Adaptable//Sustainable: Setting up a Shared Home Office

Part 8 in the series “Adaptable//Sustainable: DIY Home Adaptation//Remaking Your Space to Work for You.”
One of the things I’m most passionate about in design and in my own reading and writing is sharing spaces and items. A great summary and update of the sharing movement, “The New Sharing Economy: A Study by Latitude in Collaboration with Shareable Magazine) can be found here (warning, it’s a PDF, but well worth opening), from the online magazine Shareable: Sharing by Design.
DIY Home Adaptation has been about thinking of your space in a different way and utilizing it the way that works best for you, not just how the rooms are labeled on a floor plan. Simplifying your home to include only what you need can open up space and possibilities. This idea for setting up for sharing space fits in multiple categories under the Adaptable//Sustainable banner: casual cohousing, DIY home adaptation and grassroots retrofits.
One room with so much possibility for sharing is a garage. Unless you live in place with very harsh winters, do your cars really need a bigger room than your bedroom? The area of a two car garage can be 25% of the average home.
Along with ear plugs and headphones, one of the cheapest ways to “remodel” your house is to purchase a remote keyless entry, which you can do for under $50, to start your car from inside the house on a cold day. For under $200, you can purchase a storage shed for the backyard to hold outdoor and sports gear.
A garage is an ideal place for a shared community office. It’s private and separated from the rest of the house, usually with its own entry. The ideal situation would be to have a powder room close by in the house. No one can agree on the temperature in an office anyway, so personal fans and space heaters can be used in lieu of central heat and air.
Getting a garage in shape for an office will take some work, but not a full on remodel-some insulation in the walls, drywall and paint. Add sweat equity from those who will be sharing the office, and you can do it in a weekend (and as soon as a phone line can be hooked up).
More and more people are working from home, and having a shared community office offers many of the advantages of working from home without many of the disadvantages, the main one (in my opinion) being isolation. Internet connection, phone lines (a business line can be a huge expense for small businesses), printers, scanner, fax machine and office supplies (ordering in bulk cheaply), and conference table can all be shared. Also, very small businesses can share an admin person that they may not otherwise be able to afford. The advantages of working from home are in tact: no commute (except a walk to the neighbor’s house), casual working environment, flexibility, saving money on commercial rent.
As with most sharing solutions, there are many possibilities of how to handle the financial aspect. This could be a great way for the homeowner to earn some extra income from rent, and it would still be more affordable than standard office space for the other participants. A co-op could be formed among members, and one person could offer their garage as neighborhood storage for shared items such as tools, or as a neighborhood workshop.
These ideas can of course be applied to other rooms besides the garage, the most ideal being a rarely-used formal living or dining space, usually ideally located at the front of the house by the entry way.
Further Reading:
  • The Sharing Solution, by Janelle Orsi and Emily Doskow, both lawyers. This book gives practical advice on sharing everything from cars to houses.

Adaptable//Sustainable: Adding Kids’ Bedrooms

Part 6 in the series “Adaptable//Sustainable: DIY Home Adaptation//Remaking Your Space to Work for You.”

Until I was nine years old, we lived in a small cape cod that was originally two bedrooms with an attic. My parents converted the second bedroom on the first floor to a dining room, and converted the attic into two bedrooms. This meant that the stairs led directly to my little brother’s room, and I had to walk through his room to get to my bedroom. Also, I shared a bedroom all through college.

Thus began my bias of thinking: do all kids need their own rooms, especially considering that the grown-ups share a bedroom? I know, I know, it’s easy for me to say this now, I am not a teenage girl or someone who all they wanted growing up was a room of their own. But when considering the cost of buying a new home or adding on just for sleeping space, the parent’s budget may just have to override a kid’s desire for their own room…or should I say, their own drywall box. There are many ways to ensure that kids have privacy, even if they have to share sleeping space.

 Bunk bed with storage under the Ginger Twin Full bunk bed from

One solution is to turn with largest bedroom into the sleeping space, a different way to think of the bedroom. If you have 3 bedrooms and 4 young kids, you can fit two bunk beds into one bedroom. The other bedroom can house wardrobes for extra storage and clothing, desk for computers and can serve as the play area. As the kids get older, the rooms can then be divided by age. Curtains and sliding doors can be added to bunk beds to allow for privacy. Loft beds can house a mini room underneath, with a chair and bookshelf, also made private by curtains or sliding doors (and headphones).

