Is There Such Thing as Too Small?

by Katy on February 11, 2010 · 37 comments

Photo by Angel Chevrestt for The NY Post

The New York Post just ran a story about a Manhattan couple who are living in a 175 square foot “microstudio” (a.k.a. converted maid’s quarters) condominium and are apparently happy as clams. What makes this situation unique is not that they’re living in a small space, so much as how they’ve adapted their life to make this work.

The small house movement has been gaining steam, with help from Susanne Susanka’s Not So Big House books and those darling tiny house trailers that fit all of life’s necessities into intelligently designed little spaces. Setting your sites on smallness is nothing new. Henry David Thoreau did it, and there’s even a Small House Society, whose slogan is “Better living through simplicity.”

But this small apartment is different. This couple is not trying to fit all of life’s necessities into a small space. They choose instead to live much of their life outside of their home. Their work clothes are “strategically stashed at various dry cleaners.” and the couple proudly states that “we don’t cook.” (Although they do have a mini-fridge and a hot plate.)

So . . . minimal clothing storage and no cooking equals no storage of the paraphernalia that comes with cooking and attire. No pots and pans, no dishes and just a few casual outfits.

I know that every person makes different choices about how they live their lives, and that’s good, that’s important. But I look at the gallery of photos that accompany this article, and I want to install a wall mounted reading light, switch their bed out to one with storage and buy them an old fashioned broom. (They use a Roomba to keep up with cat hair.)

The husband is quoted as saying that “Every bit of space is utilized,” but that’s just not true. There are no wall mounted shelves or even a speck of dust under their bed.

But let’s look at this from another angle.

Is this couple happy? Apparently so. Are they harming anyone? Well . . . with the exception of the garbage that must come with eating tremendous amounts of take out, I’ll have to say no. Is this couple living within their means, (This apartment set them back a mere $150,000 plus $700 per month in maintenance fees) so they can realize other hopes and dreams? Yes.

I spend hours every day cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and generally failing to keep up with the tasks of owning a large house. Yes, I’m a parent, which makes this a situation of comparing apples to oranges, but the idea of a one minute house cleanup like heaven-on-a-stick. I lived in New York for a couple of years, so I get the whole it’s worth it because I live in the greatest city ever thing.

It’s certainly interesting, as it makes me actively comb through through my reactions to this article, and to see my own roomy house with a fresh eye. Could I live in a space this small without going bug-freaking-crazy?

Do you lust after those tiny wooden trailer houses and  a simpler life like I do? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thank you to Naomi Selden over at Simpler Living, whose column on small living spaces linked to this article.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Fox February 11, 2010 at 6:45 pm

It’s my dream to live in an RV. Me, the cats, and the world. Right now I live in 400-500 square feet with a roommate. One closet for each of us, and we have to share the (very) limited kitchen storage areas. It works out, though, and I find that I’m just as comfortable in this space (in fact, even more so) than I was in much bigger apartments. I lived in a huge one-bedroom once. That was pretty bad, I had all this extra space and nothing to fill it with. I ended up picking up a lot of furniture I didn’t need just to have something there.

Reply

Marie-Josée February 11, 2010 at 7:17 pm

I do seek out the simple life and I we have made choices that bring us closer to it these past years. We sold our house, moved from the burbs to a housing coop in the city, and I sold my car. We can clean our two bedroom apartment in about 45 minutes (kitchen, appliances, bathroom, dusting, vacuuming and floors mopped down included). My job is a 30 minute walk from home. I accepted a new job with a pay-cut and left a high stress job as a legal assistant, so that I could actually enjoy my life away from work, instead of arriving home exhausted and frustrated every day. When both children will be out of college, my husband wants to change jobs as well, and go for a lower paying, but less demanding position. We did wait for our youngest son to enter college before we made those changes though. I couldn’t live in a space as small as the couple you mention in your post, especially not with a partner. I like to meditate or just to muse quietly and I seek the privacy of our bedroom to do that. I spend most of my free time in our living room, with my husband, but I have my own chair, while he prefers the couch. And I couldn’t live on restaurant food day in and day out for health and the environmental reasons you mentioned.

Reply

min hus February 11, 2010 at 8:02 pm

For me yes, and this is too small. So are tiny houses. Plus the apartment in this example looks kind of sad to me, and not comfortable. However did you see <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/11/garden/11location.html?ref=garden"this story about the guy who lives in 178 square feet. Now his place looks cozy. I could almost see myself living in something that small if it looked like this.

Reply

Sharon February 12, 2010 at 10:00 am

Brilliant designer! This apt. is stunning ..

