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The Small Bedroom Philosophy

by Nic Darling on October 14, 2008 · 21 comments

in architecture,Design,Philosophy

“The big house represents the atomizing of the American family . . . Each person not only has his or her own television — each person has his or her own bathroom. Some of these houses are literally designed with three playrooms for two children. This way, the family members rarely have to interact. And the notion of compromise is simply out one of the very many windows these houses sport.”

- John Stilgoe, Harvard University from an article on

The average American home has doubled in size in the last fifty years while at the same time the number of people living in each of these homes has decreased drastically. The square footage per person in the average household has effectively tripled (a conservative estimate), and with it have grown the scope and quantity of bedrooms, bathrooms and other “personal spaces”. Along with the expansion in size has come an increase in amenities. Bedrooms, and even bathrooms, are equipped with televisions, refrigerators, microwaves, couches and other features once confined to the shared living areas of a home. The bedrooms in particular have become insular living spaces, homes within homes, from which family members need only emerge on the rarest of occasions.

Now, I am not a sociologist, psychologist or any other type of ologist, but there are some potential effects of this sort of living situation that seem immediately obvious to me.  Decreased interaction between household members seems inevitable. This includes both positive and negative interactions, both fun and fights so to speak. The ability to retreat into a private space without sacrifice decreases the opportunity for important learned behaviors like compromise, negotiation and sharing. Even a simple discussion about what television program to watch is full of potentially important interactions.

In the same way that the move to suburbia, by which I mean a move away from towns, villages and cities, has increased the isolation of families from their communities, the increase in private space within the home has increased the family members’ isolation from one another. I can only speculate what effect this might have on both childhood development and the interrelationships between each individual, but common sense seems to suggest a degradation of certain important socialization skills and an increased ability to avoid issues with which one might have previously been forced to deal.

The small bedroom philosophy is an effort to encourage more interaction in the common space of the home. This philosophy assumes that the main purposes of the bedroom involve sleep, clothing storage and dressing. The size and the amenities of the bedrooms are designed around that functionality. This is not to say that a bedroom couldn’t offer a place of retreat and solitude, but rather that it should serve only temporarily as such. The bulk of living should be done outside of the bedrooms, with the other members of the home.

Again, I have very little support for some of the tenets of this argument apart from a sort of logical progression. I will, for the sake of those of you out there interested in this sort of thing, work on gathering some academic support for what I have written. This is what I would call a “starter idea” as are many of the concepts I will be writing about here. It is an idea we like very much, that feels right, but it isn’t completely formed or supported. It is, like our homes, not yet completely built.

Please help me build and refine this idea in the comments. If there is something I should read, tell me about it. If there is someone I should talk to, point them out. Your comments have helped us immensely in the design of our homes. Now, help us with the solidification of our ideas. Comment away.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

There also isn't much conversation to be had here . . . at least not with us. So come on over to the Postgreen Homes Blog and tell us what you think of our new(ish) digs and crazy ideas. We will be sure to tell you what we think of your opinion.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Isolation and the Deterioration of Socialization . . . Oh My | 100K House Blog
September 23, 2009 at 6:02 pm
Postgreen Homes Concept: Three Bedrooms in 16 Feet? | 100K House Blog
February 10, 2010 at 5:06 pm

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 morgan October 14, 2008 at 6:09 pm

word. that is why we don’t even have WALLS.

2 Asa October 14, 2008 at 6:37 pm

My parents’ house was designed with a lot of input from the classic book “A Pattern Language”, which discusses many such issues. They similarly have relatively small bedrooms (it’s a relatively small house), and drive social interaction into the public space (plus an “away room”).

3 lavardera October 14, 2008 at 7:50 pm

Hallways are also typically regarded as wasteful in a floor plan. I’d counter that a longer hallway can create the experience of greater distance between rooms making a house feel “larger” which can become more important as you strive to reduce the size of bedrooms.

This is a tough nut to crack. This size thing has become greatly ingrained in consumers. Bedroom size ranks right up there with uselessly high ceilings, and 3 car garages.

