Eight Steps to a Clutter Free Life

Eight Steps to a Clutter Free Life

Lessons from a Tiny House Guru
By Patrick Clark

People often ask me how I got myself to fit into a 184 square foot tiny house (8’ x 23’). The answer is, by changing my paradigm about how I think about space, stuff and redefining what quality of life means to me. It didn’t happen overnight. It has taken me years of consistent effort to get to this point. So many people want to do what I have done. The first step to less stuff/more freedom is to declutter and downscale. Here is a basic outline of the 9 Principles I use.

It is a continuous process because living tiny means, staying organized and efficient. There is not an inch to spare so as soon as something is out of place, it is right in the way. This is good in some ways and can be annoying in other ways. After many years of living tiny I have developed a system which allows life to flow through the space without feeling too strict or confining. I am not a magician, anyone can do it.

This shows my clothes cubby underneat the “Juice Bar”; an all purpose counter for cutting veggies, juicing and serving guests.

You are going to go through your entire belongings and sort, organize, get rid of until you are at the sweet spot where your life feels just right and you can move into the space that fits your needs or travel footloose and carefree.

You can do this no matter what point you are in the process. If you don’t plan to downscale…it can still improve your life to help free energy and get more effcient.

If you are already tiny, this process can help you continuously improve your game. You can do this on a personal level but will also need to work with your partner and family or household as well since you will be restructuring established systems.

1) Make a Plan

a) When first starting your downscaling process set aside time each week to work on it. It could be one or more hours each Saturday, or it could be 30 minutes each day when you wake up.

b) Give yourself a timeframe for when you want to have the project completed. Put this on your calendar. Also break it down into steps and put each monthly goal on your calendar.

This photo shows my bedding put up on shelves while I do a little spring cleaning work. Stand up computer station on the left.

2) Divide and Conquer

Break your belongings into piles. Like goes with like. This doesn’t always have to be physically moving the items, but perhaps keeping a list in a notebook. You will however want to put some of the items physically in their pile so you can later take the next step which is to actually get rid of it. Start with one area such as clothes, kitchen, tools, or office. I like a four tiered system to start

a) Keep

b) Throw Away

c) Give away

d) Sell

As you are looking at each item if you don’t get an immediate answer about whether to keep it or not ask yourself:

a) Do I really need this?

b) Will getting rid of this item allow me to still do what I need to do and have less moving parts?

c) Will getting rid of this allow me to have better order, beauty, simplicity, serenity?

d) Can I make this smaller, rip a page out and throw the notebook away? Digitalize old recordings?

e) Phase out plastic from your life. Start replacing synthetic and plastic clothes, dishes, toys, etc, with natural materials. Now that you live small, you can afford to get nicer things and create more quality and beauty in your space.

f) Think lightweight, portable, modular, multi-use. See my own inventions including Barefoot Office Kits™ for inspiration. You want to be able to move, air out,
wash things and rearrange now and then.

g) Get matching jars and dishes. Don’t save odd sized containers. Use movable, portable boxes instead of heavy, bulky drawers that can’t be customized as your needs change.

Take action on the ‘get rid of’ pile before you start to tackle the next clutter category. Take to Goodwill or Habitat for Humanity, advertise on Craig’s List, ask a friend if they want it, or take to the recycling center.


3) Create Zones


Only things actively used in easily accessible places. Not stuff away in a closet but more out in the open such as a drawer, shelf, table top near at hand. Books you are actually reading is zone one. Books you will need later go into zone two or zone three.


Things occasionally or seasonally used. This should be somewhat less accessible but not too hard to get. This could be in the back of the closet such as winter clothes that you don’t need to hunt down when the time comes to use them again.

Zone Three: STORAGE

This should be the things that are the least accessible. They could be a stack of boxes in the garage clearly labeled. Also these should be things you really do need and you aren’t simply storing because you are afraid to let go of them.

(Above) This is my bed taken down to do some spring cleaning.


(Left) This is my Barefoot Office Kit™ for when I want to sit at the computer instead of stand.


There should be some designated transition zones which are neutral spaces where you can put things to be sorted later. No-one wants to live like a robot. You need to throw your stuff down and be spontaneous sometimes so if there is a special shelve, cubby, box, or drawer where you can plop it down. Then you just need to occasionally go and straighten things out. But this step allows the space to remain clutter free even in the midst of a busy life.

4) A home for every thing and every thing in it’s home.

This goes for every little thing, even pens, shoes, daypack and purse, wallet, and things in process such as dirty clothes and pieces of paper. I use a folder for my “In Box” so stuff isn’t laying on the surface. These should be clearly obvious and labeled when needed. Labeling is especially helpful when first setting up the system and especially when multiple people are using the space. Keep your labels in a labeled box or folder or actually out on the counter because you will be grabbing it all the time for awhile. Yes, I am talking about setting up your home similar to an institution, using special cubbies, shelves, racks for personal belongings and everyone needs to know the house procedures for things like where to put the compost, shoes, coats, etc.


5) Shine.

