This small home designed by Designcubed, makes the most of views over the internal courtyard garden

Having the opportunity to design and build your own home is of course one of the most wonderful things you can do, although it is often perceived as being reserved for those with large acreage plots and bottomless pockets. This is absolutely not the case. Building your own home should be an opportunity for anyone, regardless of plot size or budget.

With land at a premium in many parts of the country, houses are reducing in size. This brings its own set of design rules and processes to be aware of when contemplating your own spaces.

Small Home History

Did you know that house sizes have, in general terms, reduced by half since the 1920s?

The average house back then was around 148-156m² with three to four good bedrooms — today, it is more like 84-88m² with around three bedrooms. These figures are of course based more on developer-built projects rather than private self build, but it’s an interesting statistic nonetheless.

Recent RIBA research has labelled these mass-produced properties as ‘shoe box’ homes and cites them as being unfit for day-to-day family living. Today the UK is ranked as building some of the smallest homes in Europe.

If your project parameters are such that you have to design a house that is smaller than you originally perceived, do not let this put you off. It is my own experience that clients often have a misconception about what space they actually need anyway.

Here, we focus on how best to design your new home if it has to be a small home: somewhere in the region of under 100m² and up to around 150m².

Reasons for Building a Small Home

Let’s look first at why your project might be restricted to a certain size:

  • Physical plot restrictions — narrow plot/shallow plot.
  • Budget.
  • A limit on overall size for replacement dwellings if the plot is in a constrained location such as a Conservation Area or an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Often in such locations, local planning authorities will have specific percentage increases they would be prepared to approve; it may be a little more complex than this if their policy guidelines are that any replacement dwelling should not be ‘materially larger’ than the one it replaces.
  • You want to downsize from your existing large family home now that the children have grown up and left home.
  • You may be building within the new custom build sector, where serviced plots for self builders are being made more widely available in a major way in the UK. While it is intended that there will be a mix of plot sizes on these planned developments, a large number of them will be aimed directly at this size sector.

None of the above, or indeed any reason that you might have for building a small home, should be seen as a negative scenario or a compromise. Designing smaller homes can be hugely rewarding as you are immediately challenged to squeeze every last possible drop of space out of the design while still ticking all of the necessary accommodation boxes.

I design many smaller houses and spend just as much time with the client during our lifestyle meeting. They take just as long to design as the larger homes too, because ultimately they do the same job. They meet the needs of the occupants through a considered design that is appropriate to the brief.

So let’s get into some design specifics…

Think in 3D

Learn to think in three dimensions (3D) rather than two. When you are knee-deep in floorplans and your architect/designer is feeding you with ideas left, right and centre, it is often difficult to comprehend how the spaces within the design will actually function and connect to one another.

The increased use of 3D modelling and more recently, virtual walk-through modelling, allows us as designers to explore potential spaces in ways we have never been able to do fully before. Beyond your floorplans therefore, think about the spaces and environment below your feet and above your head.

small home living space with mezzanine floor

This 67m² home in Dublin makes good use of cantilevered spaces, including a light-filled office space above the kitchen. The office is part of an open plan mezzanine that also houses sleeping quarters, built-in storage and access to a striking cantilevered bathroom

a 67sqm small home in Dublin with cantilevered bathroom

Perceived space can be visually expanded by a subtle change in floor levels such as a sunken lounge or family snug zone, or you could incorporate cantilevered floor decks at first floor level which in effect project the floor zones out above the ground floor in a ‘floating’ fashion. You only need to cantilever a floor out by a small amount to create a much bigger feeling of space.

Do be aware that engineering principles for cantilevers generally work on ⅓ versus ⅔ rule before support is required below. In other words, if you want a 1m projecting cantilever, you would need at least 2m connected back into the floor zone structurally.

Entrance hallways

When designing entrance hallways for smaller homes, there is no right or wrong.

You could choose a spacious oversized hallway, perhaps at the expense of having a study; more often than not we use our tablets for daily admin tasks and this can be done anywhere. This would immediately give the impression of space and the effect can be amplified further in design terms by creating height above by way of vaulted ceilings.

The flip side of this, and equally successful, is to design a modest hallway in a confined environment but when leaving this space, you enter a largely open plan ground floor. This is a subconscious play based on the principles of spatial compression and expansion. Entering compressed space makes us feel secure and controlled whereas entering expanded space lifts the spirit and the soul. The two experiences can be intertwined a number of times within a single layout if you are using a skilled designer.

If open plan is not for you and the design is likely to have corridors and hallways, do not be afraid to make these marginally wider than you have been used to. They are the day-to-day transition spaces within our homes and should be pleasant to use and appropriate to your whole scheme rather than just being practical.

