Size matters: how to design for compact living

Architect and designer Cliona Dempsey at home in the Liberties

Small is beautiful or so they say, but when it comes to houses, bijoux can also mean a design headache. There’s the lack of storage for starters. The problem of where to put that dripping umbrella, or suitcase, or your collection of snow globes.

Unless, like architect and interior designer Cliona Dempsey, you happen to relish designing for small spaces and are second only to Marie Kondo in the de-cluttering stakes.

“I’m a thrower-outer. I’m a total purger. I’m not a clutter collector,” says Cliona. “We just accumulate so much rubbish these days that we don’t really need. So living in a small space makes you think, ‘Do I really need that – another cookbook, more cushions’. You stop looking at stuff. I think a small space forces you to do that.”

Cliona lives in a 60sqm house in Dublin’s Liberties, in one of the warren of redbrick two-up, two-down streets that are built up to Dublin city’s original walls. In fact, she can see the wall from her rear window upstairs. It’s a place that once housed large working class families and more recently, a smattering of artists and writers, drawn by cheaper house prices and proximity to the city centre.

She loves the area. It is where she honed her skills as an architect – her very first commission was to rethink a house on John Dillon Street. “I’d never been on site and I’d never worked with a builder. And I loved it, it was so exciting. It was a lovely small manageable size as a job to have as a recent graduate.”

Cliona spent seven years working in architecture and interiors in Australia, before returning to Dublin in 2007 in the dying days of the boom. “Everyone knew it was going to end and everyone kept saying, ‘This is crazy. We can’t keep living like this.’ It did fall apart as soon as I came home.”

For many years, she rented in the Liberties, “I lived in Reginald Street, in Long Lane, I’ve always lived in this era of house – they were built in 1901. So I had a very strong idea of what I’d do in a house like this.”

So when she came to buy the rundown property on John Dillon Street in 2015, she was unfazed by its tiny footprint. She paid €270,000 for the property – today’s prices are as much as €100k higher – and had a budget of about €130,000 to complete major renovations and decorate.

The priorities were light, space and flexible, multifunctional furniture. “I’d been renting a house almost identical for five years before I bought this. And it had always felt a little dark, and I always felt if I was doing it up, this is what I would do to it.”

The front façade remains the same but step inside and the ground floor has been scooped out to make one large room with a galley kitchen leading off and giving access to the backyard.

And light pours in. The doors into the kitchen and out to the yard have been extended to run all the way to the ceiling and a sleek L-shaped rooflight replaces much of the kitchen ceiling.

The bright open-plan space can be cosied up by drawing a dark grey wool curtain across the entire front interior wall, while a large panel door can slide either way to shut off the kitchen if you’re messy, says Cliona, or the staircase if you have a sleeping guest upstairs.

The bathroom has a second L-shaped rooflight that doubles as a window. “I always wanted a bathtub with a window so I could look at the sky,” says Cliona. Some of her friends worry about the lack of frosted glass, she says, laughing, so she has fitted a roller blind to protect their modesty.

She has also punched through another light shaft over the stairs with a mirror beneath which bounces the light back into the living room.

Adding a sense of space was also high on Cliona’s list. That meant that storage space was leveraged out of every nook and cranny. The wall that runs alongside the stairs has been turned into cupboards. “This whole wall gives 350cm deep storage,” she says, “the extra foot in the house wasn’t giving me anything, but turned into storage, it gives me everything.” The ironing board and suitcases and other essentials are stacked away neatly here.

She plays tricks with mirrors to bump up light and the impression of space – the chimney breast is one huge piece of mirrored glass sitting above the marble fireplace. Inside the front door, a floor-to-ceiling sheet of mirrored glass bounces light and reflections around the room, fooling you into thinking the room is twice the size.

To add to the streamlined look, Cliona kept the materials used to a minimum – concrete floors, marble details and ply birch panelling. The poured concrete comes from Kilsaran and contains an aggregate mix that varies depending on your location. “You get what you’re given,” says Cliona, though you can check the samples for each area at Kilsaran. Her mix contains a warm amber stone that she loves.