 A loft bed like the Ikea Tromso provides space for a desk, chair, bookshelf and or dresser below. The space can be made private by adding a heavy curtain or closing out the bottom with painted plywood and sliding doors. 
Kids still need their private space. Consider creating some outdoor sanctuaries if your house is feeling cramped. A tree house is of course a classic example for younger kids. Cluster a few chairs under a canopy or in a gazebo, away from but facing the house, to give kids a place to read, talk on the phone or work on a lap top. Texture the yard with gardens, rockeries, or an outdoor water feature to provide noise buffers and privacy. Add an outdoor fireplace and instantly create another space that can be used most of the year.
 An outdoor fireplace can define an outdoor room or space and give you another room without adding square footage to your house. Coleman 5071-700 Ambient Firelight Propane Fireplace and Table.
Rooms can also be divided with sliding doors, available from Raydoor or the Sliding Door Company. This route is pricier, but still less expensive than adding a room or relocating.

What else do you need in a bedroom? An example of a bed-sized bedroom from Raydoor.
Create a bedroom or media area in the corner of a too-large living area, like this example from the Sliding Door Company

With a little creativity, you can avoid a relocation or a remodel for those few years when you need extra bedrooms, particularly when all the kids are living at home. This season of life may only be a small percentage of the time you spend in your home, and then you are left with empty bedrooms that are likely to end up being musty, rarely used guest rooms that you are paying to heat, cool, and furnish. Making a smaller house with less bedrooms work has financial rewards now and in the future.

Enjoying Summer Without AC

Welcome to Seattle, Summer! This Texas girl is very excited about your enthusiastic appearance this week.

As a matter of personal preference, I loathe air conditioning. Even with 90+ degree temperatures I still would not turn on the AC, much to the dismay my college roommates. So, fortunately, living in Seattle, we don’t have to deal with it much. Our box fan broke three years ago and I still haven’t replaced it. But sometimes (not so much the past few years, but occasionally) it gets so hot here that AC would be nice.

Here are some tips on staying cool without an AC.

  • Be flexible: Change up your routine: eat meals that don’t require the stove or oven (or grill out). Sleep in a cooler room if you can.
  • Turn out the lights: Reduce temperature from incandescent lights. If you don’t mind the light quality, replace incandescent with compact fluorescent (though I would not recommend this for a bedside or couch side table. See my blog post “Are CFL’s a Better Choice?”) Use a reading light that attaches to your book. (The GE Book Light is my favorite, great for camping and car trips too) If bugs aren’t an issue, enjoy a summer night reading under a porch light that’s on anyway and not producing heat inside.
  • Close it up: After surviving the dark winter, we want to soak up all the sunlight we can. But on very hot days, close all of the curtains, shades, mini blinds, and windows in the morning and then open them back up at night. Heavy curtains, blackout shades or sun shades are a great investment. Installing them on the outside is most effective at preventing heat gain, but not usually practical.
  • Install a ceiling fan: Here are some tips from Energy Star on choosing the right size and mounting heights. Remember that ceiling fans cool people, not rooms, so use them when you are in the room.
  • Use a box fan: Place and secure in an open window. A hung window or a slider is best for this. During the hottest times, place the fan facing outward.
  • Use mechanical ventilation: In a newer house, you will have ventilation over the stove and in the bathrooms at a minimum. Use these to suck out the hot air.
  • Create your own AC: Place a bowl of ice in front of your box fan.
  • Cool sheets: This is my own special little “life hack” from summers without AC in Chicago–put your sheets in the freezer for a few minutes before bed. Does not last long but feels great. And, I love my crisp, white, all cotton summer sheets. I swear they stay cooler, even though technically the opposite can be true depending of the quality of the material. Maybe they help me conjure up the mental image of a very cold air-conditioned hotel room.

Book Review Archive: Superbia!: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods

Each Tuesday, I’m posting book reviews that I did in the past for D+A Studio’s blog. I’m doing this because, well, I love to read, and a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews. 

Overall, this is a fun book, easy to read and pleasing to the eye. The authors bring up many great ideas-many I have heard, many new-about how to move the suburbs into the future.  Suburbs have been built based on a world with an endless supply of cheap, abundant oil where no ill effects are caused by car exhaust. I picture Frank Lloyd Wright cruising in an old car around Broadacre City (his vision of spread out houses on large yards). He thought it was perfect, and it might have been if cars had no exhaust, there were no negative externalities related to fuel, and the suburbs were not directly or indirectly linked to modern social ills such as isolation, obesity, sprawl, and personal financial over extension.