Bisca spiral staircase in an entrance hallway

As well as providing a strong visual feature, spiral staircases (this staircase is from Bisca) are a good option for small spaces, with diameters as little as 1,200mm

Introducing natural light

Natural light is absolute ‘king’ when it comes to smaller spaces. However, this brings its own challenges because you are likely to be using wall space for important furniture placement, TV mounting, kitchen units, etc. This means that windows are often considered as a secondary consideration and by default are either positioned in entirely the wrong place or are the wrong size.

large rooflight over dining table of a small self build

A large rooflight brings natural light into the heart of this self build on a tight plot in London, without compromising privacy

I would suggest that you think about window placement early on in the design process and position them according to the sun path so that natural light enters the building and spaces within at the right time for the right location.

Be adventurous with getting natural light into your smaller home by considering high-level ridge glazing, clerestory windows which can sit above kitchen cabinets or one of my favourites, ‘super-skinny’ slit windows at the ends of walls in corner locations. These give shafts of great natural light into otherwise dark zones and not only do they provide light but also a striking and unique flavour to the home.

interiors of small self build with light filled living space

The interiors of this 98m² contemporary-style, coastal self build have been designed to bring in maximum light. In addition to the wall of floor-to-ceiling glazing from Velfac, a glazed corner window from Timbertec brings natural light deep into the open plan living area of the L-shaped building

Staircase and landing

A conventional staircase and landing can sometimes be bulky and appear incongruous. Things have moved on significantly in recent years so that these elements can be made far more transparent, which in turn gives the impression of space. You could consider glass balustrades instead of timber, or a single spine stair design instead of a stringer either side that immediately removes some of the bulk.

You can get glass treads on top of a spine stringer, making the structure even less obvious, or go one step further and opt for a cantilevered tread staircase which creates an even greater sense of space.

Beyond the staircase, I am a big fan of glass floors. These seem to be a ‘marmite’ feature but they do make spaces far more exciting and provide views through a building that would otherwise be blocked.

glazed balustrade and galleried landing with Velux windows

A glazed balustrade to this galleried landing, paired with a bank of Velux rooflights, ensures plenty of natural light reaches both floors of this SIPs and oak frame home

We recently designed and constructed a property for clients in Hertfordshire that was a footprint of around 11m wide by 11m deep, with only two bedrooms and two bathrooms at first floor level. Originally our clients wanted something much larger. However, Conservation Area and local listing constraints forced us into designing a house of a certain restricted size and while I always knew that we could make it work, the client was cautious.

Through the design and build process, we talked with our clients about how we could make the spaces connect with one another to visually amplify the environment within. We ended up using not only a single spine staircase but also glass balustrades, glass floors, glazed internal walls, glazed internal apexes, wide sliding doors rather than bi-folds and one of my particular favourites — a ‘line of sight’ to the rear garden as soon you enter the front door. This immediately draws the eye through the whole house and gets you thinking about how exciting the building could be, even though your original perception may have been the opposite.

North London small home with cantilevered balcony to courtyard garden

This 120m² home in North London is split into two halves (separated by a courtyard) — a covered walkway provides connection between the two. A cantilevered balcony, supported by steelwork and sheltered by planting, also provides a private spot to sit

Indoor outdoor space

Another consideration is indoor to outdoor space. Yes, I know that the UK climate is not as good as perhaps we would like but we do have the occasional hot spell, so think about your external spaces as an extension of your internal spaces and how to create a blended transition between the two.

The veranda has made a huge comeback in recent years and is a particular favourite with my clients. This can be a simple continuation of a sloping roof, often referred to as a ‘cat-slide’, and you only need a projection of around 1.5m-2m that is covered above to really make this a successful ‘outdoor room’. Other terms for outdoor spaces/rooms are ‘loggia’ and ‘pergola’. These external zones can be used in any weather and if you/your designer are clever, they can be integrated at ground floor and first floor level and often can be excluded from area/volume restrictions, which can be particularly useful if your planning parameters are limiting.

veranda creating outdoors room on small home

This veranda offers a sheltered ‘room outdoors’ in this oak frame and SIPs built home by Roderick James Architects

south facing courtyard in converted courtyard home

Part of the roof of this 115m² former youth club in Devon was removed to create a south-facing courtyard that fills the new interiors with light and provides valuable outdoor living space

I hope this advice has opened up your thinking if you are faced with designing a smaller home than you had originally thought you needed. Never look upon this as a compromise because the opportunity of designing and building any home, large, medium or small, is such a wonderful prospect — so embrace it, and make it the very best you possibly can.

Images: Simon Maxwell; Reportage; Bisca; Nigel Rigden; Jeremy Phillips; Tim Soar

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