Once you have gone through all your belongings, you will want to devote energy to constantly improving systems and creating more beauty, functionality, space and flow. You will get new ideas as you try things. You will find new things to replace old things. Spend some time each day and each week keeping the place ship shape. Have some empty spaces. In other words don’t fill every shelf and counter top with things. You need places to set things down occasionally so it doesn’t end up in a pile on the floor. You also want to have visually soothing surroundings. Place some flowers out and keep them watered. Have a few crystals or sacred items but well placed and easy to keep clean.

6) Design with dust in mind.

Dust takes time to clean, looks bad and can even be toxic. Fung Shui principles see dust as stagnation. So we want to make all nooks and corners easily accessible. We don’t want counters and shelves lined with many small items. Keep things containerized as much as possible. If there are several small items, think how you could box them into something that got them out of visual site to create more space and serenity. This is one reason why beds on legs have a disadvantage over floor based beds. Cleaning under a bed (or other furniture piece) is one more activity that could be avoided with better designing. The Japanese know this well.

7) Think of the floor as a piece of furniture.

In our over domesticated, overbuilt houses we don’t have much inspiration or need to practice healthy primal movement and positions such as squatting and kneeling. Keep open spaces on the floor instead of covering it with furniture and remember to squat part of the day during activities you would normally be sitting or standing. Do things on the floor, eat, sleep, work, yoga. Have a place to put your shoes when you walk in the door. Keep the floor clean and use floor coverings when needed. Have yoga mats and props available nearby

8) Design standing surfaces for eating and working.

A bar which is about 40 inches tall is a good place to sometimes eat. It may sound a little strange when in the habit of sitting, but sometimes it is more comfortable to stand, especially if we have already been sitting a lot. Also making use of vertical space saves the precious limited floor space in a tiny house.



No Space To Waste: Floor Sleeping As A Small Space Design Solution

No Space To Waste: Floor Sleeping As A Small Space Design Solution

The bed’s primary purpose is to serve an ESSENTIAL BIOLOGICAL FUNCTION which will influence our failure or success and our health and well being and how long we live and our quality of life.

Many people take the bed for granted, seeing it mostly as an object. Advertisers have little to say about it other than whether it is soft or stain resistant. It’s not that people don’t appreciate beds by any means, but we treat them like an automobile or wrench or some other machine or static tool.

Our bodies interact with the bed. The bed is a vehicle for rest, an instrument of peace and quiet, a place to ‘recharge our batteries’. The bed is a hang out for some of our favorite activities, a launching pad for nightly sleep and dreams, a place to recuperate from illness. When you think about it, life kind of begins and ends on a bed.

Like a bicycle which helps get us somewhere, the bed helps us stay somewhere. Designers have been overlooking the biological element for decades. What bed design would maximize the body’s restorative capabilities using knowledge of biology and particularly how to restore cellular energy and help us tap into our natural circadian rhythms? Technology has NOT improved the bed but actually hurt it by leaving out the primary purpose. (see The Ergonomics of Sleep)

The New Biology is a recent development that recognizes the cell as a microcosm of the organism. The cell is practically a living organism in many ways with it’s own life-force. Whatever hurts or helps the cell does the same for the organism in which the cell lives. The cell operates on a subtle electrical system, which becomes disrupted by synthetic materials. See the groundbreaking article ‘Naked Beneath Your Clothing”.

A mattress construction that promotes air flow and allows perspiration to evaporate helps our bodies cool or warm themselves and maintain homeostasis. This enhances the sleep cycles so we stay in the deeper Delta waves longer which provides maximum rejuvenation. Our bodies tune into natural circadian rhythms when presented with the right environment. This is where optimal rest and vitality can occur.

A simple pallet on the floor, if it is non-synthetic, is far better than the fanciest big fluffy synthetic bed you can find.

This is my list of aspects of a comfortable bed based on these principles:

  • Firm as possible to facilitate optimal circulation and alignment.
  • Breathable: air circulation from above and below. Natural fibers.
  • Not a dust collector. Dust hampers sleep and health. Easy to move to get at dust if necessary.
  • Not made of metal due to the amplifying effect of electromagnetic fields from floor, walls, ceiling, appliance, power lines and transformers. Bed should be wood. (Read this for an entire article on this aspect of sleep).
  • Easy to make up. Since you do it every day. Process should be streamlined. Bedding articles should be simplified. The duvet is a great invention.
  • Size matters. Not too big or too little. You don’t want to feel cramped but you don’t want to use extra floor space.

One day I decided I needed some extra space in my house and wondered if I should add on. Then I discovered a remarkable solution. I found a little corner which is the entryway/living room area. No-one was doing anything with it at night–save for maybe ghosts–and it was an exquisite sleeping spot, featuring full picture windows to the night sky and fresh air from the open door. To my surprise it was far better than my current bedroom. So with a little creativity and adaptability I was now proud owner of a larger house, in essence, even though I couldn’t really convince anyone of that.

My new bedroom was like Cinderella, it disappeared at a certain hour. But since it only takes three minutes to get out and make up, no problem–no longer than it took to make the bed anyway and leave it free standing.

Foor sleeping is a concept difficult for most Americans to grasp. So here are my thoughts on the subject.

There’s nothing wrong with filling up a room with a bed. It is such an important aspect of our lives, it deserves its own room. It creates the atmosphere of rest and is always ready for you to plop yourself down at a whim. Also, a true platform bed can be used as a couch or lounge chair, so it’s not exactly just taking up the space if it’s thought of in this way. It could be considered simply a raised floor, where you might sit to read or watch a video.