4 Tim October 14, 2008 at 7:55 pm

I recently visited and considered buying a house designed by architect Fay Jones. It’s a house many consider to be a masterpiece mid-century ranch home. I ultimately couldn’t afford the asking price of $300 per square foot, but I took note of some things.

The house was 2,000 square feet. Built around 1955, that was a fairly big house at the time. Now it’s considered small. I was immediately struck by the generous living, kitchen and connection to outdoor space, and then by how small the bedrooms were. They were small, but very functional… built in desks and storage and great windows to the outdoor space. The master was very small by today’s standards, but surrounded on three sides by glass, nestling right in the woods around it. It occurred to me standing in it that it was a different kind of big and a different kind of small — a kind of role reversal, I guess.

Here’s what really interested me, though — my wife and my 10-year-old daughter immediately loved that house. They walked in and remarked how it felt like a real home, and my daughter loved the small bedrooms in spite of the fact that hers in our current house (a mid-90s developer spec house) is nearly twice the size.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about this very issue as I begin designing my own house, and your post gave me some new things to consider.

It wasn’t really a consideration in 1955 when Fay Jones designed that house, but now this is a sustainability issue. The smaller our houses, the less energy they use.

But I don’t think I’d really considered the impact on my family’s interaction and the social skills of my children until reading your post. I certainly will be thinking about it now.

I wish I were an anthropologist or psychologist who could contribute something more meaningful to this discussion. As I embark on the design of our new house, I have posed the question to our friend and architect Marlon Blackwell — ‘How big does our house really need to be?’ I think in answering that question as honestly as possible we’re going to learn some things that may help me add to the discussion.

5 joshuadf October 14, 2008 at 8:03 pm

Two academics with very accessible popular books and websites come to mind:

Robert Putnam: You may have heard of his essay “Bowling Alone” or the inspirational followup book _Better Together_.

John Gottman: Decades of rigorous academic work on relationships, latest books include _Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage_ and _And Baby Makes Three_.

6 Janis D. October 14, 2008 at 9:19 pm

I am kicking myself now for not remember when and where I saw this information.. It was either in Sweden or Japan.. or maybe Iceland (yes, I know.. I am being very helpful), there was a conversation about the child development. A big part of this discussion was about the role of the spaces that kids inhabit. One proposal (or perhaps the general practice) in this country is to create tiny small bedrooms, at times even without windows, for the purpose of sleeping. That way kids from the early age are conditioned to understand that bedroom is indeed that – a bedroom; a place where one sleeps. The consequence of this conscious design choice is a condition where everyone in the family is pulled together into common areas like living room and kitchen at all other times when they are not sleeping.

One of the critiques was directed towards the design of these bedrooms as being too dark and depressing. The answer was that they are dark and depressing only for activities that require light and .. get this.. being awake. In fact, the argument was that for sleeping and resting, these rooms are absolutely perfect.

I wish I could be more specific. Nevertheless, the idea intrigued me. Coming from a background where all activities growing up happened in our living room and where I did not really ever have my own room, it has always made me wonder how kids in North America take these large spaces for granted. It is also interesting to me to see how in movies they show those kids rooms with large “STOP” signs on them with doors that can be locked. And then I recently visited a house where in addition to having countless rooms and some very large spaces, I was surprised by a master bedroom that was approximately 60m2!

I would not go as far as to say that one model is better than the other. What I do wonder about, though, is the practicality of using spaces like these. While I am not sure if I would have wanted to have a tiny dark bedroom as a kid, I do know that as an adult, I do not need or want a bedroom where I can literally ride around on my bike.

Again, I am sorry I do not have the specifics on this… It does not make the fact any less true, though :)

7 Jen October 15, 2008 at 4:57 am

I want to second Asa’s recommendation on gathering ideas from “A Pattern Language”. There are great concepts about how designs impact how people interact with each other and the spaces they occupy. It covers community design to bedroom placement in single family houses. I believe they even cover the benefits of sleeping nooks (space that fits a bed and has a curtain for privacy).
On a more practical note, my husband and I currently have a very modest sized 2 bedroom ranch and use the smaller of the 2 bedrooms for our bedroom. Its about 10*11 and just big enough to fit a queen size bed, nightstands on either side of the bed and 2 dressers. It’s definitely cozy, but well utilized space. Growing up and in my single days I had bedrooms twice the size, and didn’t think I could survive in such a small room, but it is really a more practical use of space and leaves more square footage for the common areas. And did I say the bedroom was cozy too.

