Whether you currently live in a small condo, are moving into one, or are planning to rent it out (or perhaps to place it on Airbnb), you’ll probably be on the lookout for design ideas for your small condo unit.
But for some reason or another, a major renovation is just not in the cards. It could be because of budget (or the lack thereof), or because you have no other place to live in while a remodel is ongoing. There’s no point in going down the Pinterest rabbit hole, saving pin after pin, when you know you won’t be able to implement a lot of ideas.
If you start feeling like your situation is helpless/hopeless, read on. I’m listing down specific steps and design ideas you can do to upgrade your small condo unit, even when you can’t take on a major renovation.
Before anything else: Take stock of the facts
Whenever many of our eDesign clients decide on doing a refresh or update of their condos, most of the time they get on Pinterest, Houzz, or Google to check for looks they can cop. While getting inspiration is all well and good, it shouldn’t be the very first thing you should do when taking on a home project like this.
Before you do anything else, first take stock of what there is, and what you have before you. I know that sounds super vague, but hear me out. You will need the following essential information with any home project:
- “BEFORE” photos of your space
- Room measurements, or even better, a clean, rough sketch of your condo unit’s floor plan
- Your own notes of your condo unit’s architectural/structural features, and the condition of each room/area you want to update
- Photos and measurements of furniture pieces you want to keep
- A list of personal items or collections you will be putting back in the space, if any
Take proper BEFORE photos
Having photos of the areas and views of your condo is a great way to record what your unit looked like before you updated it. You can also have these photos handy for when you’re shopping or sourcing for furniture and decor, so you have a visual reference for how certain pieces may look in your space.
You may simply use your mobile phone’s camera, but make sure you’re taking photos from every corner of the room, as much as possible. If your phone camera’s lenses have a wide-angle view, take pics using that too. This is so you get a more complete angle of your room (from ceiling to floor).
Take a look at the photos of the small, one-bedroom condo unit below that belongs to one of our previous clients. Note that we try to get as many angles as possible from all corners, of all walls. We also try to include the ceilings and flooring in the camera view as much as we can.
These BEFORE photos will also come in handy when you’re trying to remember the finishes in the unit—that is to say, the color, look, and feel of your flooring, your walls, your tiles, your cabinetry and doors, etc.
Lastly, try to take these pics in the daytime, ideally during an overcast (not so sunny) hour. These are generally the times of day when lighting is best for taking interior photos. If you have windows, keep them uncovered so you can use available light as much as you can. Natural lighting is always better than artificial lighting, when taking room photos like this.
Take note of the condo unit's features vis-a-vis your own priorities and preferences
When coming up with your own designs for your space, try to take a good, long look at your condo unit. What architectural features does it have that you will need to take into consideration?
These include styles of doors and windows, if there are any wall trim or moulding (ceiling cornices, baseboards). What color and finish is your flooring? Are there any posts or columns that you must consider or work around? Sloping ceilings or beams?
Best that you write these down, as sometimes, these architectural features may have an effect on the look you want to implement. Since you cannot renovate and remove these features for now, you will need to work them into your condo unit’s design.
Take note as well of your own preferences. What is it about your space do you like, and what are the things you hate? What areas are currently not working for you, and which you can revamp without having to do any major rework?
Are there areas or surfaces that you would like to highlight, or some that you think should be camouflaged?
As for your personal belongings, are there collections that you must be able to store or house in your space? What functions do you want to prioritize? Is it absolutely important for you to have a working desk? Have you always wanted a reading corner? Or do you want a living area where all members of the family can congregate to watch TV in?
These are important things to ask yourself, as they will dictate the major furniture pieces you will be keeping or purchasing, as well as the layout of the entire unit. Remember, you have limited space, so it’s impossible to be able to fit in everything in your condo. But when you can prioritize specific functions in a particular order, you’ll know instinctively which furniture pieces should take center stage, and which ones you can do without.
Measure, measure, measure!
This part requires a little bit of elbow grease, but trust me when I say it’s worth the effort.
Take down measurements of all your walls, windows, door openings. Any columns that jut out into the space, weird nooks or corners. Draw out your floor plan on a piece of graphing paper, and measure each wall with a steel tape measure (or splurge on a laser measuring tool, available on Lazada or Amazon).
Don’t resort to using the generic floor plan that your condo developer provided you (not unless they gave you very detailed blueprints specific only to your unit), as those are normally not exact to what your condo unit’s measurements actually are. You can use it as a guide for drawing out a rough sketch of your floor plan, instead.
Drawing it out on graphing paper also makes it easier for you to draw the plan “to scale”—which basically means you’re drawing an accurate but smaller representation of your space. This is because each box in a graphing paper can represent one (1) foot in real life. So if you have a 4-foot wall in your living room, you simply draw a line across four boxes on your graphing paper.
Ask for help from your partner or a friend when doing this, as this may require holding the tape measure from end to end, or moving certain furniture pieces. You can also look up tutorial videos on Youtube on how to measure a room and sketch your own floor plan.
