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 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.

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:

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.