WFH Solutions for Small Spaces

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Well, it’s September and the kids are back in school, if you can call it that. By now, you’ve probably found a work-from-home solution that applies to your situation. Given, of course, that you do have work to do. It doesn’t escape me, the irony of celebrating Labor Day with many Americans outside of work. Or celebrating our hard work, when parents are shouldering schoolwork without pay for the past few months. Or mothers who have never been paid, ever, for that matter.

Regardless, we find ways and solutions. I remember in our own home, when shut-downs first happened, we thought this would be a temporary thing. “It would only be for two weeks,” we said. We made work stations around the only desk that existed in our small space. Mike had his desk in the corner, Kirse took the dining table and laid out the laptop, two monitors, and keyboard that she took home from work, and I sidled next to a side-table in the living room that could barely seat my Microsoft Surface Pro (pictured above). If I needed privacy for a recording or online meeting, I would escape to our tiny balcony and cross my fingers that the garbage truck would arrive an hour later than normally scheduled.

Small spaces in particular make working from home quite tricky. Where does a person create separation between work and home when there is no office space? How to isolate when the living room is the bedroom next to the kitchen where a significant other needs to make lunch? Where does a parent take a call, when there are no doors in the home and an ever-curious child has an everlasting list of questions? How can you keep a professional face on a Zoom call when you see your two youngest kids fighting in the corner of your eye? Lastly, how does one shut off for the evening, when the office desk is always visible in the home?

Thankfully, those who live in small spaces have had plenty of practice with making do. I am always amazed by tiny home dwellers’ creativity when it comes to maximizing a space. For WFH solutions in particular, I’ve heard pod-casters lock themselves in closets for a bit of sound-proofing. I’ve seen folding screens and shower curtains hiding desks in bedroom corners so that a house can actually feel like a home. I’ve read about people using their kitchen island as a make-shift standing desk, and I feel for people who gave up clothing and a dresser to create space for a computer.

Now, with kids schooling at home, parents have the added complexity of creating spaces for their little ones to thrive in. Not to mention, balancing different schedules and timelines, wearing the hat of parent, teacher, tutor, and money-maker, as well as logging into Zoom calls for the kids and the self.

None of this is easy, let alone sustainable. I, do, however find hope in the fact that we are all trying to make do. I want to believe that tomorrow it will be easier. That our reality is waiting for us just around the corner. Meanwhile, I hope these short stories help others feel a little less alone. And for those who haven’t quite found WFH solutions in their small space, perhaps the addition of one of these would make all the difference.

For those wishing to read more, I suggest these WFH solutions by 600sqftandababy and the idea of taking a Gap Year for the little ones.

The planner is from Smitten on Paper.

Small Space Living

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Tip 14: Forgo the coffee table.

We have yet to corral a coffee table into our living room. Erm, what we designated in our minds as the living room. In reality, I’m referring to a corner of our small space that our neighbors decided would better fit as a bedroom for them. Regardless of the designation, the room where we have a couch and a projector has yet to hold a coffee table.

I just haven’t  come into agreement with one.

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I used to own a coffee table. It was a big and bulky thing that I came across at a consignment store when I was first (and finally!) moving out of my parents home – at the ripe age of twenty-three. I rationalized to myself its bulkiness, saying that the solid wood meant that it would last. “Heavy-duty” was the word I used, when explaining the table to Mike that evening. I convinced him to accompany me the next day to “look at it”, but really I meant “pick it up and take it home”.

It had drawers (two in fact) for storing things. The upper drawer was topped with glass, so that you could look in on the display. It always felt cluttered though, so all it did was collect dust. The bottom drawer was worse. It collected junk. If things disappeared, that would be the first place I would look.

What’s more, when we moved into our small space, a 900-square-foot loft without any doors, the coffee table we owned took up what felt like half of the living room. Since it was a solid wood table, without legs or airiness beneath, it made our space seem divided and small(er). Plus the dark colored wood – an almost black-grey kind of brown – absorbed much of the natural light.

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We ended up donating it to a family in need, which was its only saving grace. But I’ve been hesitant to add a coffee table again since the trauma of criss-crossing between the guilt I felt for getting rid of it and the hatred I felt for its unbecoming qualities.

I suppose today’s post about forgoing a coffee table originates from negative experiences with mine. We have been making do with a tiny side-table, which I also have half a mind to donate. At least it’s easily movable to the corner of the room, allowing both of us to lay out a yoga mat in front of the couch.

