Space saving

How to live large in your bijou dwelling with clever space planning and transformable furniture.

Bigger is no longer necessarily better when it comes to house buying. In fact, a ‘less is more’ approach is gaining momentum as people choose to purchase smaller properties, stay put rather than move, and downsize before they get to retirement age. 

International trends

Financial and environmental concerns are increasing the demand for smaller dwellings, and as diminishing resources, a growing population and increased urbanisation feed into a housing crisis at a global level, we are seeing the introduction of the concept of micro-apartments that address (in part) the accommodation shortages in cities. 


If you thought the newly introduced ROI apartment sizes were small, consider that these microapartments are less than half that, starting at 20sqm! Planning exemptions have been secured to build them.

In terms of design they draw inspiration from yacht interiors and compensate for their reduced size by offering communal areas (outdoor space, gym, etc.).

Appealing to students, singles and young professionals looking to enjoy the benefits of city living at affordable prices, these pint sized apartments are increasing in popularity in England and abroad though it remains to be seen whether ‘micro’ will go big in Ireland.

Equally, small houses have been gaining in popularity since the start of the Tiny House movement in the United States and the more recent showcasing of small structures on the TV design series Amazing Spaces and Grand Designs. 

Attractive to a wide age group and demographic, from young couples who don’t want a 30-year mortgage to an older generation of homeowners who want to downsize, small houses can offer a simpler way of life for many. 

Not only for use as homes, these small structures can be used equally well as a garden office, guest bedroom, workshop, gym or den and combat a common cause of dissatisfaction amongst time-starved, modern-day homeowners – a lack of personal space; a complaint often sparked by a change in circumstances: growing family, relatives and friends coming to stay, a burgeoning home business or just too much stuff!


Minimalist design

An overcrowded home can arise not only from the number of family members but from mismanaged space. Evaluating your square footage, in the context of both your current and future needs, both holistically and on a room by room basis, will inform the design brief and determine your space requirements.

Based on your needs you may consider remodelling and / or extending in which case it would be wise to seek professional advice.

To start with, think of your daily life as a sequence of events: washing, dressing, eating, working, relaxing, sleeping, etc., each making varying demands on space at different times of day. 

Indeed, managing living requirements is challenging enough in a large house but when space is limited, rooms have to multi-function. Small house dwellers boast that they can house everything including the kitchen sink within 20sqm – with clever planning and transformable furniture they can!

However, just as the neessity for multi-functionality varies according to individual requirements, certain rooms in a house (by nature of their location) will lend themselves to their proposed use better than others; a ground floor room conversion would better suit the requirements of an elderly person than one at first floor level and the conversion of a roof space (as long as it meets regulatory requirements for habitable space) or a garage (if available) can be suitable for almost any use: self-contained apartment / office / playroom or gym.


Golden rule: natural light It is important to remember that all interiors benefit from natural light and good design will make the most of this invaluable resource. In a small space natural light is an absolute must and the more you have the better the space will feel. To maximise the effect know that any colour or surface that reflects light, such as white or a glass / gloss finish, will make a space appear larger. Equally, using wall hung / floating furniture, in the case of bedside cabinets, for example, and raised furniture or furniture with legs, particularly chairs, sofas and ottomans, will make rooms feel larger.

Ride the tidy tide: declutter A prerequisite of efficient living, especially in small spaces, is letting go of superfluous items. Knowing we only use 20% of what we have 80% of the time, most of us would agree that we can live happy and healthy lives with a lot less than we might at first think. But while small may be beautiful, it is not everyone’s choice or inclination. A starting point for many is to carry out a small declutter and adopt the one in, one out rule. You should soon feel the benefits and this may help you get rid of more of the non-essentials.

Go storage mad: look in every nook and cranny To make the most of all available space try to incorporate storage wherever you can; under the stairs, in fireside alcoves and if constructing a non-load bearing / stud wall, think about whether it can house storage, generally anything with thickness has potential. 

Another space saving technique that helps use every inch of the room from floor to ceiling is layering; for instance the sleeping area might include a platform bed with a desk or closet space beneath or a storage space could be created by adding an extra layer near the ceiling or under an elevated floor.

Transformable furniture

Transformable furniture has been around for millennia; a folding chair from the Bronze Age is on exhibit in the National Museum of Denmark. More recent designs (relatively speaking) include the library chair with folding steps (first designed by Benjamin Franklin from 1760 -1780), the Murphy Bed or ‘in-a-door’ bed (invented by the American, William Lawrence Murphy in 1900) and of course the classic drop-leaf / gate leg table dating back to the late 16th century amongst others.

