How to Decorate a Small Row House

I will start with a disclaimer. There are no wrong ways to decorate a row house (interior) of any size as long as the occupants can roam about freely. Safety is always first. Tripping over things and getting hurt is bad. That being said, the sky, or roof in this case, is really the limit in terms of how you want to adapt your row house to suit you.

Yellow and green, wood siding, Federal row house in Philadelphia.

However, that’s probably too obtuse to be helpful and, if you’ve arrived here, you are probably looking for some actionable suggestions. After viewing hundreds of row houses, as well as living in a rather small row house, I do have a few concepts I’ve noticed over the years.

Less is More

Obviously, the smaller your house is, the less room you have for things. If your house is feeling a little cramped, you might have to review and purge. You may have to forgo having a huge collection of whatever you like. Or, maybe just one collection instead of several. We have seen several homes with collections. But, these collections are highly curated and hold the best of the best of what the owner really loves. And, the best collections are in harmony and balanced with their domestic environments.

That brings us to a universal truth of small space living…

Keep Only What You Love

It’s so hard to part with that interesting sculpture/furniture/art/plant your aunt Gertrude got you that takes up half your living room. You sort of tolerate it because she’s your favorite aunt. You don’t want to hurt her feelings. However, although her heart was in the right place, it’s likely that Aunt Gertrude has never actually been in your house and has no idea that the sculpture/furniture/art/plant, which seemed pretty reasonable under the showroom’s 30 foot-high ceiling, takes up so much space that she can’t come to visit because the front door no longer opens for anyone larger than a very petite super model.

Believe me, she’d rather visit. Perhaps pass it along to a friend who lives in the suburbs or on a farm.

If keeping the item(s) is unavoidable, embrace the next concept for happy small spacing living…

Off-site Storage

Typically, where you have small living spaces, row houses or apartments, you will find mini-storage rental. Storage is great for things that you absolutely don’t want to part with, like holiday decorations, but that you clearly don’t need in your home all year-round. Although we manage to make-do without storage since we opted for off-street parking for our car, I would really be happy to put the following things into mini-storage:

  • Air conditioner window units (I don’t want to talk about why our central a.c. still doesn’t work, grrrr)
  • Christmas decorations
  • Off season clothes (Our local storage is near enough to visit daily if needed)
  • Room heaters (don’t ask about that either, see above)
  • Dehumidifier

I imagine swapping things from the storage unit would be like Christmas or a birthday. Probably much more exciting than just tripping over the things like we do now.

With less stuff, it’s easier to…

Keep it Clean and Tidy

There is no avoiding this. You have to really do your best to keep things clean and organized. The good news is that with a smaller space you have less stuff and less to clean. A cleaner house is more healthy (less dust and whatnot) and it promotes a calming demeanor.

Finally, a small recommendation… or two.

Utilize Things with a Dual Purpose

Beyond having things in your house that fold, collapse, roll, and generally adapt to what you need, when you need it, this is more of an approach towards everything. Look for the unintended dual use of things. Stools can be tables, for example. Or, getting a really sturdy kitchen table that can also be a place to prepare food. Buy furniture you love and use it for any/every purpose you can imagine. For example, I put my bed on risers and now it’s a good height to cut fabric on for when I turn our bedroom into a sewing studio.

Other than those suggestions, you’re on your own. As uniform as row houses tend to be on the outside, there is nothing that says the inside of your row house can’t be the most unique, most creative, most awesome house in existence.

As as side note, if you live in a historic home, do not renovate the inside to look modern. That’s really where I would draw the line. The best historic homes are ones where the inside and outside are not at odds with each other. If you want an old “looking” home with a modern interior, buy a 20th Century revival or reproduction.


The Practice of ‘Use Half’

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how the little things can really make a difference and how getting off of auto-pilot consumption can really benefit not only the environment but also the budget and even personal health. It’s really tricky to remember everything when so much is coming at you so I was thinking of a way to simplify and came up with the practice of “Use Half.”

The implementation of Use Half means that before I eat, buy or use anything, I ask myself if I can make due with half of whatever I would have normally taken. It’s a little less painful than telling myself No all the time because it does allow for me to have some indulgence in life. For example, I can still have ice cream, just half. Instead of two paper towels, I try to use one. Instead of two premium cable channels, I’ll probably downgrade to one. My house is a perfect example since at 750 square feet, it is about half the size of an average home in the US.

Of course I’ve found that I need to be flexible. Sometime the problem requires the full amount. Some messes are that big. But at least I’m thinking about it and things are lasting longer, I’m eating less dessert without really being upset about it, and it’s another reason to love my little row house.