And of course there is the fold-away bed. But I have never found one that is comfortable as either a couch or a bed.

To the minimalist there is a problem with wasted space under the bed. This is easily solved by turning that area into a storage space. Something as simple as cardboard boxes can be very effective for storing clothes, books, or whatever (see photo). A more permanent solution would be wooden drawers or boxes.

However, if space is limited, the put-away, disappearing bed can have huge advantages. I have thoroughly tested the simple platform bed with underneath storage and the put-away, disappearing bed over many years thinking about which one I like the best. I personally think the put-away bed has huge overlooked advantages that most people don’t realize because they haven’t had the time or opportunity to try it.

Here are some advantages:

  •  You gain an ENTIRE extra room. That could be thousands of dollars depending on where you live. If you downright can’t afford an extra room then you have just upped your standard of living and quality of life exponentially–like getting a raise or promotion at work.
  • Dust management extraordinaire. You don’t even KNOW how much dust can accumulate under a bed until you check every day. It only takes one day for a bed to collect dust underneath. Now some of us just don’t have those standards and it’s no big deal. But if you like to keep things clean, the put-away, disappearing bed is the ultimate. Carpets are dust’s best friend. They hide dust, dust mites, fleas, mold, etc. Not even the best vacuum cleaner and shampoo can deal effectively with carpets. All you have to do is look under one after a thorough cleaning to see what I mean. Carpets have got to be the worst design of the century. They trap dirt–and you can’t get to it. We are now finding that trapped dirt is a serious health hazard. They represent luxury but they are filthy. The put-away bed works best with a “shoes” free room or area. You will want to do a little dust mopping as part of the bed making ritual.
  • Speed and ease of making the bed. I have analyzed this process with the eye of an engineer for several years now, listing each step of pulling the covers back, putting the pillows aside, brushing the sheets with the hands, assembling the sheets back to their proper neat and tight places and then the blankets, etc. It definitely helps to have a duvet/comforter instead of a pile of odd blankets. But the surprising discovery is that the average queen sized bed on frame takes no longer to make than the put-away, disappearing bed (that is, when each particular bed is optimized with the right bedding pieces.). The put-away disappearing bed has what seems like more steps. You have to put it away, and then take it out and make it. However, putting it away takes a matter of seconds. The futon and sheets and blankets go in a closet and the frame (modern tatami mat adaptation) leans up in two pieces against the wall. Total time averages around 2 minutes to break it apart and put it away, and about 3 minutes to get it out and put it together. That’s about the time to make the average bed. This is the biggest fear preventing people from adopting this method. The trick is to have the bed storage near where the bed will be located.
  • One big advantage of the disappearing bed is the sheets get thoroughly shaken every day. With the standard western bed one typically brushes the sheets with the hands. This takes longer and isn’t nearly as effective as shaking in the air. Since dust does have to go somewhere – as anyone with out carpeting can plainly see – I highly recommend either a window or a high quality carbon air filter. This could clean the air of a small room within an hour. Other alternatives are–fresh air through the window (negative ions act like an air filter), spraying EM-1™ in the air with a squirt bottle, or burning a beeswax candle for about an hour in a small room (beeswax candles purify the air of dust and other toxins by emitting negative ions that react with the positively charged ions of dust).  This may sound like overkill but keeping the dust level down will enhance sleep quality. If you do use a bed-frame, a dust skirt will certainly help. However, the anti-dust mite folks say not to have any cloth touching the floor so the dust mites can’t climb up.
  • Air circulation above and beneath. That can be a drawback with sleeping on the floor. I have thoroughly tested different platforms and I personally notice a huge difference in sleep quality when air can go beneath the mattress/pad. The body respires, meaning it exchanges gasses with the environment. The skin is the largest organ of the body. It needs access to free flowing air to perform it’s job. Many people have told me they notice a huge improvement when switching from synthetic to natural mattresses and blankets/pillows. There is a feeling of warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer. (Synthetic, think plastic). But what about beneath the mattress/futon? That’s where the slatted bed-frame comes in for the western decorators, or the tatami mats for an Asian approach. A tatami mat is a thick, stiff reed mat about one inch thick. The futon goes on top of it and Wa La! you now have air circulation without a bed-frame. However, the traditional tatami mat has a major drawback–it collects dust and dust mites. You can’t wash it. So here is the solution–make a tatami mat out of wood–like a slatted futon frame but without the legs. The problem with this is that putting it away is a challenge. It is big and heavy which is why we need moving companies. So imagine that same frame is in two parts which are 30″ x 40″ each. Welcome to the EcoSquare™ which can be used with legs for a Platform Bedframe or withOUT legs for a modern tatami mat (or pallet on the floor)! Now there is no big thing to move and the two halves can be placed either on hooks or behind some other piece of furniture when not in use. (Note my solution–use the two halves as backrests for the Tilt Seats™ in the living room.)

The Lean Green Dwelling: Ten Solutions for Downscaling

The Lean Green Dwelling: Ten Solutions for Downscaling

To most of us, a small dwelling normally brings up negative images such as: compromise, cramped, ghetto, low income, anti-social, and utilitarian. Isn’t this the land of the free, where bigger is better?

