Design Techniques for a Small but Functional House

By James Dulley

March 5, 2020 4 min read

Dear James: I plan to build a ranch house for myself and my two children. I am on a tight budget, so it must be small (about 1,500 square feet). What are some good tips for designing a livable small house? — Amy B.

Dear Amy: With proper design concepts, a 1,500-square foot house can provide more than adequate living space for you and your two children. Actually, the trend today for new homes is reduced floor space. This lowers not only initial construction costs but also utility bills and maintenance costs.

Building a smaller home also has less negative impact on the environment. Using fewer materials obviously consumes less natural resources. Also, a house with a smaller footprint leaves more space for trees and plants, which naturally convert greenhouse gas carbon dioxide back into oxygen. Your children will thank you someday.

One of the key design tips to make a small house functional and seem larger is to create multiuse spaces. An example would be to combine a living room and dining room into one general area. Since you seldom use both areas at the same time, there will be little interference into activities. This open area also gives the house a more spacious appearance and feel.

Since both rooms are combined into one large area, you can use some simple techniques to give them a sense of separation. Installing different types of flooring, wallcoverings or paint colors in each area can separate the rooms. Another technique is to have a sunken floor, just a step or two, in the living room.

Using different sets of lighting controls in each room can emphasize one use over another, depending on which you plan to use. This lighting control technique is particularly effective where there may be multiple activities conducted at different times in the area.

Use built-in storage and shelves as much as possible. This provides needed storage space and breaks up long walls. With a long wall in a multiuse space finished with shelving and cabinets, you will not have to place furniture along that wall. By having less furniture in a room, there is more open space to make the room look larger. You also save money by having to buy less furniture for decorative purposes.

Where you actually do have distinct room separation, use large openings between them so the rooms tend to blend together. One excellent method to unify the rooms is to use similar wall and flooring materials, making the room-to-room transition less apparent.

Where you plan to have doors between rooms, use pocket doors. These slide inside the wall cavity when opened so little floor space is wasted. A standard swinging door requires a tremendous amount of space. Where only partial privacy is required, install doors with clear or obscure glass panels.

Don't forget the outdoors; extend the living area into it. Building decks and patios is much less expensive per square foot than building interior space. If it is not used during bad weather, it still gives the impression of greater living space, even from indoors.

Install high-efficiency floor-to-ceiling windows and large glass doors to the outdoor living areas. Adding traditional rectangular or tubular skylights brings in natural sunlight, which always enhances the size of a room.

Send your questions to Here's How, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit To find out more about James Dulley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Photo credit: manbob86 at Pixabay

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