The main downside of smaller home living is (wait for it! Drum roll please!) less space! In a small house rooms are used for multiple purposes and need to transform quickly. Even something as simple as finding the right temperature can be challenging especially if occupants like different settings. Different noise and lighting levels can be issues. No matter how close we are with the people we live with we all need our privacy at times. Even if you live on your own privacy and security can be an issue in a small house. Small homes and spaces tend to be designed to open up to the world around them. Open plan design and large windows are often included to make small home spaces feel as large and open as possible. The open vistas can allow others to see into your personal environment.
Many of the issues can be eased, if not mitigated completely, with home automation and careful design. Some of the advantages can also be augmented to make your small home living experience even more efficient, comfortable and safe.
In The Basics section below we will stay away from very general automation tips. You can find more about general home automation in our other posts including the introduction to home automation. We will start with our top recommendations for what to automate and what not to automate in a small space. We will look at some specific examples of useful technology and what to look for to ensure those systems will work well in a small space. We will then look at some of the impacts of sharing small spaces and the automation that can help make living in a small space more enjoyable. We then examine common multi-use spaces in a small house and list ideas of how automation technology can help make them more efficient and/or useful.
In the Advanced Class section we will delve into how whole home automation controls and integrating systems can be particularly effective for small homes. We will look at specific challenges faced in small spaces including: overlapping systems, interference, wide angles and blind spots.
In the Wrap Up section we will summarize our suggestions and the most common pitfalls to watch for when automating small spaces.
Small space automation is about creating spaces that quickly transform and adapt to the situations and needs of the occupants. People who live in small spaces tend to fall into two groups. The first camp are those who elect to willingly live in a smaller space and seek out the advantages of a cozy, efficient and cost effective space. The second camp would prefer a larger home and are forced to live in a smaller space due to specific needs such as: dorm rooms, living on a boat, urban living spaces, etc.. While there are many automation options that have broad appeal each group will find different options appealing for their own reasons.
For example people in the first group will tend to find themselves drawn more to automation technology that makes the space more efficient and safe while keeping it comfortable and enhancing the homey qualities of their space. The second group will be drawn to technology that removes barriers and quickly transforms spaces allowing for more open living areas.
In general, most will be equally drawn by automation technology that makes the space more efficient and can save money. Similarly, technology that is sustainable or ‘green’, allows you to be more mindful or present with others and technology that promotes healthy and active living will appeal to different personalities.
Living together with others is particularly challenging in a small space. We recommend you look at our shared spaces article for more thoughts and ideas about how automation can impact and help mitigate some of the problems encountered when multiple people share a space.
The power of automation technology in a small space is the ability to transform the space. The tools should either make the space useful in different ways or make the small space feel more comfortable for different activities.
One of the easiest and most effective automation technologies to build into a small space is lighting. It may seem counterintuitive but as a general rule in a smaller space you want more lights. By adding more lights; typically smaller with more granular control over brightness, temperature and colour you are able to change the mood and focus of a room. When designing the lighting for a small space think beyond the standard centre of the ceiling single fixture or rows of pot lights. Place ceiling lights strategically over key areas. Include recessed lighting, lamps, wall/floor and accent lighting in your automation designs.
One common example of how lighting can be used to transform a space is in open living/dining kitchen areas. These open, shared areas are common in small homes. By setting scenes that focus groups of lights and adjust brightness and colour settings for different activities the space is customized for different uses. In a Kitchen/Cooking setting all of the lights in the cooking and preparation areas would be on including overhead, under mounted lighting and directional lighting. The lights would be set to be brighter and cooler (4000K+) making it easier to see details and work comfortably and safely. The cooler light will make the space feel crisper, cleaner and more energized. Once the prep and cleanup work is complete a Relaxing/Dining setting might turn off some of the lights and dim others to reduce energy and shift the focus to the dining or lounging space. The scene should warm the colour temperature of the light (27000-3000K) making the space feel more relaxing, homely and comfortable for eating or pre/post meal conversation.
Noise in a small space can be a huge issue. One very effective way of managing noise can be by designing an audio system that fills the space. Having a well designed system rather than a series of ad hoc speakers can dramatically improve comfort and privacy in a small space. Similar to the lighting design, having more speakers can help create a sense of space and allow you to isolate different zones. The sound system doesn’t need to be complex. It might be as simple as standalone speakers meshed together with something like a ChromeCast audio setup or a dedicated solution like something from Sonos. If you decide you want to spend a bit more there are a huge range of systems including very complex professional systems with dedicated amps and control systems and high end hidden speakers.
If you don’t enjoy wearing headphones all the time having a well designed sound system is an important part of a small house design. One common scenario is someone trying to rest while others are moving around or there is lots of noise outside that you can’t control. In this case it is amazing how effectively background noise like white or pink noise (available free through most streaming audio services) can drown out the erratic and jarring noises and create a soothing and relaxing environment.
Entertainment systems are popular for home automation for a good reason – they are fun! They are also very useful and full of clever tricks. We cover the genre in more detail in our other posts. Specifically for a small spaces entertainment systems can help make them feel larger and more functional. An entertainment system with a wall mounted display can double as art, a communication tool or transform into a home office work area.