“It is maintenance free, that’s the pleasure of concrete. It almost looks like terrazzo and that’s down to the care of the concrete contractor – he was good at pouring so that the aggregate didn’t all settle or fall to the bottom.

“I love the look of it. Yet it doesn’t cost any more than engineered board.”

The marble mantelpiece came about more by accident than design. The gas fire Cliona had fitted protruded so far into the room, that instead of having a 20mm thick marble stick-on, they had to create a box to slip over the plasterboard. “I’d always wanted the marble but didn’t really think I’d get the thickness.” Miller Brothers Stone in Rathnew cut a slip of 20mm marble and filleted it into place beautifully and without any joins so that it looks like a solid slab of marble, but cost a fraction of the price.

The marble continues in the kitchen as countertop and splashback. In the bathroom too, there are tiled walls and bath surrounds. Cliona has played with texture here – some tiles are sandblasted, some are bush hammered or polished, but though they look like marble, they are actually porcelain. “Marble is too hard to keep in a bathroom. The marble in the kitchen is enough of a handful – even though I love it, you have to be careful with it.”

The other material Cliona has made much of is birch plywood. “I wanted something warm to play off the coolness of the concrete. I’ve always loved birch plywood, it’s a very robust material but also very warm. And it lends itself to really nice detailing.” The new stairs – the originals were “really, really steep and in bad repair” – are boxed in with it.

Upstairs, the birch forms a built-in, clever space-saving desk for Cliona’s home office which can be flipped down to form the headboard for a double bed. She has a blow-up mattress stowed under the return. “But I didn’t want it to be always to be set up as a guest bedroom – I wanted to use all my rooms because my house is so small.”

The office leads out onto a flat deck which Cliona decided against edging with a handrail for the moment as she likes the way it appears to slide into the streetscape. Acapulco stackable chairs brighten up her al fresco space, and can be stored easily.

The bedroom is minimalist. There are built-in wardrobes and the birch plywood runs around the walls, forming a handy shelf if, God forbid, you were the type to like displaying knick-knacks and there’s also a pared-back dressing table. The room is painted a dusky pink by Benjamin Moore. “I’m not a girly girl. I had been thinking white, but pink is more restful.”

Cliona has worked on projects as diverse as restaurant and office fit-outs and domestic renovations and extensions. And she has developed a sideline as a fashion stylist, revamping clients’ wardrobes and style. “It’s really different and satisfying – it’s a happy experience for both the client and myself.” Though sadly, she says, her interiors and architectural work is now so busy that she has less and less time to take on styling. “It’s not as big a percentage of what I’m doing but I love it. You get very immediate results – that’s why I like interiors more than architecture.”

Living in a small space changes how you live, says Cliona. “You can’t leave your stuff lying around – unless you like living like that. What I’m finding myself doing now is thinking of replacing things. I’ll be like, I can get rid of this and get this instead. It’s a swap out.”

Think small — Cliona’s tips

  • Don’t think that you need more space, you might just need to use what you have more cleverly. Reconfigure what you have rather than thinking that what you have is too small. You may not find that it is actually.
  • Write down exactly what it is that you want – like storage and light. You can achieve a lot with clever key decisions.
  • If you can, live in the house for a bit to figure out what you love, even where the light goes in the day and how you use your rooms, it may not be what you think you would do.
  • Before you buy, make sure it has the right orientation because you will never be able to make a north-facing space feel cosy. Really.
  • Get advice. Talk to someone before you put a red cent into the space. It could be the best €200 you spend to get someone to come out and assess it, not in terms of a survey of  damp or subsistence, but for its potential.
  • Should you go with smaller furniture in a smaller space? I think scale is important in furniture. You have to scale things to your house. An armchair would be great in my house but it literally won’t fit so I have a 2.5m couch instead of an armchair and a couch. I think a combination – a place that is all built-in is going to look cold and it will feel soulless. You need to draw it in the plan the way it would be.
  • We think about colour a lot, but not about texture enough. If you’re afraid of colour, think about texture. Contrast is interesting in both texture and colour. Rough with smooth, sleek with textured.

 

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