Editor’s note: The following is an edited excerpt from the new book “Downsize: Living large in a small house,” by Sheri Koones ($34.95, The Taunton Press), which profiles more than 30 homes, all under 2,000 square feet, including seven in Washington.
IT’S NO SURPRISE that the most obvious group of downsizers is empty-nesters, part of the ever-expanding baby boomer generation. Once the children are grown and moved away, the choice becomes: Do we stay in the house with all its family memories, or move to a more appropriately sized house, where every weekend is not taken up with maintenance, and a hefty chunk of the budget doesn’t go toward continual improvements?
There are many reasons empty-nesters choose to downsize. Less space is generally the main reason, but they also want to reduce energy, mortgage and maintenance expenses. A place with less to clean and a more intimate setting starts to look like a very good option.
But downsizing is not just for empty-nesters. Many younger people are downsizing as well. They are getting tired of the costs associated with living in a large home, bogged down by the carrying charges for the house and the continuous upkeep. As a result, many families are tempted to find a more carefree way of life, choosing to downsize to a much smaller house, or even a tiny house. They are more interested in using their extra funds for travel, entertainment or sports rather than carrying large mortgage payments.
Without exception, everyone I interviewed for this book was delighted to be downsizing. They used words such as “liberated,” having rid themselves of all of the stuff or baggage that had loaded them down for years. Nobody said they missed any of the things they got rid of. And none of the people said they missed the space (except perhaps when they would have liked to have large family gatherings).
Initially, some people said, their spouses got in their way in the smaller space, but they got used to the proximity and began to enjoy the closeness. Many of the houses were designed with private spaces — an outdoor area, a small office, or even a hallway lounge or desk — so everyone could have their own getaway space.
Without being bogged down by a lot of maintenance, people said they could enjoy other activities much more. Couples and families cooked together more often, went bike riding, pursued hobbies, traveled and were able to do leisure activities more often when they downsized.
There is no doubt that getting rid of lots of possessions is a difficult task both emotionally and physically. Almost everyone interviewed said that purging was more difficult than they’d anticipated. In actuality, it takes a new mindset to downsize. One needs to be able to think: Do I need this? Will I ever use it or wear it? Does it give me pleasure? Is this something that is just collecting dust? Does this serve any purpose?
Most people go through several purges. The first items to be rid of are the obvious ones — those things in the basement or storage room you haven’t looked at in years. The second purge usually comes when actual plans are in place to move to a smaller home. That is the time people have to start looking for things they will never wear, furniture that is too big and is not needed, and nostalgia that is just taking up space. For some people, this might be the end of the purge.
For others, there is another purge that comes later.
This includes the items still saved in storage or the basement until they can decide what to do with them. There is no sense paying to keep things in storage or paying to move them when they likely will be disposed of later. One homeowner told me his kids purposely avoided seeing him while he was downsizing so they didn’t have to keep telling him they didn’t want the things he was offering them.
One significant trend I found is younger people planning for their golden years by building a house they can someday retire to. They are building vacation homes in locations where they would like to live permanently when they become empty-nesters. Some people build their house to use with their families and then move there permanently when they retire. And some younger people build houses with Universal Design features that can be their forever home, looking ahead toward all types of eventualities — older parents coming to live with them, or becoming less mobile themselves.
Although all of the houses in this book are small (fewer than 2,000 square feet), they each include energy-saving technology; materials that require less maintenance; and upgraded materials that perhaps were not available for the owners’ previous, larger homes (such as quartz countertops, fiber cement siding and standing-seam roofs).
Used to living in a home with many big rooms and lots of space to move around, a lot of people can’t imagine living in a small space. This book demonstrates that small houses can be comfortable, low-maintenance, energy-efficient and beautiful.
JEFF SOLD HIS 3,500-square-foot house after his wife passed away. It was the house he had lived in for 27 years, and where he had raised his children. He began to feel overwhelmed by the home because of its excess space and personal history. He decided to sell the house and keep whatever he could move into a POD storage container, and sell or give away the rest.
Jeff wanted to live in downtown Olympia but found the available apartments and condos didn’t provide space for his biking lifestyle.
