When Gale Steves, founder of consulting firm Open House Productions, talks about right-sizing homes she doesn’t like to name rooms. "I’m concerned with lifestyle," she said on Thursday morning in an educational session at the International Builders’ Show titled "Designing to Maximize Space in the Smaller Home."

The trick to getting smaller homes right, she said, is to not only use every space in the home, but also to customize the allocation of space so that the owners’ priorities are reflected in where square footage is bestowed. For spec homes or in situations where customization isn’t possible, builders should focus on creating spaces that can adapt over those with rigid prescriptive uses.

Daniel Gregory, editor in chief of Houseplans.com and another speaker at the session, quoted an exchange he had with Katherine Salant, who writes "Housewatch" for the Washington Post. "I think that what most homeowners want is flexibility," she said, giving the example of a dining room enclosed with French doors so that it can be converted to a bedroom or office if necessary. "Buyers also do not want redundant spaces," such as an eat-in kitchen as well as a bar with stools and a formal dining room.

To illustrate the idea of adapting a home to its buyers, Steves guided a tour of several imaginary lifestyles and the homes that might fit them. Given that formal front doors are typically only used by "FedEx carriers new on the job and people selling religious tracts," Steves says the entry the family actually uses—the side door attaching to the garage—should get more attention. Mudrooms are functional, but they can also be made beautiful through the use of built-in storage that allows for bag drop-offs and a small seated space for a last click on the computer before going out.

Even hallways, which she calls "the forgotten space," can be transformed into useful areas and memory points by turning them into a gallery or including cabinetry for storage.

Eating spaces also hold a lot of possibility for adapting to consumers’ habits, Steves pointed out, noting that "most of us don’t dine." For those that do, a formal dining room isn’t usually necessary since meals can be stylishly displayed at a smaller table incorporated into an open eating space in the kitchen. An L-shaped space can be sliced out of an oversized kitchen island to become a built-in bench for a sit-down table area. And for snackers, the island can be completely replaced with a tall, oversized table with nesting stools that can act as a hub of activity all day.

While working at home is becoming a larger part of American life, the ways in which people use that option vary. For those in need of a complete home office, a spare room can be outfitted with a Murphy bed, so that it can act as a work space most of the time while accommodating guests when necessary. For those who simply need to check in with the office on evenings and weekends, an odd space next to the stairs or a closet-like alcove will do the trick.

And in all things, "it’s all about proportions," said Patricia Gaylor, an interior designer at Eco Interiors. There seemed to be a collective affirmative nod in the room when Gaylor asked attendees if they had ever felt "weirdly disproportionate in a house." She gave the example of New York City’s iconic Grand Central Station, with its elegantly high ceilings and cavernous spaces. That works, Gaylor said, because it’s a public space, but that too many builders had tried to achieve the same effect in private living rooms, leaving homeowners feeling awkwardly out of place.

She also pointed to the green aspects of living smaller, noting that builders can emphasize the less-is-more principle through green features such as WaterSense appliances that use less water while still looking as good and operating as well as other products.

"If you take two products and tell your customers, ‘They’re the same price. They’re the same style. It’s just that this one can be recycled after and the other can’t,’ or ‘This one has no VOCs,’ it’s a no-brainer and it can be a real selling point."

Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Greenville, SC.