This first part of the guide reveals the things that must be taken into consideration to design a great small home. These are the essential qualities that make small homes a pleasure and joy to live in.

If you’re looking for the second stage of the essentials guide, or you’re more interested in making an existing small home feel big, please click here.

Austin Maynard's 'Tower House' is a series of small, playful structures that are woven together to form a larger whole

I have lived in all sorts of houses throughout my life.

What I remember most from these periods is not the houses themselves, but instead my experiences and memories from those times.

Before you begin reading this article which will illustrate the essential characteristics that make up a successful small home, it is important to remember that a home provides a refuge for living – a framework.

While some ‘frameworks’ are better than others, always central to the success and joy of living in any house is the human experience.

The topics covered in this article are simply an introduction to the various elements that comprise a good small home. If the design of a small home falls short in one of these areas, it simply won’t be living up to its potential.

Let’s not let that happen! On to the topics…

Site Analysis

Just like every person, every site is unique.

Understanding the site in which you will construct or renovate your small home is a crucial first step in the design process.

Unfortunately, many perceive the process of conducting a site analysis to be akin to mastering some form of dark magic – believing that is only taught on the highest mountaintops of the most prestigious and elusive design schools.

The reality is, anyone can conduct a site analysis, as long as you are willing to spend time observing.

A site analysis is the process of studying contextual forces of a site, and working out how they might influence where to situate a small home, lay out its rooms, and establish its relationship to the landscape.

When conducting a site analysis, take note of the following characteristics:

  • Soil type
  • Topography
  • Existing trees and vegetation
  • Drainage patterns and water features
  • Solar radiation and the sun path
  • Prevailing wind directions
  • Expected rainfall throughout the seasons
  • Possible access points for vehicles and people
  • Any available access to existing utilities (water, sewer, gas, etc.)
  • Desirable and objectionable views
  • Adjacent land uses
  • Existing character and scale of any surrounding buildings
  • Any existing cultural or historical resources
  • The impact of existing vegetation and landforms on solar access
  • Climatic conditions such as the average temperature and humidity throughout the seasons
  • Regulatory factors such as zoning, setback or height restrictions

In future articles, I will be going into more depth on how to conduct a site analysis and what to look for.

Spatial Planning

Spatial planning may sound like a pompous architectural term, but it is actually a very simple idea that attempts to answer the question of WHERE.

  • WHERE is the best place to locate the bedrooms?
  • WHERE does the living room go?
  • WHERE should the bathroom be located?

To answer these questions, you must first rigorously identify the behaviours, personalities, and lifestyles of all the inhabitants in a small home.

After all, the best small homes are those that provide long-term flexibility, but also tailor specifically to the current needs of the family or individual that resides in them.

After compiling a list of these characteristics, a sketch plan is essential in the preliminary process of answering the question of WHERE.

Personally, when I am first designing the layout of a small home, the first thing I do is try to think of this spatial planning in terms of private and public realms.

Your living area, for instance, is often seen as a place for friends or family to gather together. It needs to be larger than bedrooms to cater for more people, and it (more often than not) produces more noise than than which would occur in a bedroom. For these reasons living rooms, kitchens, and dining areas should be seen as public realms.

Bedrooms, bathrooms and studies or home offices, for obvious reasons, should be viewed as private realms.

Once this thought pattern is established, it is much easier to answer questions that will begin to establish the framework of a small home. These questions may include:

Would it be better to place the private or public realms closer to the front entrance?
Where will the public realms receive the best afternoon and morning light?
What outlook provides the best views? Should these views be given to public or private realms?

While drawing bubble diagrams of these realms, and after asking yourself many of these type of questions, you will begin to automatically start generating a very rough and preliminary layout of your small home.

This is an excellent starting point. In later articles, I will reveal further techniques to help with the successful spatial planning of smaller homes.

Light & Air

Peter Stutchbury's 'Invisible House'

“A house is only habitable when it is full of light and air.”

– Le Corbusier, 1923

It is hard to imagine how radical Le Corbusier’s ideas were at the time when today, light and air appear so fundamental to our well-being.

When trying to maximise space in your small home, always pay attention to the quality of light and air. The best way to think about light and air is that it blurs the boundaries between outside and inside. After all, every human being has the fundamental desire to be connected with the natural world.

Following this understanding, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the more light and air that is available within a small home, the more enjoyable and habitable that home will be. The reality with small homes, however, is that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of space available for living, and the amount of space that we can dedicate to light and air.

Despite this relationship, the smaller a home is, the more acute the need is for quality sources of natural light and air to make that space feel bigger than it actually is.

One of the best ways to tackle this is with height, and positioning larger, more commonly used rooms (such as living rooms) within a home closer to windows or sources of natural light. This also makes more sense since it is an instinctive response for people to gravitate towards light, lending to better social environments.