Sue raised her children in California and decided to visit Olympia on the advice of a friend. She moved to Olympia and bought a newer home, but found it incredibly inefficient. Its design seemed to stifle neighbor interaction while simultaneously getting too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
She then downsized to a 900-square-foot home that was much more energy-efficient but wasn’t quite large enough to support her biking and social lifestyle.
When Jeff got together with Sue, they decided they wanted the opportunity to live an urban lifestyle without an enormous footprint. Together, they found a small (20-foot-by-60-foot) empty lot just on the edge of downtown. When they were ready to build, Artisans Group designed the house for these two active adults — a house where they could live in a thriving community; enjoy life, even as they grow older; and foster their health and happiness as they age.
Although the couple is very vital now, they designed their house to be livable for the rest of their lives. With a single story, wide hallways, a tiled rimless shower and a built-in dining nook that can be easily accessed by a wheelchair, the house is well-equipped to be their forever home.
They recognize and are planning for happiness as life happens. “A home design that recognizes its inhabitants will age, and that age will affect mobility, means that they can enjoy their home for longer, not be angry at the difficulties and limitations,” architect Tessa Smith explains.
Sue and Jeff saw their collections of excess stuff as more of a burden than a benefit. So they had the house designed with much less space than they had previously, with durability and performance built in. They wanted less maintenance, healthier air and a drastically smaller carbon footprint than a typical code-built, insulated and sealed home. They also wanted to make sure they had adequate storage space for the items they brought with them.
“Building a passive house is always a challenge, but we’ve developed design techniques that are tried-and-true, and Madison Passive is a study in pulling those learned lessons together into this new energy-efficient home,” says Smith. “Madison Passive is a heartening tale for future home construction, because it’s proof that a passive house can work on small infill lots, that you can have a beautiful and extremely energy-efficient home; they’re not mutually exclusive.”
HERON ROCK COTTAGE
SOME PEOPLE DOWNSIZE to reduce their maintenance and upkeep expenses, while others become empty-nesters and need less space. Another reason couples choose to live smaller is because they get married and need to combine two households into one.
That was the case with Nancy and Ron.
Nancy had owned the Whidbey Island property on which this downsized house now stands for 32 years. Initially, the land had just a rough “sleep” house on it that eventually morphed into a summer cottage. When she got divorced, she was the sole owner of the property and decided to develop the land and remodel the house as a year-round space.
She brought in power and telephone service, drilled a well and had a septic system installed. At the same time, she established a second building site closer to the bluff, with the dream of one day building her dream home on that site, with the cottage becoming a guesthouse.
Just as Nancy was completing the development of the land, she and Ron got together. She was working full-time and living in an apartment in Seattle; Ron was semiretired. Nancy put many of her belongings in storage and moved into Ron’s 1,800-square-foot house in Seattle.
Together they traveled between Ron’s house and the small cottage on Whidbey Island. Before Nancy retired, she added 600 square feet to the cottage to make it more livable, resulting in a 996-square-foot space.
When Nancy retired, the couple decided to get married; they then had to decide where they were going to live. Ultimately, they chose to make Whidbey Island their primary residence, and to build their forever home. (The 996-square-foot cottage is now an Airbnb.) Ron sold his Seattle home to finance the construction of the new house. Nancy also sold her place in Seattle. They consolidated their belongings into Heron Rock Cottage, which is now their main full-time residence.
Ron had the most trouble downsizing — in Nancy’s words, “Each item he gave up was like minor surgery.” As a beloved high-school teacher, Ron keeps in touch with many of his students on Facebook, and he put out the word that he had lots of furnishings and art to give away. He was delighted to give these items to the students.
Nancy had an easier time downsizing, as she’d done it several times before. She says it’s a process sifting through belongings, but one that gets easier when you realize things are not being used.
For their new home, Nancy and Ron favored a prefabricated approach, and they chose Lindal Cedar Homes because the post-and-beam construction allowed them to incorporate a massive wall of windows to take advantage of the water view. They also needed enough wall space to display their artwork (both Nancy and Ron are regionally recognized artists) and an art studio so they could continue creating art.
Other requirements were one-level living and low maintenance; the corrugated metal siding, cement board panels and vinyl windows were all chosen with minimal maintenance in mind, and the landscaping requires little maintenance or watering.
