How Four People Live (Happily) in 400 Square Feet

How Four People Live (Happily) in 400 Square Feet

Shayna Proctor
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It all started in 2011, with eight weeks of apartment searching, a lot of flirting with landlords, a couple of rejections (because “couples always break up in studio spaces”), and an eventual win—four hundred square feet for my husband Eric and me.

Now, almost seven years and two babies later, all four of us are still in the same space. I accidentally gave birth to our second child on the apartment floor—a life-changing moment that only took up about twelve square feet. Eric calmly delivered her, while speaking to the paramedics, and our two-year-old stood in the corner.

So, our apartment has served many different purposes. With each additional human, black shirt, pair of boots, friendship, painting, plant, and piece of furniture we have had to really evaluate what stays in the apartment and what must go.

I’ve devoured all the decluttering blogs, books, documentaries, and conversations. I’ve tried a lot of the methodologies, and written “get rid of everything” on my weekend to-do list for more than seven years—and failed. But over the years, I’ve built a framework for making decisions about what to bring into my life—and our space—based on what matters most to me and to us.

I’m not sure that this is the final version of my criteria for what stays and goes, but I’m trying it out—a true IDEO prototype. I would like to think that these five principles could apply to whatever life you have—whether you have a huge space with three closets, a tiny room with no closet, or you actually live in a closet, like my daughters do.

Image by Rachel Thurston.

1. Relationships

Relationships are what matter most to me. I value people. I love having them over to celebrate, I love feeding them, letting them stay overnight, hearing their stories, letting them shower, and taking meals to them. We built a Murphy bed for my husband and me to give us more space, but, mostly, so that we can have people over to talk and eat together, and develop those relationships that mean so much to us. We also built bunk bed cribs in the closet (bedroom) so that the girls would learn to share. Instead of being a constraint, I think of our tiny space as a way to share happiness, motivate us to resolve conflict more quickly, and cry and be sad—together.

Image by Rachel Thurston.

2. Cleanliness

Cleanliness isn’t just about Pine-Sol and bleach—it’s also about reducing visual clutter. White walls, curated with colorful artwork and flooded with natural light, feel clean and visually calm. With a human baby for a Swiffer, I am also particularly aware of accumulating dust. And although it would be more convenient, I find it difficult to give up my duties to a cleaning person because of my high standards and weird obsession with fresh grout and shiny floors. And so, cleaning and reducing visual clutter are a family affair filled with songs, dance breaks, snacks, and high fives.

3. Long-term vs. short-term

For me, investing in things that will be with me for the long term is a balance between using my money better and producing less waste. In the short term, I will reuse something that I already have, like a hand me down click-on kid booster seat, even though I don’t like the way it looks or the exact function of it. (My kids will eventually be able to sit in a regular chair unassisted, right?) To help manage the amount of waste we produce, we also have the super luxury of curbside compost, recycling, and garbage and we have communities that will happily use things that we no longer can.

Image by Rachel Thurston.

4. Aesthetics

When one thing is out of place in a small space, everything looks like chaos. To create order and balance, you need a bit of white space to breathe, and nice things to look at. To give us more storage we installed cabinets high up on the wall, out of our line of sight. We hang our laundry bags on a dowel in our front closet, hiding dirty laundry and freeing up the floor space that a laundry hamper would take up. We often rotate the refrigerator artwork to keep things interesting and curated. We make our home a place filled with things that we’re proud to talk about, look at, and live with.

5. Health and wellness

We all need space to be together and to be apart, space to retreat to and be quiet, space to move around and dance, or space to exercise or meditate. The place where you live can’t always serve all of those purposes. Creating cozy, soft places to read, moving furniture to the perimeter to make room to dance and run in circles, and hanging out in the shower just one minute longer to clear your thoughts have all helped us be a healthier family. And when it feels like everything is breaking down, we buckle the girls in the stroller and go outside. The outdoors have become our extended living room, allowing us to spread out our arms a little wider and play.

Image by Rachel Thurston.

We won’t be in our tiny home forever; two growing children mean that one day our apartment will actually be too small. But we—and you—can take this methodology we’ve created wherever we go.

When you think about your own space, remember to consider the things that matter most to you, and the things that work for you. Take pride in your home and make it your own sanctuary. Learn to see the possibility in your space and in your life.

In the meantime, we’ll be thriving in our 400 square feet. If you’d like to drop by, we’d love to feed you.

Image by Rachel Thurston.
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Shayna Proctor
Shayna Proctor believes that everyone is an interaction designer. When she’s not designing and redesigning the systems in her life, she is taking a dance break with her family.
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