“We are born of light. The seasons are felt through light. We only know the world as it is evoked by light.”

– Louis Kahn

Of course, light in itself isn’t the only uplifting aspect that makes small homes more habitable.

Where light comes in, so too do views which often extend beyond the limited confines of a small interior space, helping to increase an overall sense of space.

The most basic approach to improving the quality of light for your home is to ensure it is properly orientated towards the sun.

For those living in the northern hemisphere, this generally means that houses should be orientated south for better light, while those living in the southern hemisphere should generally have north-facing houses.

One should also take note that natural light evokes a sense of vitality because it is constantly changing with the movement of the sun.

If you picture yourself sitting under a large tree on a sunny day at the park, you will experience small, minute variations as sunlight filters through the leaves and branches, and as shadows creep across the ground.

In this sense, try to add design elements that account for the movement of the sun, creating shadows that dynamically change throughout the day.

Also try to position kitchens close to where they will experience morning sun. In a similar fashion, position or orientate bedrooms and living areas where they will enjoy the afternoon and late-afternoon sun.

For small homes to be both habitable and enjoyable to live in, they must have quality and abundant sources of natural light and air.


The 'golden work triangle' within a kitchen can be used to determine an efficient layout

During the course of a day, we move from one place to another, up and down levels to do things like empty the trash or cook a delicious meal (or at least attempt to). While these little expeditions are so minute that they are experienced on an almost subconscious level, they play a small part in defining the way we enjoy our homes.

Always keep in mind that our experience of a space is fluid and ever-changing. Even the most dedicated couch-potato has to get up every now and then.

Architects like to call this pattern of movement ‘circulation.’

If the circulation throughout a small home is awkward or obstructed by clutter such as furniture, they will become a constant source of annoyance. When thinking about the design of your small home, you must not only pay attention to the path to your front door, but also things such as the kitchen layout, placement of furniture and locating bathroom fixtures.

The positioning of these objects which we use in our daily lives effectively dictates the way in which we move around a space.

The whole issue of circulation or movement is particularly important within a small home. When space is measured in such finite quantities, any grievances caused by poor circulation will, over time, reinforce the idea that the home is too small to be comfortable.

When it is used cleverly, however, circulation can provide sheer delight and pleasure to a small home.

Techniques such as accounting for commonly-used passages or hallways that allow two people to easily pass each other, or placing a kitchen bin close to a dishwasher are clever interventions which can enhance one’s overall experience of a small home.

Too often this fourth dimension, time, is overlooked with the planning of a house. Buildings with ample amounts of circulation allow each person to behave in line with their instincts and intuitions, whereas homes with ungenerous circulation inhibit us in our daily lives.

To account for movement effectively – as a general rule of thumb – try to ensure there is a 900mm or 3 feet in width in commonly-used passages. Any less and the passage will feel too cramped and enclosed, as well as make it difficult for people to pass each other.

While also providing ample width for passageways, also pay close attention to the arrangement of movement in a small house so that commonly-used rooms are connected in a loop or chain arrangement.


Tom Kundig's 'The Brain' project uses high ceilings and a mezzanine level within a studio to evoke a greater sense of spaciousness

If you can’t go out, go up.

I personally love high ceilings and the feeling of space that they bring to smaller houses, but they should be used in moderation for maximum effect.

Higher ceilings tend to evoke a sense of formality, while lower ceilings tend to evoke a sense of intimacy. Always pay close attention to this when designing your small home, and bear in mind which rooms you would prefer to make more intimate.

A sensible variation in ceiling heights within different room types adds a sense of dynamism and excitement to a small home. These differences, when experienced as a whole, can make a small home appear bigger on a subconscious level.

At the same time, a variation in ceiling heights also helps to accentuate those rooms with the higher ceilings, especially if the transition is sudden rather than gradual.

High ceilings, particularly in living areas when paired with tall windows, also improve the long-term livability of small homes (see light and air).

One technique I find particularly useful in the planning of small homes is to use corridors or hallways with a lower (but still generous) ceiling height, which then open up into living areas with a taller ceiling height of around 3.6m high (11’8″).

As a general rule of thumb, areas in a small house which normally accommodate larger groups of people should have higher ceilings, while rooms meant for smaller gatherings should have lower ceilings.

It is also important to use the verticality in a small home for clever storage solutions, such as through the use of wall shelves. Wall shelves not only add another area in which to store and display things like photos and books, but they are great at leading the eye up and adding visual interest to rooms. This increased visual interest helps to enhance the overall feeling of space in a small home.

Next Step

Want to learn more about how to create the perfect small home? The second part of the essential guide reveals 5 other critical things that are also necessary for small home living.

Feel like I have left something out? Post a comment below!