Living large in a small house: fitting 10 in a house built for 4

Pour mes lecteurs francophones: Voici une traduction de ma publication “Famille nombreuse de 7 enfants dans maison trop petite”. Vous pouvez trouver la publication originale ici.

The most entertaining part — and it can become an obsession — of owning a blog is to read the site stats, especially the search engine terms summary. For those who are unfamiliar with the technical underbelly of blogging, every time someone lands on my blog following a Google search (or any of the other search engines)  I get a little note in my stats telling me what those searches were. It allows me to make better use of the tags (and change some language, especially in French regarding twins nursing, that tends to attract, ah, er, readers that are not exactely looking for family fare *cough*). All this to say that someone landed on my blog while looking for “Large family with 7 children in house too small”. I was inspired.

Now, by popular demand, I am translating this post. Ok, one person requested. But we’re all about customer service here!

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I do not live in a house too small with my large family. In fact, my house is too large and I dream of designing and building the smallest house a family of 10 can comfortably occupy. When I say that I dream of living in the smallest possible house, what I mean is that I dream of a house I can keep clean. Unlike this one:

My guess is that the owners of this house -- currently being built in my area -- are not the ones cleaning it.

My husband, who has a design hobby, drew a 1,300 sq. ft house for our family inspired by the ideas found in Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House: A Blueprint fot the Way We Really Live. I have no doubt that it is possible to live in a house too small for a family with 7 children. However, what is usually lacking in North American houses is not so much space as well-designed space.

It reminded me of a conversation with a friend. When she and her husband bought their suburban house, they thought “This house is a good size for 3 or 4 children!” She added: “In another country, a mom like me would look at this house and say ‘This house is a good size for 3 or 4 families!'” And the families would probably be bigger!

Big enough for 3 or 4 children or 3 or 4 families?

You can observe the evolution of what is considered an appropriate house-size for a family by moving from the downtown area of most Canadian cities toward the suburbs. I’m always reminded, whenever I see this type of bungalow (below) that they were once considered a good size for 3 or 4 children. They usually have 3 bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen with an eating area and a living-room. The basements were meant as storage, as witnessed by the size of the windows in the foundation: you could not build an insurable bedroom with windows that size. Some houses had single attached garages.

A single family house in 1950-60

In today’s suburb, a single-family home has two storeys, a finished (or finishable) basement, a kitchen with eating area, a dining room,  a family room, a living room, 4 bedrooms and a double garage. And yet, several features show that these houses were built for families of 4 and can feel cramped for a large family. Even in our too-large house, we  redesigned some areas to make them more practical for our growing family. Here are a few thoughts in no particular order:

1. Do not limit yourself to what should be in a single family house. Yes, most houses have a family room and a living room but most people do not have 5, 6, 7, 8 children. We used to live in a house with an eat-in kitchen, a dining room, a family room and a living room. In other words, two eating spaces and two resting spaces. We had a wall built between the living room and the dining room and turned them into a music room and a home office. Then we had a resting space, an eating space, a study space and a piano space.

2. Open concept areas were not invented by parents of a large family. We used to live in a house with a cathedral ceiling in the kitchen open to the second storey and a front hallway open to the second storey. Visitors would be all: “This is great! This way you always know what the kids are doing!” Maybe, but when my husband was grinding coffee at 6:30 am in the kitchen, he could have been grinding it right in the baby’s room for the difference it made in the level of noise. Not to mention that you could not have a kid practicing piano in the living room while another was doing homework or watching tv in another room. Avoid open concept or try to close it off.

3. Think function. When we moved in our actual house, two of the children’s room had huge walk-in closets. We turned the walk-in in the boys’ bedroom in a small 3-piece bathroom (toilet, sink, shower) and a small laundry room, separated by sliding doors. Believe me, I appreciate my upstairs laundry room more than my boys decry the absence of a closet. Where do they put their clothes? Right now, we re-purposed bookshelves but it does look a bit disheveled. We will eventually get a couple of Ikea wardrobes.

A little messy but you get the idea. This used to be a walk-in closet.

4.Beware of yourself. Too often, our houses become too small because of too much stuff, not to much people. I know families who perform miracles with very large families in very tight quarters (we’re talking 8 kids in a 3-bedroom row-house with no backyard) and still manage to make their space look bright and cheerful. These people are, without exception, compulsive about what they bring into their house and what they keep there. They do not keep anything that has lost its function or outlived its usefulness and they certainly don’t get emotionally attached to stuff. For a good dose of motivation on the cost of clutter — personal and financial — I recommend Is There a Life After Housework? from Don Aslett. In a nutshell, if you have any storage area dedicated to things you no longer know what to do with, see part of every mortgage payment as rent for your stuff.

I realized while writing this post that we have done a lot of small changes to our living areas to make them more family friendly. My husband suggested that I expand on that in future posts, which I will do. Eventually.


5 thoughts on “Living large in a small house: fitting 10 in a house built for 4

  1. Fabulous. I want to know more. I only have two children, and want a third. We live in a three bedroom, 1 1/2 bathroom semi-detached home which we love and lament all at the same time. We are currently trying to decide whether a larger home is for us. Our main sticking point being the bathroom area as we tend to have grandparents visiting overnight frequently enough to notice the lack of an additional shower. We are frequently told by relations with the same size family as us that our house is too small and we need to move. Thanks for helping us balance the arguement in our minds.

  2. Thank you for the great customer service! 😉 This is such a loaded issue in North America. All sorts of ideas on how much space and stuff you need. Our house (which we are currently trying to sell) stresses me out because it has room for a nice 4th bedroom, except it’s taken up by this ridiculous Owner’s suite/spa/oversized bathroom space. And if we get rid of it, it will be very hard to sell our house in this neighbourhood. But maybe that’s what’s going to happen, if we don’t sell. Very frustrating for people who value people over real estate!

    Thank you for the translation of the excellent post! I look forward to some of your “big living” tips.

    1. Yes, resale is definitely a damper on any effort to make a house practical! I will include that in my next post on house-stuff, thanks for reminding me! Those Master ensuites are such a waste of space! Everyone agrees on that and yet, try selling a single without one!

      1. I know! Nobody will buy a house that they don’t “think” they can resell, even if they like the unusual-ness about it. We are all following generally accepted rules of what They want. Then we all say how charming heritage houses are because they are so unique! Crazy!

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