Reviewing Small Space Living through the Eyes of a College Student

With the tough economic times and the cost of living increasing, studio apartments and ideas like the tiny house movement are on the rise. More people are moving into smaller, cheaper houses; some are even as small as 107 square feet! This is not only an economically smart move, but also forces people to downsize and helps encourage them to live a more simplistic lifestyle.

However, the idea of living in such a tiny space can be daunting. It can be challenging to cut back on so much space, while still trying to maintain the functionality and homeliness of a house. Where and how do you go about starting? What do you downsize on and what do you keep? How can you turn a living space barely big enough to be an average-sized hotel room into a fully functioning home? While there are many ways to answer these questions, one way to start is by reviewing the less obvious comparison for inspiration. Downsizing from a regular house to a tiny house, or even from an apartment to a studio apartment is, in many ways, very similar to the move many college freshman make from their family’s household to a dorm room.

I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska in a two-story, three-bedroom house built by my dad. This house created a meaningful connection and an understanding of home for me by providing me with a safe space and comforting atmosphere that not only allowed me to learn and grow, but encouraged me to. I truly believe that a tremendous amount of who I am today was developed within these four walls. As a result, I am deeply rooted in the sense of home that was cultivated by this house.

In September of 2015, my dad and I packed up and hit the Alaska Highway, headed towards Bellingham, Washington and my future freshman year at Western Washington University. I was excited and incredibly terrified at the thought of leaving home. Even more so, I was intimidated by the idea of having my entire concept of a “home” changed from this large three-bedroom house that was so much a part of me, to a single, shared, 190 square foot room that I had no emotional attachment to whatsoever. I knew that in order to adapt to this new life, I would need my dorm to become my “home-away-from-home”. To do this, it had to first be versatile enough to serve as an entire house (bedroom, study room, living room, kitchen) within the span of one small room.

It is now nearing the end of January, and almost five months have passed since my transition into this new chapter of my life. Within this time, my dorm room has undergone a sort of transition of its own. While there are still a few problem areas in its functionality, it has been converted into a place that serves as both a house and a home for me. I have learned how to create an adaptable space within this place, and in doing so, I overcame my trepidation of moving into a seemingly limited and unfamiliar place. What follows is a review of how my small space (my dorm) serves its purpose, and I hope that reading it encourages, inspires, and informs any prospective downsizers for their next chapter.

Back to the Basics:

There are some bare necessities that every home needs to have. When I first got to my dorm, it was practically empty; the room contained no decoration and very minimal furniture — two desks, two chairs, two beds, two dressers, and two trashcans (one of each for me, one of each for my roommate). These basics were the foundation for creating a home atmosphere. The few extra things my roommate and I bought for the room were some kitchen appliances, a shelving unit, a dish chair, and a shoe rack. I have discovered that when decorating in a small space, it is important to keep it simple, with few furniture pieces that can serve a variety of purposes; this prevents the space from being over-crowded, and allows for the living space to have plenty of versatility.

“…the room contained no decoration and very minimal furniture — two desks, two chairs, two beds, two dressers, and two trashcans…”

The Fully-Functioning Bedroom:

In my somnolent opinion, the bedroom is one of the most important functions that the room serves. For me a bedroom needs to be a calm, cozy, comfortable space where I can unwind, relax, and sleep. Because I value this function so much, I have had a lot of success in using my dorm room as a bedroom.

Creating the calmness. In order for the bedroom to serve its purpose, it was crucial for it to be comprised of things that made me feel happy and warm. This included pictures of my family, friends, and fond memories; special keepsakes; and two blankets that I had received as graduation gifts — a beautiful, colorful quilt that was handmade by my lifelong friend’s mom, and an extremely soft, fuzzy blanket that was given to me by my best friend’s family. For me, these items contribute to the physical and emotional comfort of the room, and keep me warm both externally and internally. Personalization is key in creating a warm and comforting environment.

Investing in comfort. Because so much of a bedroom is about relaxation and sleep, it is critical for it to be comfortable. One of the biggest factors that provides this comfort for me is my 3-inch memory foam mattress topper. It has turned what I consider to be one of the most uncomfortable mattresses on the planet into a cloud of sleep-inducing softness. — every night is a good night’s rest because of it.

A warm light=a good night. Jill Connors from HGTV (a home improvement network) claims that “Because the bedroom is a room where a relaxing, sympathetic atmosphere is welcomed, it may be best to avoid central ceiling-mounted fixtures that might be perceived harshly when viewed from bed.” However, the dorm only came with harsh, ceiling-mounted fixtures — I had to come up with a way to have an easily accessible set of warm lights. I chose to create this relaxing glow with the dorm cliche: fairy lights. I strung some up on the wall by my bed to save on floor space, and to inspire an atmosphere that helps me to decompress after a long day of school and work.

“…these items contribute to the physical and emotional comfort of the room, and keep me warm both externally and internally.”

The Semi-Successful Study and Workroom:

Another important feature of a house is to have a place to get work done. In many houses, there is often even a completely separate room for this. However, in a small space it works to simply create a designated focus area.