A small row home style in Philadelphia called a trinity.

We Experiment With a Very Small New York Apartment

A small row home style in Philadelphia called a trinity.

A small row home style in Philadelphia called a trinity.

Originally posted January 2010.

In a December 13, 2009 article in The New York Post, “Cozy-crazy couple makes tight all right in the city’s tiniest studio,” Angela Montefinise writes about how one New York couple is able to live comfortably in an 175 square-foot, studio apartment. Chances are, nearly all row houses are larger than this apartment. However, it’s possible that, especially in older homes, homeowners are squeezing a lot of living into a small space.

Over the last century, as the average size of homes in America grew, small space solutions took a back seat to cavernous French door refrigerators and mammoth washer and dryer combos that can launder the clothes of an entire neighborhood. However, people are downsizing and as they do, some really clever ideas are enjoying a revival. Sometimes it’s hard to truly appreciate small space solutions out of context so the Prokops mini apartment offers the perfect opportunity for some virtual interior designing to illustrate some ways to make the most out of a small space.

Fortunately the apartment seems to have high ceilings. (See pictures) When horizontal space is limited the vertical space needs to be optimized. There is no reason to have open space above the cabinets, which should, instead, go from floor to ceiling. To avoid this arrangement becoming overwhelming, when picking a cabinet face, something very simple, that seems more like furniture than kitchen cabinets, would be the best option. If budget allows, all the cabinetry in this apartment should coordinate. Additionally, a highly reflective surface would create depth. There was a wonderful, small kitchen in House Beautiful where they finished the cabinet in a high gloss with a stunning result. To make the higher cabinets easy to access use a collapsible step stool that can hang on the wall or on the inside of a cabinet door, or stashed under a table. Because counter space is limited, the use of roll-out lower cabinets with a top workspace, covered with the same countertop material can double the work area when needed and stow away when not. Although the Prokops don’t cook, with careful planning they could. With slim options, they could even upgrade their refrigerator to one with separate freezer and refrigerator sections. Covering the refrigerator with the same cabinet material will help hide the appliance from view.

The main focus in a multi-use living space is to design with things that seem to disappear when not in use. Gate legged tables accommodate meals when needed and can rest along a wall when not. Many collapsible tables have built in drawers for inconspicuous flatware and napkin storage. While stored against the wall, the folded table makes a pleasant place to display fruit or flowers.

Traditional beds take up an enormous amount of space. This is ok if the monstrosity is contained in a separate bedroom. However, if all the living is done in one space, it doesn’t mean that space has to include the black hole that is a queen size bed. Sofa beds, futons, murphy beds and flying beds are some options appropriate for everyday use, if a good investment is made. When choosing a convertible sleeping solution, the primary concern should be quality and support. New is also preferable since used bedding will have already conformed to the previous owner’s body. As with a regular bed, the investment made into a convertible will be what is gotten out of it, in terms of comfort. Since the Prokops will be mortgage free in about two years, they can likely afford to invest in the best quality. With most convertible sleeping solutions, as long as the support structure is well made, the bed can have longevity with regular mattress replacement. Using a bed that disappears when not in use means that there is more space available for other functions such as entertaining or watching TV and the apartment will resemble a more conventional living area instead of one big bedroom.

Another design black hole is the TV. Flat or not, it still takes up a lot of visual space and because the screen is typically black, it acts like a visual vortex, drawing the eye in. In this situation, it would be beneficial to install the screen into a media unit where the screen can be hidden behind doors when not in use. On either side, custom closets could be installed, the sort which hang the clothing front to back rather than the conventional sideways, which allow for a much lower profile. This is obviously not a solution for cramming tons of clothing in, but it does offer enough space for a few items or coats that are better hung than left lying around where they’re visible. Dry cleaner storage or not, once you get home, you’ll still need to hang your coat somewhere. Finally, it’s nice to have a place to put your drink while you relax on the sofa and a coffee table that can be rolled aside when the bed is extended is perfect for this.

There is one rule to follow. The perception of space is often not related to the actual square footage but rather to how the mind perceived the space between things. If you want your small space to seem spacious, you must decrease the clutter and increase the visual space between elements.

Although the Prokops apartment is very different from most row houses, the unique challenges it presents offer solutions that are applicable for any small space.

Tumbleweed Tiny Homes Goes to Occupy Wall Street

It may seem off topic to talk about detached homes, but we also like to discuss small homes as well because most row homes are indeed on the smaller side.

