Do you really need that extension?

Having more rooms won’t necessarily give you the space you need

A few weeks ago, while visiting the author John Boyne’s vast bachelor pad, I learned the meaning of the word “envy” afresh. I bit down on my tongue as the lovely Boyne showed me his hallway libraries, reading room, music room, guest room, gym and two offices (one for winter, one for summer). So many rooms, with so many specific, singular uses. It was a despondent bus ride back to my own two-bed house, where the rooms are forced to multi-task.

The wildly successful Boyne is less the rule and more the exception. With rental rates and property prices now stretched to mind-boggling levels, it’s rare for newcomers to the Irish market to be able to afford a spare bedroom or a dedicated home office, much less a specific place for the clothes horse. Instead, rooms are on double or triple duty.

Studio apartments and small rooms are set to become even more central to our lives

Certainly, the idea of the traditional “good room”, where the wedding china lived unbothered, is a mere memory and if the recent shift towards co-living spaces looks set to continue, studio apartments and small rooms are set to become even more central to our lives.

Years ago, when I lived in decidedly non-fancy studio apartments (sans common rooms, meeting spaces and baristas), the options were thus: stop accumulating stuff or live with the messy consequences and get comfortable with clutter.


Yet there are ways to stave off that sense of stifling claustrophobia without going the full Marie Kondo. It's all about getting the best out of tiny nooks.

This can go calamitously wrong, mind. Cast your eye back to any number of studio rental adverts that recently went viral, and you’re likely to remember couches squeezed in beside beds, bathrooms cheek by jowl with cookers and – in one particularly unfortunate instance – a bed perched atop a wardrobe.

Small but smart

But small can still be smart. Just last week on RTE's Home of the Year,  designer Deirdre Whelan observed that more space isn't necessarily a cure for the common clutter problem. In fact, her pet peeve is the much-loved house extension, and she suggests that re-jigging the walls of an existing space can help homeowners make more sense of the layout they're working with.

“I’m always amazed that people feel the need for an extension when very often you just need to reorganise the inside of your house,” Whelan is quoted as saying. “You might not need an extension. Often it can mean an extension at the back of the house when the front of the house is not used anymore.” Rather, she advises, creating an outdoor living space that’s a continuation of the house will easily add to the feeling of extra square footage, without spending money on an extension.

Ilse Crawford, one-time editor of Elle Decoration and interior designer, observes that, in some cases, it's merely a question of looking at the purpose of each room and prioritising the square footage appropriately. There's no need for a huge living room, for instance, if the family spends most of its waking hours in the kitchen/diner.

“We give space to things that will never be used, like a spare room for the person who comes once a year,” she told me last year. “Give space and attention to the things you do every day. When you stay in a small flat in the city, some research shows that you spend most of your waking hours in the bathroom or bedroom. Prioritise that space and make the living area and kitchen into a smaller space. Instead of having a separate living room and then squeezing the bathroom and bedroom into tiny spaces, I would do the reverse so that the bathroom and bedroom are more enjoyable to use.”

Creating zones

And for those with decidedly smaller budgets, creating different “zones” within a small house or apartment is easier than you might think. All it takes is a curtain, a metal rod room divider, or even a freestanding bookcase, to separate spaces and evoke different rooms.

Designers also like to create an impression of space with optical illusions, like mirrors hung opposite curtains that bounce light back into the room, low-sitting furniture, or floor-to-ceiling curtains and clear plastic dining tables/chairs/coffee tables. Oversized furniture appears to have had its day as the neater mid-century pieces return to fashion, but smaller furniture also creates the illusion in minimal square footage. And for those with deep pockets, switching to sliding doors with wide doorways is a space-saving payoff.

High on impact

Another easy way to create a sense of grandeur in a property that’s low in space is to go high on impact. A statement piece of furniture, salon-style artwork or an eye-catching wallpapered section will distract from the reality that there’s not enough room to swing so much as a thought.

Elsewhere, colour experts note that soothing, neutral tones can fool the eye into thinking rooms are bigger than they really are. Colour, too, is an easy way to distinguish between different rooms.

"In an all-white house, people walk from room to room and feel as though they're in the same room," design consultant Orla Kelly notes. "If you walk through a house and go from grey to blue to heather, people have different feelings, and will have a bigger experience of the space."

In my small but perfectly formed two-bed, I’ve learned to love items that serve multiple purposes, from the single sofa-bed in the “office” to the ottoman that moonlights as a footstool, sometime seat and storage box. In fact, storage – as much of it as a space can handle, going floor to ceiling – is the first port of call for any small-space owner, as nothing makes a room smaller than clutter.

Hanging and high-mounted elements also help to save floor and countertop space. Two open shelves in the kitchen draw the eye upward. Even the space under the stairs has been put to work, as a sometime desk space. It’s not quite the gorgeous and generous set-up in John Boyne’s house, but at least it’s a start.