Reply

Jay February 11, 2010 at 8:05 pm

My husband and I lived together in a single dorm room in college for a year – it was about 10 x 8 ft, and it was fun. Like hanging out in a fort you built as a little kid, only we’d drug ALL our toys inside and stayed there for a 10 months. Then we moved to the big city and lived in other super-small digs for a few years, trying to keep costs down.

Now that we’ve bought our first house and have a little breathing space (not a TON, but way more than before), in a way I feel like things are simpler. It’s nice not to have to constantly be surrounded by every single thing I own. And it got sort of stressful to be in a cycle of constantly downsizing. When you have that little space, you are always in need of a purge. Holidays freaked me out because I never knew what we’d do with the gifts we received, since we were always at capacity space-wise.

I think things are perfect now: a small house with a basement to store things that we aren’t currently using. We’re able to streamline our living spaces so they’re not cluttered, and still keep boxes of summer clothes and holiday decorations around but out of sight.

Reply

michelle February 11, 2010 at 8:59 pm

I remember this article. I totally get the “this is the greatest place on earth to live and now we can afford to live here” thing. But … why on earth would you store your clothes at the cleaners? I am a Texan, and we have lots of space and horribly big houses that people in other states make fun of. I have three kids. They each hit 5’9″ in junior high, the boys hit 6 feet by age 15. My husband and I are tall, too. We, um, need some room to stretch out. And when our kids are all gone, I’m not planning to downsize too much, because I will need a place for the grandkids to come, play, sleep, and hang out. It’s wasteful, I know, but I’m not a slave to my house payment, and there’s nothing more important to me than having room for my family. I admire small spaces, I really do, but I can’t see myself there for years.

Reply

Hiptobeme February 12, 2010 at 12:34 am

I live in a relatively small space, 983 sq feet for three, (which is less than 300 sq feet each). We have made it work for four years but as we grow, I do sometimes find it difficult to creatively store and purge things. It does keep me on my toes as to keeping up on the donations pile and not buying too much stuff. For the most part, we have been able to make very good use of the space we have, but their are times when I just wish I had a rec room with a huge area that I could spread out in to sew craft and what have you. Ah well. Such is life.

Reply

David February 12, 2010 at 1:30 am

I live with my wife and our college freshman son in a flat that is less than 500 square feet. We are quite comfortable here–but you must be dedicated to keeping your possessions edited, often by getting rid of something when you purchase something new. When I got rid of a mini-storage unit full of “stuff” I felt a weight lifting from my shoulders. Now, I still have clothing I haven’t worn in a year or more and will soon get rid of rather than having it continue to take up space but be unused. I have also digitized most of my documents and gotten rid of most of my books, using digital copies of those things I want around still. The result continues to be liberating and I would not go back to being the pack rat I was for so many years. I just wish I had downsized my things much earlier.

Reply

Aly R. February 12, 2010 at 3:36 am

Well, I know it can be done. Those pictures reminded me of my years living in what I liked to call “the world’s smallest dorm.” It was seriously about a third of the size of the apartment featured in this article. While I never aspire to occupy a living space quite that small again, I do appreciate smaller spaces. I think the key is to live “lightly” within your living space– don’t have overage of clothing, kitchenware, clutter, etc. (Well, that is the idea, anyway!) I guess my lust for the simpler life centers around the idea that I would be able to fit everything I need in a suitcase and go traveling throughout the world, carefree!

Reply

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl February 12, 2010 at 3:46 am

That’s too small for me. I want some space for my family and some space for hospitality (you could never host a family get-together in a place like that). My family lives in a home that is not enormous (lots of people on my street have 1-3 people living in homes the size of ours), but we have space to cook and do school and have people over.

Reply

Jinger February 12, 2010 at 5:32 am

Where do they sit and relax? And the Drano next to the coffee maker and cat litter box under the sink in the food area??? Yuck!

I live in a small apartment…4 rooms for 2 people, but also 2 porches, so I spend a good deal of time in 3 seasons in my outdoor rooms. But, I do need the feeling of home inside as well. I’m a homebody and my home, no matter, where or how small has to be cozy, comfy, and personal.

Reply

Andrea February 12, 2010 at 6:23 am

I’d say the amount of perchloroethylene used for all that dry cleaning can’t be good either. I DO lust after one of those tiny houses, only not instead of my (modest-sized) house, but in addition…so I could have my own little space I don’t have to share with my husband or kids! We have a two bedroom, two-bathroom, two-story, open-floorplan house with a daylight basement (unfinished and I just learned dangerously so–foam insulation exposed), and no where to escape three kids (plus my husband has his office in our living room). Small is beautiful, but small is awkward too, when you want to do yoga or write or have some peace and quiet.

