Home Decor

How Our Family Finds Comfort in a 400-Square-Foot Home

We’ve always loved life in our tiny cottage. But will this year change that?

September 12, 2020
Photo by Whitney Leigh Morris

In Our World, Before & After, we're asking our favorite culture writers, cooks, and home/design experts to describe how life will be different after COVID-19—with essays on cooking and being at home, the new ways and foods we’ll eat, plus travel guides (both real and imagined).


My family has long lived and worked in a small space. Since the onset of the pandemic in our region, I’ve been relieved that the walls haven’t closed in on us. While our worlds have shrunk, our beloved tiny home, thankfully, has not.

We’ve lived in our less-than-400-square-foot cottage in Venice Beach, Calif., for nearly a decade, and I’ve operated my small business from home that entire time. In recent years, my husband and business partner, our preschooler, our two rescue beagles, and I have lived side by side, day in, day out.

On some mornings pre-COVID-19, my husband and our son would pair off to tackle adventures around town, providing me with time alone to write, edit, and consult with clients. Such casual excursions are now no longer an option for those living in large cities.

Getting outside is different here than it is in less-populated towns. The sheer number of people we pass while walking our dogs or biking to conduct essential errands is high enough without risking nonessential activities—most of which are inaccessible anyway. Our beloved local library remains closed. The museums at which we hold memberships have shut their doors. And some local shops are slowly locking up for good.

While our home and its narrow thoroughfare garden are a safe haven that we’re fortunate to be able to continue to rent, our bubble basically stops at the lot line. And, in the long run, that is the problem—not the size of our cherished little cottage.


When my husband and I first stumbled across our house, we didn’t give a single thought to its square footage (or lack thereof). We were drawn to its numerous windows, vaulted ceilings, pocket doors, and functional form. Every single day since, we’ve noted in one way or another just how much we love this spot, and how lucky we are to be here.

Some might see our space as limiting, but in truth, it has expanded our world immensely.

For years we’ve enjoyed the ease with which we could pedal our cargo bike to the beach, walk to the market, and canoe among the ducks and cormorants while waving to our neighbors strolling over nearby footbridges. We’ve delighted in the fact that it never takes more than half an hour to clean our entire cottage from top to bottom. And we’ve learned to dance with and around each other over our worn-out floors in a natural, joyful rhythm.

Photo by Whitney Leigh Morris

The decision to live in the sprawling, expensive, and often inconvenient city of Los Angeles is one that our family continued to commit to for the regional and cultural benefits. There is an abundance of public parks and natural retreats, access to museums, close proximity to a never-ending list of live performances, and (mostly) temperate weather that encourages a myriad of daily outings and events, year-round.

Now, abruptly, all of those things are inaccessible. So we’re left wondering what remains. We have no family here, and our friends are scattered throughout the region, each with their own teetering schedules and safety protocols. The question isn’t whether or not our house is too small for long-term sheltering in place. Instead, it's how sustainable is living within this cocoon—regardless of its square footage?

Still, perspective is key. We have a roof over our heads, access to clean water and healthy food, and devices (paired with connectivity) that help us maintain our workload and relationships. In this moment, as throughout our entire lives, the members of this household have benefited from the kind of societal privilege that needs to be acknowledged and paid forward.

The question isn’t whether or not our house is too small for long-term sheltering in place. Instead, it's how sustainable is living within this cocoon—regardless of its square footage?
Photo by Whitney Leigh Morris

For now, we are letting this ever-smaller world guide us. Outside of our immediate bubble, we discover where to donate food, home goods, bedding and funds. And within our immediate bubble, we check in with folks from over fence lines and from rooftops to ask what is needed by all. We swap books and kitchen supplies. We bundle bulk food orders with our neighbors. We now compost together rather than as an individual household. We share the produce we grow, as others share their bounty with us.

Our home is also more functional and appreciated than ever before. From our garden, Adam and I routinely set up our own, miniature nature school and playground for our child, and do so with whatever items are already available to us. When he’s ready to step inside, I swap places with him and my husband, shuffling my office outside, the dogs by my side.

Outside of our immediate bubble, we discover where to donate food, home goods, bedding and funds. And within our immediate bubble, we check in with folks from over fence lines to ask what is needed by all. We swap books and kitchen supplies. We bundle bulk food orders with our neighbors.

More than a dozen years of living small (here and elsewhere) has taught us how to manage being within inches of one another for months on end. And, for us, these recent months have solidified our love of living simply. We fine-tuned the art of setting up and breaking down pop-up offices and home learning activities long ago, but what is newer to us since being home together nonstop is that most of our household rules and careful divisions of responsibilities are now fully out the door. Mealtimes are fluid. Activities are devised on the spot rather than planned in advance (unlike those early, ambitious weeks in March). Family movie night can be any night. Yet, these sorts of changes have been surprisingly welcome.

What we were not prepared for, however, was the whittling away of the area surrounding us—that expanded world we so deeply relished—and how each step beyond our home and garden now feels like a step into the unknown.

Has this year changed the way you feel about your own space? Tell us in the comments below!

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Adi
    Adi
  • Chris Marin
    Chris Marin
  • Tati
    Tati
  • Sam Muldoon
    Sam Muldoon
  • meryl selig
    meryl selig
Comment
You don’t need to live large to live beautifully.

20 Comments

Adi September 23, 2020
Hi! Does anyone know where the standing table/desk is from in the last image (on the steps)?
 
Arati M. September 24, 2020
Hi Adi, as per Whiney's Instagram post, I believe it's from a seller on Etsy (https://www.instagram.com/p/CERqB_1BwPx/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link).
 
