Thinking about Living Space

Recently, I had coffee with my close friend Luann and we talked about lot of things, as we always do. But the little segment of conversation about living space is still rolling around in my head.

When I was in grad school, I wrote a lot about what kind of space I grew up in, what I lived in at the time, and how the two very much did not match. People’s living spaces interest me. The way we take up space, use resources, define what’s private versus what’s public offers a lot of information about what our core values might be. Back then, I pondered the differences between how much space people require versus what they think they need, and wondered whether my little family was making the best choice to have a house in the suburbs. I still think about that.

I hate the suburbs, for the most part, but have made peace with this little neighborhood where I’ve lived for that past 18 years. We ended up here because we could afford it and it is very close to my partner’s office on the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota; he can bike much of the year. The school district is great. Our yard allows us to have a lot of garden space. We’ve learned to grow food here, to restore native plants, to provide habitat for birds and bees and butterflies. We’ve done lots of things to this small house of ours to make it more sustainable and more open to multiple uses. We’ve offered shelter to many houseguests – both family and friends. And we’ve met wonderful friends here, including Luann and her family. We do not, however, have great public transportation in the suburbs, nor do we have great sidewalks. Roseville does have a lot of walking trails, which helps. But we have to be careful on foot around here where the culture is a car culture far more than a walking culture or a biking culture.

This is a digression from what I really want to talk about, though. It wasn’t urban versus suburban location that Luann and I talked about at coffee. We talked about the space inside someone’s house and how it works. Luann told me a story about neighbors she had when she was growing up in the Milwaukee area. These neighbors were a family of two parents and eight kids. Did they have a big house? Nope. They lived in two-bedroom home. Luann described for me how the parents fashioned sleeping arrangements in the attic and made cubbies for coats and boots in the entryway. Their family was organized and efficient and didn’t seem to need a bigger house.

As I listed to Luann’s story, I also thought about my childhood. My parents chose to downsize before I left home and we moved into a mobile home when I was almost nine. It was 1968; my parents bucked the culture of bigger-better-more to acquire smaller-easier-efficient. They wanted to travel. They wanted their weekends back instead of having those weekends sucked away with house maintenance. Luann and I talked about our houses now – we live on the same block – and how our houses are not huge but they sure are big enough for us. Luann has a husband and two kids; she recalled how someone once said to her they thought her family would outgrow that house. She responded with her own ideas that if her family of four outgrew a house with three bedroom and two bathrooms, something was very wrong. I talked about how my own house of a similar size feels very large now that it’s just my partner and me and two dogs, although our daughter is home for the summer.

What do I mean by our houses not being huge? My house is about 1340 square feet. And when we moved here, it felt enormous. That was when we had two kids living with us.

My parents’ mobile home, the first one, was 624 square feet. The second one, when they decided that mobile home living was a lot easier than a standard house, was 840 square feet and it felt huge when we moved in. The circa 1927 house they left behind in Northeast Minneapolis to downsize to the life they wanted? That one was around 1200 square feet. Interesting that the house I live in now is not much bigger than that one.

And so I think it’s time to do some research. I’m interested in how mobile homes have evolved since the late Sixties and early Seventies, how our culture has moved beyond the McMansions of the Eighties to whatever is the trend now. Wee houses are out there, attracting more and more fans all the time. Micro-apartments are in use in Seattle. And I follow Professor Dumpster on Instagram, a guy who lived in a dumpster for a year.

What is the big and small of it? What kind of space do you live in? Why? How has it shaped you?

I’d love to know.


8 comments

  1. We ended up here because we could afford it — HEY who doesn’t — only I would say we live here because it was ” all we could afford” and therein lies a difference. It’s easy to think that small is great but it still needs maintenance and has less — privacy — unless you design it yourself. And if you have grandchildren and such you NEED sleepover space. SMALL is okay if you have no family but not much good even if friends want to visit! To me your place is huge but — not for your family functions!

    • To be clear, what I meant by “we could afford it” was that we were staying within our means. We weren’t trying to be flashy or show off. I hope that is evident. And, you’re right that we use our space for family stuff quite a lot. For that I am grateful! Your space, Oonah, is wonderful. I loved sharing it with you during our visit to Northumberland. It felt warm, cozy, welcoming. Just like you.

  2. I love the push to smaller, more sustainable living. It makes a heap of sense to me.
    We have tooooo much ‘stuff’ in our life and I am working to bring it under control.
    Stuff doesn’t make me happy – often the opposite. I get overwhelmed by it. The need to order, maintain, protect things – which when all is said and done are replaceable takes the focus away from more important things.

    • And that’s exactly what I’m thinking about. How much stuff do we need? Why do we think we need it? And where do we put it when we have it? It’s a much more complicated question that those simple words.

  3. I have a fairly large house and yard. I like my space, I like the privacy it affords me. If I could put ten acres between me and the neighbors I’d do it. I like that the children (now grandchildren) had a huge backyard to play in, that the Corgis have room to roam, that I can sit on my back deck and the neighbors are reasonably far away. I like having room for my two spinning wheels, two looms, art easels and printmaking table. And books. So many books…. I think you adapt to the space you’re in, or have. I could live smaller, but I don’t have to. And I’m okay with that.

    • I was so focused on the house itself that I wasn’t really considering the land around it until I saw your comment. There is a privacy issue for many people and I consider that a different issue than how we use our space inside our homes, but maybe I’m wrong on that thought. You’ve thrown something else into the mix for me!

  4. Stuff. For the past year, we’ve had our “stuff” from the basement stored in the garage as we gutted the basement and waterproofed it. This continues to be a work in progress as numerous major issues have surfaced that needed care and put the project on hold. Now, as I look at all that “stuff” in the garage, I wonder if we really need to keep much of it. For a year, we’ve used little of it. Of course, a lot belongs to the adult “kids” who do not yet have their own homes. The older I grow, the less “stuff” I want.

    Our house is sufficient in size with three bedrooms and one bath. But I would like a porch and to live on a quiet street.

    • About that wish for a porch: We spend a lot of time on our small deck on the back of our house as well as sitting on the our large front step to chat. Mick and I started our chat-on-the-front-step habit years ago when we lived in a tiny house near Como Park. There is something about facing the street and the neighborhood that I like. Anyway, stuff – that’s one of the harder things about parenting adult children. At what point do you force them to deal with their stuff if they are still in rental housing that offers little in the way of storage? We’ve whittled that stuff down and, this year, both kids took part in a garage sale (oh, yeah, I wrote about that!) which shed a lot of stuff. That was heavenly. But there’s still more. Ugh.


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