We Love Our New-and-Improved Tiny Condo: Part I

My wife and I live in 650 square feet with two kids and we love it. We’ve written about our small home before, a tiny condo in North Cambridge, Massachusetts. We live in a neighborhood full of small houses and condos — the average home or condo around here is about 1,000 square feet. But we live in a small space even by those standards, and we do it with two kids (but no pets, thank goodness).

You might think we’d want more space, and, well, we do. If you gave me a 1,000 square foot home right next to the condo we currently own, I’d kiss you. But we live in one of the cheapest condos in our neighborhood, and we cannot afford to step up to a bigger (but still small!) house. Moving to another neighborhood is out of the question — we love our neighborhood. In fact, we  love the block we live on so much it would be hard to move even three or four blocks away. Plus, we’re stubborn. Our tiny home a source of great pride. So we’re staying.

But staying means that we have to make our place work better for us. After living in our condo for a couple of years, we knew what needed changing. We had an ugly divider in between the kitchen and living room that made the space seem smaller. We had an unheated and inaccessible enclosed front porch that was being wasted. We have ugly carpet and tile all over the house. Both bedrooms in our house need to be more functional for daytime use. Eventually, we’ll need an additional bedroom to accommodate our different-gender children when they get older. And it would be great if our bathroom could magically expand to fit more than one person at a time. (Actually, we can get all four of us in the bathroom at once by putting one on the toilet, two in the tub, and one using the sink!)

Our porch before renovation

This is our porch before renovations — useless and messy!

Last year, we went to a workshop by tiny-house guru Jay Shafer and began to form a vision of our home as a beautiful, efficient, compact space that we could live in until retirement. After the high of dreaming, we got some recommendations for a contractor that could help us make some changes in reality, and contacted Paul Morse of Morse Constructions. We met with Paul to talk about our overall vision for our place, and we were very pleased that he seemed to understand our small-space sensibilities and that he had good ideas about how we might move forward.  Paul recommended starting with renovations of our front porch, as that was our least used space. Our front porch is a 4 foot by 15 foot room (so it’s 60 square feet, about 10% of our total living space). Before our renovations, this was an unheated and poorly insulated space, and the only access to it was through our bedroom. During the summer months the space was boiling hot and during the winter it was freezing cold. The porch was essentially just a storage locker for junk that didn’t fit into our living space. But the porch did provide a major source of light into our house — there are three windows on the front porch that get great light, and we used to have a window from our living room that looked onto the front porch to get some of that light.

So we took the plunge and decided to renovate. It was a pricey renovation. We closed off the access to the porch from our room, built a new glass pocket door from our living room, and then essentially gutted the room, building it back up with appropriate heat, insulation, and new windows. Paul Morse and his team planned well and did a thorough and accurate quote for us of project cost, so we didn’t have any money surprises.

Porch in progress

Porch renovation project in process — windows, insultation, and heat are in, finishing still undone

That was back in the winter. Now the front porch (which we call the “sunroom” for the obvious reason) is a beautiful part of our living space. We had high shelves installed throughout the room for storage, and installed adjustable Elfa shelving for one wall. We also put in a kitchen cabinet on one short wall for more enclosed storage (this is where most of the toys in the house are stored). We think at this point we are close to the amount that we had stored on the porch before, only now we also have a whole new room. Nathan also had a custom sewing cabinet built on one end of the room, and that has already paid off in a number of crafting projects like doll diapers, custom covers for furniture, and more. It’s wonderful to have a project in process without creating a giant impassable mess in our bedroom.

Kids on porch, post renovation

Kids enjoying the porch, post-renovation. Sewing table in the background. The table and chairs they are using are generally in their room.

Having an additional room in our house is amazing. The kids spend a lot of time playing out there, and if they are bickering, we can have one playing in the sunroom while the other plays in their bedroom. We’ve even had guests stay in the sunroom, which is almost exactly the width of a twin mattress. It feels really great to know we can say, “Sure, come stay with us!” without burdening a guest with the 5:30 am wake-up call that comes with sleeping in our living room (R is an early riser).

