Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

The Only Thing You Need to Get Rid of When Moving into a Small Space

As micro housing has gained popularity in the last several years, a number of similarly titled articles have been published. The general wording is, “Could You Live in Only ___ [200, 300, 400] Square Feet ?” Inherent in this question is a world of assumptions about what is normal and livable. In the US, what is normal and livable is, for the most part, huge. The average new single family home in 2014 was north of 2600 sq ft. So when homes fall significantly short of normal people seem to think it poses an existential threat: “could you LIVE?”

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One of our favorite bloggers Johnny Sanphillippo recently visited a “normal” home in New Dehli, India. He approximates it was around 200 sq ft, shared by a family of four. No, the children were not newborns. They look like teenagers. The space consisted of two rooms–a kitchen and a bed-living-dining room. The toilet, sink and bathing areas were in an exterior courtyard and shared with neighbors.

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What allows this family to share such a tiny space? Transforming furniture? Nope, not unless you consider a bed that doubles as a table transforming. Sophisticated tech and design? Not unless you count a TV and a place to put your shoes outside the house as sophisticated.

There is one big thing that makes this tiny place work. It’s something Americans accumulate with profound alacrity and prevents them from living in more modest spaces. It’s the one thing, that if discarded, can make the smallest of dwellings work.

That one thing is expectation. If we expect a lot, we need a lot. If we expect less–or, better yet, free ourselves from expectations–we need less. And while it’s somewhat true that certain spaces are too small for some peoples’ needs, for the most part people fit themselves into spaces as much as spaces fit people.

If you don’t think our expectations determine our capacity to be happy in a space, consider the last 70 years of American architecture. Circa 1950, the average American household contained 3.37 people and lived in a home around 1000 sq ft. Americans expected 337 sq ft per person. Today, those numbers are 2.54 people in 2600 sq ft.–three times more space per capita than 70 years ago. These fluctuations also demonstrate how elastic and divorced from actual needs expectations are. Johnny says it well:

I know families where three or four people live in a five bedroom house with a two car garage and a swimming pool. Yet they feel oppressed by the fact that they don’t have enough space. The kitchen needs to be remodeled. The bathrooms are outdated….We all get distracted from real needs and confuse them with superficial desires.

It’s important to understand how normal this Indian family is in a global context. As Johnny explains, this family is middle class. Globally, there may be people who have more, but there are just as many who have less. The way these people live–neither too secure nor too precarious–is the way a great deal of the world’s 7B+ people live. Westerners are wont to lose perspective about how materially abundant our world is, and start thinking a third car garage is a right rather than a specious luxury. 

You might think India an extreme example, but almost every country in the world has a very different–much smaller than the US–definition of what constitutes a normal home. The average new home in the UK is a little less than 800 sq ft–i.e. less than ¼ that of the average new home in the US. In Denmark it’s 1679 sq ft–that’s almost 1K sq ft less than the US, or four average Hong Kong homes worth of space (236 sq ft). In fact, there are only two countries that are remotely comparable in terms of US housing sizes. Unsurprisingly, they are Australia and Canada, two colonies established because of their vast tracts of virgin land and where much of the infrastructure growth has come about in the age of the automobile.

The point isn’t that there is a right or wrong size–though, let’s face it, most American homes are too damn big. The point is when thinking about how much space we really need to live, it’s often expectations, not physics or needs, that stand in the way of making a real reduction.

  • Laura

    loved this! my husband and I recently bought an older home–it’s a pretty small house, but very charming in an awesome neighborhood. I used to love our home in spite of its smaller size, now I love it BECAUSE of it. We literally can’t accumulate useless junk because there’s not space to. There’s definitely freedom in that.

  • Chris

    I think that it’s an interesting study in culture as much as anything else.

    I first visited the states when I was 11 and we stayed with cousins on Long Island. To me, their house was huge with 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, huge kitchen and a full basement. It was a normal sized house for the neighborhood. It was probably at least twice the size of our 3 bed, 1 bath house.

    When they came to visit, they couldn’t believe how small everything was and how cramped it was. You get used to what’s around you and what’s around you is normal.

    I eventually moved to the states and just moved back to the UK this year. My current home is in a purpose built block of flats and is a little under 480 sq ft. Which is about half the size of my flat in San Francisco but it feels bigger partly because it’s squarer but also because I have a lot less stuff in it. Moving countries is a great way to reduce your amount of stuff ?

    At the risk of generalization, one thing that I’ve noticed here is that people tend to keep stuff for longer and that things like TVs, phones, etc cost more than in the states. My phone died and I needed to buy a new one, I got the Nexus 5x and it cost me over $100 more than it would have cost me in the states.

    When I’m out and about, I see people using the iPhone 4 and 5 more than I see them using an iPhone 6. It’s not that people in the UK aren’t over consuming, they are but its on different stuff than in the states.

  • Shia

    When I was in college (in Germany), I moved into my then boyfriend (now husband)’s 200 sq ft studio apartment because I just couldn’t stand another day with my room mates. This arrangement was never meant to be long-term, however, we just got too comfortable and we ended up living like this for 2 years+, until both his and my parents more or less forced us to get a bigger apartment :D. We did (~450 sq ft), but it always felt too big, even though everyone around us still kept telling us it was still too darn small for two people.
    Anyway, it just so happened that we went to live in Tokyo for a year. There, everybody kept telling us how big and comfortable our ~370 sq ft 1 bedroom apartment was :D! And yes, for Tokyo, it definitely WAS!
    Today it seems we live in an OK-sized apartment (~570 sq ft), at least that’s what people keep telling us. We, however, feel like we shouldn’t have given in to the EXPECTATIONS everyone else around us has! We feel it’s too big, and we have started to look for a nice studio apartment ;).

  • Minimalist Community

    How profound – our expectations dictate our ability to be satisfied/unsatisfied with our present state.

  • goodheart

    I like the idea of smaller homes…I grew up in one of about 900 sq feet and it was fine. But I draw the line when it comes to shared sleeping space with children. The man in my life would prefer our intimate times to be private. What do these people do when they want to have that time to themselves? Also, one bath is okay but no, I would not share it with neighbors.