They say that the suburbs will probably be rebuilt by “constructive demolition” to make them more dense and efficient, like small towns, since they are not currently built to last. A great quote from Peter Calthorpe, a leader in the New Urbanist movement, sums up our current situation:

“The old suburban dream is increasingly out of sync with today’s culture. Our suburbs are designed around a stereotypical household that is no longer predominant. But we continue to build suburbs as if families were large and had only one breadwinner, as if jobs were all downtown, as if land and energy were endless, and as if another lane on the freeway could end congestion.” (The Next American Metropolis) 

Ideas to create “Superbia” include:

  • Converting one existing garage in the neighborhood for the “recycling coordinator.” One person opens up their garage to store give away items, distributes a list to neighbors (items available/needed), makes trips to the dumpster or has regular garage sales.
  • A community office (could be a converted garage or formal living area), could be next to a community daycare center
  • Use an elderly neighbor’s yard for a community garden or pea-patch: they have their yard taken care of, people living in apartments or who don’t have room can have access to a garden.

These are just a few of the 31 ideas, but I found that this book is much more than just the sum of its parts. Their experience and knowledge in the field of green building and community living shine through, making for an overall engaging read beyond just a list of ideas.

In closing, a goal of their book is that we need to “Start where we are, and do what we can.”

The authors are on the board of directors for the Sustainable Futures Society: Fostering Transitions to a Global, Sustainable Society.

Holiday Cheer in Small Spaces

There will no doubt be no shortage of “green” holiday tips this time of year. I’m expanding on that with some tips on how to celebrate within your green lifestyle–namely, a small living space. Living small doesn’t mean you need to miss out on holiday celebrations.
  • Eating-You don’t have to miss out on hosting that holiday meal just because you have a small space. Use a table with leaves, and store them when not in use. Use folding chairs and card tables that can be stored in clever places. Tables, chairs, and linens can also be rented. Nice linens, candles, and center pieces can dress up any room. If your kitchen is too small for preparations, you can always go the potluck route.
  • Your local Goodwill or thrift store is usually a treasure trove of fun china, serving dishes, and seasonal linens. Save money and go green by buying these rarely used items, well, used.
  • Even in my modestly sized condo, I have to have a tree, but like many multifamily buildings, we do not have yard waste pick up. Lucky for those of us in Seattle, you can take your tree to the transfer station free of charge, usually for about two weeks after Christmas. Or, look for tree-recycling events in your city.
  • If you have a yard, another great option is a living tree, which is smaller (ranging in size from a potted plant to an actual tree). Since it’s alive, you don’t as much of that great smell, but you can replant it in your yard, so after a few years you have your own little tree farm.
  • No room to decorate at all? Enjoy others decorations by visiting department stores, wineries, and hotel lobbies.
  • There’s no need for a permanent guest bedroom. Blow up queen sized air mattresses are a great alternative to a guest bedroom, and take up very little space when not in use. Consolidate kids in one space with a tent or sleeping bags for a fun slumber party. A sofa that folds down into a bed is a great modern alternative to the clunky sofa bed. Don’t let the word “futon” give you a college apartment flashback–the fold down sofas available now are much classier.
  • As much as I love having everyone in one house, paying a higher mortgage or extra rent to have a guest bedroom can be much more expensive than a hotel room a few nights a year for your guests.
  • Short on storage space? Use those flat gift boxes to store lights and decorations in small spaces. Store seasonal items in matching bins above your cabinets or under furniture the rest of the year.
  • This is more along the lines of just a plain old green holiday tip, but I must admit that I am one of those picky people who saves wrapping and tissue paper, ribbons, and gift bags. I even reuse tinsel year after year (I like the old fashioned silver stringy kind, and you have to pick out every bit anyway if you are taking a tree to be recycled). It doesn’t take much space to store these things, and it saves money and helps curb holiday waste.
  • It’s a busy time of year for most, but do some last minute purging now, ahead of spring cleaning. Look for charities that need gently used items, or recycle your computer with a program like InterConnection in Seattle, and you can deduct those from your 2013 taxes if you itemize.

To help others with small spaces, think twice before buying someone a holiday trinket. As the daughter of a preschool teacher, I have seen how many stuffed Santa’s and wooden snowmen my mom gets each year. As thoughtful as they are, these items can be wasteful, have to be stored, and can just turn into clutter, especially if they are not someone’s style. Opt for something like a gift card to a book store, spa or restaurant instead.