Whether you live in a condo or apartment, a small house, or a bigger home with an awkward layout, storage spaces can be hard to come by. To get the most of your square footage, go vertical. A solution can be as simple as a tall bookcase or layers of picture ledges — or as ambitious as raising the roof.

Jennifer Gardner, owner and principal designer of Jennifer Gardner Design in Seattle, sees a lot of compact houses in the city, which she says can become “jewel boxes.” “There’s so much you can do with your little house to improve the function,” she says. “It is about accessing that vertical space to maximize a small space.”

When thinking about your space needs, consider what you have now, as well as what you intend to have down the road. And make sure there’s a space for everything. Gardner works with a lot with families — she loves a good challenge — and says it’s important to create spaces that will grow with the kids.

“I like to keep those vertical spaces very flexible,” she says. “What we’re going to do with them today is different from what we’re going to do with them in a few years.”

She’s also worked with several clients who have decided to move mid-project. Her advice: “Always consider resale. We’re a transient community.”

DIYable solutions

Want to add storage without a lot of effort? Carrie Powell, owner of Method Seattle Professional Organizing in Bellevue, offers some simple solutions you can install yourself.

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Closets are a big opportunity for maximizing vertical space. The traditional setup — a bar and a single shelf — can be tricked out with a few tools.

“Our lifestyle — especially in Seattle, geez — it’s so casual so you need very little hanging space that takes up the whole vertical length of the closet,” Powell says. “Instead of across, think up and down.”

Since we’re rarely reaching for long, formal gowns, install an upper bar and lower bar to double-hang items. Add another shelf higher up to store out-of-season clothes. Hanging organizers that attach to a rod with a Velcro strap can contain folded jeans and sweaters.

Shallow wire shelves or baskets that hang over a door are great for adding storage to a pantry or bathroom. A system like The Container Store’s Elfa Over the Door Rack can also serve as a crafting station, containing rolls of paper, tape, scissors and markers in its many baskets. “They can hold a ton of stuff. I can’t tell you how many small pantries I’ve maximized using these shelves,” Powell says. “And they’re not that expensive. It’s an instant win.”

In the garage, store two bikes vertically using a tension mount rack that pushes into the ceiling and floor — no complicated mounting tools needed.

In a bathroom, extra toilet paper and supplies can be contained in a tall, slim cabinet that stands over the commode. If you don’t need closed storage, floating shelves can keep items at hand or display decorative items that would otherwise clutter a countertop.

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For booklovers and their ever-expanding collections, Powell recommends book towers. The Story Bookcase from Design Within Reach is her favorite — she has several in her own home. “They take up hardly any space. You just tuck them in a corner,” Powell says. “I love to put the books in rainbow order so it’s storage, but it’s something appealing to look at.”

Small projects with big rewards

If you’re handy with a level and a stud finder, you can pull off a few small projects to maximize your vertical space. Other projects might require hiring skilled help, but consider it a solid investment for the space you gain.

For one plant-loving client, Gardner installed five horizontal rails on a 4-foot-wide wall near a window. A hook system holds potted plants along the rails. “Then you have this gorgeous living wall,” Gardner says. “That’s a great way to utilize vertical space for greenery and plants.”

In a mudroom or a garage, Gardner looks for affordable solutions that hide clutter. She’s a big proponent of hooks, hanging coats and hats from them, paired with a shelf lined with baskets for other accessories. If you have a larger budget, you can create custom built-ins. More affordable modular storage systems can be found at big-box stores like Ikea.

Maybe you want to host overnight guests, but don’t have a dedicated guest room. Gardner suggests installing a wall bed with a built-in desk. “It’s a fabulous way to have that guest room you need a few weeks out of the year, but also have a fabulous desk situation that can easily convert when Grandma and Grandpa come into town,” she says.

Reclaim the space under the stairs with built-ins to gain open or hidden storage. Custom cabinetry can slide out for easy access, or can include a coat rail or shelves to stash your Costco haul.

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Big art collector? “I’m a huge, huge fan of using art ledges,” Gardner says. “I don’t just use one — I want to fill up the wall.” She likes to set up at least three different picture ledges, providing lots of room for easily interchangeable pieces of art. If you need to childproof, keep the ledges higher and out of reach for now and add lower ones when the kids are older.

For flexible vertical storage, pegboards can be found on Etsy and at Ikea, and they can be customized with pegs and shelves. “They work really well for the midcentury home aesthetic that is so prominent in Seattle,” Gardner says. 

You can frame them, paint them, display plants on them, make them look fun. Put four pegboards together in a home gym to make a customizable workout wall that can hold items like a yoga mat, cycling shoes, towels and more.

Gardner worked with a couple living in the Ravenna neighborhood whose front door opens right into the living room and dining area. Her solution: a “room divider” created from a Room & Board bookcase that was open on both sides. To it, she added a place to drop keys, some plants and baskets for storage. “It was really beautiful and it created a sense of entry for them, and they absolutely loved that,” Gardner says.

Investing in a second-story addition

The ultimate use of vertical space is to build up. Same footprint, more square footage.

When Brett Adler moved into her home on Queen Anne five years ago, her children were 5 and 1. Good thing they were still small, because the ceilings in the bedrooms on the second floor sloped so severely only toddlers could walk around without hitting their heads. There was technically a full bath, in a space the size of a closet, but the ceilings were so low an adult couldn’t stand up in the tub.

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Adler, owner of Inhabit Interior Design, a firm specializing in residential design, had envisioned building up ever since she bought the house, and started the process in 2020.

On the redesigned second story — previously a cramped space that held two tiny bedrooms and the miniature bathroom — Adler added three bedrooms and two bathrooms, including a spacious main suite with a walk-in closet. 

On the new third story, she added an open family room that turned into a work-from-home office during the pandemic. Best of all for her 6-foot-4 husband, there are now soaring 13-foot ceilings throughout. “Especially with working from home now, the extra square footage is amazing,” Adler says.

If adding an additional story to your home is more than your budget or time frame allows — and both elements are considerable for a project of this size — Adler adding large dormers. These little rooms pop out of the roofline to create more usable space in an attic.

“Dormers are amazing because you’re not changing anything structurally, for the most part,” she says. “That’s the most cost-efficient way, just taking advantage of that space under the eaves.”

For her home, Adler made such a large investment because she didn’t want to leave the neighborhood, but she also felt she couldn’t have stayed in her house as it was with growing children.

“It would have been tough,” she says. “I can’t imagine the kids being teenagers with the old configuration.”