7 Tips for Making a Small House Bigger

California architect Cathy Schwabe designed a large-looking 840-square foot cottage. How did she do it? Tour a small house floor plan, inside and out.

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Multiple Roof Lines

Front of Mendocino County Wooden Cottage Designed by California Architect Cathy Schwabe
Photo by David Wakely courtesy Houseplans.com

The first thing we noticed about this California haven is the interesting rooflines. Shed roofs combine with a gable roof to make this coastal sanctuary seem much larger than its 840 square feet.

"This was one of my favorite projects," architect Cathy Schwabe told one reader at houzz.com. Schwabe custom-designed this "readers' retreat" for a piece of land just north of San Francisco, in Gualala, near the Sea Ranch planned community. She's familiar with the territory—her mentor, Joseph Esherick (1914-1998), was the original 1960s architect of what become known as the Hedgerow Houses at Sea Ranch. Thirty years later, Schwabe worked for Esherick, and her home designs reflect Schwabe's sustainable timber style.

Purchase the Plans for This House

Building plans for this Mendocino County custom home are now available as stock plans—check out Plan #891-3 at Houseplans.com. Usually stock plans derived from custom plans have been revised many times. If you purchase a stock plan such as this one, you may also decide to change some details. For example, this plan could be adapted to create additional roof overhang to divert rainwater.

The Builder's Challenge

Reportedly, the home you see here cost $335 per square foot back in 2006. Can the house be constructed at that price today? The answer depends on labor costs in your region and the materials your contractor uses. Stock house plans are often amended to accommodate the buyer's budget. Nevertheless, a good builder will strive to honor the architect's original vision.

Let's look more at Schwabe's design and figure out how the architect makes such a small house look so big.

Sources: Comment to Reader's Question at houzz.com; "Small House Secrets" by Charles Miller, Fine Homebuilding, The Taunton Press, October / November 2013, p. 48 (PDF) [accessed March 21, 2015]; Joseph Esherick Collection, 1933-1985 (PDF), Online Archive of California [accessed April 28, 2015]

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Build Around One Grand Space

Mendocino County Cottage Signature Houseplan, 840 sq ft, by Architect Cathy Schwabe
Image courtesy Houseplans.com

When I look at Plan #891-3 from Houseplans.com, I realize how traditional the design is—really, the floor plan is just two rectangles stuck together. Yet the exterior appears modular and modern. How does architect Cathy Schwabe make an 840-square-foot home look so big?

All of the living space revolves around a large, central, open area she calls the "Main Space." Building around this one large living area seems to expand the adjoining spaces. It's like a central campfire that throws large shadows.

The Main Space is an open kitchen/living room measuring approximately 30 feet by 14 feet. This area has a large shed roof seen from the front. A smaller shed roof covers the Master Bedroom, seen from the back. The floor plan doesn't convey the vault ceilings and clerestory windows, which bring interior volume to Schwabe's design.

Schwabe might have made the bedroom longer, and the deck smaller, but the sense of proportion in this plan is geometrically divine—at 10 feet by 14 feet, the Master Bedroom is aesthetically ratioed with the Main Space.

Source: Plan Description, Houseplans.com [accessed April 15, 2015]

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Create Multi-Functional Modular Areas

Entryway of Mendocino County Wooden Cottage by California Architect Cathy Schwabe
Photo by David Wakely courtesy Houseplans.com

The main entry of Houseplans.com's Plan #891-3 leads to a mudroom near a bathroom, laundry, and guest room/study. The chores of everyday living all take place from this small space. In fact, this gable-roofed module could stand on its own as a tiny house by simply adding a kitchenette.

Architect Cathy Schwabe used natural slate flooring with a cleft finish to lead directly to the 14 x 8 foot study. The slated mudroom is 5 x 8 foot, connected to the bath and laundry room, which is nearly square at 8 x 8-5/6 foot. A doorway leads to the kitchen which has clerestory windows set into the highest position of its shed roof. With views of grand heights, there's no time to feel cramped.

Note also that the red color of the door is brought into the kitchen with a red table. The blue bench is a handy drop-off point for shoes, hats, and books.

Small-house architects often use this type of entry area to maximize space and to accommodate modern-day lifestyles. Marianne Cusanto, who became well-known for her Katrina cottage designs, calls these spaces the drop zone. Gone are the days of the grand entry foyer. In today's busy households, most people enter through a side or back door, drop off their stuff, and head to the bathroom, kitchen, and living areas.

Cusato's book The Just Right Home discusses the drop zone and many other inspirational ideas practiced by small-house architects.