Re-imagined over the years, demand for these designs and space saving furniture of all kinds has increased: transformable, collapsible, fold away, built-in, modular, etc. 

Heralded by the recession and ensuing credit crunch consumers now look for products that offer more for less. Furniture designers are finding success with innovative space saving solutions to reduce the footprint that large pieces (such as beds, wardrobes and tables) occupy and providing inventive multifunctional uses for smaller furniture pieces.


Built-in furniture For maximum efficiency and minimum clutter, built-in furniture provides the best space saving solution as it can house anything from beds to pull down tables. With each appliance or piece of furniture fitted behind a panel or door, built-in furniture can be configured to function in different modes, to be hidden or revealed as the need arises. Clever hidden hydraulic mechanisms work effortlessly to ensure that transformations are easy and seamless.

The sofa bed An all-time design classic of multi-functional furniture is the sofa bed; its primary use is a sofa but once opened it turns into somewhere to sleep, making a bed available at short notice. Additionally, by transforming a living room into a bedroom, the sofa bed provides the perfect sleeping accommodation for guests, particularly in one-bedroom apartments.

The fold-up wall bed / Murphy bed As a neat alternative to its in-situ counterpart, the fold-up wall bed / Murphy bed has been quietly making a resurgence in recent years as a growing number of interior projects are installing upscale wall beds that can transform into a sofa, dining table, desk, book shelf or storage unit. Whether you are furnishing a children’s room, studio apartment or house, these beds are a great alternative when you want to eliminate the need for a dedicated guest bedroom.

The pull-out bed If you are converting your roof space, consider installing pull out single beds in the awkward and often redundant eaves space, this will provide optional sleeping accommodation for guests without impinging on floor space during the day when the area is used for other purposes. 

Remember that a structural engineer should always be consulted before carrying out any modifications to your roof structure.

The daybed Most of these consist of sofas that are large and comfortable enough to sleep on, with the option of storage underneath. A variation on the theme is a sofa with pull-out bed camouflaged underneath to look like a drawer. 

The futon Based on traditional Japanese bedding (consisting of a combination of padded mattresses and quilts pliable enough to be folded and stored away during the day) the western version based on the Japanese original is usually placed on a configurable frame for dual purpose as a chair or couch. 

The gate leg table As the sides of the table can be folded down it’s a good answer for small homes that lack the space to set up a long table permanently. Conveniently, some gate leg tables incorporate drawers in which you can store cutlery, napkins, coasters, placemats etc.  

Happily, a number of pull out, pull down, extending, folding and dual-use dining solutions have been designed to suit most spaces. The most ingenious are those that are encased in the wall to provide a completely flush finish or those that parade as an entirely different piece of furniture such as a coffee table or wall mirror.


Extendable tables Small console tables measuring less than half a metre can be extended with modern materials (one manufacturer uses an aluminum telescoping mechanism) to nearly 3m in length, comfortably seating 10 people when required. Coffee tables can be transformed into dining tables in a similar fashion. 

Nesting tables Nesting tables are hard-working sets that save floor space when you need it, but can provide additional table surfaces when necessary. These handy arrangements are great to use as side tables, coffee tables, and even nightstands.

Foldable and stackable chairs There is an abundance of foldable and stackable chairs; being easy to store (pile or hang) they are always in demand when unexpected guests arrive! Still in production and on exhibit at the Vitra Museum in Germany are designs that we have all come to know: the famous Plia folding chair by Giancarlo Piretti (1968) and the Hardoy Chair by Grupo Austal (1930) for example.

Part of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) permanent collection is David Rowlands 40/4 stacking chair which is regarded as one of the most useful – and cheapest – chairs ever made.

Functional seating Collapsible and portable chairs are alternatives to the foldable and stackable. Add wheels and you’ll magically transform them into baby buggies and wheelchairs to provide transport (at times indispensable) for people of all ages and stages.

Ottomans Packing big functionality into small spaces, window seats, bench seats and ottomans punch well above their weight when it comes to storage, housing anything from sports equipment to Christmas trees, duvet covers and toys.

Doubling up as coffee table, bed, seating or storage, the ottoman is an excellent example of a multi-functional item of furniture. One clever cube design parading as an ottoman houses five seats while another even transforms into a bed!

With the increasing availability and quality of multi-functional furniture addressing the limitations commonly associated with small space living, more people are choosing to have less and cash in on the environmental and financial benefits. Rethinking our lifestyle post-recession, could it be that we now value freedom over possessions and that less really does mean more?

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Caroline Irvine

About Caroline Irvine

Caroline is an Architect from Dun Laoghire, County Dublin. You can get in contact with Caroline by visiting her website or on Mobile 087 2987401

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