When God Made Space, She Made Enough of ItJune 27, 2009
Have you ever complained that you don’t have enough storage space? I’m willing to bet that you have – and I’m also willing to wager that you’re at least partly wrong. Although the lack of closet, book, filing, and storage space is the single most common housing complaint I hear, I find that it often results from using the space that we do have rather poorly.
Take my friend Meg, who recently moved to the wine country. Like most retired ministers, Reverend Meg Whitaker-Green has a lot of books. A gifted photographer, she also has hundreds of photos. But her house was built as a cottage and has only two tiny clothes closets – each about three feet wide and two feet deep. The linen closet is so tiny that it holds only towels; sheets must live elsewhere. Meg would like to rent out her house when she travels, but right now it’s too cluttered.
With tongue in cheek, I could say that she has no vacancy right now because the place “is booked solid.”
Except for the baths, every room has at least one book case, and every one is stuffed solid! Yet there are still books piled on the kitchen table, on the desk, on the hearth, on the mantle… on almost every flat surface, including the floor. Clearly, Meg needs to find more and better ways to house her beloved books.
That’s the kind of challenge I love!
Although Meg insisted that I had been invited to rest during my visit, and not to work, I just couldn’t help myself. I can no more keep myself from solving spacial puzzles than I can prevent myself from reading the promotional drivel on the back of cereal boxes. As I moved around her house, I kept seeing one “wasted” space after another. There were many ways to solve Meg’s storage problems.
Look to the Heavens for Help
While sitting at Meg’s kitchen table, gazing at the window, I spotted the empty space above the window and envisioned the book shelf illustrated above. Heavens! This would be a great spot to keep volumes that aren’t often needed, such as Meg’s theology texts and over-sized art books.
In my own house, which lacked closet space, I installed the “hotel shelf” shown at left over the bathroom door. Meg could do the same in her powder room. Because the toilet blocks access to the wall, and because the wall also holds the TP dispenser, it’s shielded from traffic. Even a tall person wouldn’t bump into the shelf. If Meg moved the towels there, she would be able to put her sheets in the linen closet. (A note about the title of this blog: I have no special knowledge about the gender of god. But since the Reverend Whitaker-Green is a feminist minister, I’m assuming that Meg addresses god as “she.”)
What’s Over the Refrigerator?
Meg also has a problem with finding a spot for her photos. Because they need to be kept dry, they can’t be stored in the basement. Right now, they are piled on the floor near her desk.
During breakfast, I spotted a home for Meg’s photos – over the refrigerator! A cabinet is mounted alongside the refrigerator, and it reaches the ceiling. But there’s no parallel cabinet over the refrigerator – just a big, open box of space. Given the height, depth, and width of the refrigerator, that space is about 30 inches square and three feet high. I have a similar space above a stackable washer and dryer, and I use that space for storing large, rolled-up architectural drawings. Meg could use her warm, dry, over-the-fridge space in a similar way.
To reclaim this forgotten spot, Meg should ask her carpenter to build a box to fit the space. It should have horizontal shelves; it could optionally include a hinged front door. Because Meg’s cabinets are painted, rather than wood-stained, this box will be easy to finish, too. She can match the color by removing one of the painted wooden knobs from the front of an existing cabinet door and taking it with her to the paint store.
Look for Hidden Spaces
Unfortunately, many houses have been designed – or even remodeled – without enough attention to space planning.
Both of the older houses I have remodeled included odd doglegs, uselessly shallow closets, and mysterious enclosed dead spaces that could be effectively re-purposed for storage. In my current house, only two of the three bedrooms had closets. Those odd little spaces were only about one foot deep – far too shallow to hang clothes! After I retrofitted them with shelves that used the space efficiently, I immediately began looking for places to put functional closets. (There’s a photo of an efficiently redesigned narrow closet near the end of this blog.)
The turquoise areas in the floor plan below show where I found space for closets. I enclosed one end of a bedroom to create the 10-foot-wide closet pictured at left. Note the white sliding doors above the mirrored doors. These wooden doors enclose a somewhat inaccessible space that is used for storing Christmas lights, back taxes, and memorabilia.
When you plan your storage, you should place the items you use daily close to where you need them. For example, our everyday clothing is located behind the mirrored doors. Holiday supplies, out-of-season clothes and items you rarely need should not be taking up space in your most-accessible storage areas.
As you can see in the floor plan below, I created a second closet by enclosing an odd dogleg in the hallway between the bathroom and dining room. This created a much-needed coat closet near the front door. I saw no need to remove the existing door into the dining room, and this closet now has doors on either side, making it accessible from both the entry hall and the dining room.
If you’re looking for tips on how to better use closet space, you might want to visit my Comfort and Joy Design website. You’ll find great ideas in the Solutions Gallery and also on the Space Planning page.
What’s Behind the Wall?
Unless you’re friendly with contractors or have done some remodeling, you might not have thought about what’s behind the surface of your walls. Most modern residential walls are formed by a half-inch-thick sheet of gypsum board (also called “drywall”), which is like plaster. Older houses’ walls are formed by plaster on top of lath, thin wooden strips that look like they came from orange crates.
Under these plaster surfaces are parallel uprights called “studs.” Studs are usually made of two-by-fours, boards that nowadays measure slightly less than four inches wide and two inches deep. They are placed at 12 or 18 inch intervals, and on rare occasion, every 24 inches. Between them is open space.
That space can provide room for insulation, electrical wires or plumbing. However, in many cases, it’s just an open area. Although the cavity is not deep, its space can be used for recessed storage. For the vanity shown here, a space has been cut between studs, and then finished in tile that matches the bathroom walls so that the assembly looks like it was designed in from the start.
