I am thirty, and I have still yet to own a couch of my choosing. Every couch that has permeated my living space has either been already provided by previous tenants or handed down to me by someone I know. What does that say about me, exactly?
While it is quite obvious that our personal successes are not defined by an ability to own a couch, I think it is implied that a medical professional of thirty would have been able to afford one by now. But buying a couch is no easy thing. In fact, buying ANYTHING for me is never an easy thing these days. The entire process involves a hefty amount of serious pondering and a mild case of deep-skin writhing.
In this line of work, I am approached by others in general for my thoughts on stuff. In a sense, my job here is to help make a value judgement. I am presented with the following questions: Who made it? How is it made? Where is it made? What materials are used? Why is it necessary? Which option is best, in terms of sustainability both in terms of the environment, the social implications, the global effects, and least importantly, my personal repercussions. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a matcha whisk, or a set of pajamas. It’s even more pressure on large scale purchases, such as a brand new couch.
I have been in search for a sustainable couch for years. Ever since my husband (then-fiance) and I moved into our own place two months after I graduated dental school in 2016. Specifically, I have looked for a couch wherein I can trace exactly where it was made, whose hands were used to make them, and in what environmental conditions. I have yet to find one that comes close. Most furniture companies don’t even bother to tag couches as sustainable, and those that do only involve a small level of sustainability (like using reclaimed wood without any consideration for the fabrics of the upholstery) that I cannot even take them seriously.
So then I started to reach out to acquaintances about possibly fabricating a couch. Our favorite piece of furniture in our home is a 12 foot dining table hand-made by the two girls who provided our wedding furniture. We thought maybe we could do the same with the couch. I reached out to a fellow wood-worker-baker and an at-home clothing seamstress to ask about making a sustainable wood frame and sourcing end-of-the-mill fabrics. But sourcing the fabric will take lots of work researching jobbers and the wood-worker friend was busy with current projects as well as a baking schedule. It wasn’t the path to take.
So we turned to the next sustainable option, which is to buy a used and unwanted couch from Craigslist, which would prevent an additional item from entering a landfill. I know that it would put us in the same spot as before, owning a couch that’s a hand-me-down of sorts, but at least it would be a couch of our choosing. When we went to Melbourne in January, we stayed at a really nice AirBNB, and we fell in love with a mid-century modern couch in their living room.
I was surprised to find a similar couch made by West Elm selling at Craigslist for $800. The same couch is still selling at West Elm for double the price. While West Elm sells some sustainable products, couches are unfortunately not one of them. But sustainability as defined by environmental impact is achieved with this option, and the fact that it was already owned means the buying of this Craigslist couch does not have an ADDITIONAL social impact or global effect, except for the positive effect of side swiping it from the landfill. So where’s the hitch?
It all came down to sustainability as defined by my personal life. $800 is no chump change. Maybe in proportion to brand new couches (why do they cost so much?) $800 seems like a steal. Perhaps it is. But in terms of my personal financial goals, $800 is almost double what we set aside each month for travel. $800 is almost three months worth of groceries, or eight months worth of dining out. $800 is a year’s worth of cat food for Theo, and probably all the Christmas and birthday presents we want to buy. It is one-third of our portion of the mortgage, which is helping us build equity – can a couch do that? It is 12% of our monthly loan payment, which is buying us freedom. How much freedom can a couch buy you?
In the end, we chose the most sustainable couch, which is the couch we already had. It buys us freedom from the cycle of continually searching for something better. It helps build us equity by not taking way from our ability to build equity. It fuels our financial goals, without taking away from our time. In the end, it came down to the answer of not which couch is best, but which couch is good enough. That’s what sustainability is all about.
I sometimes wonder how well these superlatives, and our quest for the best of something, end up serving us. What about the possibility of replacing better or best with good enough? The reality of my own day-to-day life is that living simply and keeping a pared down collection of well-loved items often isn’t about having the best. It’s about making the best of what I already have.
Like Erin, we search for ways to make the best of what we have. It’s the ultimate way to live without forever needing to chase. In our space, we have shades where walls should be, wooden panels where doors should be, and a bed where some might put a living room. But it ISenough, and there we still sleep soundly.
