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9 Ways to Make Small Spaces Look Bigger

Redecorate or remodel small spaces with these tips.

Small spaces don’t have to feel claustrophobic. Gone are the days of enclosed kitchens, rooms that are divided by function and subpar storage. Small spaces, when modified intelligently, can be transformed for a vast range of possibilities. 

Older homes and cramped apartments present the perfect opportunity for remodelers to open up a home's potential. The timing couldn't be better. U.S. homeowners are predicted to spend $122.6 billion on improvements in the fourth quarter of 2012, a $6.8 billion increase over 2011 numbers, according to the Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity (LIRA) published by the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

With increased consumer spending on remodeling, you’ll be seeing a lot of demand, so be prepared with these strategies to make small spaces look bigger. 

1. Bring in Natural Daylight

When you add a skylight or expand a window, you’ll introduce dispersed light instead of direct light.

“Dispersed light comes in from all angles and eliminates the shadows,” says Sean Canning, owner and architect at Ten Seventy Architecture in San Diego, Calif. “Shadows put strain on your eyes and make a space feel uncomfortable.” Positioning a mirror near the window will scatter the light even more effectively, and you’ll be able to keep the lights off for most of the day. Canning recommends operable skylights, which improve airflow in a small room and can be opened using a crank or remote control.

“The cost of a quality skylight is $300 to $400, but it’s going to last 20 to 25 years,” says Mike Otto, general manager of Fair and Square Remodeling, LLC, in Minneapolis. Otto also stresses the importance of insulating around the skylight and flashing it properly to avoid moisture problems. 

Canning recommends overhangs, trellis structures or exterior louvers to reduce solar heat gain from the increased sunlight, especially if windows are installed on the west or south elevation.

2. Pick Natural Paint Colors

Don’t mute natural light with dark wall coverings, which always make a space appear smaller. Otto recommends painting walls with pastels like light blue or cream, beige and off-white to reflect the natural light in a room. In the kitchen, Otto suggests extending this color scheme with white cabinets and neutral or light-colored countertops.

3. Use Simple, Compact Fixtures and Appliances 

Even when your client is adamant about a claw foot tub, if the bathroom is tiny, you’ll be wasting precious inches to accommodate a fixture that doesn’t contribute to the function of the room. Fixtures should be kept simple and compact. Use wall-mounted faucets instead of built-in faucets so the countertop can be smaller, and save space with round instead of elongated toilet bowls.

If you’re installing appliances in the kitchen, a 24-inch cook top instead of the standard 30- or 36-inch range will not hinder the stove’s functionality, and it will make the space look bigger than it is.

4. Install Shelving or Cabinets 

In a cramped kitchen, look up — the cabinets probably don’t extend to the ceiling. “You’re just giving away storage space if you don’t take it all the way to the ceiling,” says Paul Schulman, owner and principal at Paul Schulman Design in Chicago, Ill. Installing shelving or cabinets in that empty space will help decrease clutter, making the kitchen seem bigger.

5. Taking Space from Closets or Hallways 

It may be logical to take space from another room’s closet to expand a bathroom or bedroom, just make sure you know where you’ll put the new closet and allow for three feet of clearance around the bed.

While taking space from closets is smart when executed properly, taking space from a hallway is a risky proposition. Never knock down or build walls that threaten the house’s human circulation, Canning says. It’s crucial that the flow of the hallway is maintained so people can get from point A to point B efficiently, he says.

6. Remove Unnecessary Walls

Removing the wall between the kitchen and living room or dining room will make a home feel much bigger and brighter. “You’re increasing the eyesight line,” Canning explains. When the separating wall is knocked down, your gaze can extend all the way to the other side of the house instead of to a wall several feet away.

7. Bring the Outdoors In

Open up a room — literally — by installing a retractable glass wall between the living room and an outdoor space, Canning suggests. The wall is essentially a set of windows that run the length of a room and fold up like an accordion when opened. When a client is entertaining large parties, he or she can open up his indoor living room to include a deck or a patio, making the entertaining space feel larger and improving the flow of traffic from indoors to outdoors.

8. Build a Vaulted Ceiling

Depending on how the home is designed, there is ample — and underutilized — attic space that can become a vaulted ceiling, vastly increasing how airy a room feels. “You’re not adding any material costs,” Canning insists. “You’re just moving your insulation from the ceiling to the roof.”

9. Be Creative 

In one bathroom Schulman redesigned, the only place for a sink was directly beneath the room’s lone window. To meet the client’s need for a mirror, Schulman designed a mirror that moves on a sliding track. When the mirror is not being used, it can be pushed out of the way of the window. 


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