Dreams of Living in a Dollhouse

Fluffy in the doll house square cropWhen I look at the 1960s photo of my 17 pound cat, Fluffy, in his favorite sleeping spot, the upstairs master bedroom of my split-level dollhouse, I realize that the split level of about 1,800-2,000 sq. ft. still represents my ideal house. With only the two of us and the cats at home, I want less space to clean, but higher walls for photographs and art, and more rooms to fill with the STUFF collected over a lifetime. I also crave more outdoor space for waterfalls, fish ponds, gardening, and barbecuing with friends. But for many, homes far larger than this represent prestige and wealth. I remember the first 10,000+ sq. ft. home built in Scottsdale—now they are commonplace.

In 1955, the average new-build was 1,065 sq ft and sold for $11,000, aprox. $10.35 per sq. ft. Here in Phoenix, the average was 950 sq. ft. for $10,000, easily achievable for the WWII and Korean veterans starting families. This was the “birth of the baby boomers.” Home ownership was at a rate of 55%. Jobs and salaries increased into the 1970s and, as they did, average home sizes increased. Families decided two bathrooms would be better than one, and that it might be nice if three girls didn’t have to share a small bedroom.

Twenty years later, homes averaged 1750 sq. ft. Nationwide, the average home increased further, to 2385 sq. ft. in 2008, and again up to just over 2650 sq. ft. in 2013 before starting a downward trend.

Why the Size Increase During the Builder Crunch?

As you may recall, the average tract home builder suffered a major drop in housing starts between 2008 and 2013, so the average size being higher during that time period comes as no surprise—the custom home builders were the ones who were the busiest. Increased material wealth and prestige are cited as the major reason for this increase, just as between 1955 and 1975—only those still increasing their wealth after 2008 were generally not the middle class.
Interestingly enough, a recent Trulia-Harris real estate survey indicates that the majority of home buyers feel their ideal home size would be either 1400-2000 sq. ft. (28%) or 2000-2600 sq. ft. (27%).

Tiny Houses / Small Houses:
A Swing of the Pendulum, or a Great Experiment?

Once the financial climate improved, we started to see examples of an interesting phenomenon: the Tiny House. While the Small House is defined as 400-1000 sq. ft., the Tiny House is defined as below 400 sq. ft., with many being smaller than my room in college.

Tiny Houses became a trendy, sustainable option, touted in magazines, books and television series as a realistic living space, even if only for a second home or guest house. After all, they are as cute as….well….a doll house!

Interestingly enough, only 9% consider a home between 800 and 1400 sq. ft. to be ideal—the same percentage who prefer a 3200 sq. ft. or larger home. Below 800 sq. ft. tends not to even be available as a survey choice! Indeed, small houses and tiny houses represent only 1% of the real estate market.

So Who Builds One?

Pietro-Belluschi-tiny-house from tinyhouseliving
236 Square Foot Tiny House by Architect Pietro Belluschi & Son Anthony

Most are built as ADUs (accessory dwelling units), like a writer’s cottage, detached home office, artist’s studio, pool cabana or guest house. Check out the big box builder centers, and you’ll see the backyard shed reinvented to look like a stand-alone home. Some are built on vacation lots. But many vacation properties, much like urban and suburban areas, face minimum residential dwelling unit restrictions in place to preserve property values. You may not be able to get a stand-alone small house financed or permitted.

The challenges of living in a smaller space, whether a Tiny House or just one with less than you’re used to, are the same: to fit in everything you truly need without clutter, and to make your rooms feel more spacious than they really are.

The following tips should help you to design a smaller space with pizzazz:

Rethink Scale: The most difficult challenge is fitting any existing pieces into a small-scale space. If your furniture was designed for voluminous rooms, you may need to consider consigning them and purchasing smaller pieces. Swapping out that square, wood coffee table for an unusual small trunk or a low book shelf to house your must-have reading may be a smart fix. If your shin hits the coffee table, ergonomics rule it out.

Dual Purpose Furnishings. Odds are, you’re not going to waste precious space on a formal dining room table. A flip-up wall-mounted shelf beneath a window provides a great space for breakfast with a view. Furniture that doubles as storage is more than a nice bonus; it’s a “must” for smaller spaces.

• Less is More in Upholstered Pieces: What do you really need in this small space? It depends on its use. If it’s your private haven, one extremely comfortable chair/ottoman will work—plus if someone knocks on your door, you have that separate ottoman. Sleeping space for one? What if your only seating was a day bed or futon, eliminating the separate bed, chair and ottoman? Even better!

• Be Color Smart: Simplifying the color/pattern combinations will give more breathing room to your décor. Try using one less pattern per area in your fabrics and backgrounds, and if you typically design with more than three colors, eliminating one accent color can make all the difference. You’ll be surprised how simple changes can work wonders.

• Open up Spaces with Visual Windows: What you place on your walls can also help you feel less confined. Landscape or coastal subjects visually open up a smaller space. The view of a distant horizon acts as a “window,” giving the impression of a faraway vista. Subjects with direction, such as a line of trees, train tracks, or a flowing river, add movement and lead us to imagine what lies ahead in the distance. In abstract art, seek out pieces with similar lines to horizons and train tracks or rivers, and your eyes will follow those lines to provide your senses with the same feeling of expanding space. Likewise, images of flowers in mid-bloom provide a feeling of growth and expansion.

• Add Drama with Lighting: Effective use of color, combined with museum style lighting, can add drama and make special furnishings and wall art “pop.” You can still use recessed lights in the ceiling, but go with a narrower beam spread—even a spot. If your eye moves from one pool of light to the next, you experience the space as being larger. Art placed on a darker wall painted in a color that complements the piece (not too dark, of course, or the walls will begin to close in!), adds to the illusion of spaciousness. Strategic lighting of art, sculpture, or any space you want to draw attention to, will bring it to life and further expand the space.

• Let Your Focal Points Breathe: Remember to give artwork and other focal points space surrounding them. And by all means, get the furniture up off the floor—legs, trestle bases, and desks without privacy panels allow viewing through your furniture to the floor beneath. Keep fabrics up off the floor, too—comforters or throws instead of bedspreads with your bed on decorative legs are a must in a small bedroom.

With careful selection and enhancement of furnishings, accessories, and art, you can create interior spaces that feel spacious and inviting, whether your home is small, tiny, or—just more reasonable than it used to be!

dkemptonA professional member of IIDA, Diana earned her specialty LEED credential for Interior Design + Construction in 2013, having earned her LEED AP in Building Design and Construction in 2006. She worked for Del Webb Corporation designing semi-custom interiors, and spent thirteen years with a local builder supplier before returning to work as an independent designer. She also operates an antiques dealership and teaches sustainable design, space planning, materials and estimates, and color theory at the college level. In creating livable interiors, she is particularly sensitive to not allowing our high-tech lifestyles and the interior walls of our homes to divide us from one another, and has been focusing on Mid-century Modern design in recent years. Diana can be reached at

1 Comment on this Post

  1. Sandi Sienkiewicz

    Great article!


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