This month, Tumbleweed Founder and Small House Advocate Jay Shafer will head to Occupy Wall Street to show how small houses are a viable affordable housing solution.

On his blog, Jay says, “Since the bank bailout, over 5,000,000 US homes have been foreclosed. Can you imagine what our economy might look like today if we built smaller, more affordable homes 10 years ago?” It’s a great question.

Here in Philadelphia, the classic workman’s row house is often less than 1,000 square feet and, for more than a century, it was the go-to house for modest-income Philadelphians. Although in later years row houses have grown in size along with national trends, it seems like developers are getting back to small.

Not only is small easier to afford in price, it’s also easier to adapt for lower ongoing expenses like energy costs. Yesterday, on, there was an article about how smaller row homes are environmentally friendly and easy to make green. “For Philadelphia’s LEED Platinum urban infill project, thin is in” explained how a new row house development in Philadelphia is utilizing a narrow row house design to meet LEED requirements.

Just more reasons to love your little row house!

Renewal and Renovation on Pomander Walk, Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Pomander Walk, Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Pomander Walk, Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Behind the Georgetown house, where John and Elizabeth Edwards lived when he was an U.S. Senator, there is a quaint row of small homes. Facing a common walkway, lined with lush container gardens, 10 row homes are painted brick, in ever-so pale shades of blue, cream, green, beige and white. Shutters and traditional-styled lamps hung outside the windows create a truly enchanted block. This row, called Pomander Walk, is quite popular in the small space community and has been featured on such websites as Apartment Therapy, “DC House Tour: Polly’s Pomander Walk House.”

According to Urban Turf D.C., “one-bedroom houses [in Washington D.C.] are a rare niche product of 19th century D.C., built to house workers who needed small, cheap living options. Today, those workers have been replaced by scores of young professionals who aren’t prepared to shell out enough for a large home. Condos are the logical choice, but if given the option for a house that offers no burden of monthly fees, the opportunity may be an attractive alternative.” Philadelphia also has quite a few 18th and 19th century homes with only one or two (tiny) bedrooms. These small treasures not only preserve historic architecture but offer modest-income homeowners a chance to purchase a home in the more exclusive neighborhoods.

As with many historic dwellings, sometimes a dream house does not come in dream house condition. The homeowner is required to look under layers and layers of time to find a treasure. A good imagination, perseverance and lots of energy are prerequisites to purchase. Fortunately, a historic, brick row house is a great starting point for anyone who wants to turn a row house in the city into a cozy and welcoming home.

Caroline Legarde, who lives on Pomander Walk, purchased one of these charming two-story, circa. early 1800s, brick row homes from her great-aunt about a year ago. Her home hasn’t been updated in many years so she immediately planned a renovation that includes a new kitchen and converting the under-sized second bedroom into a spacious walk-in closet. As she progresses with her renovation, Caroline says, “my hope is to update the entire house to a contemporary urban dwelling that is inspired by its history.” During the demolition, Caroline was pleased to discover quite a few original architectural elements including the original heart pine floors, chair-rail molding, exposed ceiling beams and a rustic brick fireplace that should make it easy to realize her vision.

Before Caroline started the renovation, the kitchen was separated from the living space by a partial wall. Although the kitchen was very small, there managed to be a washing machine and hot water heater stuffed into the space, additional to normal-sized kitchen appliances. One appliance of special note was an all-in-one dishwasher, cook-top and stove stacked unit. Aesthetically, the faded yellow floral wallpaper was peeling and the floor tiles were cracked.

Currently, the space is gutted. The new area is one large, fluid space. Caroline plans on installing new cabinets and granite counter tops. Fortunately, the space has high ceilings which will allow for taller cabinets and more storage. She also wants to repair the floors and have the wood match throughout. New lighting will be installed. The huge water heater is being replaced with a tank less water heater that will be relocated to the back of the house. In order to create continuity, she plans on using a Liebherr paneled refrigerator that will match the cabinets. Finally, she is using compact appliances such as an 18″ dishwasher, to maximize the functionality of the space.

The original kitchen on Pomander Walk.

The original kitchen on Pomander Walk.

The kitchen, gutted and ready for construction.

The kitchen, gutted and ready for construction.

Caroline has graciously offered to share her experience with RowHouse and we look forward to seeing her row home as it progresses. Visit Part Two to continue learning more about Caroline’s row home.

What's inside your closet?

Adapting to a Small Closet

What's inside your closet?

What’s inside your closet?