The current offerings on the market for space-saving furniture are usually simply the same icons (the couch, chair, table, and bed) in a smaller size or having fewer of them in an abode, studio or office. This is not a system upgrade or redesign, but merely ‘re-arranging the furniture’. This is just living smaller in a smaller space.

A small or tiny home is far more capable of providing comfort, convenience, and elegance than most designers and architects realize. The fact that a building is designed around the furniture it holds must be looked at first before this hypothesis can be understood—that is, before one can start thinking outside the nine dots.

American furniture is archaic. Although it is called ‘modern’ if it has smooth lines, rounded curves, and stacks; it is structurally and functionally hardly changed from medieval times.

American furniture has not evolved to keep up with the uses for which it is intended. While computers have in only a few years gone from behemoths to nymphs, in order to keep up with the trend towards compact, efficient, and mobile–furniture has seen little fundamental change in the past two hundred years.

For instance, the couch or den is intended as a social hangout for the house, as well as seating for television and video watching. The couch symbolizes and is intended as ultimate relaxation, where the user is not working, but kicking back. The couch fails miserably in this function. It is overstuffed to the point of being too soft and unsupportive. The back has a way of hitting you in just the wrong spot. One can neither lay back and relax, nor sit upright comfortably. The plush upholstery is a magnet for dust, with no practical way of cleaning. If it’s not organic, it will off gas flame retardant chemicals for it’s entire lifespan. And getting rid of the behemoths is yet another challenge–it will most likely remain in a landfill for hundreds of years. (It takes plastic about 500 years to decompose).

On the other end take the office desk/chair arrangement. This is intended to provide the most productive, alert position for computer work, paper work and other functions. From a somatic perspective, the modern office could better be described as a torture chamber. You are expected to think clearly, yet the circulation to the brain is hampered by inactivity and compression of the lower back. You are expected to pay attention for long periods of time, yet the lack of movement shortens attention span. You are expected to read, write or type, yet the neck must be bent at a sharp angle to see the work surface, further hampering circulation. You could be burning calories and toning muscles even during this ‘sedentary’ work, yet the design puts you in a ‘straight jacket’ where movement is not possible. (See www.brainrules.net/) The arrangement takes up a large footprint of available floor space, when vertical space could be used to reduce the footprint by 50-75%.

The Solution

Here is my own set of criteria and solutions for designing healthy, functioning, minimalist living spaces:

1) First do no harm. No chemical paints, finishes or flame retardants. This is the first place to start and the most difficult for designers to grapple with. Indoor air pollution or ‘toxic building syndrome ‘ is the plague of modern civilization. The reason it is so difficult to deal with is that non-toxic finishes cost a lot more. How many ‘green’ hotels have organic mattresses and hardwood floors—or even simply organic sheets or pillows for that matter? I haven’t been able to find even one. ‘Sick building syndrome’ effects almost every house and building in the U.S., even if it is not at levels considered immediately dangerous. Yes, you can get by without factoring this into your design, but the price may be paid with the occupant’s health. For more info on the effects of these chemicals and an alternative using non-toxic paints and wood finishes, click here. www.earthpaint.net/

Another way to create healthy indoor air quality is by using EM Ceramics in your chemical-laden toxic paint. This is hard to believe, but one teaspoon per gallon will actually stop off-gassing of not only the paint but the glues, etc. that are in the wall material. Check out this revolutionary new technology: www.emamerica.com/

Flame retardant chemicals are extremely detrimental to human health and our bodies ‘eat’ or ‘absorb’ them when we spend time in a modern living space. Also, the manufacture of these conventional textiles is resource intensive and polluting. Indoor air quality is effected by these textiles as well as paints and finishes. Overall, indoor air quality has become a national concern in the past ten years. However, the contribution of conventional textile to this problem has had very little discussion. Although Americans have been going green for some time, you will rarely set foot in a house which isn’t contaminated with these chemicals. Since organic, non-toxic textiles cost more (due mostly to the current scale of production), a small space lends itself well to this criteria because not as much is needed. For many it comes down to a decision between size and quality.

Fire safety could be considered from a different standpoint. Instead of filling a home with thick upholstered furniture (chairs, couches, mattresses), use furniture with bare wood or removable padding where needed. This also helps with dust mite protection and dust control in general. When the padding needs replaced, one doesn’t need to throw out the whole piece of furniture.

2) Live in close proximity to employment, goods and services. This means either the inner city or a small town. This reduces dependency on the auto and builds community and local economy. It increases quality of life because you spend more time walking, biking and enjoying your community. This makes the small house or apartment especially needed, because compact houses actually creates the population density needed for this lifestyle.

3) Design furniture around the human body, instead of around established status icons. This should take into consideration fitness, movement, and body mechanics. Who wants to become a ‘couch potato’? Couches make us all look like potatoes, because there’s no way to sit on one without slouching. We can design furniture and dwellings to put us in comfortable and healthy positions. This will increase quality of life by keeping us flexible, fit, and offer more relaxing positions than conventional furniture that encourages collapse of the body.

