Help! My apartment is too small... make the most of your apartment

Help! My apartment is too small...

I’ve had a couple of enquiries recently from apartment owners who are beginning to think about what they could do to increase their sense of space. It’s got me thinking in general about apartments, and about what to do when your  life is moving on but negative equity has you staying put. I’ve come across plenty of people in houses over the last three years in what they originally thought were “starter-homes” and that they are now re-evaluating with a longer term view. And if there are people in this situation in houses, then there are also plenty of similar ones in apartments. While it is true that extensions are often on the cards for the house-dweller, it is also true that there are always options for improvements that don’t involve extending at all. Often the budget to build an extension just isn’t there, or isn’t justified. So there is always a “no-build” option – focusing on the key points as listed below: storage, layout, improvements, decoration and a few others. And these are also 100% relevant to apartments and their owners. So, with the experience of several successful “no-build” house projects behind me, and my own “previous” as a designer of apartment buildings, not to mention having lived in 1, 2 and 3-bed apartments before buying my own slice of negative equity...

... here are my top tips for making the most of your apartment:


First off, the usual advice for limited space applies: storage is crucial when you don’t have a dumping ground (when’s the last time you saw a car in someone’s garage?). You need to look at your stuff, and look at yourself, and be ruthless about what you can live without. Or if you want to keep something for some future time, then consider off site storage. The better apartments built a few years ago had individual “lock-ups” in the basement for containing the overflow (or the surfboard).

You will instinctively know where you sit on the scale from calmingly minimal to charmingly cluttered, and the way you deal with your stuff should reflect this part of your personality. It will look better and fit your life better this way.

The main way someone like me can help here is by designing storage that reflects your personality, and works with the available space. Sometimes that’s about a unit that is just the right size. Sometimes it’s about making the most of particular things you want to see or show off – prized possessions. And sometimes it could be a more carefully worked out solution that solves several problems at once – such as a storage wall that both holds your stuff and divides your space. A special case that calls for this kind of “two birds with one stone” approach is the apartment “home office”. In an apartment, having the right kind of storage makes all the difference.

To see an example of a storage makeover to a house, click here...

Layout - making space without adding space:

Developer apartments are designed mainly in a “tick the boxes” manner, and are designed for “what the market wants”, which is never really what’s best for any given individual. The layouts that result are often not as suitable as they might be. (This is the same for the typical estate house by the way.) Whenever I’m brought in to advise on extending a house I start by looking at what can be improved in the existing layout, reducing the amount of space that has to be added. That same principle applies to apartments – with the obvious difference that extending is not among the options. Internal apartment walls are usually non-structural and relatively easy to reconfigure. The result can be a radically different series of spaces, functioning better for the way you want to use it, and better reflecting your personality. If you tear up the rulebook there is a lot of freedom to make something that is just right for you.


There are quite a few things that are covered by this heading. Some could be seen as problems without solutions – such as soundproofing levels – although there are measures that can be taken to improve things. A big issue with apartments is the quality of lighting and ventilation to bathrooms, ensuites and kitchens as well as to the main rooms in some cases. There are systems out there, relatively cheap to fit, that can make a big improvement to the air quality in an apartment. Insulation levels (particularly on older apartments) can be looked at either individually or as a block-wide strategy.

And it goes without saying that a lot of the usual improvements for houses also apply to apartments. So new kitchen units, new bathroom suites (especially in older apartments), decoration, finishes etc. can all be looked at.

Decoration and furniture:

I’m not claiming to be an interiors genius (darling), but there are plenty of tricks out there to make a space look, well, spacious. Using a single continuous floor material is one. Judicious use of paint colours and tones. Mirrors in the right place. Furniture that’s not too bulky. Good lighting. The list is endless, and there is no shortage of inspiration out there in books and magazines. Don’t be afraid to break the rules though. You can paint a small room dark if you want to.

Doing something:

If you’ve been spending too much time moping around Daft or myhome and thinking about negative equity, then even something as basic as a lick of paint, or hanging a picture can help you feel more in control of your space, rather than limited by it. You don’t have to break the bank to regain a little house-pride.

The special cases:

Not all apartments are middle-floor, 6-metre wide, two-beds. There are also duplexes, which can be turned upside down to create open, spacious rooflit living areas. There are top floor apartments which can be extended into roof terraces or set-backs. There are ground floor apartments which can be extended in some cases.

The dark side...

One issue with apartments is that, being parts of complex buildings involving multiple owners, there is level of complexity not found with houses. There are more potential hurdles to get over to do things with them. Parameters of existing fire certs must be obeyed, or else a revised fire cert obtained. Leasehold conditions can be restricting. Ditto for management company rules. And if you are in one of the apartments that could be extended (say a top floor set-back unit), then planning is not so straightforward. These factors mean that often a bit more initial research is required to figure out what obstacles lie between you and what you want to do.

And the bright side...!

And last but not least, some mention has to be made of the positive aspects of apartment living. They are often centrally located, better connected to amenities, public transport, urban centres, places of work, schools etc. They support population densities that lead to such amenities. There is no grass to cut, there are no gutters to clean. They are easy to heat. There is always someone around. And if the time comes where you decide to move on, they are often easy to rent out.

To test my theory that there are apartment dwellers out there who could benefit from tips like these, I’m hoping to enlist some volunteers through the Simon Open Door weekend, coming up in May. I am doing eight of these charity home consultations over the course of the weekend, and hope to make it to at least four apartments. Check out

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About Small Spaces

small spaces is a one-man architectural practice dedicated to helping people find the best way to add space to their home, or to make the most of what they’ve got. You can find out more here.