Last time we talked about how to solve a closet crisis in a creative way. Although those solutions are fine if you have a relatively decent space to work with, you might find yourself with a small closet or armoire with no additional room anywhere else to be found. Egads! You will have to adapt your wardrobe to fit your space.

Most people are so deterred at the thought of having to live with less clothing and accessories that they don’t even bother moving into a place with inadaquate closet space. But there are those who cannot afford to move or the brave few that have choosen small but cute and historic over large but modern and boring.

Let’s get right to a solution. You’ll need to analyze your clothing. Take every bit of clothing, shoes, accessories and whatnot and dump them into a big pile in the middle of your floor. I bet it’s a pretty big pile. Then separate into piles of like clothing, shirts with shirts and pants with pants and so forth. Now, ask yourself the following. Does everything fit? Is anything damaged? Do I really like all of this stuff? Chances are you are storing several items that don’t fit, are damaged or out of style. You probably didn’t even know what was taking up all the room. I guarentee, unless you routinely purge, you’ll have stuff you can toss or donate. See what’s left and if you need to continue or if you’re in a better closet to clothing ratio.

Next, separate your clothing by season. Look under your bed. If you’re not using the space under your bed to store off-season clothing you’re missing out on valuable space. If you can afford it, off site mini-storage is a great solution as well.

If you’re already storing items under your bed and you can’t afford food and a mini-storage simultaneously, you’ll need to economize your wardrobe. Don’t get upset, it’s really not so bad once you get over the initial shock. The following rules are golden:

  • Quality is more important than quantity.
  • I will no longer buy trendy things that I will only wear once.
  • Everything I buy I must really love.
  • Everything I buy must coordinate and create at least six outfits.
  • One item in… one item out.

It sounds worse than it is. Let’s focus on the benefits.

Quality is more important than quantity.

For example, a basic wardrobe of four of each type of clothing such as dress pants, casual pants, dress shirts, casual shirts, suits, skirts, and dresses will give you 34 articles of clothing. Choose carefully and these 34 will yield over one hundred unique outfits. Even the smallest closet can accommodate 34 pieces of clothing as well as a few sweaters, a warm coat and a light jacket. All you need to do to perform this miracle is to make sure everything you own is timeless, classic and basic. Sounds boring? Add character with accessories.

I will no longer buy trendy things that I will only wear once.

You don’t have room to be trendy. If you have a weak moment, make sure it’s a very small trendy item like a bracelette. A little trendy goes a long way and one inexpensive, trendy accessory, which will probably end up at a future stoop sale, is better than an entire trendy outfit that cost over $100.

There is a term in accounting called amortization. Basically you divide the cost of a purchase over the life of the item. If you apply this to clothing, that $20 blouse you wear once costs $20 but the black trousers that cost $200 that you wear 10 times a year for two years only costs $10. Although this example is simplified it might help make the purchase of a more expensive clothing more paletable.

Everything I buy I must really love. Everything I buy must coordinate and create at least six outfits.

When you’re limited, you analyze each purchase you make. Is this piece something you’ll wear for several years? Is it worth a place in your ultra efficient wardrobe? Does it work into your existing repretoire of outfits? There is no more room in your closet for the mediocre. Only bring new things into your closet that are worthy of their space. If you’re shopping and you fall in love with two shirts, bring them both home. Keep the one that you get the maximum coordination from. The good news is that once you slim your wardrobe down to only your favorite pieces, you will probably never have another “what was I thinking when I put this on” experience.

One item in… one item out.

An overstuffed closet results in wrinkled and damaged clothing. It takes discipline but it’s better to accept your limitations than cramm and shove. Once you reach maximum capacity you will have to govern what comes in. If you want to introduce a new shirt, an old one will have to go. If you’ve already whittled your wardrobe down to your favorites, it might be a hard decision but it also keeps those impulse purchases at bay and in the end you save quite a bit of money. A good strategy is to only go shopping when it’s time to replace an item. Plus, with a specific item in mind, it cuts your shopping time down as well.

This may all seem rather harsh but once you get the hang of managing your small closet, it really does work. I have three and a half feet of closet space to myself, which is half what I used to have before I moved into my row house. The rules have been invaluable in helping me get my wardrobe down to a size where it all fits inside, while still offering enough flexibility so I don’t have to wear the same thing every day. I did have to make some painful decisions in the beginning but it’s nice to be able to treat myself to other things, like fancy make-up, with the money I save and getting dressed in the morning, when my room is still dark, has never been easier.

What's inside your closet?

Flexible Closet Solutions

What's inside your closet?

What’s inside your closet?