A popular trick used to make a room feel larger is to use the display and sound of an entertainment system to replicate an aquarium or fireplace. These are often physically large, grand features found in bigger rooms in substantial homes. They traditionally take up a lot of space and if done right digitizing fish or fire can create a deep rooted psychological feeling of a larger space and depth to a room. These features also create fun focal points that can help to set the mood for a room; transforming it from where you watch television to a space where you work or entertain with the focus away from the addictive content on the display.
We have talked about how light can transform a space and natural light is no exception. Many small homes use windows to help make them feel larger and open. Having automated curtains or blinds can allow you to quickly transform a space. Automated blinds and curtains are often overlooked or dismissed in favour of other features. We feel that is a big mistake. Automated blinds and curtains can have a huge impact, especially in small spaces. For example: blinds add privacy and security and closing them up as you are heading to bed or leaving your home will make your home safer reducing your stress. Managing natural light will improve energy efficiency and with automation systems you can use sensors to automatically block or open the light to help heat or cool the space. Curtains and blinds also add insulation for some of the weakest insulation points of your home – the windows. Managing the blinds and curtains in a small home can easily be the difference between the heating or cooling system running or not running. Thick, rich fabric curtains or an innovative or colourful blind can add texture to a space and make a small room feel warmer and more inviting. Opening the blinds or curtains can spark creativity and brighten a room or closing them can cut out distractions and reduce noise.
All around we believe that automated blinds and curtains are an excellent investment and they are easier than ever to add to your home. We also find that automated blinds and curtains are easier to use and will be opened and closed more frequently than manual ones. If you think outside the box for creative uses of curtains or blinds in a small space they can even be used as a divider or wall for temporary space separation. We highly recommend that you include them in your small home design.
Finding a temperature that is just right for everyone is even more challenging in a small space. Heating and cooling systems need to be properly sized so that they do not overwhelm the space by rapidly filling it with too much conditioning. Even with properly sized systems small spaces can still be tricky to control because they tend to change rapidly. They are influenced more dramatically by small changes like someone opening a door or window or adjusting a blind. They can even be substantially impacted by everyday events like something baking in the oven or someone taking a shower.
If you are planning a new small space we recommend a professionally designed HVAC system. The engineer should have experience with your environment and the type of small space you are building. Some things you should keep in mind: consider using an air exchanger rather than heating or cooling your air bring fresh air in and mix it as a more gradual way of conditioning the space. When you are able you should completely turn off a central system and use smaller zones. Use passive air circulation with fans and more subtle temperature control systems like blinds or curtains and sheers. In cooler environments look for systems like radiant heat that can be controlled and partitioned more granularly and have lots of stored latent heat. In warmer environments look for opportunities to use natural cooling with cross breezes and manage humidity rather than cooling the air.
One good example of automation in a small space is to use a smart thermostat that is aware and can compensate for the small space and uses multiple sensors. Another big step for a small space can be integrating a smart thermostat into a whole home control system that can register when you are home or not and will monitor if windows and doors are open or if alternative heating and cooling methods are active. These systems can be programmed to maintain different temperatures or try different heating and cooling methods based on criteria you define.
We will examine two key concepts to consider when planning where to implement automation for small spaces: first, creating multipurpose living spaces and second, ensuring each person has a personal area they can retreat to for privacy, security and comfort.
The benefits of automation are increased by an order of magnitude by focusing on creating multipurpose living spaces. Blended and multi-use paces like: dining and living, bedroom and office are common. Some less common rooms that can be combined include kitchen and laundry, garage and pantry.
Some ideas for how these multipurpose spaces can be augmented with technology: in a combined dining and living space there are the obvious things like lights and blinds to adjust between a living space and a dining room. Although many of us like to watch television while we eat for more formal occasions or just to ensure you spend time with your dining partner you may want to hide the television while you are eating. You could have the television tuck itself away automatically in a recessed space or you might do something simpler with a blind or curtains that cover it. You may also automatically set it to become artwork or simply turn it off as part of the dining scene configuration.
With a combined office and bedroom you might want to have the thermostat not only know that you are home during the day and adjust the temperature appropriately, you may also have it sense the temperature in the bedroom rather than in a living or dining room.
Personal space and privacy are an important element of small space design. Here are some ideas for how automation technology can help provide private spaces or allow you to access your personal environment in a public space: create an independent sonic zone with speakers off or playing white noise to isolate the space. Individual control for other comfort features including heating/cooling and lighting.
With small spaces sometimes moving to outdoor spaces is the best way to extend spaces and open up opportunities for additional or private spaces. You could use all of the same controls listed below but also include automated awnings and door locks to quickly open and close the space.
Going beyond just your outdoor space sometimes with a small space you need to (or have the opportunity to) move out of your own space and use a public space for work or recreation. Automation technology can help you quickly transition your activities at home to a space outside your home and back again. Using geolocation sensors to quickly adjust your home systems between hibernation and secured while you are away to active and comfortable while you are home.
Automation is used to transform spaces, add privacy and security, comfort, efficiency and fun. As we have discussed, small spaces create unique challenges for automation. Sometimes knowing what not to automate can be just as important as knowing what to focus on. The list below outlines some of the common pitfalls and our thoughts about how to avoid them.