While there are apps nowadays that allow you to take down measurements of your space with just your mobile phone, I haven’t found the app that does this perfectly, easily, and accurately. If you do have the latest iPhone or iPad, these are normally equipped with LiDar technology, which is used in the Canvas app. Many designers who do use this say that it has helped them speed up room measurement-taking. I myself am an Android user, so I can’t really vouch for it.
Plan your condo unit's layout properly
Now that you have your room condition notes, your own preferences for the space, and a rough sketch with measurements, you can now start playing around with possible layouts for your furniture.
Use your measurements to map out furniture pieces in your space. When I was starting out, I would make several clean copies of my rough sketch on graphing paper, so that I can also draw out variations of my condo unit’s designs and layouts.
Now, we use SketchUp Pro, a program or app that lets us accurately draw out our floor plan, and even add in 3D models of furniture pieces. There’s a steep learning curve with SketchUp though, so if you’re not tech-savvy, the hand-drawn sketches will do.
But if you’re willing to take a chance on an app or program that many design professionals use, then go and use SketchUp. There is a free, online version that could work for simple condo projects. You can also look up space-planning apps, like Room Sketcher or Planner 5D.
Above is the furniture plan we created for our client’s condo unit, using SketchUp Pro. Note that the layouts we used prioritized the following functions and preferences for our client:
- Storage for his massive book collection. We had to be creative about where we could put all his books, as the condo space was very limited.
- Workspaces in both the living area and the bedroom. Our client is a college professor, and would sometimes conduct Zoom classes from his home.
- A bigger cooking and prep area for his kitchen, because he likes to cook, as well as a dining space that could fit 3-4 persons
When you’ve laid out a furniture plan that seems ideal for you, don’t forget to take note of the measurements of each piece on your plan or sketch. This will help guide you when you’re out shopping for furniture, so you can limit your choices to pieces that are close to or the same as the measurements on your plan.
If existing light fixtures cannot be moved by an electrician, add table or floor lamps to augment your room’s lighting. Many condos (especially the older ones) normally only have basic light bulb sockets, or if you’re lucky, a few smattering of recessed lights. But more often than not, the lighting isn’t sufficient enough come nighttime, particularly for heavy-task areas like the kitchen or a workspace.
Adding movable lights or lamps can help add another layer of lighting or two that also creates a warmer, and cozier ambience—something that most of us find lacking in our homes.
If, however, you are able to benefit from the in-house services of most condo building’s maintenance personnel, you may be able to request the assistance of an electrician to help you swap out your existing light fixtures.
Doing so gives you the convenience of changing the look of your lights, as well as adding (or reducing) the wattage, depending on the brightness that you feel is more appropriate to how you use your space.
Optional: Visualize using space-planning apps
If you’ve already started using the space-planning apps we mentioned above for your furniture layout, then you can easily create 3D perspectives that will help you visualize exactly how your home could look like.
We use a combination of SketchUp Pro and Mydoma Visualizer for our eDesign projects, which not only enables us to create 3D drawings. These apps also allow us to do animated walkthroughs of our clients’ homes—literally as if we’re walking through the rooms we’re working on.
Above are the 3D drawings we created using SketchUp Pro for our college professor client. Notice that we didn’t really make any drastic changes with how we planned his space.
Since my client was in a hurry to move in (and working with a tight budget), we recommended repainting some of the walls, and applying wallpaper in one part of the common areas. We also suggested changing out the light fixtures in the kitchen, living area, bathroom, and bedroom. In the bathroom, the only “major” work done was the fabrication and installation of the glass shower door enclosure.
We also initially designed custom desks and shelves for him, but due to budget constraints, he eventually went with store-bought pieces when it was time to execute his small condo unit’s designs. Because these retail pieces aren’t made to fit into his unit’s unique measurements, we had to make adjustments with the furniture layouts, particularly in the living area and bedroom.
The fun part: Shop, furnish, and style your small condo unit!
While the tasks of sourcing and shopping themselves can be tiring, seeing them all delivered to and assembled at your place is the exciting part. Nothing beats seeing everything you’ve carefully planned come together.
Below are the photos of our client’s small condo unit designs. At his special request, we helped him put everything together and styled it accordingly, to give it that sophisticated but still collegiate feel that he wanted. Feel free to take some ideas and inspiration from this minimal-renovation condo design.
Design ideas for your condo's common spaces
Our client wanted to prioritize having workspaces in his small condo unit. He really wanted an electric standing desk, and there was no other space for it except for the living area. So in lieu of a TV or entertainment system that is common in most condos, we created a special corner for his standing desk.
The books were another priority for him, as he had such a massive collection. When it came down to it, we couldn’t bring ALL his books to the small condo unit, as he had just too many. But we tried to incorporate his books as much as we can into the condo’s design, by creating a kind of focal point for it with his long shelves of books.
The kitchen really wasn’t sufficient for this client of ours, who absolutely loved to cook and have people over for hearty meals. But because he couldn’t renovate at that time, we first suggested a temporary solution: Purchase a compact table that could serve as both dining surface, and kitchen-prep counter.