4) Use light-weight, knock down and stackable furniture so spaces can be emptied for other activities. If putting the furniture away and getting it out is considered an inconvenience, perhaps a re-framing would be helpful. The alternatives are: spend more time working to provide a bigger dwelling, spend more time in a car so you can afford a house in the suburb, have less discretionary income for travel and pleasure or giving. Also, just moving the furniture in and out encourages beneficial movement for flexibility.

Of course, there needs to be a comfortable balance between built in design and that which can be rearranged. A lot of small spaces tend to have minimal open floor space, as a result of putting in the furniture. This is what gives small spaces a bad image. This is one of the reasons we need to rethink our furniture—how can it be more fluid, utilize more vertical space instead of horizontal, disappear when floor space is needed?

The Traditional Japanese Futon placed in a closet during the day is the simplest and cheapest solution. Fancier ones are beds which fold into the wall during the day or the ingenious “Bed Up” which raises to the ceiling. Fold up Futon Frames and Couch Beds are an option, but these are still in the way during the day, albeit a bit smaller.

5) Think of the floor as a piece of furniture. This means the floor should be non-toxic, not too hard, easy to clean, and shoes not allowed. Throw rugs are better than carpet, easy to clean and replace. Japanese Tatami mats also make a nice surface. Although the floor is usually considered only for walking, it is used by many cultures as a surface for sitting or lying. Instead of doing yoga only in the studio during a class, this allows yoga and stretching to be practiced in small doses at any time of the day. You can also integrate floor space with platform furniture which is raised but not upholstered.

6) Employ clutter clearing ideas into the design. Not accumulating objects which aren’t needed or used is a key requirement for living BIG in a SMALL space. Every item should have a home and there should be a closet, box or drawer for stuff on its way out. You will need an impeccable filing system to manage paper clutter, which ends up lying on surfaces when it’s not got a good place to live. These practices allow the small space to be spacious. This also increases quality of life by encouraging us to spend less time sorting, cleaning, and getting rid of stuff that was never needed in the first place. When people realize you live in a small space, they sometimes think twice about buying you gifts you don’t need. When you see something you like, you have to ask yourself where you are going to put it. There is a freedom in not being able to accumulate.

Great resources for clutter clearing and personal organizing:

Clear Your Clutter With Fun Shui by Karen Kingston

Getting Organized by Stephanie Winston

7) Containerize belongings. This means to put belongings away in a closet, drawer, cabinet, or box. This encourages a high level of organization and uses vertical space which is often overlooked. It also makes dust control easier with less surfaces for dust to land on.

8) Use light colors, mirrors and strategically arranged furniture and objects to optimize the Fung Shui. What we are aiming for with design is invoking feeling or mood. You want to be cozy, but not cramped. Textures (of walls, cabinetry, textiles), colors, and shapes can be played with to find auspicious and pleasing results. For instance, a painting of an outdoor scene can be used where you wished you had a window. A fountain can be used where it would be nice to have a mountain stream. If you have a window, highlight it as a focal point by arranging seating to face toward it.

9) Use vertical space every chance you can. Hang things from the ceiling such as bicycles, pots and pans. Frames can be built from lightweight materials (2×2’s, bamboo, dowel rods) to support such objects where harming the walls and ceiling is a concern. Open closets can be constructed this way for inexpensive and portable remodeling.

10) Have fun. Be creative. How about an indoor hammock in place of the couch? Or an Om Gym (inversion swing) to break the monotony of standing upright? Have meals on the floor picnic style when you have guests, or using a low table.

My own personal experience has shaped the designs and inventions of Carolina Morning Designs, Inc. now produces such as the Eco Backrest™, simple mini-futon, Zen Office™ and Eco-desk (stand up computer work station with vertical orientation).

If we really looked at the elements and assumptions of modern home design (eg: desk work means a table and chair, the floor is only for the feet, beds must have their own room), we would be shocked at the waste and inefficiency that could be easily solved by looking at the issue from a wider perspective.

We don’t have to go far to find real life examples of alternatives to modern furniture and interior design. There are examples from numerous cultures: The Japanese with their tatami mats, the Brazilians with their hammocks. The trick is finding ways to integrate these ideas into our modern settings.

Consider this: The Tipi was one of the most comfortable homes of all the Native American tribes. It’s design was the state of the art given available resources and even today is more comfortable than many modern homes. It was capable of withstanding gale force winds, and yet used less materials than any other structure of it’s size. It was warm in winter, cool in summer, portable, and an aesthetic masterpiece. If you have never slept a night in one, you will never appreciate the melding of nature with architecture that a good design can provide. well worked out architectural icons in human history.

I’m not suggesting the tipi would be appropriate in the modern world, but simply that cultures who lived in small spaces had engineered their furniture, belongings, and dwellings in a different way than we do today. There are elements from these designs that ARE applicable and that an archetect that hasn’t lived in a small space would probably never think about.

It has taken me 10 years of living in a small space and working within the limits a small dwelling posses to finally figure out how to make it really work. Now that it works, it ROCKS!.

For those of us who are downscaling our lifestyle, going green, getting rid of toxins, and buying organic, a small abode and office has a lot to offer.

The Paradox Of Small – Simplicity And Minimalism In The Bedroom

The Paradox Of Small – Simplicity And Minimalism In The Bedroom

When I was in highschool I was inspired by Henry David Thoreau who lived in a 10’x10′ cabin as an experiment in self awareness and personal independence from herd mentality. Ever since, I had the ideal that living in a small space would be beautiful and simple.

