Downsizing: How to Live in a Small Space with Less

How does one move from 5,100 square feet to 600 and still function? Attorney Glen Ackerman, who, when he moved from his large Pittsburgh home to his tiny one-bedroom Washington, D.C. condo started over with nothing but his clothes and a few books, will tell you "live only with the necessities," according to the Washington Post.

Bay Area empty-nesters Ruben Peterson and Rosemarie Fusano also downsized when they moved to a cottage in Paso Robles, CA. Their tip for coping with the smaller place, "Use a space efficiently by...utilizing every foot of floor space," Fusano told the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Want to know how to live large in a small space? Read on for 10 tips from these sized down homeowners as well as designers in the know...

The Georgetown architect and designer Ernesto Santalla of Studio Santalla hired to gut Ackerman's 1992 condo in the Penn Quarter relies on neutral colors, organizers, built-ins and open spaces, according to the Washington Post.

Below are tips implemented by Santalla for Ackerman's too-small-for-a-coffee-table space, and some more insightful tips from other designers. You too could soon feel right at home with the bare minimum.

1. Optimize your square footage. Knock down walls to open up space. Peterson and Fusano knocked down a wall to create a great room out of the kitchen, dining room and living room. Then dress up windowless walls by adding cabinetry, seating and shelving. This maximizes limited space and adds visual interest.

2. Use the same flooring throughout to make the space feel bigger. Having carpet in one room and hardwood floors or tile in adjacent rooms is a no-no, as different flooring causes the eye to jump from room to room. All the flooring in Ackerman's redesigned unit is limestone.

3. Create the illusion of two rooms.
You can use window panels on a track system, such as the Hunter Douglas Skyline Gliding Window Panels, to section off a kitchen when you need two distinct rooms. Or in the case of Santalla, he installed an island with bar stool seating and hanging light fixtures in Ackerman's kitchen, which sits off the front door. This gives the sense of a formal entry hall. The countertop can be used for food preparation and as additional desk space.

4. Unify shelving and cabinetry.
If you use the same materials for the cabinets and shelves, the consistent look gives the illusion of more space. Don't even think of mixing hardware. Here, Santalla used anigre, a light tan African wood, for the cabinets and wall panels. The hardware is polished chrome.

5. Build a seamless wall of closets.
Santalla used frameless doors with touch latches (no visible hardware or doorknobs), creating a clean, streamlined look. And on the inside, try non-slip slim hangers, such as Huggable hangers, which can double the amount of clothing you can hang in a closet.

6. Use a monochromatic paint scheme. Paint doors and ceilings the same colors as the walls to give the illusion of more space and creates an "infinity effect like the horizon," says Chicago designer Mary Susan Bicichi. In Ackerman's place, Santalla used Benjamin Moore's rich Rustic Taupe on the walls; the trim is Glacier White.

7. Use multi-functional furniture.
Sofa sleepers equipped with underneath storage, such as Sapapa by Aminach, are perfect for small residences, especially efficiencies where your living room is also your bedroom, says Beverly Hills Interior designer Christopher Grubb of Arch Interiors. "Choose sofas and chairs with open arms. This will help the room look less cluttered," he told Rented Spaces. Also storage items such as trunks can double as a table, or a bench if you toss on a cushion.

8. Buy space-saver appliances and accessories. Try a stackable washer and dryer set, which fits perfectly in a closet, or a metal accordion file that can be folded away when not in use. Pedestal sinks, as installed in Fusano's home, free up floor space in small bathrooms. Also, small foldable tables can be tucked away while not in use, and ottomans can double as seating or as a coffee table. "They can easily convert the room into an entertainment space when guests are over," says Grubb. Just be careful not to overdo it with lots of small items, says Bicicchi, else you'll just end up with the opposite effect. A lot of tiny pieces can make a room look cluttered and even smaller.

9. Hang large mirrors and long curtains. To give the illusion of more height and more windows start drapes or curtains just below the ceiling rather than at the top of the window, and take them straight to the floor, says Bicicchi. Strategically placed mirrors can also enlarge a space by reflecting light and acting as virtual windows. Fusano added glass and mirror accessories that also help reflect the light.

10. Add colorful accents. "If you are in a small space with [no color] to grab your attention, you become painfully aware of the size of the room," color consultant Amy Wax, author of "Can't Fail Color Schemes," told Rented Spaces. Use a punch of color in the artwork, which should be oversized, says Bicichi. Window coverings are also a great way to add in color.

Read more about small homes and downsizing
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Sheree R. Curry
is an award-winning real estate journalist who downsized after selling her 4,300-square-foot home in suburban Minneapolis.

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