We laid out the table perpendicularly against the kitchen wall. We actually suggested more shelving above the dining table, whether as storage for more of his books, or as additional open shelving for his kitchen implements.
In the end, our client decided to delay the purchase, as he was already considering having additional kitchen cabinets made for that particular wall above the dining table.
When sourcing for such a small space like a compact condo unit, it helps a lot if we also purchase newer items that somehow complement the existing finishes. This way, you don’t end up with a space that has a lot of visual clutter.
In this case, the kitchen cabinets already had a light maple finish, so we looked for furniture that complemented the unit’s existing wood tones. The dining table is in a light bamboo finish, while the school-like chairs were stained in a medium-toned wood finish. It helps too if you get kitchen containers that will blend well into its surroundings, like clear canisters or jars, or amber-colored bottles and wooden kitchen accessories.
We also picked furniture pieces for his workspace in finishes similar to the ones in the kitchen and dining areas. Keeping to a consistent palette helps minimize visual clutter, which also makes a small space seem less restricting.
One solution to adding lighting—albeit a temporary one—is by using battery-operated lights on areas where you need more illumination. We recommended these battery-operated LED “puck” lights, which already came with adhesives.
Since we wanted to give better task lighting in the kitchen, we stuck these puck lights under the existing kitchen cabinets, which client can switch on using a separate remote control.
A lot of compact furniture pieces are built in such bulky scales, particularly sofas. But I do recommend getting one that is raised a few inches off the floor. This creates an optical illusion where your eye thinks it is “seeing more flooring”, thereby creating a roomier look and feel to such a limited space.
For this particular project, my client went with a slightly bigger sofa than what we had originally planned, so we had to switch the placement of the sofa and the tall bookcase. That said, the sofa can also be transformed into a sofa bed, so this creates extra sleeping space for any guest he might host in the future.
We kept the wall above the sofa free and open. We couldn’t install more shelves on it as it is a drywall and would have required adding framing within the walls (a major rework).
But one other reason we also didn’t want to fill that space is because small condo units like this one need a lot of what we call “negative space”: that is, areas or spaces that you keep blank, to let your eyes rest from seeing too much visual stimulation.
We kept decorating to a minimum, as the books already provided a lot of visual interest with their multi-colored spines. So we also got decorative items we used to style the space that were similar to colors that can already be found in its compact environment.
We also wanted to make sure that decor was deeply personal; so even the books were used as decor, to stack and ground small decorative objects, like a small desktop globe.
Design ideas for personal spaces: bedroom and T&B
This particular condo bedroom is not only small, but also has one wall angled diagonally. So it was really incredibly tight. But because our client wanted both a sleeping space (he required a queen-sized bed), and a reading (or working) space—not to mention storage space for his beloved books—we needed to put in a lot of things in such a limited space.
Below are a few suggestions on how we planned and designed his very small condo bedroom. Simply click on each photo in the galleries below to enlarge it and get a better view.
While focal walls are no longer in vogue, we wanted to visually lengthen the short room. Painting the wall behind the bed a rich, emerald hue (which somehow reminds us of a classroom board) allows the eye to travel all the way to the other end of room. Even though the eye travels only a very short distance, it still creates the impression that the room is much longer than it actually is.
Changing out the light fixture from the single lightbulb socket the unit came with to a multi-bulb brass fixture also expanded the space, as it gave the bedroom much more light. This was done despite having only one light socket in the ceiling.
The wooden queen-sized bed frame definitely took up a lot of space, so we had to be creative with his bedside “tables”. We got a glass and metal laptop table from Ikea as his nightstand for one side. The glass and streamlined form of the table looked slim enough to not add more bulk to the bedroom vignette. Plus it created space underneath to put another stack of books.
The other side of the bed didn’t have enough space to put a table anymore, as it was right across the built-in wardrobe with swing-out doors. On that side, a small stack of books could provide just a small bit of surface for him to put either his mobile phone, or a pair of reading glasses.
Since the client didn’t go ahead with our plan to have a built-in desk and shelves for the room (as seen in our 3D perspective drawings above), we had to forego the desk and prioritized free-standing shelving for more books. We found we could still squeeze in a small chair in the corner near the window, so to make it slightly more comfortable seating, we picked an upholstered side chair. It was compact enough for the space, but soft enough to sit on to enjoy a book.
If client ever needed to work on his laptop, he could pull up the glass and metal laptop table being used as his bedside table closer to his reading nook. Voila! Instant workspace in the bedroom.
I would have wanted to have closed-in storage in the bathroom, as bathrooms tend to look more cluttered than other spaces in the home because of so many different-looking products.
But these neutral, wooden shelves and under-vanity racks provided a little bit more storage space. I would recommend for open shelving like this that you transfer your products into consistent-looking containers, like amber bottles or clear pump jars (check out Muji or Beabi for options).
And there you have it, our suggestions for small condo unit designs! Were any of these useful to you? Do drop a comment below, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to send us directly your thoughts about this blog post.
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