Reply

Kayla K February 12, 2010 at 6:32 am

That apartment is the same size as my college bedroom. I agree with Katy- the space could be better used. Under the bed, shelves around the upper perimeter, a fold-out clothes rack, etc. At the very least I could get rid of the cappuccino maker in lieu of a microwave.
I don’t imagine they really save that much by living in a small space if they can’t do their own laundry or cook their own food.
And where does that litter box go? 😉
$150,000 could buy farm house on an acreage in Northeast Iowa. I won’t be moving to New York anytime soon.

Reply

Carla February 12, 2010 at 6:42 am

…could I live in something as small as this couple? If I had to. It would not be my choice, though. I can see some difficulties, especially with the no-cooking. That has to be ridiculously expensive practice and probably is unhealthy, to boot. And I agree that while their apartment looks clean, they could surely utilize the space better to hold clothes and free up that kitchen.

Obviously, they are not crafters. (Insert wry smile.)

I think I would LOVE to downsize. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not in a humongous McMansion. We built this to have 1800 sq. ft. heated and cooled. (Perhaps the 750 sq. ft. little house which was our first home might be about the right size.) What IS bothering me is that we have, over the 13 years in the house, gradually filled the closets and cupboards to capacity, nearly. I am on a mission to get the bulk of that “stuff” out. What I am afraid of is that we will just turn around and refill them.

Reply

Jean February 12, 2010 at 6:49 am

I am rattling around a house that is too big for my husband and myself. After both our kids finally finished moving out we had too much room for just two people, but I thought that I would finally have more room for my stuff. To my surprise I started to downsize. I was tired to taking care of so much stuff that really served no useful purpose.

I would like a smaller house, but my husband likes where we are living and will only move if forced to, so I am closing off rooms we don’t need. I am also continuing to get rid of stuff. It amazes me just how much I have collected in the 40 years we have lived here. Much too much is just simply junk that has no useful purpose and I cannot figure out why I ever spent hard earned money on it. Much of it possibly just to fill up space as Fox said.

I could see myself living in a much smaller house, just so long as it has room for all my books and a cat ot two.

Reply

Shannon February 12, 2010 at 7:00 am

I lived in a 400 sq. ft. apartment before getting married, and it was heaven-on-a-stick. My apartment was an old house that had been cut up into pieces, and I had really great storage. Sure, my bedroom was the living room too, but that was okay because there was a cozy coffee shop around the corner so I always had that as the “living room” for myself or to take friends to. I was careful to not acquire too many things, and it was comfortable for me.
Now with a husband and two kids, we obviously need more space. We are in just under 2000 sq. feet now, and I still feel like it’s too big. Was a big culture shock for me. I think we could happily exist in about half of this, because happily wherever we are in the house, the kids want to be with us. It’s not uncommon to find us piled onto the same little couch, even with all this room.

Reply

Mary February 12, 2010 at 7:05 am

They keep their clothes at dry cleaners??? I don’t think the space looks very comfortable but I guess they like it. We like to read in comfortable chairs & cook lots of garden food so we prefer an actual kitchen! The tiny homes are beautiful & I’m a big fan of the not so big house, life, etc. It seems like some homes (mine included) waste space that we don’t really use. We have a guest bedroom that isn’t used very often so when we build our environmentaly friendly smaller home we’re going to design it for our needs not based on some realtor’s idea of resale value.

Reply

Lindsay February 12, 2010 at 7:51 am

Domestic life, cooking, and hosting people at home are too important to me to live in a place quite that small. I would love to buy a tiny plot of land in the middle of nowhere and put one of those mini-house trailers on it as a sort of vacation home, though. A girl can dream…

Reply

Louise February 12, 2010 at 8:12 am

We have lived quite happily and comfortably in our 300 sq. ft. RV for over 5 years now. “We” are 2 humans, 2 cats, 1 dog, and 4 tropical fish. I like that the couple in NY is doing it their way…

Reply

Tammy Strobel February 12, 2010 at 8:29 am

I loved this article and found it incredibly inspiring. We live a similar lifestyle (our apartment is about 350 sq feet) and love it! I do spend a lot of time at home, but I also spend a lot of time outside. And since I’m new to Portland, I’m getting acquainted with the community and plan on doing a lot of volunteer work. Living small is a great option for us. 🙂

One of our dreams is to build a tiny house. A new tiny house company just started in Portland (full disclosure – I’m working with this company) and I’m hoping Dee and Katy can build our little house. Their work is amazing. http://portlandalternativedwellings.com/

Reply

Rebecca February 12, 2010 at 11:18 am

Living in a small space can be frugal, but for them ( in the article) it is about location. They live there but their lives are not exactly frugal, keeping clothes at drycleaners, eating out. The cost of those alone, esp in Manhatten, probably is more than they pay in fees everymonth (700). They also don’t have kids, and as two working professionals, spend most of their time working or out with friends. That costs money too. It could be cheap, but not for them. Then again, they make more than we could ever dream of.