Large closets are what everyone wants. Large closets and many of them. All you have to do is watch one home design show on cable and you’ll see people just oozing with ecstasy over large, walk-in closets. I agree. Large closets are nice. Large closets mean you can have more stuff. Who doesn’t like to have more stuff? Who doesn’t love the idea of having more shoes? One can always have another pair of shoes.

But the reality is that not everyone can have a spacious closet. People who have older homes may find that they don’t have any closets at all. Since the closet seems like such a fabulous thing, why wouldn’t there be a one in every home from the begriming of domestic architecture?

Closets are a relatively new architectural phenomenon. Historically, poor people wouldn’t have had enough stuff to stow away. Everything they had would have served a daily purpose and would have needed to be easily accessible. In medieval times, everything a family owned would have had to been portable as possessions were not something you left behind when you moved and this included what you put your possessions into. Wealthy people wouldn’t have wanted their possessions shoved into a closet as possessions were how you displayed your wealth. They would have have beautiful pieces of furniture built to hold their possessions such as linens and china.

The quantity of clothing people own has changed too. A hundred years ago, the average person might have had one formal outfit and maybe two or three outfits for everyday wear. There was no need to have a huge closet for such a few articles of clothing. Mostly, you would simply hang items that needed to be hung on hooks and fold everything else. Aside from a few particular fabrics, most things can be folded with care just fine. Certainly, everyday fabrics like wool and cotton fold well and there are plenty of folds, probably lost over the years, that limit the wrinkles. Rare early closets were very small enclosed areas with nobs for hanging clothing front to back rather than side to side like today’s closets.

Another reason for the lack of closets in older homes, particularly those that pre-date the Revolutionary War, was thought to be a “Closet Tax,” a tax imposed by the British on every room in a home. They considered closets to be an additional room, so few people built closets they’d have to pay an additional tax on. However, according to the records at Historic Williamsburg, this is a myth. Instead, it is just customary that an armoire would hold all a persons clothing.

History aside, it is entirely possibly to find yourself in a house either without closets or with inferior closet space. If this applies to you, there are some options. One, the most costly of solutions, is to build yourself some closets. California Closets is one place that specializes in custom closet construction but there are several companies that do it nicely. Expensive, yes, but you end up with a truly fabulous closet that will end up being a regular stop on your house tour. It is important to remember that if you’re going to build something as prominent as a closet into a room, make sure you
take special note of what is historically appropriate for the room. Do not put 1980s lacquer doors on a closet in your 1880s farmhouse. Instead, research and visit some period homes to make sure the doors match the period of your home.

The next option is slightly cheaper. You can buy an armoire or free standing closet system. The PAX series from IKEA can be outfitted with a variety of doors and has many drawer, door, and height options. The nice thing about a free-standing system is that you, like the medieval home-owners before you, can bring it with you when you move.

A small row home style in Philadelphia called a trinity.

Bigger is Better? Not!

A small row home style in Philadelphia called a trinity.

A small row home style in Philadelphia called a trinity.

Although some row houses are quite large, usually called townhouses, most are modest. At one point, I’m sure the urban row house was considered a starter home, something transitional, something for a couple without kids and certainly nothing you’d want to live in for very long. The dream goal was to move to the suburbs and have ten walk-in closets and acres of lawn to mow for hours on end. Yeah, that’s successful living, big, bigger and enormous. Perhaps this need for big is compensating for the fear that maybe you’ll have to make decisions in your life? Why choose one sofa out of three, when you can have them all. I have relatives who have such a big house that you could fit two of my row house, intact, inside. It’s gotten out of control.

Well, times they are a changin’. From the beginning, RowHouse Magazine has promoted small living as a way to be environmentally and economically responsible. We’ve tried to show how it can be totally liberating having a reasonable space, trimming down your wardrobe, and purging excess possesions. We’ve told you that if you don’t spend money on “stuff” you can visit neat places like Amsterdam or Great Yarmouth and see nice row houses in other cities. Well, maybe you’d go for other reasons too like the seashore and art museums. We’ve tried to tell you how happy you’ll be when the budget gets a little tight and you realize you have a little stashed away because you didn’t buy that extra shirt or sofa.

Up to now, I thought maybe we were just crazy — promoting a lifestyle that will never catch on but then I read something fabulous on Some developers are getting smart. They are accepting that no one is going to buy these hulking McMansions anymore. Instead, they are building cottages — small cottages at about 1,800 feet and, even in this tumultuous market, the little cottages are selling like hot cakes. Imagine that! People are going small. The article, “The incredible shrinking house,” (May 9, 2008) can be read at


Many people can’t afford the houses they’re in. Buyers are looking to downsize. It’s frightening at first but then people realize they don’t even use many of the rooms in their house. It’s prompting a movement in favor of smaller homes.

