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Tide swings toward more compact living spaces

February 14, 2009|By CHRISTINE BRUN / Creators Services

I have long struggled to answer the question of why Americans are so conditioned to think that bigger is better.

I have come to believe the answer can be found in the vastness of a land itself that beckoned early colonists with the promise of a better life, a promise that sent pioneers ever westward toward the Pacific, a land that seemed never to end.

The American housing industry has long reflected the same adoration of wide-open spaces. In the 1980s and '90s, large living was widely equated with prosperity and success. But we may soon see all of that come to a decisive end as economic turmoil forces families to move into apartments or downsize into smaller homes.

What's more, a demographic force waits in the wings that will soon come of age and start to shape the housing market. The 80 million-strong Generation Y, the so-called millennials, will shape consumer trends just like the baby boom before them. Studies show these young people want to live in exciting urban settings, are interested in value engineering, and consider smaller living spaces to be acceptable.

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On the other end of the generational spectrum, seniors will continue to leave behind their family homes in search of two-bedroom apartments located in assisted-living situations.

For nearly a decade I have written about all things that influence the style and function of small homes. I have covered design ideas, products, and furnishings. Small space living, while challenging in some respects, is destined to become more chic ,and downsizing is an idea whose time has come.

I have learned from readers that there are unique concerns for small-home owners and renters. One is that those living in compressed space often feel a need to apologize for the size of their house. That bothers me.

Maybe my own experience of being raised in a small, post-WWII home colors my view and makes me a wee bit defensive. I shared a bedroom with two sisters and slept in a bunk bed until I left home to get married. I feel part of my job in this column is to guard the potential and reputation of the small home.

The other issue readers often complain about is the difficulty encountered in trying to locate products that will solve their space-related issues. Many times, the model numbers and manufacturer's information is edited out of my column in an effort to present unbiased reporting. I always thought that someone ought to gather these resources into a book because it would be a shame to let them slip back into my file cabinet underutilized and forgotten. Eventually it became clear that someone would have to be me.

When I began this column, Europe and Asia were far ahead of us. American consumers could not easily access items that make space planning for small homes transformative.

Happily, things have changed greatly, and many space-saving products are featured in my new book "Small Space Living," released this month by Schiffer Publishing. In it there are examples of dozens of models of available prefab buildings, such as my favorite: The Cusato Cottage. Designed originally as an alternative to the FEMA trailer, these little cottages ranged between 544 and 936 square feet. Now sold in kit form, the Cusato Cottages can grow incrementally with the improved fortunes of a family.

Newly engineered appliances that save valuable floor space are featured, such as: under-counter combination washing machines and clothes dryers, refrigerators with two small upper doors instead of one large door, compact mini kitchens, and 24-inch-wide commercial gas ranges.

There are entries about how a spiral staircase provides access to another floor with less space consumption than does a traditional staircase, a dishwasher installed at an accessible height to make a kitchen function for someone in a wheelchair or other physical challenges, and a bed that converts into a desk and or dining table that can turn the smallest studio apartment into an efficient living space.

I feature tables that convert from dining height to cocktail height, beds that lift up to reveal secret storage compartments, and stackable dining chairs. There are ideas about how to coax a minimal outdoor area into charming and useful space. From interior designers, alternative furniture layouts open up new ideas about how to arrange a room in fresh ways so that the space works better.

o Send questions and comments to her by e-mail at christinebrun@sbcglobal.net.

Copyright 2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.e for many Americans. Photo courtesy of Lowe's.

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