Nancy and Ron also wanted two distinct living spaces: one zone for their personal living space, with a great room and master suite, and another “away zone” to include a guest suite, office space and art studio. The entry gallery connects the two zones and allows for privacy and acoustic separation.
This house is clearly the residence of two artists.
Sculptures and pottery they created abound. As a practical project, Ron built the fireplace surround as an assembly of cement board panels, framed by and fastened with stainless-steel screws, all surplus from the house siding.
And then there are the garden and the view. In Nancy’s words, “We love the view and how it is a part of the house, along with the gardens we have put in, too. It truly minimizes the distinction between inside and out — living with nature as a part of our everyday life. With the gardens lit with floodlights, both day and night, the views are as much a part of the house as the paintings on the walls.”
CASCADE MOUNTAIN HOUSE
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, as Barb and Dan Matlock were approaching retirement, they realized they didn’t want to continue living in Seattle but would rather relocate to a smaller, more rural community, similar to the one they had both grown up in. They decided Cle Elum, in the heart of the Cascade Mountains, would be a good fit.
After several months of searching, they found the perfect 6-acre lot, with wonderful views of the mountains.
In Seattle, they had been living in a 3,800-square-foot home that required a good deal of maintenance. For their retirement, they didn’t want to spend weekends working on the house. Rather, they wanted to spend time on their hobbies and interests, such as hiking, biking, fly-fishing and quilting. Barb also wanted a place where friends and family could visit and enjoy the Northwest with them.
They realized they could have a house with less square footage than their previous home that would meet all of their requirements, as long as it was designed efficiently.
Moving from 3,800 square feet to 1,500 meant getting rid of a lot of “old baggage.” During their 40 years of marriage, they had lived in three different homes, each successively larger than the one before. They’d never had to get rid of any belongings and continued to accumulate lots of stuff. In their last house, they had three family/living rooms, with three sets of couches and associated lounging chairs to fill up the rooms. In designing this new house, they wanted a much more efficient layout and less furnishings.
Barb began getting rid of things almost a year before they moved.
“Need” was considered over “want.” She spent many weekends going through boxes, looking up information (such as how many years of tax returns you need to keep) and organizing their children’s memorabilia. She divided possessions into three categories: “take,” which went in the “need” pile; “sell”; and “give away” (to family/friends and charity). It was a lesson in prioritizing and figuring out what she really needed.
For example, Barb and Dan sold their piano, which no one played, and donated all the paperback books to Goodwill. They got rid of most of their furniture and all the lawn and landscaping equipment, since the new house has no lawn.
Moving was a lot of work, says the couple, but it was nice to get rid of the accumulated clutter. They also considered another advantage of the purge: “not leaving their kids a big mess to figure out once it all gets dropped in their lap.”
When the couple began working with architectural firm FabCab, they were clear about their requirements: a large span of windows to capture the magnificent views, highly energy-efficient construction, natural materials, an open-concept design, a strong connection to the outdoors for all seasons, solar power, lots of storage, an accessible route from the garage to the house and predictable pricing.
While the interior of the house is considerably smaller, the large deck expands the space and makes the house feel much roomier, as well as providing beautiful views. All of the main rooms look out onto the deck and the mountains. A small (350-square-foot) activities room lies across a breezeway, used for some storage but also as a quilting area for Barb and fly-tying bench for Dan.
Since this is to be Barb and Dan’s retirement home, FabCab designed it to be viable for aging in place. With an open floor plan and one-floor living, the house has easy access to get around with limited steps. Even the shower is rimless, making it safer to get in and out of.
In order to meet the couple’s needs for an energy-efficient house, solar panels were installed on the roof. Structural insulated panels (SIPs) were used to provide high insulation for the enclosure, and a ventilation system was installed, as well as a backup generator. Large windows provide ample daylighting to limit the need for electrical lighting.
The couple really loves the feel of the house, and its setting. At night, they can turn off all the lights and look over the Yakima Valley and mountains that lie to the north and not see another house or light. “It feels like we’re 50 miles from civilization, even though we’re only 3 miles from I-90 and 15 minutes from town.”