Reply

Laura February 12, 2010 at 11:57 am

I could never live in a place quite that small, at least not the way that one’s set up. To me, living simpler means cooking more for myself, and doing food preservation and storage. Also, what do they do in their spare time?! I’d have to find room for my cello, my husband’s guitar, my sewing machine, the amateur radio gear, and all my books!!!…….

Reply

Melissa February 12, 2010 at 12:02 pm

I think I like the idea of a smaller, simpler house more than the reality. I lived in several teeny apartments years ago in Japan (before husband and kids) and was always at work or out to dinner, so it worked just fine. That’s the lifestyle that supports these types of living situations perfectly. (Although I did miss being able to walk from even one room to another just for a change of scenery.) Now I’m too domestic for that. I’m home all the time, I garden, I’ve got kids, etc. etc. And I think I could simplify my life in ways other than move into a teeny tiny space. I would probably lose my mind if I tried to move my life into that small of a space (but it would make a nice getaway…).

Reply

Lisa February 12, 2010 at 1:20 pm

I like living small, but not tiny small. The apartment shown would be too tiny for me and so would the small trailers being built nowadays. Those would be fine for camping or office/ guesthouses…but not for full time living. That being said, my goal in the near future is to purchase acreage and build a small earth sheltered home on it. 600 sq ft would be ample.

Reply

Jess February 12, 2010 at 6:42 pm

I think I could live on my own in a space this size, though I like more separation of living spaces. And like Kristen said – I’d miss the space to have people over and entertain or host friends for extended visits. A good location on a budget is usually very small – I’d have one of those wall unit beds that folds up with a lot of shelves. It’d be fun to try!

Reply

Kristin February 12, 2010 at 7:05 pm

I’d go bug-freaking-crazy (great descriptor, Katy!) in a space this small! And I’d be miserable without a proper kitchen. My current kitchen is a proper size and it’s still too small for cooking and dancing.

Reply

Alice February 12, 2010 at 7:33 pm

I love it! They are going to pay off their mortgage in two years… they can’t cook and don’t like to entertain so why should they have a kitchen/living area? Once they pay off the mortgage, they are planning a remodel. Living within their means instead of remodeling now. Can you tell they are two accountants? To each his own. Some people love to entertain, cook and have their space. Some people don’t. And those people can live there.
And I thought my place was small! Ha ha. My 650 sq ft condo seems like a huge place now!

Reply

ksmedgirl February 13, 2010 at 1:57 pm

I showed that picture to my 11 y/o daughter and she looked at it and said, “Well, do they have a toilet?”. Nothing like a child to zero right in on the important stuff!

Reply

Kris-ND February 13, 2010 at 7:37 pm

First off, it is shocking to me that a closet can cost 150,000??? I about fell out of my chair! We bought our home, which sits on 4 1/2 acres on a lake for 150,000..lol Their maintenance fees are more than our property tax each year. Wow, wow, wow!LOL! I knew NYC was an expensive place to live, but… who coulda thunk that!

Why are they doing this? If it is to be “green” then, they don’t seem to be doing a very good job. Dry cleaning because you don’t have a closet? Eating out almost every meal? If it is just to slim down and decompress a very busy life, in a very, very busy city, then I absolutely get it.

HGTV used to have a show(maybe they still do) about small living spaces and how to make every inch count, but I think the smallest place on any of the shows I watched, was 350sqft.

Could I live there? NOOOOOOOOO! lol Would I go bonkers? Yes I would to be honest. We have teenage children, and it would be inappropriate to try and have our 18 yo daughter and 15yo son changing, bathing, etc in a space with absolutely no way to do it in privacy. I guess each of the kids could stand out in the hall while the other dressed, and then they could both stand in the hall while we(my dh and I) dressed, and then we could stand in the hall while both of them dressed? No clue how I could do that and keep my sanity.

What we don’t have is alot of “stuff”. Military life where YOU have a very specific weight allocation when you move your stuff. There is no “grace” overweight, so you quickly learn what is and is not vital to life. We have very little clutter, and it makes life much easier.

