How To Design Small Spaces for Multiple People

Designing small spaces for multiple people is a design challenge I’ve not focused on in great detail on Tiny House Design. It has however been the focus of my own future home plans and the core requirement of a design concept I hope to turn into a book called The Tiny Simple House.

In this article I’ll describe some ways of thinking about people living in small spaces that should help you more effectively approach the design of an existing or new small space.

Getting Everyone On The Same Page

Many of the smallest houses you see are built for one person and after a careful inspection it’s pretty easy to imagine how one person could live in less than 100 square feet. But as you can imagine choosing to live more simply and owning fewer possessions is required for this kind of extreme downsizing.

The first challenge of creating a tiny living space for multiple people is to get buy-in from everyone on choosing to live a frugal lifestyle. Compared to overcoming the actual design challenges this initial human challenge is by far the most difficult.

I suspect it’s our consumer culture that has conditioned us to think of a certain set of things as normal so unlearning what we’ve learned is the hardest part. For example, choosing to eliminate most of our possessions and keeping only the things we use regularly is a very hard step for most people to take. Even for those of us who have made the commitment find it difficult to make the time to finally get rid of all the extra stuff. Getting an entire family to rally around this and choose to downsize and simplify is rare.

My best suggestion in this area is to remember that all people change slowly and that the ultimate goal for downsizing usually includes creating more time to spend with your family and friends. Be patient and move forward and don’t leave anyone behind.

Take A User-Centered Design Approach

When you begin noodling over making a small space more efficient for multiple people it’s fairly common to assume one of the following two ideas:

  • If one person can live in 100 square feet then four people can live in 400 square feet.
  • Four people can live in less than 400 square feet because some efficiencies are found like shared bathrooms and kitchens.

I’m going to suggest coming at this design challenge from a different direction. You see you can’t simply make assumptions like these because different people have different needs and use their homes in different ways. For example a couple with jobs outside the home will have different needs than a couple that lives and works at home. Assuming that the same amount of space will serve these different needs equally would be a mistake.

Instead focus on the specific needs of the individual people today and projected into the future. Then while determining the spaces needed to meet these requirements and keep in mind that the real goal is to end up with a space that meets everyone’s needs while not overtaxing any one person. In other words strike a balance between too much and too little space so that the home truly provides value instead of costing too much time, money or energy.

Here are a few things that people often do together. These activities can often be served by shared spaces:

  • Gathering
  • Cooking
  • Eating
  • Entertaining

Here are a few things that people sometimes do as a group, but usually require private or dedicated space.

  • Sleeping
  • Bathing
  • Study Time
  • Work Time
  • Private Time

Considering the needs of the occupants first will always give you a firm foundation to build solutions. Most of us like to think about the solutions first because it’s more fun but doing so will often distract us from the real end goal. When you start with actual user needs you end up building only the things the users need.

You might even want to use the Pareto principal, also known as the 80-20 rule, to help guide your decisions. This simple rule says that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So instead of building 100% of a house to fulfill 100% of the functionality, build 20% of the house and get 80% of the functionality. This is a pretty smart approach because we usually only use a small portion of a large home’s functionality but it will always costs at least 100% or our time, money, and energy. So some functions might need to be left out of the design because their value doesn’t offset their cost.

Tips for Small Space Design

Once you have your priorities and people in mind applying some of these common small space design techniques will help you achieve more from less.

1. Think like a boat builder not a home builder

When we think of our living spaces in the context of a traditional home it’s easy to jump to common solutions like 10′ by 12′ bedrooms with walk-in closets. Instead think like a boat builder who must pack a lot of function into every tiny space.

2. Design bathrooms for multi-person use by dividing functional areas

Instead of designing bathrooms to contain everything consider breaking it into functional areas like a separate sink area, sink & toilet, and shower/tub. These individual spaces may take up a little more space than a single bathroom but they allow more people to use the individual spaces simultaneously.

3. Create built-in multi-functional furniture

Keep spaces open and clear by using built-in furniture and storage. This is an especially useful technique for bedrooms, hallways, and kitchens. Some common solutions are beds that can be hidden away, desks and tables that fold-out, cabinets that conceal possessions, and even cabinets that pivot and divide spaces. You could carry this to an extreme too by creating a single open space and then dividing it with floor to ceiling built-in cabinets.

4. Use your vertical space

Every cubic inch of a home must be heated and cooled so why not use it all when it makes sense. Beds with lofts above them can make fun rooms for kids and floor to ceiling built-in cabinets can provide enormous functionality.

5. Reduce transition spaces like hallways

This seems obvious and isn’t really easy to do. The best place to start is to build off a single open area and have rooms open directly to the larger space. You can also get more use out of hallways by lining walls with functional built-ins, concealed appliances, bathroom sinks, and so on.

6. Open up spaces and use subtle transitions

Subtle transitions help define the division between spaces but is more about fooling the eye than aesthetics. Spaces can be made to look longer, wider, and taller by creating visual progressions through any space. But when you close those spaces forming separate rooms you loose the optical illusion so its best to keep spaces open. Also use continuous flooring treatments.

7. Use high ceilings and draw the eye up.

It’s amazing what an extra foot of ceiling height can do to make a space feel larger. If you’re stuck with the ceiling height you have try raising your window coverings up to the ceiling and avoid cutting your walls visually in half with things like wainscoting. You might even try painting your walls one color 3/4 of the way up and then painting the top 1/4 and the ceiling a brighter color. Also be sure to point light fixtures up.

8. Use light solid colors and let the sun shine in

Light always makes small spaces feel bigger. Lighter colored your walls mean you’ll need fewer windows and artificial lighting. Busy patterns will make a space appear cluttered.

9. Include outdoor space in your design

The exterior of a home is often forgotten while you’re focused on making the inside feel bigger. The final product will be much more successful if you consider all your spaces inside and out. Think of the space outside as another room and open the house up to them visually. You’ll be able to achieve the same effects as you can with visual progressions inside the house.

10. Use simple window treatments

Your exterior windows and doors can help you make your space feel bigger. Avoid heavy, thick, and dark window coverings.

11. Reduce clutter, collections, and possessions

This is actually the first step that all of us can do right now to make out homes feel more spacious. I left it for last so that it would be left in your mind most vividly. Eliminating clutter and organizing what we already have will make any space feel bigger and help the occupants feel better.

For more articles on tiny spaces for families see these articles:

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, and visit my design blog, Tiny House Design.

5 Responses to “How To Design Small Spaces for Multiple People”

  1. Jessica LucasNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you for your ‘Think like a boat builder” advice. We used that concept in designing a renovation to our small house, eliminating the need for too much extra space. Built-in beds and dressers feature heavily in the plans and with a very small bump out, we were able to meet all of our needs.

  2. [...] Tiny Homes and Efficiency How To Design Small Spaces for Multiple People [...]

  3. dNo Gravatar says:

    ha. what is private time? ;=)

  4. susanNo Gravatar says:

    i love this article! i got a lot of ideas for me and my two boys.

  5. susanNo Gravatar says:

    i love this article!