Sources: Plan Description, Houseplans.com [accessed April 15, 2015]; Cathy Schwabe's Comment to question, houzz.com [accessed March 21, 2015]

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Embrace Open, Natural Livable Space

Kitchen of Mendocino County Wooden Cottage by California Architect Cathy Schwabe
Photo by David Wakely courtesy Houseplans.com

Architect Cathy Schwabe has designed a grand space for living in the Mendocino County House—similar to the daytime wing of the Perfect Little House by Brachvogel and Carosso. The kitchen is part of the Main Space of this 840-square-foot California haven.

In addition to the red-colored kitchen table melding interiors with the red entry door, natural wood and soft green limestone counters harmonize this larger space with the smaller entryway.

Schwabe used Marvin® double hung windows in the kitchen—aluminum exteriors and wooden interiors. She applied black interior paint with a purpose. "I was experimenting with something I had been told once about the difference in effect and perception between black and white painted windows," Schwabe has said, "so I used both in this house—in this large room with wood walls I used the black and in all other rooms which were painted Sheetrock I used white." She used Blomberg® for the clerestory windows, which brings abundant natural light into the shed-roofed kitchen.

Source: Cathy Schwabe Comment to question, houzz.com [accessed March 21, 2015]

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Blend the Lines Between Outside and Inside

Interior Main Space of Mendocino County Cottage by California Architect Cathy Schwabe
Photo by David Wakely courtesy Houseplans.com

A great, windowed living area is steps away from the kitchen table in the Main Space of this 840-square-foot California retreat. What makes a small living area look so big?

  • No window treatments
  • Black painted window frames, as in the kitchen area
  • Track lighting economizes floor space
  • A 10 x 16 foot Rear Deck, added to the 14-foot width of the Main Space makes a 24 foot wide indoor/outdoor living area
  • Vertical grain Douglas fir tongue-and-groove flooring used on the walls

"Flooring works fine for all surfaces," claims architect Cathy Schwabe.

Source: Plan Description, Houseplans.com [accessed April 15, 2015]; Cathy Schwabe Comment to question, houzz.com [accessed March 21, 2015]

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Abundant Natural Light Creates Large Interiors

Back View of Mendocino County Cottage Designed by California Architect Cathy Schwabe
Photo by David Wakely courtesy Houseplans.com

Architect Cathy Schwabe takes perfect advantage of a shed roof.

The rear view of the house shows the clerestory windows at the height of the shed roof. But these windows direct light to different areas of the interior space. While the right-hand set of horizontal windows allows light into the living area of the Main Space, the middle three clerestory windows unite the living and kitchen spaces. With great symmetry and proportion, the left-hand set of windows, located above the master bedroom, bring sunlight (and fresh air, if the windows are operable) into the kitchen space.

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Board-and-Batten Vertical Exterior Siding

Vertical Exterior Siding on the Mendocino County Cottage by Architect Cathy Schwabe, AIA
Photo by David Wakely courtesy Houseplans.com

What makes this Mendocino County home seem so big? Architect Cathy Schwabe plays with our senses and tricks our perceptions, in part by using vertical siding inside and out.

Similar to her design for the Russian River Studio, Schwabe uses Western Red Cedar board-and-batten siding on the exterior of the Mendocino hideaway. In the interior Main Space, tongue-and-groove flooring is installed vertically as wall paneling. This is just one of Schwabe's tricks for making a small home seem much larger than its 840 square feet.

The stock plans of Cathy Schwabe are offered for sale by Housplans.com.

  • Mendocino House (shown here): Plan #891-3
  • Russian River Studio: Plan #891-1

About the Architect, Cathy Schwabe:

  • 2001-present: Cathy Schwabe Architecture, Oakland, CA; Certified Green Building Professional and LEED AP
  • 1990–2001: Senior Associate/Director of House Studio, Esherick Homsey Dodge and Davis (EHDD); licensed in 1991 (CA)
  • 1989–1990: Architectural Designer, Hirshen Trumbo & Associates, Berkeley, CA
  • 1985–1989: Architectural Designer, Simon, Martin-Vegue, Winkelstein, Moris, San Francisco, CA
  • 1985: M.Arch, Architecture, University of California, Berkeley, CA
  • 1978: BA, History, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts

Sources: Green Features, Mendocino County House [accessed May 4, 2015]; Cathy Schwabe, LinkedIn; Curriculum Vitae (PDF) [accessed April 14, 2015]

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Craven, Jackie. "7 Tips for Making a Small House Bigger." ThoughtCo, Aug. 13, 2021, thoughtco.com/making-a-small-house-bigger-design-177320. Craven, Jackie. (2021, August 13). 7 Tips for Making a Small House Bigger. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/making-a-small-house-bigger-design-177320 Craven, Jackie. "7 Tips for Making a Small House Bigger." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/making-a-small-house-bigger-design-177320 (accessed June 10, 2023).