Desk for Success. My personal focus space with the highest success rate is at my desk. I find myself getting the most out of my work session when I’m sitting at my desk upright, listening to an instrumental “Focus” playlist on Spotify, with the bright overhead light on to keep me alert and concentrated on the task at hand.

Beware of the bed. Unfortunately, the study aspect of my room lacks consistency in its success rate. I have found that sometimes the comfort of my bed will call to me from my desk and somehow lure me into it’s cozy trap. In fact, if my work can be done from my laptop, I’ll usually use a portable lapdesk and work from my bed. However, this can become a problem. According to information provided by The National Sleep Foundation, “Activities that make you anxious about sleeping such as finishing work or getting a head start on a project due next week can hinder the bond between sleep and your bedroom.”; meaning that by employing the space as a study, it risks falling short of its expectations as a bedroom. This is one of the problem areas of the room, but by using the overhead lighting for studying, and saving the fairy lights for relaxing, I am able to trick my brain into somewhat separating the study room from the bedroom.

“My personal focus space with the highest success rate is at my desk.”

The Makeshift Living Room:

Every house has to have a place for people to socialize in that is separate from the other rooms; (i.e. a den or living room). I wanted to create a comfortable space for hanging out with friends that didn’t feel like we were in a bedroom or a work room. This is where the necessity of versatile furniture became clear (or, in the case of the broke college student, the importance of improvising to make the best of what you’ve got).

Musical …chairs? One of the main components of a living room is comfortable sitting spaces for everyone. We often leave the foldable dish chair out for company, as well as the desk chairs, but if we have more than three guests, we no longer have enough chairs for everyone; this is where the improvisation comes in. Often times if there are many guests, or if we decide to have a movie night, we make a couch out of my bed. The best way to do this with little hassle is to put lots of comfy pillows against the wall and sit on the bed. For movie nights, we will even use a chair as a “TV stand’, and a laptop as a “TV”. With these little innovations, there is no need to clutter up the limited space with excess furniture, and everyone has a place to sit and socialize.

Bringing the living room to life. In other words, the room is only as good as the people in it. For a living room to serve the purpose of socialization, it should be filled with conversations, whether it be between friends/ acquaintances/ partners/ roommates/ etc.. My suitemate, Cejay spends a lot of time in my dorm (possibly even more time than in her own room). She helps to make it a successful living room, and says that she enjoys it so much because it’s “a fun environment to have open discussions and also to vent out [her] problems to [my roommate] Hannah and [I]”. Without these discussions and friendships animating our four walls, the living room would be more of a dead room.

“Often times if there are many guests, or if we decide to have a movie night, we make a couch out of my bed.”

The “Kitchen” and “Dining Room”:

As an always-hungry, sometimes-”hangry” college student, the need for a place to make and store food was a must. However, because dorm rooms are not equipped with stoves or ovens, its functionality as a kitchen is incredibly limited. Nonetheless, it often gets the job done in keeping my gurgling stomach at peace.

Knowing the necessities. We have three main kitchen appliances — a mini fridge, a microwave, and an electric kettle. None of these items take up too much space, and all can be used to make some pretty decent snacks and meals (like mac and cheese in a mug or instant oatmeal). The electric kettle is great, because it is one appliance that takes care of any and all uses that arise for hot water (for example, it makes coffee, tea, and hot chocolate without needing three separate machines!). By buying or keeping just the basic and necessary kitchen supplies, the room doesn’t feel overstocked with too much stuff.

Survival of the Fittest. Much like Darwin’s finches, the furniture that stands the test of time is one that can adapt to its environment. In this case, the versatility of the furniture once again prevails over the variety. For example, my desk is able to double as extra counter space, and even triple as a dining room table; this allows me to have a place to prepare my meal (much like a kitchen), as well as a place to eat it.

“…my desk is able to double as extra counter space, and even triple as a dining room table…”

While it’s functions may be somewhat limited when compared to a house, all it takes is some imagination and versatility to allow a small 190 (give or take) square foot room to operate as a bedroom, study, living room, kitchen, and most importantly, a place to live and grow. When you really get down to it, a dorm room serves its big purpose as being a “home”, and is quite comparable to many tiny houses and studio apartments that are so sought after nowadays. With ingenuity and finding inspiration in strange places (like dorm rooms), any potential tiny-homeowner can feel prepared and confident in their ability to adapt to a very small space and create a functional home.

Works Cited

“5 Things You Should Not Do in Your Bedroom | Sleep Study | Phoenix Arizona | Valley Sleep Center.” Sleep Study Phoenix Arizona Valley Sleep Center. N.p., 07 July 2010. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

Breaux, Adrienne. “The Pros of Living in a Studio Apartment — Austin.” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

Connors, Jill. “Lighting Tips for Every Room.” HGTV. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

Johnson, Cejay. “Interview with Cejay.” Personal interview. 18 Jan. 2016.

“What Is The Tiny House Movement?” The Tiny Life. N.p., 31 Aug. 2009. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

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