesn’t go to bed at 6:30, but does quite often take herself to her room early-ish to have some time away from the adults. Our living room is also a bedroom with a foam mattress that we keep in the utility room during the day. The house has two “bedrooms”, one which the 16 yr old uses, and one that my partner uses for his office. My office is the “alcove”, a space that also has the washer and dryer (I’m lucky to find those sounds soothing.) The adult’s other “bedroom” is outside – a converted shed that was one home to a car. Now it is a sleeping space, a library, a yoga studio, massage studio, dance studio, and refuge, depending on who needs what when.

    Direct benefits:

    Less stuff!
    Less cleaning! (my two faves)
    Less to heat in the winter

    We spend more time together because we can’t get away from eachother unless someone needs time to themselves – then it’s the studio or a coffee shop for reading. This might sound like a nightmare to other introverts, and when we were looking at the house, my biggest fear was that we’d all come to hate eachother in about 3 months. But we find more ways to be doing things together. It’s (mostly) lovely.

    Because we are conscious of sound and how it impacts others in the house, we hardly watch any TV. We do watch DVDs, but usually it’s all of us on the couch. This is a great way to stay connected to a 16 yr old, providing some body closeness without being too mom clingy. We can also individually watch something on the computer with earphones if we feel the need to zone out for our own personal escape.

    When the 16yr old, a very boisterous personality that needs to sing and dance and take up lots of space, feels the need for some loud music and big movements in the space, she knows she can ask us to go to town and give her the house for a couple of hours. Very good training for asking for what she needs when she needs it.

    Another favourite aspect of having two possible areas for bedrooms for the two adults is that I can say “I need to sleep by myself tonight” when I need to have more space. The studio outside has a very simple bed that my dad made that folds up into the wall. So a double bed with a foamie takes up no more space than about 8 inches out from the wall. I go outside and have my own little hideaway while my partner can work or read until he’s ready to go to bed in the living room. SWEET.

    The bathroom thing was hard for my partner, who still pees absolutely silently, seemingly by magic. But we make lots of jokes about it so that the awkwardness of body sounds can be awkward but not shameful. My niece visited last year and they were all watching a movie in the living room – about 3 feet fromthe bathroom. I heard her say “Your mom’s a loud pee-er” and I had to laugh…and say “Oh yeah? Wait till it’s your turn to pee!”

    Thanks so much for writing about this topic! And you’re right that houses have tended towards the personal community centre for each family. I’m so glad that necessity finally got us into the perfect size of house for us.

  2. One of the best posts ever Baden. If I had to live in close quarters with others I’d want to do it like you’ve described. I think this is an excellent template that could be used by many people if/when economic problems escalate or collapse and more people need to get creative about living with less. Your example shows how it can be done. I love how practical your ideas are presented. You show how doing with less could actually improve the quality of life, even to being better than having tons of room and stuff.

    I would think a huge part of your success at implementing this approach is due to both you and your partner being closely aligned and in agreement on doing it. People who live together but have different degrees of ‘readiness’ to live with less, or who have major procrastination around doing the purging process or who just really value their stuff….for them it could be really tough to implement your ideas.

    My partner and I live in a small house on a half acre. After being renters all our adult lives we are now new home owners, at the edge of a small city. We decided to do an urban homesteading type of thing. Wanting to grow more of our food. Neither of us are handy with tools and I’m new at gardening and chicken husbandry. We have noticed that it takes a lot of tools and supplies and places to store them….Tools and supplies for the gardening and the chickens but also for home maintenance. We have noticed that processing food from the garden, and storing it takes space. So even though we have been moving in the direction of having less, we turn around and started collecting more stuff – but much needed stuff – to support our life style. (ie. fewer electronic gadgets and toys and more tools etc.).

    For people who want to live like this and do more of their food production it could make sense to have small groupings in neighborhoods where people share some tools, or even have one giant kitchen where larger food production projects could happen. While individual small homes could have smaller kitchens. I like dreaming about this stuff. It takes time for people to implement change voluntarily unless they are forced to.

    I will keep your post in my special file of helpful life style models. I will share it with others’ who want to go in this direction.

  3. Just wanted to pop in and say thanks for this wonderful post, Baden. My husband and three-and-a-half-year-old and I recently moved into a 700-square foot house in Los Angeles and we are very surprised at how much we are enjoying the small space. Really, a 700-square-foot house was the only way moving to LA was financially feasible and it has worked out great. I find that decluttering is my biggest challenge. I did a big purge before we moved but now am contemplating how we’re going to fit all the grandparents’ Christmas gifts into the house when we arrive back in a few days. I love the idea of “release and receive” – thank you for that! We co-sleep still, so it’s nice that our second bedroom can serve as a dedicated play space/quiet time space for our daughter. I think you’re so right that living in a small space is quite conducive for family harmony, if managed right. I know my daughter absolutely loves it!

    • Great to hear, Annie!! I believe that by posting our experiences, others can feel encouraged to move in this direction and have it be a successful experience for them, too. So, thanks to you also!

      All my best,

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