Less is more in confined space

23:01, Jul 17 2012

I hesitate to call this my Walden Pond Period, but for the last few months I've been discovering the charms and challenges of living in a small space with as few possessions as possible.

My home during the week is a loft-like space, 4.5 metres wide by 8.5m long, built on a hillside above the parking platform which serves the big old home to which my eyrie belongs.

There's a dormer window set in each of the long sides of the space and french doors at either end. One set of doors is only a few flax bushes away from the road which winds on up the hill: I can hear dog walkers chatting as they toil up the slope.

The other doors open on to a grander vista. To the right, the bush-clad hills of the Grampians rise from the Matai Valley, to the left is the marina, the Boulder Bank and the sea.

I did not begin this one-room life with the high-minded intentions of Henry Thoreau, who in 1845 decided to live simply in the woods in a one-room cabin and “to front” thereby, "only the essential facts of life". I just wanted an affordable way to combat the isolation I felt living full time in the country.

Unlike Thoreau, who left his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, I moved towards town and more society, not away from it.


Compared with Thoreau's 3m-wide, 4.5m-long cabin, which contained only a bed, desk, chair and fireplace, my room is spacious and well furnished.

I have a bed, a table to work on, a table to eat from, a chest of drawers, and a bookshelf. Dividing my sleeping space from my working space is a kitchen bench with a sink, a very small fridge and a microwave.

I have a few narrow shelves and drawers to store plates and cutlery, dry foods, a teapot, toaster and rice cooker.

For my ablutions and serious cooking I need only head down a pebbled path through the garden to the big house which is shared with others on a principle that is perhaps best described as independent and collaborative living with heart.

Compared with modern house sizes, my 38 square metres seem very small indeed.

In 1976, the average new house had a floor area of 121 square metres. By 2006, the average floor area of a new house was 209sqm.

The Building Research Association of New Zealand reports that New Zealanders add 7500 new garages, 3000 bedrooms, 3000 bathrooms and 1750 ensuites to their homes each year.

The modern ensuite is often bigger than the whole bedroom of a 1940s state house.

In the United States, the term McMansion has been coined to describe a boom in gigantic houses with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, extravagantly high ceilings, two-storyed fireplaces and formal staircases.

Interior designers have found a new niche advising on echo reduction and ways to make cavernous houses feel more cosy.

One such designer comments that at first, McMansion buyers are “thrilled with all the space” at their disposal, but “then they're panic stricken, for they can't deal with that much house”.

Among the advice she offers is the installation of massive oversized couches and chairs to match the scale of their new homes.

After buying such monstrous pieces of furniture, unwary owners of more modest homes often discover that they can't get them into the house, or that a coffee table that weighs 130 kilograms is difficult to move when you're vacuuming.

It seems that even big houses aren't big enough. A parallel boom in the self-storage business suggests that we need even more room in which to keep all our stuff.

The US Self Storage Association estimates that if the roofing of all the self-storage units in the US wa combined, the entire US population could stand under it.

To live successfully in my own version of Thoreau's hut without going crazy, I have had to severely curb my instinct for hunter-gathering. “Less is more, less is more” I must chant to myself as I browse through the op shops.

On the other hand, I have had to give my obsessive compulsivity a completely free rein.

I have adopted the strict aesthetic of the submariner: within the narrow confines of my room my mantra becomes: "A place for everything and everything in its place".

Although Katharine Whitehorn focused on the special challenges of cooking in confined spaces in her 1961 guide, Cooking in a Bedsit, she describes exactly the difficulty of doing anything well in a small space: "It's a problem of finding somewhere to put down the fork while you take the lid off the saucepan, and finding somewhere else to put the lid". Or allowing extra time "to find the salt stored in the suitcase under the bed".

One certainly becomes adept at exploiting every nook and cranny for storage, finding multiple uses for the same object, and keeping things out of sight when not using them.

It's a knack which can be hard to shake off. I had friends who lived in a full-sized house that had been built by a caravan enthusiast. It was full of cupboards jammed into the most unlikely places, tables that folded down quite unnecessarily, and benches that concealed things like flour bins and gumboots.

I suspect that my equanimity during this, my Walden Pond Period, is only possible because most of my possessions - every much-loved but inessential item - still reside in the country, where I visit them every weekend.

I don't feel too bad about this because for all his reputation as a hermit, Thoreau held soirees for 30 guests in his little hut, and every now and then, he strolled the few kilometres from Walden to Concord, for a cuppa with his mum.