STORAGE STYLE: Big Ideas for Small Spaces

storage-solutions-cover-graphicSince our team works with a lot of senior living communities and college campuses, we are frequently challenged to provide design solutions to make individual residences “live larger” than they really are. Incorporating ample storage is critical to achieving this goal. Finding the right storage solutions is particularly of interest this time of the year when many of us strive to declutter living spaces in our homes.  There are so many options out there, it can sometimes be overwhelming, but here are a few guidelines we have developed for these critical functional spaces.

Clothing Closets

Lack of closet space is an almost universal complaint. However, with today’s myriad of shelving, drawer and stand-alone storage options, your space—no matter how small—can be maximized.  For flexibility, particularly for multi-family housing applications, we recommend a shelf track wire shelving system.  For easier accessibility, use bins to consolidate and store items on high shelves and consider a similar approach with bins, baskets or roll-out boxes on the floor. double-shelving-detail

Reach-in closets

  • Minimum of 24 inches deep. The average coat hanger is 17 inches wide, but can be as wide as 21 inches,  And keep in mind that’s without any bulky jackets or coats on it.
  • Side returns (door casing to side walls) should be 12 inches or less for easy access

Walk-in closets

  • Minimum of 22 to 24 inches deep to accommodate clothing on hangers.
  • Minimum of 7 feet wide if clothes are to be hung on two walls opposite each other on hangers. Using this dimension, clothes should not be hung on the rear wall.
  • Ensure that closet rods can be easily reached by residents in wheelchairs with a maximum height of 48 inches from the floor to the shelf. Separate ”continuous slide” hang rods allow the hangers to move freely across the rod.
  • Custom built shelves and drawers are a higher-end upgrade that create personalized storage for things like bags and shoes. Elevating these items make it easier to locate and prevents seniors from bending over to look for things.
walk-in-closet examples

Walk-in closets come in many shapes and sizes. The photo at left illustrates a shelf track wire shelving system we used for apartments in an assisted living residence at Waverly Heights, Gladwyne, PA. For those with ample space, the photo at right is a custom closet example from ClosetMaid.

Beyond the Closet

Sometimes—due to age of the residence or size constraints—there is no closet. A good alternative for storing hanging items is an armoire.  While generally providing less storage space than a closet, an armoire offers flexibility to work into what is likely limited space in the room and provide the added bonus of aesthetic appeal along with function.

Built In Casework storage solutions

Built-in shelving provides much needed storage without taking up extra space in your room. Linen closet at Wesley Enhanced Living – Main Line; Philadelphia, PA and bookshelves at a private residents in Lancaster, PA.

When dealing with small spaces don’t let any extra space go unused. Incorporating built-ins helps to maximize available space.  Even for existing residences, space under stairways, between closets or any other nooks can be captured and “put to work.”  Space below windows serves well for seats, shelving or drawer units depending on the height and width of the window and clearance from adjacent walls.  Make sure you consider heating and cooling needs for a window seat – otherwise, the bench will get very cold in the winter and vice versa.

rev-a-shelf options for maximizing storage

There are many options for maximizing storage in closets, cabinets and drawers. The above examples are from Rev-A-Shelf.

Linen Closet

Linen closets are a multifunctional space, holding all sorts of supplies for bathrooms and bedrooms. As with other types of closets, bins or baskets can be used to consolidate smaller items leaving space for towels and bedding. Although I haven’t tried it personally, many experts recommend placing folded sheets inside a pillowcase to not only consolidate like items, but also provide easy access to the entire sheet set when changing bedding.

  • Ideal depth is 16 to 20 inches.
  • If using wire shelving system, specify tight mesh for ventilation.


pantry examples for efficient storage

These examples from illustrate how storage can be maximized when there isn’t space for a walk-in pantry, which is the case for most residences especially in multi-family housing. Left to Right: Dwyer Transitional Kitchen, Denver; Traditional Kitchen, London; Jett Forest Estates Traditional Kitchen, Atlanta.


Rev-A-Shelf offers pull-down shelves for upper cabinets that can make it easier for someone in a wheelchair to access items on higher shelves.

Food storage is a top priority and kitchen space is often at a premium.  There are a myriad of options for custom shelving that can be built into a new pantry or added after the fact. Pull-out shelves increase accessibility and convenience.

One often overlooked opportunity is the space between the face of your shelf and the door frame.  Hanging inserts are readily available for storing spices and other small items inside the door. We also recommend bins of baskets to better organize items and maximize capacity.

  • A reach-in pantry should be no less than 18” deep.
  • A pantry should be no more than 24” deep (unless it is a walk-in).
  • If the pantry is a walk-in, specify that all shelves are butted at corners.
  • Shelves should be tight mesh (if using a wire system) or solid so items cannot slip through the cracks and again, adjustable shelves are preferred.

Laundry and Garage

Don’t forget about storage in utility areas like a laundry room, mud room, or garage.  Each of these can be better organized so items are easily found.

  • Shelving or cabinets can be built above washers/dryers for easy storage of laundry detergent. We often build-out a wall so the cabinets are closer to the front of the washer to eliminate reaching too far over the machines.  Just be mindful of the washer lid if it is a top-load model.
  • Mud Rooms can hold coats, hats, shoes, and even a leash for Fido. It is an easy spot to put on a coat, put down a bag, or sit down to put on boots.
  • The garage is one of the most over-packed areas of our homes. Simple organization tools like built-in cabinets or a peg board stores everything from cleaning supplies, to gardening tools, to car equipment.

Organization is key in garages which typically house all sorts of home hobby and maintenance supplies. Organization systems, like this example from Closet Maid help to corral these items while keeping them easily accessible when needed.

Storage Checklist


  • Use a door that swings inward for small storage spaces.
  • Use bi-fold doors (only allow 67 percent access to storage space) or overlapping sliding doors (only allow 50 percent access).
  • Put the light switch inside the closet; it takes up space on the return wall that could be used for storage.


  • Use pocket doors whenever possible to maximize access to storage spaces.
  • Install ceiling or floor-mounted HVAC supply vents and returns 24” from walls, so that they don’t interfere with closet components installed along the walls. When return vents are required, ceiling mounted is suggested or wall mounted above 84” high.
  • Add some form of tinting to any windows or skylights in storage areas so that clothes aren’t damaged by the sun (not usually an issue for commercial residences).
  • Keep obstructions to a minimum, such as switches, control panels, medicine cabinets, etc.

Kristin Novak, IIDA, LEED Green Associate, has 4 years of experience focusing on commercial interior design.  Her recent move has reinforced the value of effective storage solutions for organizing belongings and ultimately creating comfortable and appealing living spaces.

For additional information:

Thinking about designing your dream closet?  Here are a few guidelines from

All About Closets offers a comparison of Walk-in Closets versus Reach-in Closets:

This closet design guide from Organized Living provides a thorough overview of closet options and highlights many of the do’s and don’ts we’ve included above.

For more examples, visit our Storage Style: Closets & Organization Board on Pinterest:

Blog Editor – Jodi Kreider, LEED AP