As if there needed to be another reason beside better managability, smaller homes are a great investment, even in these times. CNNMoney says, “A recent study by online house-pricing service found that less expensive houses appreciate more than costlier and presumably larger homes.”

The nice thing about small houses is that they can put more of them together. A recent article in Cottage Living called “A Cottage Neighborhood in the Scale of Life,” (,21135,1734016,00.html) discussed little neighborhoods of cottages that are being developed around courtyards. This inside facing arrangement promotes neighborly behavior since you have to walk by your neighbor’s house to get to your own, having to park around the parimeter of the development. It used to be that a man’s home was his castle but maybe being isolated in a castle isn’t as much fun as previously thought. Aside from a few reclusive types, most people find it’s more emotionally healthy and rewarding to have a close community.

Building smaller homes is more sustainable since you need less materials. Instead, the developers put more attention into the details, like architectural mouldings and high quality finishes and materials. Developers find it’s easier to use, sometimes more expensive, environmentally responsible products because you need less of them for your project.

It’s great to hear that cottages and small homes are making a comeback. How does this translate to row houses? Quite a few people are trading in their big suburan homes for smaller row houses in the city. They’ve missed the community and the close proximity to everything. Needing less is attractive when you can’t afford more and with everything urban living has to offer, you won’t even miss that extra sofa.

Keep your stuff! Organizing your things.

Keeping Your Stuff

Keep your stuff! Organizing your things.

You have a fabulous collection of something. Over the years, constant attention and love for your collection has turned it into an organic entity that grows bigger every year, like well-loved things, such as children and puppies, do. You also have a small house that unfortunately doesn’t grow at all. This constant tango between your stuff and your space seems like it will never end. And it won’t… unless you take action!

Some designers suggest you get rid of your prized possessions. Egad! The horror! Adding insult to injury, they often replace your collection with impersonal, catalog-like design which strangely includes knick-knacks disguised as “decor.” Even though these chachkas mean absolutely nothing to you, they’re ok because they work with the “theme.” Have you thrown up yet?

The problem is you can’t make it from your bedroom to your kitchen without tripping over something. Plus, the dust that accummulates on the beloved odds and ends, that you don’t dust as often as you should, aggrevate your allergies. So, after an especially rough night of sneezing and stubbed toes, you realize you need to do something. But what?

I call it the “clutter audit and shuffle.” Although you’ll need to take time to reflect on your collection and prioritize, it doesn’t have to mean you’ll have to part with your treasures or adopt an impersonal design theme. Best of all, it’s cheap because you do this yourself, avoiding “designers” who toss your stuff, and probably won’t have to buy anything. It’s mostly painless, I promise. I’ve even done a little cleaning of my own, shown here.

Keep your stuff! Organizing your things.Step One: Acknowledgement

You need to admit to yourself you have a problem. This is easy if you can smell rotting food hiding out under the stuff. The next step is to realize and understand that no matter what you see on T.V., you cannot reorganize your house in one day, and possibly not even one weekend. Taking care of your clutter is going to take a commitment of time and energy and you must be ready to focus if you want success. However, don’t take too long or the clutter will just migrate to other places and start breeding. I like to give myself two weekends in which to get an average room done. And the more often you audit, the less time it takes to organize.

Step Two: Zoning the Clutter

The most important rule of collection management is to group like things together. This is especially key for people who have more than one collection. This doesn’t have to mean putting everything together in one room, but rather making sure things that are the same within a room, live near each other. To make groupings, you first have to gather all your things together in one place. This is accomplished by setting a neutral zone.

A neutral zone is a cleaned out corner of your house where you then gather your collection into one place. Even if the parts of your collection do not naturally go together, like towels and suitcases, put them together for now. Keep in mind collections can be clothing or office items, and not just knick-knacks. Once you get everything together, you come to a cross-roads. Did you even realize your collection was that big? Are there sub-groupings you can make? Do you really like everything in that pile? Is anything you’d part with worth a lot of money? Does anything need cleaning or repair?

Keep your stuff! Organizing your things.After careful reflection, and depending on the size of the collection, there is usually some pruning you can do. If not, your other option is to rotate the display of the collection. Visually, you can only take in so much at a time anyway. Rotation means that several times a year you can open a box and reaquaint yourself with your collection, not unlike getting exactly what you want for your birthday. And because you are storing your pieces, it gives you a chance to clean them which will keep them in better condition over time.