If you decide you’d like to recover some of the space inside your walls, get a contractor’s help. Your shelving will need to be placed between the electrical outlets on the wall. Even in places where you don’t see outlets, wires could be running inside the wall to an attic or basement. Hidden wires could be severed when you cut into the drywall. (Whoever remodeled my current house managed to cut through all of the phone wires! When I moved in, not one of the three phone jacks was working.) In addition, some homes have heating and cooling registers in the floor; if this is the case and the house sits on a concrete slab, duct work will be positioned between wall studs.
If you have an unfinished garage or basement, however, the space between the studs is easy to use. You can even buy “Stud Buddies“, pre-made shelves that can be quickly mounted as storage space for tools and other small items.
Vertical vs. Horizontal Space
Recently, when Meg wanted to frame a photo, she tried to do it on the carpeted floor. Having tried that myself, I can testify that it doesn’t work. Matting and framing require a stable, unmoving surface. Accordingly, Meg has been shopping for a credenza. That will work, and it won’t take up any more floor space than her stacked photos are currently occupying.
But a credenza may not be the best solution: it will not use the space
e above the work surface, nor will it extend the full length of the wall. I suggested two options:
- Install modular shelving above the credenza, with the wider shelves placed higher so that they don’t cramp the tabletop work space, or
- Have a carpenter build a box that extends the wall’s full length, and include horizontal shelves sized for the photos. She can install a counter top on the workspace (she can probably even find a used counter top and recycle it for this purpose). By placing a sheet of glass over part of it, she can create an area where she can cut with Exacto knives without gouging the counter top.
Meg’s credenza v. cabinet decision illustrates a couple of key storage principles:
- Determine whether you need horizontal or vertical storage space and design the closet or shelving to accommodate those needs.
- If you’re pressed for storage and spot usable space, use all of it – don’t leave a hole at the top or gaps at the side. Often, when people purchase furniture, they fail to measure the space and/or fail to buy something that truly makes fits the area. For this reason, it’s often better to ask a designer to plan built-in storage and then have a carpenter build shelving or counters from the plan.
- Create spaces and places that accommodate multiple uses.
A good example of this last principle would be the space plan I designed for my clients Ron and Claire, who were moving into a condominium where picture windows wrapped around two adjacent sides of the living/dining room. They weren’t sure how to position the furniture, or what to bring from their old place. As Claire observed, “You can’t just put the furniture around the walls because there would be a big hole in the center!”
Ron and Claire needed to divide the big space horizontally while preserving its open character; they also needed places to tuck the papers away. For them, I created a floor plan showing which pieces of existing furniture would work and what needed to be replaced. The keys to using the big, open room were:
- Two credenzas that were finished on the back as well as the front to separate the dining room from the living area. The matched credenzas create a low wall that divides the two spaces, and in addition to hiding papers, the credenzas’ flat, open tops double as a buffet surface. It can be used for serving meals or to provide canapes accessible from either area when Ron and Claire are entertaining.
- New swivel recliners that do double-duty because they can face either the TV or the conversation area.
- A neat storage hassock that hides newspapers. It can be used as a seat, and the removable top also flips over so that it can be used as a small side table.
More Tips on Better Storage and Space Usage
- Apartment therapy: Installing shelves or a vanity between the studs
- Comfort and Joy Design website (Nicolette’s design firm)
- Home Design Find: Controlling clutter
- How to install between-studs bookcases
- Inhabitat: article on the under-stairs drawers shown at right
- Nicolette’s Space Solutions Gallery
- Nicolette’s Space Planning Services
- Organizing a Closet: Learn from a professional organizer
- Ron Hazelton’s housecalls: Building a recessed bookcase
- Stacks and Stacks: Pullman step stool shown above
- Storage hassocks
- Stud Buddies: Instant shelves for unfinished walls
- Tips on Controlling Clutter from a Pro
“Too Many Junk!”
When I was in high school, and one of five teenagers in my parents’ blended family, we briefly employed a Japanese housekeeper. I’m sure my stepmother, who had a full-time job in addition to five teenagers, needed help around the house just to stay sane.
I think that Miko’s real aim in working as our housekeeper was to have a chance to practice conversational English. She had come to the US after becoming engaged to an American of Japanese ancestry who owned a martial arts studio in Denver, where we lived. Miko wanted to make sure that she would be comfortable living in the States before she moved from Japan, and she wanted to be able to communicate well enough to avoiding feeling isolated.
I thought that Miko’s English was fine – it was certainly good enough to convey all the information in the paragraph above. But every now and then, she would come up with a howler. I fondly remember the day she came in to find the five us in the kitchen, eating, playing a board game, practicing the piano, doing homework, playing with the dogs, and listening to tape cassettes, more or less simultaneously. (Technology has changed, but teenagers don’t behave much differently now.) We had the flotsam and jetsam from these activities spread all over the kitchen, along with a variety of snacks and dirty dishes.
As soon as she opened the door, Miko exclaimed, “Too many junk!”
I couldn’t have expressed that nearly as well in grammatically correct English, and it frequently pops into my head when I’m planning storage. My rule of thumb is that, when you’re organizing a space, if you find yourself repeatedly encountering items you haven’t used for the past calendar year, you have “too many junk”!
If you do have too many junk, you need to simplify and stop being a slave to your possessions, in addition to improving your storage. The resource links above will take you to some great decluttering tips, courtesy of a variety of professional organizers.