Voice controlled systems are increasingly popular and found in a wider and wider range of items. Small spaces make it especially difficult for voice controlled systems to identify when you are trying to interact with them. With more voice controlled systems in a small space there is more of a chance you will set something off unintentionally. You can work around this by centralizing voice controls to a home voice control system and disabling local voice controls on individual devices. Standardize on one platform. Using only one system (like Alexa, Siri or Google) may limit some features and integration options but it will make that one system more useful and functional.
Also avoid systems that will overwhelm a small space. A good example of this is mixing speaker systems that don’t integrate with each other creating overlapping output. The same effect is common with other automation technologies including heating, lighting, monitoring, etc.
Automation tools often have displays and audible alerting systems. In a small space this can be a nightmare. Watch anything you implement to be sure it doesn’t make noises or have flashing lights that you cannot control or disable. It is also a very good idea to check the noise level for any device you add to your space. The noise levels are often published in technical specifications. Devices registering less than 40db are typically considered quiet but you may find that several running together can become noticeable or distracting in a small space. In a small space, anything above 50db will be audible and you will need to consider whether or not you can live with the background noise or need to find a way to mask or dampen it. Flashing lights are a similar hazard. You may want to see the lights so you can monitor the system but flashing lights may also be distracting or ruin the mood of a room. If you can centralize monitoring and reduce noise we recommend you do it wherever possible. Also think about where your technology will be located and if possible build hidden cabinets where technology will not be distracting.
Finally, watch for any system that is designed to cover large spaces. While covering a large area doesn’t always signal a problem for a small space it is a good warning indicator. It can be tempting to look for the best and biggest system available but one of the great benefits of a small space is you don’t always need the biggest solution to have the best solution for your space. Systems that work well over large spaces often don’t work as well up close and in small spaces. Cameras or sensors might have blind spots, speakers might sound distorted and displays or projectors may overwhelm a room. Good design is finding the right fit which doesn’t always mean the biggest or most full featured solution.
Automation in a small space is particularly powerful. It isn’t required but can dramatically improve the usefulness of the space and can be the difference between loving a small space and hating it.
Whole Home automation. In a small space having multiple systems that do not integrate with each other becomes more noticeable and problematic. Even if you don’t want to push the limits of a centralized home automation system selecting a single control system will make the few automation tools you use work better in a small space. Beyond improving integration a central control system will make it easier for you to create scenes which are very useful in smaller spaces particularly because they allow you to quickly convert between multiple functional configurations quickly.
Overlapping Systems can be a wicked problem in small spaces. Light, sound, temperatures, smells, humidity and pretty much anything you do or change will spill over or throughout the space. Using a central Whole Home system with lots of sensors can help mitigate the impacts. Careful planning and sizing of systems is probably the best way to ensure the system will work in your small space.
Carefully planning and selecting systems that are designed to work together will also help with one of the other big challenges of working in a small space: interference. More and more automation technology works wirelessly and often uses overlapping radio spectrums. You should know your local unlicensed radio spectrum which will be published for your country and can be different around the world. One example is the 2.4Ghz band which is used by everything from WiFi networks and Bluetooth to Zigbee and other IEEE 802.15.4 home automation low rate personal area networks. Avoid overlapping systems by selecting systems that run on proprietary or unusual radio bands (not always possible or practical) or by growing your network incrementally and thoroughly testing to see how each device impacts your overall network. You can also look for wireless technologies like Zigbee, Z Wave or even hybrid ones like Insteon that are designed to deal with interference.
A difficult and often counter intuitive problem to deal with in building an automation system in a small space is working with blind spots. Sensors and cameras are designed to cover a specific range and having a longer range or wider angle sensor often sounds like a great idea. Proceed with caution! You need to be particularly cautions selecting tools for a small space to be sure they will actually work up close and in the tight confines you plan to install them in.
Describing a living space as a ‘small space’ is like the idiom about describing ‘how long is a piece of string’. Some may feel an eighteen hundred square foot house is a small space while others will laugh at how massive that sounds. Each small space will be different. You might be in an urban apartment, a tiny house in the country, a hut on an island, a dorm room, a one room cell. Each space will have its own unique charms and challenges. We have tried to look at the advantages and challenges and how automation technology can help in as general a way as possible. You will need to look at your space and decide what works and what does not. Here is a summary of what we believe are the key points to consider when adding automation technology to a small space:
- Use multi-purpose tools wherever possible
- Think about where you want technology and be cautious about including it in areas where it doesn’t fit all of the uses of the space
- Use one device wherever possible – may be more expensive or less efficient in a larger space but will not be competing against other devices in a smaller space
Here are some of the common pitfalls to watch out for:
- Watch for blind spots – long throw sensors and devices that will not ‘see’ or work well up close
- Avoid overlapping technology
- Pay the premium for quieter devices – noisy devices can drive you up a wall quickly in a small space
- Sightlines and privacy – design well. Use lighting and heating and cooling systems that can be narrowly focused, match the space where they will be deployed and can be appropriately controlled.