‘Thrifty‘ and ‘thriving‘ are two words you don’t often see in the same sentence, let alone together, side-by-side. The first insinuates a sense of meagerness while the second boasts of abundance. Yet in terms of small space living, it is important to establish both, and when small spaces are done well, one can do so without compromise.
Small space efficiency is a an underestimated selling point for having less square footage. Benefits of small space living include more affordable housing, more efficient heating of spaces, less material consumption, less time wasted and money spent on maintenance, et cetera. In this way, small spaces can help one be thrifty.
Small spaces also pave way for intimate relationships. Cozy is a term I like to use. Think winter cabins and snow storms with your closest college friends. This closeness can elicit a sense of connectedness with the inhabitants, and their guests … especially when the openness in a home makes every room visible regardless of where you stand. This ‘forcing’ of community is an example of how small spaces can help you thrive.
Not only are we small space dwellers, but I am also a fan of ‘less is more’. Influenced by Japanese culture (in terms of decluttering and caring for items – see Marie Kondo) and an admirer of Scandinavian design, I find that the ability to thriftily thrive lies in the way we give purpose to our small spaces. There are many ways in which a person can thrive, but our environments play a large role in that act. For me, having bare white walls supports a creative head space. For our family, an open floor plan facilitates intermingling. For visitors, having one large dining table in the center of the home gives us a reason to look each other in the eyes as we sit down and share a meal.
Below, I will detail a few aspects of our home that make it extremely functional for us, yet that require less than what is expected. I will also explain how these aspects help to make our lives more maximilist, although others would consider it minimal.
Open Floor Plans
Occupation of modest space calls for an open floor plan. The addition of walls can make a space feel smaller, and could be considered stifling, at best. Fluidity in movement, light, and air is helped by an excess of open space. In our home, the open space give Mike and I a sense of connectedness. I could be sitting on the bed, reading a book with the cat, and look across the way to see Mikey in the living room fiddling with his guitar strings. Likewise, I could be sitting on the couch surfing the web on my laptop, and peer above the screen to see Mikey playing video games in the bedroom. When people are over, guests are within eyesight of each other at all times, since the kitchen opens to the dining area which faces the living room. I have yet to hear a guest ask me where someone is.
In our home, the use of screens encourages engagement between moving parts, while granting privacy when space is needed. When Mike and I are alone, we usually have conversations that travel from the bed to the couch. When guests are over, the screens are usually pulled, to give a sense of privacy to those sleeping on the pull-out couch. The same goes for rooms as intimate as the bathroom. We have a wooden panel that slides to reveal a laundry tucked away into a corner of the home. It also functions as the door to our bathroom. Unless someone is using the loo or shower, the panel is usually covering the laundry machines, thus leaving the bathroom open to the rest of the home.
Natural lighting is the one criteria that I have for my homes. Give me the smallest cranny, but please don’t take away my sunshine. My mood is greatly influenced by sunlight, which also means that my ability to create is hindered by low levels of light. In our home, we have floor to ceiling lighting on both sides of the house. We have sheer pull down screens to sift the light, which we occasionally pull down in the evenings to limit the glow from street lamps coming into our home. But the minute I wake up, I pull the screens up to allow as much sunlight as possible. I throw the windows open, in hopes to invite more air in, as if the house was gasping for breath. And since the opposing walls of the home are covered in windows, it allows for a steady breeze to flow straight across – in one side and out the other. Both ample light and ventilation enhance the perception of space, so it is very important for small dwellings to have both.
Because I err towards having less, I am a big advocate of making the most out of what we have, rooms included. Just as I tend to avoid items that are not used on a daily basis, I think the same way of rooms. When people’s homes have too much space, nooks and crannies tend to go untended. Useless, unwanted. What’s the purpose? To sit and look pretty?! No thank you.