A small space offers a form of resistance or a boundary for me that feels safe and comforting. A small space helps me focus and inspires creativity. A small space has all the things I want: hassle-free, flexible, organized, easy to maintain, easy to move.

However, it has taken many years to organize myself to fit easily into a 9’x12′ bedroom and I want to share part of my journey here. If I could find a way to thrive and peacefully exist in a small space, I would be more satisfied because I would focus more on the few things I enjoy the most and not keep getting distracted. I found that the space would actually shape me and make me get my act together.

Perhaps my design process started when I was a child exploring nature. I would find a cool places to hang out. I would climb a tree and sit on a limb for hours. I would build primitive shelters from sticks, leaves, bark and grass and go inside to dream or lay outside watching the clouds. Certain austere settings brought out a whole new dimension in my state of mind. I spent many summers sleeping in the yard in a tent. I took my book, drawing materials, or toys with me, because it was so much more fun than playing inside.

Most indoor spaces seemed clunky, boring, dead, and too serious so I was constantly wandering. Nothing INSIDE a building could compare to the wild outdoors. Later I got into design and I worked on making indoor environments into the inspiring, stimulating places I found in nature. 

North View of my Tiny Bedroom/Home Office
Modular EcoSquares™ and 2
Organic 1/2 Queen Futons make this Queen Bed. Underbed storage is essential since there are no closets. Multi-purpose stools used here as bedstands.

What I found went way beyond interior design. The process took me on a journey of inner exploration and discovery, which has been an adventure and a challenge. 

This was no small matter. To go small meant re-inventing my lifestyle into something other than what people around me were doing and what was presented on the media. This design process was way bigger than merely drawing lines on paper and putting building materials together in certain ways. Designing a living space went hand in hand with designing a life for myself that felt right. I had not heard of the word ‘minimalism’ because I was too young to understand that. It was a relief to later find I wasn’t the only one thinking like this. Now I felt legitimate–I belonged somewhere.

The trick was to downscale my life to a point that felt spacious and not cramped. But just HOW small a space would fit? How small could I go without feeling limited and stifled? 

I started seeing a dynamic–almost everything, I mean EVERYTHING, is a give and take. You have to give up wall space if you want more windows. You have to give up belongings if you want to be more simple and clutter free. You have to give up stability if you want to travel and explore.

We each tend to want it all. We like the windows, but we demand the wall space. We want to be simple, organized, and clutter-free, but we want our stuff and have a hard time letting go. 

I have been constantly re-arranging the furniture for years trying out different ideas. Usually when I present a new idea to someone, the first reaction starts with the word ‘but…’ Something like, ‘But you have just broken a design rule.’ For example, “But the room is too small. You should just add on rather than try to make something work that is doomed for failure.’ “I like the window but I could never live in that small a space.” 

Or “I do yoga on the floor, but I don’t want to sleep or sit on the floor’, or “But I need more stuff in my life to feel comfortable and settled.” Or ‘When I am working out, I don’t mind exercise. But I don’t want to stand up WHILE I am in the office. When I am at home relaxing I would love a lounge chair, but I don’t want to sit like that and relax WHILE I work. I would appear weak, lazy, or I would fall asleep.

These reactions were very important feedback that I had to work with until I found a place where there were no more ‘buts’. If an idea gets rejected I go back to the drawing board and work on it some more.

For instance, some people didn’t like or could not get down to the floor. So I designed a platform (EcoSquare™) that all the floor seats could be placed on to put them at standard heights.

Improving a design by bringing it to it’s smallest common denominator is more difficult than improving a design by adding something else to it. My design process is like alchemy. The solution lies in getting the right arrangement which then creates a synergistic dynamic that is more than the sum of the parts. The solution lies in the harmonious interactions of the components in the space and how it effects the body/mind/spirit.

Minimalism had been an integral part of the Japanese lifestyle and culture for centuries. I call it the ‘Island Philosophy’. I realized I was working in a culture (America) that had a different set of values and aesthetics. Mine were so aligned with the Japanese and other traditional cultures that I sometimes wondered why I was even bothering to try to convince Americans that my ways were valid. They would be immediately recognized in Japan, but I wasn’t there. I was seriously considering finding another profession when a new trend appeared.

The aesthetic of simplicity and minimalism and creating sanctuary in the home found a new foothold in America over the past few years. The ‘Island’ philosophy of Japan that caused them to value minimalism and small because they recognized tangible limits was finally maybe for the first time settling into America. Also the ‘Nomadic’ philosophy where minimalism is the easiest way to live due to frequent uprooting was coming into play.

“The 100 Thing Challenge is about getting out of jail — the prison of American-style consumerism. It’s about breaking free from the shackles of always feeling like we need to get more stuff in order to get to the dream life. (Ever notice how we just keep getting and getting stuff, but we never arrive at the dream life? What a mess!)” www.guynameddave.com

I started seeing the Japanese koan concept in everything. The design process brings up the issue of paradox and paradox is where the rubber meets the road between ideals and reality. There is some kind of powerful sublime gift in the process of carefully considering two opposing factors for a period of time–like the issue of finding enough wall space with enough window space. By contemplating and holding the question in mind with enough intensity until clarity and insight finally arrive, there is a place where logic let’s go of its grip and a solution appears automatically.

