The Skinny on Narrow Homes

By David Ferguson

July 27, 2016

There is no disputing that newly-built homes in North America are smaller than they once were.


Since at least 2007, features that we had become used to seeing on floor plans – the walk-in closet, the open hallway and large landing, even the formal living room – have begun to disappear or get coupled with other functions.

Larger homes on smaller lots have become one of many design challenges affecting new home construction. When height restrictions are not too strict, builders will build higher. Sometimes, livable space can be carved out of areas previous delegated to storage in basements and attics.  When permitted, buildings will appear right up to the property line.

On lots where once eight homes might have been built, 10 are now planned. Developers suggest that building smaller homes is a way of making real estate more affordable. The new, smaller home costs less to construct, therefore they can sell for less. As well, a smaller home may be less costly to operate.


Whatever your feelings are on these incredible, shrinking new homes, urban centres are running out of space, so they are here to stay.

Of course small homes are not a new phenomenon, not even in our part of the world. Garden homes and townhouses have been around for years. For more than 40 years, clever home designers have been adapting these types of homes to suit urban infill, resulting in interesting residential laneways, cul-de-sacs and mews.

The subject of this week’s column is the main floor of a townhouse owned by long-time clients. About 25 years ago, we renovated the space to reflect their life at the time. Then, the couple were both busy professionals with adult children and a hectic social life. Their home was only a few years old, so most of the work was cosmetic, designed to make their home life easier.

To help do that, we installed built-in cabinets in the living room and family room; new wood flooring to replace the carpet, and beautiful slate tile for the entrance and powder room; custom window and door mouldings; and all new furniture, lighting and accessories throughout the ground floor.

july-24-3d-illustration-2Since that time, only a few things have been changed, most notably: the computer station that I designed into a living room cabinet has disappeared; the “shabby chic” curtains have been replaced with remote control blinds and the stunning Persian rug that we purchased for the living room was put in storage as their menagerie of stunning Persian cats took over.

At the time, the layout seemed reasonable, so there was little reason to change it. The windowless galley kitchen was not ideal for two people who love to cook, but it was adequate; the dining room was too narrow to logically accommodate a both a sideboard and a table, but we somehow managed. The Corinthian columns holding up the floor above seemed a bit dated even then, but we preferred to think of them as quirky.

And while we can justify just about anything this narrow townhouse has to offer, there is no denying that the space is looking tired, and it no longer works as well for this now-retired couple who spend most of their leisure time at home in the kitchen when they are not travelling the world.

The time has come to bring back the easy-living, elegant home that we had originally envisioned, and tweak the floor plan following a new set of guidelines.

  1. Where ever possible, hallways and corridors should be minimized. Where space is limited, transitional spaces should be integrated into each space, or they should be arranged to serve double-duty. In space planning, corridors should be as small and short as possible so as to not be noticed.

july-24-illustration-4However, any narrow home will inevitably have some type of long, skinny hallway. Instead of leaving it naked and drab, add drama in the form of interesting or unusual casement mouldings, dark-toned paint, eye-catching artwork, or a console table featuring interesting art objects. Elements like these will distract from the space’s size and shape.

In our home, one corridor that was created from the kitchen and dining room to the staircase leading to a finished basement (where the current pantry is located), takes on a second job as the new and more convenient pantry location.

  1. The return of the Great Room. In medieval times, great castles and mansions had one room where everything happened. In the 70’s and 80’s, architects reintroduced this concept as a means of making every square inch of space count. The current variation usually shows one large, open space integrating the kitchen, dining and living room. That spatial triumvirate is hinted at, but not fully instituted here.

Because of its high importance as a place for family and friends to congregate, the formal dining room has maintained a strong presence, while casual dining and light meals could be taken in a dining space created next to the kitchen.

  1. Where you can, “borrow” space from other areas. The narrow end wall of the dining room, which is shared with the staircase, is made to look wider with a single wall treatment of fashionable wallpaper.

july-24-3d-illustration-1Similarly, on the living room side, both that space and the kitchen eat-in area have a common colour, flooring and window treatment, all used to make the two narrow spaces read as one large space.

  1. Don’t underestimate storage needs. Whenever overall space is minimal, it is so important to have as much storage space as you can muster. In the kitchen, you can maximize it a slim pull-out pantry that accommodates small appliances so you can leave the rest of the cabinets for the essentials.

Our kitchen island is built to be a food preparation space on one side with plenty of drawers to stash tools out of the way under the counter, and provides ample space to house the couple’s collection of rare books behind glass, on the other side.

  1. Always allow plenty of breathing room. Create a space that will allow light and air to move freely throughout. If at all possible, add windows and/or skylights for maximum sunlight. In general, an airier feeling will make any space feel larger. It would have been easy to separate the space in half with a solid wall segregating the dining room, but the openness overtakes any feeling of crampedness.

july-24-illustration-3In general, keep any narrow space clean, organized, and easily accessible. Narrow rooms are no place for clutter, but they should be set up to match the user’s needs.

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