We should consider how spaces can be used for multiple functions. Our living room acts as our theatre room, our relaxation area, our music room, and occasionally, our guest bedroom. The couch folds down into a double sized bed, the coffee table has drawers to store a guest’s belongings. As aforementioned, our screen acts as a divider to give guests privacy. In the “dining room” three steps away, our 12 foot table serves as a means to throw dinner parties, to hold baked goods on a busy baking day, and at times, as my desk for blog work. In the kitchen only a mere hand’s reach, we have an island that we use as a breakfast table, a meal prep area, and a baker’s bench for shaping tens of loaves.
Quality Over Quantity
I wrote, once, about how our happiness does not lie in double vanity sinks. Maybe I’m alone in thinking that one bathroom suffices for all our toilet needs. But it is true. I only need one couch, and dare I say it, one living room (even if it lacks in formality). I don’t need a breakfast table and a more formal dining table. I don’t need a guest bedroom for ghosts to collect in. I mean, we have one closet for goodness sake! But it’s large enough to stash everything we own, and is that not enough?
Instead of giving me a couch that’s only for formal gatherings, give me one that I can fall asleep on and drool. Instead of having dinnerware saved for special occasions, give me a set of reliable and unfussy china that won’t break with daily use. Instead of different decor for the changing of seasons, give me bare walls, you feel me? The quality of our lives is not measured by how must stuff we have.
Maximalizing Small Spaces
I maximalize our space in multiple ways. Other than having ample lighting and blank slate walls, our home meticulously selects for items of similar materials. The floor is one single concrete slab that runs through every room (even the bathroom and bedroom). It is a light gray color, and lighter colors make spaces seem bigger than. A unifying floor also is better at maximalizing than having different floorings between each room.
Likewise, smaller spaces benefit from a unifying color palate. The materials we choose usually flux between dark wood, brown leathers, silver and chrome industrial metals, and straw and paper baskets and things. Our color schemes reflect natural color states, and only small pops of vibrancy (in the form of greenery and fresh fruit from the market) permeate the home. We try to balance the warmth from our wooden coffee table with the coolness of our exposed ventilation system. We juxtapose the softness in our linen sheets with the hardness of the iron side tables nearby. Despite having an Industrial vibe mixed with an organic collection of goods, the flow from one room to another flourishes with the help of a continuous color scheme.
In terms of items, I am very selective with what’s visible to the naked eye. I consolidate all of our belongings into closets, organize them behind kitchen cabinets, corral them into bathroom drawers. If I could, I would also tuck away the fridge behind pantry doors, and the microwave into its own cabinet. We do have open shelving but when it comes to items sitting on that shelf, I have one basic rule: Only the most beloved possessions get that privilege.
A Sense of Community
We use our humble abode as a vessel to create a community. We gather people who would otherwise be far away from each other due to our urban lifestyle. Our home is especially good at making people feel close-knit. Mostly, because there’s nowhere else to go! When people visit, there are really only so many seating areas. We have to mingle like we used to. No one can surf their social feeds unobserved. This isn’t the place for that. Likewise, on a daily basis, our roommate preps dinners and lunches in the same kitchen. We watch movies together, or play boardgames after dinner. Even Mike and I are forced to resolve whatever arguments we have within minutes, because hiding away to the bedroom does not mean you steal away from eyesight. In this way, our home has brought us closer to each other.
As much as I love our haven, our small space also promotes a relationship with our surroundings. Our home is for slow living, but when the bread has been baked, the meals have been prepped, the guitars have been strummed, and the eyes have gone crossed from all the reading, there isn’t really much else to do. That promotes slow living in the sense that we do a lot of observing, imagining, pondering, and sitting. But it also promotes a life lived outside.
We live in the heart of downtown. Our bedroom window overlooks Yost Theatre, and we can feel the bass thumping from the bar down the street at half past midnight. We get ding dong ditchers at 2am. At first, I hated it. But now, it is growing on me. Couple our location with living in a tiny home and what do we get? A husband and wife who will find joy in stepping outdoors. We walk to the market to buy groceries. We accompany people who want to dine out across the street. We walk to our favorite coffee shops and support local brewers. Monthly art walks draw us out after eating dinner at home. When the dogs I’m sitting feel a bit restless, out we go in search of grass. I am finding that as much of a sanctuary we make our home to be, it is equally important in being the place from which we go forth.