Step Three: Putting Things Back

Hopefully during this process, you’ve made some space. Think about what pieces fit in what place best. You want to highlight your collection, so keep the things you like best at eye level. However, depending on the type collection and your utilization of creative shelving, you may be able to use the entire floor to ceiling space. There are many ideas and with a smaller collection to display, your display options increase. When you put your things out, take time to think about placement. If you do watch design shows, you can learn how to work with proportions, although a lot of it is based on how you feel and your tolerance of empty space or lack thereof.

Keep your stuff! Organizing your things.There are a lot of benefits to living in a small space. Certainly economically but also there is a certain wellbeing one gets from being well suited to one’s space. Like the fit of a good shoe, comfy yet snug, you can have a lot of stuff in your small space. Just don’t let your collections take over your space. Remember, you both have to live together harmoniously.






Beyond the Row House: An Inspirational Apartment in Philadelphia

Looking through to the living room from the kitchen.

Looking through to the living room from the kitchen.

When looking for small space solutions, it’s important to consider every possible source of inspiration. Craig Martin’s apartment, located in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood, is a superb example of how a smaller space can be expansive with thoughtful and thorough planning. When Craig was renovating his apartment, “the interior architecture had to be highly engineered,” he says.

Craig is a long time resident of his building, originally a Hebrew school built in 1905, who first moved into another unit during 1994. In 2000, he purchased and moved into his current apartment and started renovations in 2001. The building suffered a major fire in 2002 that damaged the entire facade and several apartments. Although his apartment escaped major damage, he was required to vacate for the following two years. Luckily, he was able to access his apartment, prior to formally moving back in, to repair the damage and continue with his planned renovation.

When Craig was renovating, he started with a empty shell and didn’t take anything for granted, such as the height of the ceilings or the placement of closets and the mechanicals of the apartment. The height of his apartment is 12 feet high. A dropped ceiling over the kitchen, dining area and front hall concealed six vertical feet of space. By raising this area one foot, he was able to retain an attic-like storage space and still have good ceiling height in those areas. Additionally, leaving the space enclosed allowed him to move all the apartment’s mechanicals into
the space, expanding the usable space in the living areas below. He created access to this area by using a drop down staircase so that he can easily access the storage and mechanicals for repairs. “Seems frivolous but 10 inches, one way or the other, makes a really big difference,” Craig says.

In the kitchen, Craig choose a small refrigerator which allowed him to change its location and open the wall between the kitchen and the living room. Before, the kitchen was very closed off. After, the cook is no longer isolated and can see straight into the living room and out to the beautiful vista beyond the windows. Appliance drawers are becoming more and more popular in kitchen design. Craig used both freezer and dishwasher drawers so that he could create an island workspace on which two people can easily prepare food and cook without tripping over each other. On
the other side of the island are pantry cabinets. He’s gotten some comments from people about the size of the kitchen. However, the “kitchen is extremely efficient,” he says, because everything is well planned out. During the recent holiday season, Craig was able to prepare a holiday dinner for several guests without any problem. An appliance Craig really loves is his microwave/halogen oven. Although it’s not much bigger than an average microwave, this oven can cook a full roast chicken. It also works as a regular microwave. Double duty appliances are key in a small kitchen.

Concepts like continuity and symmetry help the fool the eye into thinking a space is more expansive than it may be. The cabinetry throughout the kitchen, dining and living areas is finished in matching wood paneling. Craig choose recessed handles so that the lines of the cabinets would be uninterrupted, as well as to decrease the likelihood of clothing getting caught on the handles. When placing appliances, he centered the stove and placed the refrigerator and cabinets evenly on either side. The matching paneling creates aesthetically pleasing symmetry which fools the eye into
thinking the space is larger than it is.

Access to the attic-like storage area.

Access to the attic-like storage area.

Throughout the apartment, enclosing features actually allowed for more storage opportunities. Originally, the flue of the wood burning fireplace was exposed. By enclosing it, he was able to create a peninsula that houses the television, media storage, a wine refrigerator, liquor cabinet and some built-in display storage. This media storage area created a much better place to put the television than the original layout of the living room allowed. Because two of the living room walls are entirely covered with windows, prior to the creation of the media peninsula, there was only
one uninterrupted wall to place the television on and it was not conducive to watching comfortably. With the television moved, that wall now hides a large coat closet with three hidden panel doors finished in the same color as the wall. The closet doors seem to melt away when closed, especially since the doors frame art work chosen especially for this wall.