Adi September 24, 2020
Thank you! I figured that question was a long shot. I really appreciate you reposting here.
 
Chris M. September 20, 2020
I didn't want the narrative to end! I was waiting for more. I live with my partner in 2500 square feet with the dog and the cat. It is much too big for us. But, because of Covid, we have children who may well need to return and live with us. We are as eco-friendly and zero waste as is possible, sometimes a tad over the top. (A friend just offered to bring me brownies but I knew she would go to the store and buy them in plastic, so, no, thank you.) Some days I am envious of California sunshine, but I love autumn and I love snow, so here we stay.
 
Tati September 17, 2020
Such a wonderfully inspirational post! It is so great being reminded that you don’t need much to be happy, especially in the times like these. Thank you for sharing your cozy little oasis, really something to strive for and admire. This is “Less is more” at its best.
 
Sam M. September 17, 2020
Let me first commend the author for creating a visual honesty in her words. When I lived in a modern high rise in LA while I had a friend living in Venice and thought I had it made. I look back (30yrs) and realize the happiest times were when I stayed at her little home after too much partying the night before... there was a beautiful inner peace there. It was/is a village unto itself. I now live deep in the woods on 20 acres in a "lodgy" cabin and smile when I remember my too few days in my friend's small space in Venice. Thank you for again reminding me.
 
meryl S. September 17, 2020
I am very familiar with Venice and its lovely walk-streets and gardens. The small home looks beautifully and thoughtfully curated. The 400-sq-ft label seems a tad misleading, however. The outdoor space is also fully utilized, and the climate enables you to use that space almost year-round. Would the author's romantic experience of her home and family life be the same if she, family and dogs were in a same-sized apartment in the Bronx?
 
FS September 17, 2020
When the child grows up there will be 3 adults plus pets. Quite a lot to cram into 400 square ft ...
 
meryl S. September 17, 2020
Wait 'til the little one is about 10 years old or has siblings. The lovely spot will not be cozy. We also conform to our surroundings; the author lives in Venice, a unique, wonderful place that cherishes its indoor/outdoor fluidity, community-closeness, and affluence.
 
Arati M. September 24, 2020
Hi Meryl, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Just to clarify: her cottage itself is actually less than 400 sq ft. Also, if you've seen pictures of what that lush garden looked like when she moved in...let's just say it makes the most jaw-dropping before and after :) I think that in itself points to the way (at least that I've seen) Whitney thinks through space and makes things feel open and fluid (she does mention she's lucky to have the kind of weather to enjoy it). But you're so right about tight apartment spaces...I live in New York where any outdoor space is a real luxury...
 
FS September 16, 2020
Some people can live in close quarters and even share them with family members, pets and friends. I need room for my books and craft supplies, plus a little elbow room for myself. My current home is average size at 1,2oo square foot. Compared to the author's home, my kitchen is half the size as her entire cottage. My home is shared by two adults and several pets. Another bedroom would be nice, as would be a second bathroom.
The author uses the outside as an extension of her home, which is good and well. My home state isn't blessed with the mild CA climate, which makes my home a refuge from the heat and humidity of summer.
I learned about the importance of living space in Alaska. Living in a small house gave me a nasty case of cabin fever even though I took daily walks regardless of weather. Having a large kitchen is a luxury I enjoy every day. Tiny house living may work for others but it doesn't do a thing for me.
 
MJC2020 September 14, 2020
I appreciate your ability to find comfort in a simple life. This is our goal as well as we prepare for a simpler, calmer, more beautiful lifestyle. We don't think we can find it in California, we live in OC, and need a little bit more elbow room.
Cheers!
 
Catriona B. September 14, 2020
As a Canadian living in a small urban college town, I’m doing quite well COVID-wise compared to those in some other large urban areas and different countries. Being a solitary and introverted apartment-dweller with 5 cats for company, I have not found that my world and its parameters have changed all that much during the pandemic. I was never a social butterfly. It’s never been a problem accessing food, or household supplies... I have my work, which I can do from anywhere, and my Netflix subscription for entertainment. I do miss the symphony, the theatre, and most of all I miss evenings out with close friends at restaurants and spending time over craft cocktails, talking for hours and basking in the warmth of friendship. I have no idea how this will play out. I’m not young, and I have limited time left to engage with the world, to travel and see, hear and taste everything there is to be experienced. I hope we can get back to life soon, or relatively soon. Even for an introvert, isolation can be difficult.
 
Julia H. September 13, 2020
As a family of 5 in a 500sqft bungalow.. this is pretty much how we live too.

Before covid lockdown, I was able to build a 100sqft zoom-studio in the backyard for online meetings.. really glad we did!

I spend most of my time out in the yard working on projects or gardening. It surprisingly doesn't feel cramped or lacking in environments.

 
Sarah September 13, 2020
Your place is inspiring It looks fresh and green and cozy. Thanks for sharing your writing and story.
 
Arati M. September 13, 2020
I so agree with you! Whitney’s approach to living with a smaller footprint really inspires me.
 
eileen September 12, 2020
I agree, Was thinking 5 people, mainly parents + 3 kiddos. But, that being said, I think a huge effort that has resulted in enviable closeness that is missed in the enormous houses where there isn't the connection. Thank you for reminding me that one can always find that silver lining!
 
Georgine September 12, 2020
This is a clickbait-and-switch headline; 5 people is not the same as 3 people and 2 dogs.
 
Karen S. September 12, 2020
The heading is "As a Family of 5". I didn't read it as 5 people. Maybe because we are a family of 4, 2 humans 2 dogs. Family nonetheless.
 
Susan N. September 12, 2020
Beautiful surroundings and an uplifting story, until the part about " unearned societal privilege".