We also have much more light coming into the house, and the house stays both cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. We can keep it cooler in the summer despite the sun streaming the windows because we can open a window and put in a box fan anytime the temperature outside starts to cool off (we typically run the box fan in the morning to get the indoor temperature down). We had been planning on getting light blocking shades, but so far that hasn’t seemed necessary. In the winter, the additional heating pipes and thermal gain from the windows keep the house warmer than it was before.

Laundry on porch

The porch is a great place to hang laundry (we installed a retractable clothesline), due to all the windows! Behind the laundry you can see the cabinet that is the primary toy storage in the house.

Part of the reason that the extra 60 square feet from the sunroom feels so amazing is that it is  60 square feet of high-use living space. In a very small home, you have to use all of your living space as much as possible, but we still use some more that others. The highest-use space is our kitchen/living room, and now that space has been added to with the sunroom, but that same space can easily be separated if we close the pocket door (typically it stays open). The next most utilized room is the kids’ bedroom, and we’re working on ways to use this space more, especially for the kids to play more independently. Our bedroom is currently underused, and we would like to loft our bed and make a more useful office space to increase it’s functionality for our non-sleeping lives.  Inspired by our success with the porch, we’ve done some additional low-cost improvements to our living room and kitchen, and we’ll be back to give you an update on those as well.

About Angela

Angela is an associate professor of mathematics and enjoys writing, reading, and talking to people about her bike. She's the proud mother of two cute kids, H and R.
This entry was posted in How-to, Problems and issues, Small-condo living (tiny house) and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to We Love Our New-and-Improved Tiny Condo: Part I

  1. nutella says:

    Love this !! What a great transformation. Can’t wait to read the rest, especially bathroom improvements, as we have a similar challenge in our home, although we have 1 less person.

  2. Lex says:

    Exciting! I would love to see a photo tour of your entire tiny house if you ever feel like sharing!

    We are living in 1200 square feet (two moms, six kids and two medium-sized dogs), and it feels plenty spacious, despite the numerous small children (ages 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 and 8) and furry friends. Granted, this is nearly twice as much space as you have! Still, our neighbors have the exact same house as we do, but only two little kids, no pets, and complain constantly about how they need a bigger house. I think one thing that helps us feel like our house is well-sized for us is that every single room is very well used. Also, in the kids’ rooms, we have bunk and loft beds. In general, we have a minimal amount of furniture and “stuff,” so the house feels open and spacious, due to lack of clutter.

    Space, we have absolutely enough of. Peace and quiet? That’s another question (with a very different answer)!

  3. Dawn says:

    I am VERY excited to see more! I love how this small change yielded such large results! One of the biggest things for my DH and I is functionality. We aspire to find a home (rental most likely) that is small but entirely functional for our small but growing family. :)

    My biggest white-knuckle-waiting-clenchers are the bedrooms and bath. I love to see how families work out small spaces to fit all the things they need. Can’t wait to see more of your inspiring story!

  4. Maxhine Yap says:

    Just like the rest of the people who posted there comment ahead of me. I cant wait to see the changes you did with your condo. We also leave in a small house and planning to renovate it soon. I love to see the whole picture of the place you leave in so I might copy some conceptual design, if its okay with you.

  5. Zane Selvans says:

    OMG, lofted beds are incredible, you should totally do it. Like adding a whole new room sometimes. I live in a co-op in Boulder with a dozen other folks, and built a loft for my bed, and I feel like I’ve got my own private suite! Then I moved in by bike! http://zaneselvans.org/2011/07/02/moving-to-masala/

  6. Sheila says:

    I wish my unit has a sunroom. I sure could use some sunlight. Hope you could post more photos once you’re done with your renovation. Would love to see all the storage solutions you’ve created.

  7. Yay for small city spaces and the resourcefulness they reveal in their occupants! And we can also relate to how fantastic a simple renovation can feel! -Kerry

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  9. Heidi says:

    Have you seen Timbernest’s loft beds? We bought one (old style) before moving from the US to England because we knew the bedroom of the new tiny apartment would be too small for our furniture. When we moved to a larger home we just cut the legs down and we’re still using it as our bed frame.
    I have no connection with Timbernest at all except I grew up in VT and they are located in VT (not near my home town).

  10. Mob sleep says:

    I am surprised you cannot afford to upsize from your small place with two seemingly excellent jobs and no car, even in such an expensive area.

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