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Home Design and Setup Tips for Short People, By a Short Person

Height measurement chart on a white wall.

Short people need more universal home design, not stepladders. It’s great to see universal design principles being incorporated in newer homebuilding, but since older homes are more plentiful and cheaper to buy and rent, this is how we make it work.

Podcast Version

One of the most annoying things about buying or renting the average home is that interior designers tend to only make the spaces amenable for a person who’s at least 5’7”. If you live in a prewar apartment in New York, they assumed you were as tall as Shaquille O’Neal and it boggles the mind that they seriously expected housewives to be able to reach things in the kitchen cabinets that practically touch the ceiling.

The only thing that’s even more annoying than these architectural standards that are far from universal? Is when you express these woes and your taller friends say, “Why don’t you just get a stepladder?”

Buddy. I’m gonna show you where to put that stepladder. 

Do YOU wanna step on and climb up one of those things and take a major injury risk every time you want to get some breadcrumbs or coffee? And have to pull it out and put it away EVERY. Single. Time? Yeah, I didn’t think so. I can hear you nodding “no” all the way from the gridlock on the Cross Bronx. STOP SUGGESTING THIS. It is non-advice. It is wanted even less than a Limp Bizkit reunion. It is tallsplaining, and we so greatly tire of it. It is as clueless as men who come up to me at games and media conferences and seriously tell me, “But don’t we live in a women’s world now?” NO CHADWICK, WE DO NOT. Still a man’s world. Still a tall people’s world.

But you can rejoice, fellow short people totally vexed by their dwellings and are about to deck the next person who suggests a stepladder. I’m only five feet tall and have lived in these tiny spaces totally not designed for us my entire adult life, so I’m speaking from firsthand experience! And if you’re not short: send this article to the short people in your life. They’re going to love for it so much more, instead of silently wishing you’d step on a bunch of rakes like Sideshow Bob for suggesting they just buy a stepladder one more fucking time.

via GIPHY

But first up: why are homes just NOT designed for short people?

Spacious living room with tall ceiling.

Homebuilders don’t think short people exist. Or that the only short people who inhabit homes are children, who aren’t supposed to be independent or ever get into anything. Exclusionary dickheads, the whole lot of them.

As today’s builders are starting to embrace universal design, yesteryear’s builders tried to study trends to see how tall the average resident is in American homes. They found that while they weren’t really getting much taller over time, the demand for high ceilings grew nonetheless. It’s because they’re considered an “affordable luxury” and became synonymous with obnoxious McMansions. Higher ceilings also mean having to create taller doors and building up instead of out as far as a room’s utility goes, although you have to do the same when you have an incredibly small apartment or tiny house to work with.

Short adults are just considered this novelty, the butt of jokes, and it’s assumed that we’re not living independently because clearly the only people under 5’3” are children, elderly, or disabled. So yes, the housing being harder for shorter people to use is also an accessibility issue even if you are not disabled.

Because let’s get real. The way that we use space and have to economize with it is so much different than an average-height resident. It makes small spaces like the average studio apartment a LOT harder to work with because we need to build out more than build-up, and shouldn’t have to require owning a stepladder. Seriously, fuck stepladders with a rusty chainsaw.

If you’re not already doing this in your home, here are some tried and true tips!

Shelf-Savers Are a Lifesaver for Tall Kitchen Cabinets

Pots and pans inside a cabinet.

Shelf-saver? Shelf spacer? Shelf within a shelf? Whatever they’re called, you can usually find them in the home organization section at Target, Amazon, and any other major retailer. They’re super, super direly important if you’re short and stuck with kitchen cabinets only the late great Peter Steele could reach. One or two of these puppies will totally transform your cabinet into something you can actually use without straining yourself.

This cheat sheet of interior design metrics the average homeowner and decorator should know made me LOLSOB in “countertop-free NYC apartment”. It suggests that kitchen cabinets should be 18” above the countertop (sink with a clipboard’s worth of countertop, in my case). I went to my kitchen with this measurement and shook my head the whole time. If these irksome shits were 6” above the countertop instead, it would make the entire unit usable to me instead of just the bottom shelf and having to keep only silicone bakeware and other feather-light items on the second shelf to avoid the risk of injury or my kitchen looking like a bar fight just went down.

If you’re getting the cabinets removed in a remodel job or haven’t settled in, run some tests with them to see what height will work for your particular setup if you want to avoid that dreaded s-word. But if you’re renting and/or it’s going to be too much hassle to lower the cabinets, the shelf-saver is the way to go, and they can be easily repurposed anywhere to create more storage space.

Consider Freestanding Wardrobes and Bookcases For Storage

A minimalist red bathroom with gray freestanding tub and gray tile flooring.

If the shelves, cabinets, and other furniture and fixtures in your home aren’t usable in their current state, or can’t be easily modified, some freestanding furniture could solve your problems.

I use a hand-me-down bookcase as a pantry because it’s only four feet tall and the top can be used for storage. While my bedroom came with a decent-sized closet, it’s nowhere near large enough for the Wardrobe of Doom. I needed a full-length mirror so I bought this cool freestanding wardrobe with a mirror door and attached of those accordion-like hanging storage things with “shelves” made of strong cloth on the closet rod within. The closet rod lowered the hanging shelves so I can reach my sweaters without having to strain myself.