8 Nic Darling October 15, 2008 at 1:56 pm

It looks like I already have a few good ideas of where to spend the Amazon gift card I was given recently. Thanks for the recommendations.

Tim – I love “different kind of big and a different kind of small.” I may steal that someday.

I am placing calls into a couple local University’s sociology, architecture and psychology departments in hopes of finding someone who is currently thinking about this issue. I know it isn’t a new idea, but hopefully it is still alive somewhere in academia. With any luck I’ll be able to bring a new perspective soon.

For now I wonder . . . what kind of bedroom situation did you grow up in? How would you self-diagnose the effects of that living space?

9 Tim October 15, 2008 at 2:05 pm

I grew up sharing a room with my younger brother… bunk beds, and not a very big room. I never thought of it as any kind of issue that I didn’t have my own room. It was just how it was. I wonder, statistically, how many kids share rooms these days. My two daughters each have their own room and I’m not really sure why we’ve never had them share. I think we felt we were giving them something we didn’t have, but this topic of discussion makes me wonder if that was the best choice.

10 Ryan October 15, 2008 at 2:09 pm

I would recommend the book “The Great Good Place” by sociologist Ray Oldenburg. Although it doesn’t speak directly to the size/layout of bedrooms or even our homes for that matter it focuses on the social issues generated by ‘placelessness’ that is the result of the modern day suburb. It speaks to the importance of “thrid places” (i.e. the pub, coffe shop, etc.) as crucial to our social well being and the overall health of a community. A healthy community values the public spaces of the city and the home above the private spaces – all you have to do is compare our urban fabric to that of any European city. The more we value our private property and the consumer luxuries ingrained in it, the less we value our common ground and the more fractured our social relationships become.

11 Ryan October 15, 2008 at 2:19 pm

As for the idea being alive in academia, it is a cornerstone of academic thought and theory in any area of urban study (sociology, architecture, urban design, etc.), it has just failed to be properly translated to a large portion of the general public – MTV and the Hills win out.

12 Rob October 15, 2008 at 2:54 pm

I will have to agree that “A Pattern Language” is just seminal. ” The Hidden Dimension” is also an interesting book, albeit 50 years old. And finally “The Poetics of Space” is wonderful book about the phenomenolgy of space.

13 kirby grimes October 15, 2008 at 6:06 pm

interesting; all this reminds me of
2nd year 1968
same talk, same books
HENRY SANOFF look him up at
ncsu school of design.
PROGRAMING is where it’s at.
your tooo idealistic, trust me iv’e been there.
if you want to ‘sell’ an idea, attack w/cost analysis
but listen to the ‘client’s’ needs.
young and trendy is fine for young and trendy
viable low cost housing is
born out of low income needs.
no basement big mistake.

14 Nic Darling October 15, 2008 at 8:42 pm

Thanks Kirby. I will take a look at Sanoff. While this isn’t exactly the right post for this discussion (see our very first posts for that one), I am curious as to what your basement requirement is based on. Storage space? Something else?

I would also be hesitant to call our housing low income but again it’s a bit out of context for our current discussion. Would love to hear more of your thoughts though. Send me an email at

And to everyone else . . . I am ordering Pattern Language today and The Poetics of Space (thanks Rob) appeals to me on title alone.

15 Rob October 17, 2008 at 2:29 pm

I grew up in a 1920′s brick rowhouse in Lancaster, PA. It had 3 bedrooms and 1 bath. The house was a corner house (like the 120K house), and my bedroom was in the back corner. I had two windows, one to the side street which allowed long views up the neighboring alley, and one window out the back, with views of our backyard, my Dads workshop, and the alley and parking lot beyond. Having the two windows was great because they made my room the most comfortable room in the house. It got excellent cross breezes all summer long.

