Greener BeeGreen GadgetsSmall space helps people live simpler, greener lives

Smaller is better. That’s how sustainability and design experts seem to see it nowadays. “When you have less space, you tend to have less stuff,” says Sarah Susanka, author of “The Not So Big House” series (Taunton Books) and well-known advocate for small houses.

There’s a green element to this small living, too. “You are heating and cooling less square footage. There is a compactness to the way you are living that is more sustainable,” she says.

Freelance writer Mimi Zeiger has long been a proponent of simple living. Zeiger has written extensively on small homes, most recently in “Micro Green” (Rizzoli, 2011), which extols the virtues of small living. Besides being green, small homes force residents to be better organized. Living small means not collecting too much stuff.

Zeiger had the chance to put her small-living skills to the test early in 2012 when she moved to a 600-square-foot one-bedroom unit in Los Angeles.

“I opened up a box, and I swear I had gotten rid of everything inside it before I left New York,” Zeiger says. “It was a box of random items that I thought I had already donated. There’s a pair of shoes that I only wear once a year. There’s a tote bag from a party I attended. These are random things that fall into your life.”

White Plains, N.Y., resident Karen Lee, editor of the Green Living Ideas website and another fan of small homes, says that living small has forced her and her family to simplify their lives. Lee will donate books that she’s read instead of stacking them on shelves, and doesn’t collect souvenirs from family vacations. She’ll pass on the latest gadgets and kitchen appliances if she knows that she has nowhere to store these items.

“I have a husband who likes to throw things out before asking,” Lee says. “The kids don’t want to throw anything out. So we live a constant balancing act.”

While many of the homes featured in small-living books are custom-built for unique situations, anyone can turn a small apartment or house into a versatile and comfortable space.

Susanka is a fan of built-in furniture. For instance, she’ll transform a windowed wall by building storage closets on either side of a window, then installing a window seat with its own storage in between. This creates plenty of storage space without significantly shrinking a room.

“You can’t ever tell that the room has gotten smaller,” she says. “You may have eliminated 10 inches from a room. Your eye barely notices that.”

Staying organized also makes spaces more flexible. In Zeiger’s Brooklyn studio apartment, her office desk doubled as a dining table when guests arrived by simply clearing away her laptop and papers.

Zeiger also says that walls make small living more difficult. Instead, she uses benches or tables as room dividers to turn one living space into two, creating the illusion of more area. A well-placed area rug can perform the same trick, Zeiger says.

But no matter what tricks homeowners take, having the will to part with even cherished items remains the key to living in a small house.

Susanka gives the example of a family that has long kept grandma’s dining room table even though it takes up an entire room of the house and the family rarely uses it. Susanka recommends holding a final, formal family dinner at the table and then donating the piece.

“Think of it as a rite of passage,” Susanka says. “Letting go is so important. By having a sort of formal goodbye for a piece of furniture, it makes letting it go that much easier.”

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