Taller people can just put things up on higher shelves or take advantage of those kitchen cabinets (*cough cough* this is why minimalism is a fucking privilege) and their top shelves or even put things on top of the actual cabinet. But when you can’t reach very high, you have no choice but to build laterally since building up can only go so high.

Wood and bracket open shelving mounted on white walls.

But if you just want shelves, standards and brackets are the way to go. They come in so many different styles and colors and you can see which height makes the most sense. Because I can’t use my kitchen cabinets as-is, I made room for my plates, containers, and mugs by installing two standard and bracket shelves under the bottom shelf. I have a huge lovely linen closet where I am now, but I didn’t in my old place so I put up two shorty-friendly shelves with easily-reachable storage baskets for my towels and beauty products near the bathroom.

If you can’t wall-mount things because of annoying old drywall, freestanding furniture is a lifesaver. You can also take it with you when you move without having to rebuild it, or just transport it to another room if you eventually change the setup or install shelves.

Build Out and Not Up with Wider Furniture

Nordli Chest with 12 drawers by IKEA

Freestanding wardrobes can still run the risk of being too tall, so you really have to go to the store to try things out or take VERY careful measurements to know for sure you’ll be able to safely use it. But since shorter people tend to have to build out, think wide and not tall if you have sufficient space to do so.

I have this particular dresser in my bedroom, the Nordli model from IKEA. Funny story, I initially bought it because I needed something heavy and sturdy that could support a three-foot-wide, 50-pound glass hutch tank for one very spoiled toad. After we moved, Miss Yael T. Toad got a basic table with very high legs for her house then I just used the Nordli as a regular bedroom dresser. I added a few Target Home Essentials shelves on top of it to build up just a little so I could have the best of both worlds. (Still got clothes laying everywhere though!)

Bedroom dressers are usually not as much of a struggle for short folks compared to cabinets, shelving, and other storage that puts an emphasis on building up and not out. But if you’re short and have to maximize your space while being physically unable to build up that high, get creative with how you can build-out. Wider furniture and turning everything possible into different means of storage such as captains’ beds, storage ottomans, and drawers everywhere. Drawers in the desk, additional dividers in your existing drawers, little Sterilite and Rubbermaid drawer chests. Get all Marie Kondo and spark joy like a motherfucker by making this dump actually usable for a short person, while you curse the names of those lousy bigoted homebuilders.

Don’t Overlook the Kids’ Department!

A kid's bedroom with bunk storage bed, open shelving cabinet, and painted walls with a window.

Confession Time: I’m still totally an IKEA kid in my mid-thirties. 

As in I’ve literally bought things from the children’s department for myself. I am a taxpaying homeowner with an LLC and an IRA who has traveled around the country and the world, and you bet your ass that I have several pieces in my lovely crapshack in the southeast Bronx that came from IKEA (especially since you no longer have to schlep to New Jersey to go there now.)

I didn’t think Pottery Barn really had anything I’d be interested in until I saw Pottery Barn Kids and realized that either the human or the toad in this household would love some of those pieces. Building a nice playset for your toad is important!

Depending on your height, you may need to look to the kids’ department purely for functionality reasons while some of us can straddle between the regular furniture and pieces designed for children. While many of these items are not meant to support an adult weight, which is an important drawback to consider for things like chairs and beds depending on how much you weigh, things like kids’ computer desks and wardrobes can be lifesavers for adults who don’t clear 5’3”. 

Since those don’t have weight-bearing elements, you can find some serious gems. I’ll never forget the look on the sales guy’s face when I was asking about how to customize this Barbie-pink computer desk and he thought I was buying it for my daughter, and I laughed before responding, “No, this is for my home office! It’s JUST my height!”

Shopping from the kids’ department comes with two serious bonuses: you can find cool colors and patterns that you just can’t get elsewhere unless you pay handsomely for customization, AND often these pieces will be cheaper than adult furniture and with the same quality. Sometimes, they’re even more sturdily built under the assumption that children will be rougher on them! That’s definitely been the case for my Stuva freestanding wardrobe I’ve used to store office supplies and business equipment. I’ve had it for seven years in two different apartments with nary a scratch. Unlike the Micke computer desk where the hinge eventually came off the cabinet portion at random one day.

All it takes is some imagination. Take this STUVA/Fritids combo from IKEA.

Stuva Fritids Loft Bed Combo with 4 Drawers and 2 Doors by IKEA

Depending on how able-bodied you are, that bed on top can be a dream or a nightmare. But depending on just which of 5 feet that you’re on, this is some fantastic storage space you got on top of your workstation. This is perfect for your average thimble-sized NYC studio if you’re not tall. SO much storage is already built into this one piece, and you can add even more by attaching those hanging storage kits onto the rungs (which coincidentally, are also sold in the kids’ department at IKEA! #NotSponsored) as well as a little something on the left side of the desk, like a storage cube or one of those Rubbermaid or Sterilite mini chest-of-drawers.

Hell, I wouldn’t sleep on that. I’d just get a little mattress pad and rest my computer tower and speakers on top, and see if I could slide a gaming chair underneath it.

 

Short people need more universal home design, not stepladders. It’s great to see universal design principles being incorporated in newer homebuilding, but since older homes are more plentiful and cheaper to buy and rent, this is how we make it work. Now send this to the short people in your life instead of saying the s-word again. And if you’re in the club, I must tell you about the capri pants I bought that are PANTS pants and fit like a glove.

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