My room was probably 7′-8′ wide by 9′-10′ long, seemingly small by todays standards. But back then it seemed more than adequate. I had bunk beds, a toy box, a dresser, a shelf, and small built in closet. My bedroom was always full, yet it never felt cramped.

16 lavardera October 17, 2008 at 5:52 pm

I hope we have a generation of people who would feel a bedroom that size is satisfactory. Its becoming more and more obvious that this is where we need to go, this is a responsible value to possess and promote.

17 Janis D. October 17, 2008 at 7:42 pm

I grew up in Riga, Latvia. I lived in a 100m2 (roughly 1000sf) house with a garden. We had 3 rooms (+ kitchen, washroom (no WC there) and a toilet) out of which one was my mom and dad’s bedroom, one was my sister’s (she is quite a bit older than me) and one living room. There was also a glass enclosed veranda (sunroom?) on one side of the house which was my room in the summers. In the winter it was sealed off and I slept in the living room which in the day had no sign of it being used for sleeping. I did not really have much stuff when I think of it. I had my bike which I was fixing outdoors and other smaller things like toy trains and what not, but I do not ever remember having an actual big shelf for all those things. Outdoor stuff stayed in the shed or in the veranda and the indoor stuff just was not really there. I did a lot of drawing, but that does not really take any space and it was something I would do in the living room. All the activities I took part in, happened all around the house. When I was reading, it was either in my parent’s bed, or maybe on the floor in the living room, or in the kitchen, or outside on the terrace. When I was playing with my trains or making car or house models, it was all over on the floors and on the tables wherever. Haha – I was actually a neat kid, so it does not mean it was all messy.

Also, I do not really remember a time when I would be all alone. As a family, we did tons of things together and there were always trips, or shows, or stuff to do outside in the yard or elsewhere. I spent large part of my time in the summers at my grand parents in the country, we also tried to travel and go to various outdoor events like concerts, opera, and what not. So, while house was surely important, it was not necessarily the center of my life all the time. Most importantly, I never really felt that I was missing something by not having a separate room. Also, even though all rooms were some 200sf in size, they did not really feel small. The same goes for our house. In fact, these 1000sf seemed very large for all that we did!

18 Nic Darling October 17, 2008 at 8:39 pm

I really like these stories. Even though they certainly don’t count as a scientific survey, I think such anecdotes prove that there is a population with happy childhoods spent in smaller spaces. I was one myself.

We were somewhat nomadic renters for much of my childhood and this gave me the experience of living in a variety of spaces with my parents, sister and brother (and later two more brothers). One apartment was a single room, kitchen and bathroom that couldn’t have totaled more than 500 sq. ft. Fortunately we were only there for a couple months. For 5 people there is such a thing as too small.

The house I spent the most time in and remember best was an old farm house that, even in my memory, seemed huge at 2500 sq. ft. (some of which was seasonal space), and yet, with my big family and the various people that lived with us from time to time, I nearly always shared a bedroom. This never seemed odd or uncomfortable to me. The air in the bedrooms was also pretty much unconditioned so in the summer we were outside or in the relatively cool downstairs, and in the winter we were in the living room with the kerosene heater.

There’s some of my story. I feel fortunate for growing up like I did. I was lucky enough to have a close loving family and siblings who I didn’t mind sharing space with . . . most of the time. Is it perfect for everyone? No, but I think there are enough of us to justify building some smaller bedrooms and homes.

19 Kris December 4, 2010 at 1:03 am

Most of my childhood (age 8 onward) was in a fairly large house. 4 BR, 3.5 bathrooms, large LR, decent size kitchen/DR, a family room, and mudroom. My sister and I shared a room, my brother had the smaller room next to us, and the walkout basement had a guest room and my parent’s room. The guest room had a steady stream of people from al around the world (Japan, Norway, Wales, Australia, China, to name a few). We entertained a ton…square dances, outdoor party for July 4th, cookie bakes, etc. It was a very warm, family oriented upbringing. I should note, we only ever had 1 TV which was rarely on more than 30-60 minutes a day. As children, we spent entire days outside running through the wooded acres abutting our suburban lot. I feel very lucky to have grown up where I did.

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