So here is this beautiful bedroom which has incredible light, view and charm and feels like you’re outside. But it appears there is actually not enough room to live in. How can you fit a queen bed AND clothes and personal belongings, INCLUDING office, inside a 9’x12′ space? There are no closets, but there is an exceptionally tall ceiling of 11 feet. I wanted some floor space to do yoga.

I have rearranged my 9’x12’ bedroom many times over the past several years and developed an entire line of furniture until I finally came up with an arrangement that not only worksbut ROCKS. 9’x12’ is not a lot of space to work with. That is the ENTIRE space. Plus there are so many windows wall space is virtually non-existant. So how do you store all your belongings, sleep, play and work in that small of a space?

The way you do it is design new furniture that doesn’t currently exist. The limits or the design criteria are forcing some new ideas to emerge to solve the problem. A design ‘crisis’ is a design ‘opportunity’. Go UP if you can’t go OUT (use verticle space). Use underbed storage. Big windows with natural light makes the room feel more spacious than a huge room with less windows. Get rid of some stuff. Set aside time to stay organized. Use lightweight items that can be rearranged for multi-purpose. Question your assumtions about why you really need more space. Adapt to the situation. See what peace and beauty might come out of accepting things, not just your room, as they are.

One really huge discovery is the idea of using verticle space for desk and counter use. The stacking EcoShelfs™ are partly used for storage but also for desk use and as a place to set things down. This takes some getting use to but is actually perfectly as workable as a standard desk which uses 300% more floor space. The concept of A home for ‘Everything And Everything in its home’ becomes essential. Just one or two things set on the floor or bed and suddenly there’s a mess.

Another discovery is the concept of changing into different positions and work stations throughout the day instead of just sitting at a desk. This I call the ‘Body Friendly Office™’. It is an idea borrowed from the hunter-gatherers and research that showed the human body is designed for walking and movment.

Another concept, borrowed from the Japanese, is using one room for more than one purpose. The bedroom becomes a living room, office, or whatever simply by rearranging the furniture. We so take for granted that each room needs a unique purpose. Yes, to have the luxury to have a nice room set aside for each activity is nice, but it’s not the only way to enjoy a highly functional, clutter free, and inspiring space. If you are lucky enough to have enough money to do it all, you may not be interested in this whole idea of living in a small space. However, if you are trading a bigger house and mortgage or rent payment for traveling or doing other fun things you like to do, this just might fit into your paradigm.

I built a house the opposite of the accepted Architectural pattern where the house is built around the furniture. I was actually building furniture around a house. The reason was to inspire new possibilities not before thought of in furniture and space arrangement. Ancient Japanese had some great ideas, but didn’t accomodate many modern needs like using a computer for instance. So how can one adapt ancient design principles which considered the body/mind/spirit into the modern setting? The need was huge because the modern setting does not consider the body. It puts the body into a zombie-like state of contortion which fuels the medical establishment including chiropractors and makes us into bent over ‘couch potatoes’.

How We Learned To Live In And Love A Tiny House

How We Learned To Live In And Love A Tiny House

Twenty years ago I set out to build a house.

I wanted a house that was a sanctuary, soothing, and interactive, that reflected serenity, open space, simplicity, and looked somehow more vernacular than modern. But vernacular to what? Perhaps vernacular to any culture that had a good idea about small space design. Also, I was creating a new vernacular based on body friendly design. That is why, ten years later, neither the house nor furniture are finished yet.

This was my list of ideals: non toxic, full of natural light, passive solar, minimalist, containing body friendly furniture.

This house that didn’t exist yet but was only loosely formed in my imagination, was more perfect than I was. It had figured out how to manage clutter and solve the problems of heating and cooling without using fossil fuels. It had figured out how to keep dust to a minimum and put everything away in neat drawers or shelves. It had figured out how one couple could live comfortably and have sufficient space without the extra room that seemed to be missing from the plan.

To make this small of a space work for two people, there would need to be some intense and focused engineering and inventiveness. There were no models to go by. I could borrow some ideas from the Japanese, the Plains Indians, The Pueblo Indians and other cultures who had learned to live in small dwellings. And of course there are plenty of small space dwellers in modern high rise apartments across the world. But our house was yet to be invented. The empty space which was roughly 12’x36′ with two small lofts was virtually empty. The furniture hadn’t even arrived.

We loved the Japanese use of floor and put away furniture. But we found there were some improvements that could be made on this. For instance, ancient Japanese didn’t have laptop computers. So we had to figure out a good way to sit on the floor and type. Also, we love the idea of tatami mats. We ended up using them in the living room. But we found a platform bed to be better at ventilation and offered extra storage space underneath. The platform bed creates a firm surface mimicking the floor.

Interior designs of modern apartments often seemed cramped and over furnished. The spaces are designed around the table and chair sit down lifestyle with overstuffed couches. There is very little room to move around and often no empty floor space to speak of. But even these examples of small space living had some really good storage solutions we could borrow from, such as the storage-under-the-bed technique mentioned above.