I do prefer the flexibility of a side table. In fact, I’ve considered multiple flexible options in lieu of a coffee table, such as ottomans and foot stools in the form of tree stumps.

Below are a few contenders, in case you are also searching.

+ A camp stool – for the sole purpose of putting tired feet up onto something. I love this stool because you can fold it up and stash it against the wall or behind a console, for a less cluttered look.

+ Maple nesting tables, of the stackable variety, to reduce real estate when not in use.

+ A mushroom tree stump, for holding a drink or two. Bringing natural elements in, without buying more houseplants.

+ A step stool, which has dual-use for shorties such as myself.

+ Actual ottomans, in a rich sienna leather. Extra seating when gatherings resume post-COVID.

Small Space Living

Tip 13: Mason Jar and Ceramic Pitcher Vases

The one thing about living in a tiny home is that there is not much storage room. It isn’t such a problem when there’s not much to store, and for some people, therein lies the rub. I have friends who are affronted by the suggestion of living life without simple “essentials”. Case in point: vases. On the flip side, I have other friends who roll their eyes at such frivolity. Both sides get along just fine with each other and that’s the whole point. It doesn’t matter much which camp you sit in as long as whatever lifestyle you have matches your space. Well, rather, whatever space you have matches your lifestyle.

If I am being completely honest, I own one vase. It’s a tall, cylindrical, long-stemmed glass vase that was given to me by a friend from dental school years ago. I’ve tried to de-clutter it a handful of times, but to no avail. It holds no more than 6 tulips, and funny enough, I have never used it. I suppose this means de-cluttering it definitely requires a revisit…

Which, in my opinion, puts me in the latter camp. When flowers find themselves in our home, I am more likely to grab a mason jar or a ceramic pitcher that we bought during our honeymoon in New Zealand than that darn vase. I have an affinity for assigning twenty functions to household items, if possible, so both solutions actually make me appreciate the bouquet more. There’s something gleeful about re-purposing stuff. Maybe THAT’s why I never use my actual vase. It’s too singular in purpose thus making it unattractive.

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Either way, look. It doesn’t matter whether you like a lot of stuff or a little stuff. It matters more that you love what you do have and use them often and well. It’s important that your things are beautiful in your eyes, even if it’s “just” a mason jar in other people’s eyes. To you, it could be a storage for bulk items, a container for a new candle, a get-together-party-favor holding your famous enchilada sauce, a jar holding homemade jam, a refreshing water glass (or lemonade or wine), or a vase. Maybe I’ve spent too long making do with what I’ve got. It sure as hell isn’t a bad way to live.

Nothing gives me more joy making something out of nothing – vases included.

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Thank you to Sonia for the lovely flowers. 

If you happen to be a vase person, East Fork Pottery is releasing a new bud vase today at 12pm EST. Hand-thrown in their beautiful soapstone glaze, they are a perfect addition to a ‘minimalist’ home.

Small Space Living

Tip 06// The Most Sustainable Couch

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.

airbnb melbourne
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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.

Erin Boyle, ReadingMyTeaLeaves, Simple Matters

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 IS enough, and there we still sleep soundly.

Small Space Living: We’ve Joined the Small House Movement!

It’s likely apparently obvious to those who enjoy this space that I have a slight infatuation with decreased consumption, which stems from a cognizance regarding third world countries, from whence I came, and the less-ness that exists (in terms of material goods) in correlation to the comparative abundance of happiness levels. So when the small house movement came into my radar, as I was exploring theories of minimalism, essentialism, and frugality, I was on board like a runaway child on a boxcar train.

The small house movement is embraced by those privileged enough to have an interest in reducing their living quarters to something more practical than the escalating housing  trend in the early 2000s. Technically, small housing is defined as a space less than 1000 square feet (still grand enough for a family of deux), whereas a tiny home is defined as one having less than 400 square feet. The more I browsed adorable photos of RV living and tiny guest homes, the more I thought to myself, “Why don’t we do this?”

Off course, extreme as I am, I immediately jumped to the thought of tiny house living. I approached Mike with talk of buying an RV, and posting up shop at a parking lot by the ocean. Imagine hanging macrame holding plant pots, a teeny kitchen with an oven big enough to make my own bread, a fold up dining table that double serves as a desk, and still room for a king sized bed. All thoughts of which were resisted heavily by a six-foot-three giant with claims of not being able to stand tall inside a camper. Fair enough. Just because I can fit inside a hobbit home, does not mean that a hobbit home is livable for my tall husband. So there goes that idea.

