Thursday, 1 September 2011

Small living

By Aurora @ Island Dreaming

We live in a small house. At first it was a necessity - it was the only two bedroom house we could afford to rent at the time. The rent is still incredibly cheap and so we are using the opportunity to build up our savings. The house is a mid- terrace, with a total living space of just 51.5 square metres (approximately 625 square feet) including the bathroom, stairway and hallways. There is also a small patio yard at the back, about 3.5m x 4m. There are now two adults, a toddler, a baby and two homebody cats packed into this space. The house is not exceptionally small for the UK and there are many in almost identical houses down our street who have an extra child, or a dog, or an extra adult packed in.

I have been into a few of my neighbours' houses. Some of them are kept completely clutter free, with minimal furniture and decoration - absolute bliss to my eyes that are more accustomed to scanning various piles of stuff from toys to laundry to bubbling demijohns in our own home. Yes, those homes are lovely. But contrary to appearances they do not lack stuff - it is just the kind of stuff that can be tucked away out of sight, single purpose gadgets and inert objects. The TV is the sole source of entertainment with a few DVDs lined up neatly on shelves. Very few books to be seen, certainly no arts or craft materials. Nearly every function of life has to be outsourced for lack of space and tools. In short, there is absolutely no resilience. Disruption to the food supply chain? You will be hungry in three days. Your internet connection fails? You will be bored.

I love the idea of minimalism - of having as few possessions as possible, of not being defined by the stuff we own. It would be very easy to do in the city too, with 24 hour shops and every kind of service under the sun within walking distance. At one point last year I became completely enamoured with the 'Tiny house' concept. Could a balance be struck between lack of stuff (actually a very green concept) and a modicum of self reliance? Some of the approaches I wish I had learnt, or implemented, when we first moved in:

  • Resist the temptation to hoard things for a rainy day unless you have a project, a timeslot and an adequate storage place in mind - fabric that will only become mildewed before it is finally used, packets of seed you will never have the room to sow and a down winter jacket that sees daylight once a decade are no good to anyone.
  •  Stack as many functions into as few objects as possible. Have a large hob to oven casserole instead of a casserole and a saucepan. The baby is bathed in the kitchen sink in our house - I don't know how we ever justified a plastic bath cluttering up our tiny kitchen the last time around.
  •  Ensure you have like minded friends with whom you can pool resources. Resist the temptation to own every tool  - everyone can justify a clothes airer, but everyone owning a pressure washer is ridiculous.
  •  Make sure your possessions reflect your priorities. Sell the fiction books if you no longer read them to make time and space for craft supplies. My knitting needle collection has been pared down from around twenty five pairs to eight that I will use regularly - and now I focus on simple patterns that I will actually make and wear as opposed to the wonderful but complicated fashion pieces in magazines. Knit to live, in my case, not live to knit. In effect, pare down your ambitions and you can pare down the amount of stuff you need to own, whilst still being productive.
  •  Do not feel guilty for limiting the number of toys your children have. We have given up buying toys as family and friends tend to furnish our house amply at Christmas and  birthdays. It is a sad fact that many lie discarded at the bottom of packed toy chests, or are broken within a few days. Our son tends to play with the same few things he has since he began to be aware of toys - bricks, marble runs, the odd figurine, musical instruments, art materials and his all time favourite, the cardboard boxes they came packaged in.
  • Learn to use the space you have unconventionally. Store bulk food under the bed in airtight plastic boxes. Make stored pumpkins decorative book ends each autumn. Use the space under sofas for yarn and the space under the bath for tinned food.

I now understand that our house will never be entirely uncluttered, but that is the price to be paid for cheap rent and a continuous succession of interesting experiments - usually involving some form of living organism that needs to be watched. There can be no tucking bread dough or drying seeds in a drawer out of sight and mind.  Our tiny kitchen windowsill currently has assorted trays and papers with saved seeds spread out to dry, along with the teapot, washing up liquid, a triffid like house plant that I have been meaning to re-pot for an age, some children's paint brushes soaking in jars and a few stray bulbs of garlic hanging from the window catch. There is a box of brewing equipment and a 25kg bag of barley stashed in our wardrobe. The living room windowsill is covered in green tomatoes interspersed with bananas (for all the street to see) in the hope they might ripen up.

We are still prioritising our stuff and gradually reducing and replacing it until it suits our small living quarters. Frugality and resilience are not synonymous with possessions and hoarding 'just in case'. They are states of mind that encourage creativity and problem solving, balanced with just the right 'things' to achieve an ends - in effect, living much better lives with less.