You can design a house on paper and then build according to the blueprint. Or you can design as you build by making a rough sketch, living in it awhile, building some more, and so on. We did the later, because we had not figured out all the details. And we now know that a Harvard educated architect could not have done it any better. You cannot sit down and figure these things out on paper when you are reinventing some of the rules. Plus we were not designing for visual only. We were designing for a body friendly, interactive environment. It would involve a lot of field testing.

We started with stark minimalist. Our only furniture was roll up futons on the floor, crates full of papers, books and clothes, zafus, and a kitchen table with two stools. It felt great. We had a blank slate. We had plenty of floor to sit, sleep and do yoga.

Our early interior design issues were:

  1. We wanted to stand while working on the computer.

2.  We wanted to sit on a forward tilted seat with no back support.

3.  We needed a small desk at proper height for working on the floor at the computer.

4.  We wanted a place to put everything away.

5.  We needed two ‘offices’ complete with phones and computer work stations and there was only one extra room beside the kitchen and bedroom.

6.  We needed a ‘living room’ where several people could comfortably lounge and visit. This would have to be a floor-based design for reasons stated below.

Most designers would have looked at the situation and said the solution was to ‘add on’. But one of the basic principles of a good design, in fact, THE GUIDING PRINCIPLE is to design the simplest possible to achieve the desired results. That is why architect students start out with a toothpick project. That is why the Plains Indian Tipi is probably the best building ever to be invented. And that is why having space limitations was one of the best things that could have happened to us. It forced us to come up with a solutions.

These seemingly contradictory issues seemed at times unsolvable. Somehow each one magically received a solution. In fact, the solutions came out of the very contradictions that were creating them in the first place. In other words, the contradictions and problems worked together to solve themselves. This is a classic case of ‘re-framing’, looking at a problem from another angle, or thinking outside the box. Our ideal interior design plan came together in unexpected ways which were created by the synergy of the challenges.

For instance we would design a piece of furniture and then find that it not only worked for it’s intended purpose but something else as well.

Example 1: The Tilt Seat was first designed as a seat for sitting at a table or desk. It turned out to also work well as a desk while sitting on the floor. That solved part of the space issue because only one object would be needed instead of two. And it looks like a cross between Japanese and Shaker–two cultures focused on minimalist and simplicity.

Example 2: The Stand Up Desk worked great for the purpose of a work station. But it also reduced the amount of floor space needed for a desk by 75%. The reason it saves this amount of space is because it uses vertical space similar to the way sky scrapers do. When you can’t go ‘out’ you go ‘up’. This allowed us to find two offices in a house that only had one spare room. Since the Stand Up Desk uses such a small amount of space, it created an office work station in a small corner of the bedroom. This also solved the issue of clutter clearing and dust control. There is nowhere to put clutter so it just does not accumulate. Well, I will qualify this. The lack of space to put clutter forces a change in habits so stuff gets put away or you can’t walk.

As we solved one issue at a time with pieces of furniture that were prototypes, we would put the furniture design into production so other people could benefit from our discoveries.

The Living Room

One long standing problem that had not been satisfactorily solved was how to make an attractive living room area on the floor–that is: without the traditional couch and upholstered chairs. What we wanted was a place people could gravitate to for relaxing and socializing, reading or playing music. Chairs and couch would not work because this was our only floor space which we needed for the floor culture aspect of our house. And we would need to clear everything out of the way if we wanted a large group of about eight people. This was NOT a compromise. We were not doing this out of a limitation. We WANTED to be on the floor part of the time for several reasons:

1–It was playful.

2–It allowed stretching and yoga.

3–It allowed multiple uses of the room.

4–It created the feeling of serenity and spaciousness.

5–We didn’t want to block the windows which brought in heat and light.

6–It allowed more comfortable lounging positions with minimal space.

7–It allowed more space for people instead of furniture. Thus more people could be there.

However, we hadn’t figured out a good design for a lounge chair type device that would make it all work. Everyone knows how uncomfortable couches are—you can neither sit up straight, nor lean back without cramping your back. We wanted something better. We tried various camp chairs and floor lounge chairs on the market, but none of them were comfortable.

Then I remembered the Plains Indian Tipi Chair that I had attempted to construct when I was in high school. This is a simple backrest made of willow reeds which are tied together to form a mat. This mat is then placed against a tripod of sticks which give it support. Wa La! You can now lean back and relax. During my juvenile attempts to figure it out, I could not get enough of the reeds to start the project. Now I was compelled to revisit the project.

There are a couple of places you can buy one of these. Or you can even make your own. I decided to make my own. But as I thought about it, I started envisioning a new way of making the thing so it would fit in with modern homes. For the next Two Years ˆi worked with my team of designers to develop what is now our EcoBackrest™.

While warehouses are stockpiled with clunky, modern furniture, we have been busy figuring out how to make lcompact, lightweight furniture out of earth friendly ingredients for people who want to downscale their lifestyles and live within their means in the new economy.

Part of the solution lies in looking at USES instead of ROOMS and intermingling elements of each type of room together when necessary.

Part of the solution lies in getting very organized and getting rid of unneeded belongings.

Part of the solution is making a commitment to the Green Lifestyle.

The photos in this article show part of the interior of our house as it is at around 75% completed. Stay tuned for Part Three which will show other parts of the house.

Article by Patrick Clark