The use of symmetry is very important in a small space.

The use of symmetry is very important in a small space.

Aside from smart wall and storage placement, the choice of space-conscience appliances helps to maximize a small home’s area as well. Craig loves his on-demand hot water heater. He says that although the range in gallons per minute changes, from about two to three during the winter to six to seven during the summer (external water supply temperature pending), the supply is endless. It takes up a fraction of the space and is much more efficient than a traditional water heater. Additionally, although the apartment does have a complete HVAC system, he installed radiant heating
under the poured concrete floor which he says keeps the apartment very comfortable. Aside for very cold days, Craig often doesn’t have to use the main heating system. All the supporting mechanicals are hidden in the attic space above the kitchen.

The enclosed area around the fireplace.

The enclosed area around the fireplace.

Unsightly wiring is a problem that faces most people no matter what size their home is. Craig created an in-wall closet that opens to both the office and the living room to house the audio visual components as well as his computer. He then snaked wires through the walls and ran them through soffit-like channels in the wood trim beneath the windows and on top of the desk. The result is clean and tidy. The channels are accessible via drop down panels.

Another feature, which increases the streamlined look of the apartment are pocket doors. This requires some planning since a door way might have to be moved so that there is enough wall to enclose the doors but it allows for more floor space for cabinetry or furniture because there doesn’t have to be an allowance for door swing.

The doors of the closet in the living room disappear when closed.

The doors of the closet in the living room disappear when closed.

The bedroom features a magnificent built in closet arranged against the full length of one side of the room. When initially laying out the closet, Craig was faced with having to design around a window that reduced the depth of the closet. His solution was to gradually increase the depth with stepped increases going inward. Although he didn’t have the limitation on the opposite side, he matched the design for symmetry. The result is a closet that is both practical and “more aesthetically pleasing,” he says. Behind the closet is another window. Craig says, “I didn’t need to see the neighbor, but I did need more space.” Because the apartment has so many windows, covering the window was an easy sacrifice to make. Housed inside the closet is space enough for two people to easily share plus a large television and a washer and dryer, all hidden behind closed doors when not in use. To maximize the space, Craig utilized a pull down closet system from Hafele. This functionality allows the closet to be placed over the drawers. He adds, “otherwise hanging space is typically inefficient. [it’s a] perfect use of space.”

The bedroom closet.

The bedroom closet.

The bedroom closet.

The bedroom closet.

Although the apartment wasn’t big enough to add an additional bath, the separation of the toilet with a small sink from the bathtub, shower and larger sink, makes it seem like there is a separate powder room. When entertaining Craig can close off the main bath. He jokes that it prevents guests from checking out the contents of his medicine cabinet and linen closet. The design in the two areas utilizes the same tile and aesthetic so when the door is opened, it looks cohesive. Instead of a standard size bathtub, he has a shorter but deeper soaking tub which was instrumental in allowing for the two separate spaces. The bathtub features glass doors which allows for a larger visual space. The bathing area also features two shower heads at either end so two people can shower together comfortably. The sink features two faucets over one extra wide sink. When laying out the space, he measured carefully to make sure that two people could use the sink together without bumping into each other. The space is too small for two conventional sinks but the use of the large sink easily allows for the functionality of two in the space of one. Although the in-wall tankless toilet required eight inches of space in the wall framing, it “saved a foot of depth” in the overall space, Craig says.

A view of the bathroom.

A view of the bathroom.

Craig mentions, that when you design for a small space, you have to consider the function of the space first and then design around that. Once the purpose of a room is considered, such as the space in which two people need to get ready or the space needed for a pocket door, then it’s just a matter of fitting the features together cohesively with in the total area.

Being open minded to as many possibilities helps too. In order to create the bathroom, Craig had to sacrifice the hall closet but he feels the two-room bathroom serves much more purpose than the original location of the closet and, by enclosing the space around the fireplace, it allowed for one wall in the living room to contain ample storage and closets. He adds that when renovating a small space it’s important that “items
normally considered at the end of the project be considered at the beginning.”

The double sink in the bathroom.

The double sink in the bathroom.

All of his careful planning and work has been highly rewarding. Not only does Craig have a beautiful, functional space to live in, he has also been able to embrace his love of space management and interior design as a profession as well.

Craig used Hafele products in his renovation.

Antique doors from Asia on the linen closet.

Antique doors from Asia on the linen closet.


Mosaic floor tile in the home office.

Mosaic floor tile in the home office.