Designing For Small Spaces

Architect Don Helgeson

By Ann Dermody

Photo of Don Hegelson in his officeDon packs a lot of living into his 300-square-foot houseboat. He uses the front of the boat as an office to run his New Orleans architecture business and the back as living space.

That phrase, coined by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is a mantra that Don Helgeson takes to heart. The New Orleans-based architect lives in a renovated houseboat that doubles as his office. "I was very interested in building my own boat to live and work on. But it was going to be expensive, so I decided to buy something and redo it to my liking," he says. Four years ago, he found a houseboat in Pensacola, Florida, brought it to New Orleans, and set to work.

"A year ago, I pronounced it finished, in so far as a boat ever can be, and started living on it," he says. "In the marina, you start to develop a little community. That's been kind of fun."

As the boat is also Don's workspace, the 300 or so square feet means that every inch must count. "The front part is my office area, and the back part my living space. It's small but very comfortable, with a good use of space."

Don's been involved for years in designing small spaces. "What I've discovered studying this is that people need remarkably little space to live. They just need to be able to feel that it's more than it actually is. And you don't need that much stuff. People talk themselves into it. I know that. I'm divorced now, but I was married for 30 years and had a 2,800-square-foot house with a swimming pool and a big yard in the suburbs." While he'd downsized to a one-bedroom apartment of less than 1,000 square feet before moving onto the boat, it was still something of a learning process to scale back. "It forced me to go through an exercise that was very liberating," he says. "I had four piles. One for trash, one for the Salvation Army, one for the storage locker, and the fourth for stuff that was going on the boat. It really caused me to scrutinize what I used and determine what was important to me."

As Don wanted a boat with lots of windows for natural light to expand the space into the outside water environment, he rejected buying a sailboat or cruiser.

"I sacrificed a little bit in that I can't bring my boat out into the Gulf," he says. "But there are rivers on Lake Pontchartrain that are quiet, protected waterways, and you can anchor off a small lagoon and have total privacy and seclusion. I've got a generator on board that I crank up to run the AC, and I can cook on the electric stove. I've got all the comforts of home, but I've also got the quiet I look for on the water."

Aptly enough, the boat is called Less Is More. "I carry that phrase into my work when I design buildings for people. I try to understand their basic, real needs. Not just what they say on the surface. I try to dig down and figure out what they really require, and present that in a way that's economical but tastefully designed. It's part of my lifestyle as well as my professional philosophy now." 

— Published: December 2015

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