Reply

Kris-ND February 13, 2010 at 7:40 pm

and, just to be clear. I don’t have a McMansion. It is an A-frame cabin with a loft, which is our son’s room, two small bedrooms and one bathroom/laundry room.

The land is the real value. We have fruit trees now, and the amount of food we could grow on every inch would be astounding, but I am not that capable, so I just keep one giant garden, not gardens on every inch of the property. Best of all, we have the Badlands, which are a year round outdoor treasure 😉

Reply

tammy February 14, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Funny how the universe works. For the past week BF and I have been discussing downsizing to an RV and moving to Key West Florida! After 20 plus years in the music industry, I think we’re ready for a simpler life, without seasonal stress, shifting shows, and snowy weather. I confess, an RV sounds really reasonable. We lived in a small apt a few years ago and i MISS it. I LOVE MY HOUSE but have spent the entire weekend cleaning. I LOVE MY GARDEN but could learn to grow in containers. I LOVE LIFE and I think it may be time to start LIVING it!
Thank you Katy for another insightful post!

Reply

Iris February 15, 2010 at 4:05 am

it’s not just about size 😉

it is small, yes – but being single/having no kids – how much space do you NEED (differing from ‘want’ and ‘are used to’)?

I currently live alone on 106sq.ft. with a shared kitchen + bathroom, and have previously shared a 180sq.ft. apartment – incl. kitchen corner & tiny bathroom – with my boyfriend.

I’d skip eating out in favour of cooking on the one hot plate – that’s fine for good&simple meals for 2 people. also skip the dry cleaners and go for a comfy sitting corner with storage boxes underneath and a loft bed. but that’s about personal preference 🙂

Reply

Linda February 15, 2010 at 4:51 pm

I live in an 1850 square foot house. It is perfect for my family of 4. Can we get by with a smaller house? Yes but why would I want to?

For me, what this couple lives in would just be too small for me. I love to cook and really don’t like going out to eat. I don’t go to the dry cleaners…my clothes are all wash and wear.

My house cost us less than their apartment and $700 maintenance fee!!!!! That’s quite high!

Everyone has their own needs for homelife. I am sure they are very happy with their situation and I am very happy with mine.

Reply

Sierra Black February 25, 2010 at 10:30 pm

I have always fantasized about living in one of those little wooden trailer homes, since I was a hippie kid and we knew people who actually had one.

But the truth is that as an adult I love my space.

Reply

M March 17, 2010 at 10:28 am

Heh… people pretend to lust after small spaces, but I think the reality isn’t quite so glamorous particularly for frugal/non-consumer types — because in some ways, like the article above, small spaces can encourage people to adopt disposable culture.

Which is not to say that there aren’t people who live in Tumbleweeds and converted buses and grow all their own food and store it in a root cellar, etc. but I think a lot of do-it-yourself, save-and-mend, washable-not-disposable projects do require a bit of space.

I was raised pretty gung-ho hippie, and now live in 600 sqft house. It’s in the middle of the woods, though, so I don’t have the urban option of dry-cleaning and take-out. (Those things are honestly so alien to me, though, I don’t think I could do them even in that NYC apartment. Heh.) I am constantly struggling with storage needs — not for consumer things, like televisions or whatnot, but for “frugal” things, like canned food and kitchen cloths and gardening supplies. I would give anything to have more of a pantry. One makes do, certainly, but I get a little testy when my friends brag about their bulk food that my kitchen simply cannot accommodate.

Small spaces, by necessity, tend to end up with more visual noise. (Because you CANNOT reduce your belongings but so much without adopting a lifestyle like the above couple.) Stuff has to been seen/interacted with more often, which I’m not particularly fond of.

Of course, I’m also a pretty tall, broad person… my ideal is a reasonably large house with greeeeat big doorways and minimal clutter. And a kicking pantry. 😉

Reply

Red April 10, 2010 at 8:39 pm

If it works for them, I’m all for it. Personally, I like having space, even if it’s unused. Our bedroom has four pieces of furniture in it and could definitely be smaller and still accommodate us, but I like being able to move around. If I feel suffocated in a space, I can’t enjoy it. And I would think having to shuffle your work clothes around at the dry cleaner’s all month would be much more stressful than keeping it in a closet.

Like you, I think they could utilize what space they do have better and be able to keep their clothes in the apartment. But to each his own…

Reply

Ineke October 29, 2017 at 9:22 pm

I van only think: poor cats. Maybe it’s okay for the people but that room is too small for two cat’s. I hope they moved to a bigger place over the years….

Reply

Cancel reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: