10 Ways To Make Tiny Houses Look And Feel Big

Dated: 03/12/2014

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As tiny houses become more mainstream and are finding a prominent place as guesthouses and rental units, owners are investing more to make them look and function better. Who needs a ho-hum rectangle with cookie-cutter windows when there can be skylights and clerestories, transition features and custom built-ins?

Architect Russ Hamlet of Studio Hamlet Architects in Bainbridge Island, Wash., employs some of the same architectural forms, lighting, siting and careful detailing used in large houses to create spacious small-scale homes. 

Although there’s no room for a groin-vault ceiling in a foyer in a tiny house, there is a place for deep window jambs and French doors that lead to welcoming outdoor rooms.Simple tricks – such as color and contrast – can help to expand the feel of a space. Light colors on ceilings and walls dissolve boundaries, making a room seem larger. Darker colors enclose the volume of a room, making it feel smaller and more intimate.

Another idea that can translate to any size house is the use of built-in furniture. Window seats, wall beds, Murphy beds, Pullman bunks, booth seating and fold-up tables installed along the perimeter of a room open the center for more living.The most universal trick to spacious living: Avoid clutter. 

“Nothing creates a sense of claustrophobia in a small house faster than clutter,” says Hamlet, who relies on bookshelves, cupboards, cabinets, drawers and storage chests to keep clutter out of sight in houses he designs, including a tiny floating guesthouse on the Willamette River
“Often nooks and crannies present themselves during remodeling or construction," he says. "Think like a boat designer and look for these opportunities to provide places for stowing away items.”Bottom line to making a small house look grand: “Quality feels better than quantity, while spirit and personality bring a house to life,” he says.
In an article for Fine Homebuilding magazine, Hamlet outlined these guidelines to expanding the perceived size of a small house.
  1. Take advantage of outdoor space. An outside room should be linked to the interior by consistent materials, floor patterns, overhangs, plantings and large doors and windows. The outdoor space should be 1 1⁄4 to 1 1⁄2 times bigger than the largest room in the house and have a definite boundary such as a stone wall, fence, shrubs, deck railing or adjacent structures.
  2. Invest space in transitions. Although it might be tempting to remove square footage from entry and circulation spaces, transition
 areas create the sense that you are living in a bigger house. Transitions range from portions of the floor plan such as stairs, hallways and balconies to details such as thick thresholds, substantial columns, overhead beams and lowered ceilings.
  3. Invite natural and artificial light. Bright light in the foreground with slightly darker areas in the background creates a perspective that increases the perceived depth
 of a space. Light brought into the ends of a room draws the viewer’s eye, increasing the perceived distance; so too does a window at the end of a hall or a skylight at the top of a staircase. Interior spaces that are isolated from the exterior can use elements such as roof monitors and light tunnels, or can borrow light from other areas via transoms and interior windows. Well-place artificial lighting can give definition and clarity to elements and edges.
  4. Create contrast with scale. Downsizing everything in a small house makes it seem even smaller. Instead, vary the scale of objects and elements from larger than normal to smaller than normal to evoke a sense of grandeur. For example, a tiny window placed next to a big piece of furniture makes the area seem larger, so can raising the ceiling height from the standard 8 to 9 feet in the main living areas.
  5. Distinct zones. Creating public and private zones, separating competing functions and making distinctions between quiet and noisy areas are ways to enlarge the perceived size of a small house. Contrast spaces by making one of them intimate and snug, and others open and airy.
  6. Multiple orientations. Use windows to vary the focus from nearby features to distant horizons. High and low windows frame garden and hilltop views, open-riser stairs allow glimpses from one room to another and a frosted-glass stair landing adds a surprising layer of light in the center of the house. Avoid using large areas of glass in small rooms and large windows on only one wall. Doing so can create an uneasy imbalance that sucks the sense of enclosure from the room.
  7. Accentuate the dimensions. Instead of a solid wall that limits a potential long view, use interior windows, transoms and clerestories to maximize sightlines and to extend space beyond its perceived boundaries. Long hallways strategically placed, one-and-a-half- or two-story spaces, and diagonal views are ways to gain a sense of spaciousness. Limit the number of furniture pieces and eliminate clutter to allow the eye to travel farther. 
  8. Put illusion to work. Combine tapered walls and ceilings, and manipulate the scale of objects such as fireplaces, sculptures and landscaping to create the illusion of expanded space. An outdoor room with walls that taper toward one another funnels the eye toward a focal point that seems more distant. Or create a curved or angled wall, loft or stairs going up or down to create a sense of mystery. Mirrors set on closet or bathroom doors and in small rooms can enlarge perceived space. Place paintings and photographs at the end of a hallway or staircase.
  9. Use thick edges. Thick countertops, deep window jambs and wide door thresholds give the impression of strength and longevity, and express a sense of grandeur. Recessing an entry door creates the illusion of a thick wall.
  10. Include multipurpose rooms. Houses integrate numerous functions, but each one doesn’t need its own space all the time. Combine different activities that occur at different times in the same space, but don’t force it. Typical combinations:
    • hall with laundry and storage
    • bathroom-laundry room
    • entry with bench, storage 
and powder room
    • mudroom with workbench, 
sink and clothes-drying racks
    • bedroom with a comfortable area for reading or meditation
    • stair landing expanded to include a desk
    • dining area that serves both formal and informal dining
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Mark Ross

For Mark Ross, founder of Ross NW Real Estate and professional real estate broker, real estate has always been the career of choice. During his 25+ years in the industry, Mark has gained experience in....

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