So then I started looking at homes bordering tiny. I set limitations on my Zillow searches for homes 600 square feet or smaller. Unfortunately, very few searches came up in Southern California, and unless we wanted to co-live in someone else’s backyard, zilch came up in Orange County. Somewhere along the way, I realized that my desires came from something external, specifically, from the appearance of tiny living. The homes that I was searching for did not move us towards the life we saw ourselves living. It may keep us away from over-consumption, out of necessity due to lack of space, but I realized we didn’t need to buy a tiny home in order to do that, too.

Once I saw that, I started to go back to our original idea, which was to buy a live/work loft like the one we were currently renting. The dream is to one day, wake up and walk downstairs for work. To work together doing something that seems mundane, but involves creating something as well, to share with the community. In order to make this dream a reality, we started looking at properties that would set us up for a future business. So that’s what we ended up doing.

We bought a 1,500 square foot live work loft in the heart of downtown Santa Ana. The greatest part of all? We technically joined the small house movement too! Our living space resides on the second floor, and the downstairs is partitioned specifically for a business, or a roommate for co-housing. Since the business has over 500 square feet of space, it leaves us with around 900 square feet of living space on the second floor. I’ll pretend that counts as small house living! It has everything I need and more, but without the excesses of a typical home. For example, there’s not closet on the second floor. There’s not even a bedroom or bedroom door. In fact, it’s an open floor plan, with no doors at all, not even a bathroom one. Minimalist to a high degree, but made even more functional in its sparseness.

floor plan

In this new series, Small Space LivingI hope to delve into the pros and cons of living with less. Some of the things I look forward to most about living small include:

  • Increased cash flow – When we were searching for a live/work loft, we had the choice of accepting a counter-offer for $650,000 and a counter-offer for $499,900. We obviously went with the latter. Now imagine if we were going to compare this place to a stand-alone home! Smaller homes might afford you a smaller mortgage, but there is the added benefit of lower property taxes, decreased homeowners insurance, and less maintenance costs. Imagine if you took the extra money you saved to improve on your home insulation or invest in solar roof panels and skylights to reduce energy consumption. Or you know, funnel that extra cash into paying down student debt, or creating the life you want to live.
  • Less Maintenance – Nothing excites me more than the fact that I will not have to spend hours of my days off keeping a large house clean. I recall my mother sweeping the floors day in and day out, and wondering to myself if she would have more time to relax if only we had a smaller home. Cutting down the hours needed to maintain a home leaves more time for enjoyable activities, furthering a business venture, or simply spending time with loved ones.
  • Lower utility bills – It costs less to cool down a small home in mid-summer’s heat than it is to cool down a large mansion, especially in deserty California.
  • Reduced consumption – The thing I love most about limited storage is the limiting effects on gaining even more stuff. Gone were the days when I would go rogue at a shopping mall, and there’s hardly a purchase I make now that does not involve hefty consideration. I avoid the cycle of buying more things, and then buying more storage for said new things. So many Americans use their garages as storage space, and when that isn’t enough, rent out a separate storage unit to store even more of their stuff! What’s the point of owning things that you never use? Currently, I have made a habit of getting rid of something that no longer serves if I need the room for something that adds more value to my life. So yes, I guess you can say I am pretty excited about the limited storage space.
  • More time with family – Have you ever left a family gathering and realized that you never saw Uncle Bob, or didn’t have a chance to catch up with your cousin Joe? Less space means that more room must be shared. When I was growing up as a teen, I thought having my own space was the most amazing thing ever. Now, I realize that we humans are social beings, and there is so much to be garnered from our togetherness. I’m all for a space that encourages bonding over group activities and dinners, strengthening relationships and creating memories. I now know the truth, which is this: Our dreams will end once we achieve them, but our memories will last our lifetime.

Off course, all this isn’t to say that small house living is entirely fantastic, let alone easy. Easier for some, but still, there is the question of where the clothes will go, and how to make do. Hopefully during the journey, I’ll share some solutions, and reveal some tips, that even I have yet to discover. What I do have to say about it is this: thinking about all that we already have, rather than what we don’t, leaves plenty of room for gratefulness to abound. For example, vaulted ceilings and 25 foot windows that grant me an abundance of natural light (and joy). A balcony for escaping, when spaces are not enough. Working appliances, and a roof over my head. An opportunity to celebrate our home with both sets of parents tonight. You know… the basics.