When God Made Space, She Made Enough of It

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.

The window of Meg's kitchen now, with a book case centered under the window. The door at left leads to a closet; the door at right leads to the bathroom.
The window of Meg’s kitchen as it looks now, with a book case under the window. The left door leads to a closet; the right door opens to a bathroom.

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.”

Here's how I envisioned creating far more book storage without reducing the floor space in the room. The shelf above the window would be easy to install - the left and right sides could be supported by the tops of the closet and bathroom door frames, while the back side would rest of the top of the window frame. The shelf would receive center support from brackets mounted to left and right sides of the window; because there's an internal frame that supports the window, I know that there will be support studs behind the window framing.
Here’s how I envisioned more book storage. The high shelf would be easy to install because the closet and bathroom door frames would support the sides, while the window frame would support the back. Brackets would be mounted into the  internal frame that supports the window, holding the middle so it doesn’t sag under the books’ weight.

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.

This handy step stool makes it easy to reach the towels, and it doubles as a seat when I want to sit down next to the bath. Designed for Pullman porters on railroads, this kind of stool has a built-in handle that makes it easy to move. This one is about one foot square and one foot high, and is available for less than $20 from Stacks and Stacks.
This handy step stool doubles as a seat next to the bath. Designed for porters on railroads, the Pullman 12″ high step has a built-in handle and is easy to move. This stool costs less than $20 at Stacks and Stacks.

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.

Floor plan of the entry way in the author's house. The gray walls are original and the turquoise spaces indicate closets that were added in minor remodeling. The yellow rectangle shows where walls probably enclose nothing but air. This dead space was likely created by an unimaginative contractor who installed the tub and then found that he had left-over space at its foot. This may in time become another closet that opens into the dining room.
Floor plan of the entry way in the author’s house. The gray walls are original and the turquoise spaces indicate closets that were added in minor remodeling. The yellow rectangle shows where walls probably enclose nothing but air. This dead space was likely created by an unimaginative contractor who installed the tub and then found that he had left-over space at its foot. This may in time become another closet that opens into the dining room.

What’s Behind the Wall?

The website for Apartment Therapy New York has a great article on using space between the studs. The photo shows a vanity alcove that has been placed between the studs; click the image to visit the full article in Apartment Therapy.
The website for Apartment Therapy New York has a great article on using space between the studs. The photo shows a vanity alcove that has been placed between the studs; click the image to visit the full article in Apartment Therapy.

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.

Built in drawers recapture the open space under the stairs

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:

  1. Install modular shelving above the credenza, with the wider shelves placed higher so that they don’t cramp the tabletop work space, or
  2. 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



2 thoughts on “When God Made Space, She Made Enough of It

  1. Just a few extra feet of living space can make a world of difference. One of my favorite activities is helping my fellow city dwellers figure out how to make the most of their living spaces without spending a lot. You’d be surprised at how little extra room you need to make a big difference in your life. Take it from me, over the past 30 years I’ve helped some of Manhattans toughest customers make living a lot more comfortable and I really know what I’m doing. From coming to your home or office to help you figure out how much space you need, to helping you pack it up and move it in, I’ll take care of everything. Our free Storage Taxi (really a van) makes moving items so much easier than trying to cram all of your stuff in the trunk of a cab. If you do have a car, free parking is available at every one of Manhattan Mini Storage’s NYC Mini Storage Units locations.

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