The big squeeze

As the world’s big cities struggle to accommodate expanding populations and house sizes diminish, architects are increasingly turning their attention to space-saving design.

A detached house built in Britain today will be 201 sq m in size on average, nearly one-third less than 100 years ago when they averaged 289 sq m, figures from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors show. The rate of contraction has accelerated over the past decade, says John Parsons, associate director at RICS. To promote high-density living, the former Labour deputy prime minister, John Prescott, did away with minimum ceiling heights in 2000, so room sizes in many new homes are being built on a smaller scale to keep dimensions in proportion.

The Chinese government changed their approach to housing in 2006, issuing a decree that 70 per cent of new homes must be less than 90 sq m, so that low-paid workers can afford to buy them. One year earlier, the Madrid authorities proposed building 30 sq m state-subsidised homes, but voters were against smaller dwellings, so the plans were dropped – which disappointed architects who wanted to explore how less could be made more.

Reducing home sizes is welcomed by many architects, because it challenges them to make living spaces more efficient. Bill Worthen, director and resource architect for sustainability at The American Institute of Architects, expects US homes to become smaller.

“You can live in less space if it is well designed, well planned,” says Worthen. “Most Americans are not taught to think this way unless they live in New York City or other dense urban environments. But with the recession and the revitalisation of many urban neighbourhoods, and the re-use of many older buildings – as well as the sheer cost of real estate – this is something we should expect to be seeing more of across the US.”

A reorganised 44 sq m studio apartment in Manhattan’s East Village

Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture’s reorganisation of a 44 sq m studio apartment in New York in 2009 shows how architects in the Big Apple are designing better, smaller homes. The practice transformed an untidy, student-style pad in Manhattan’s East Village into “a live/work sculpture for a grown up” for its owner, Michael Pozner, head of retail development at American Apparel.

The narrow, rectangular space is divided into zones for sleeping, cooking, bathing, entertaining and working. To keep the apartment clear of clutter the architects installed plenty of storage, including a bank of wall-mounted cupboards that are painted white like the walls so they are unobtrusive. No space is wasted – each wooden step leading up to the sleeping platform doubles as a drawer and the sleeping platform itself fits into a roof cavity that the architects enlarged.

Gary Chang’s flat in Hong Kong, with all its moving walls pushed back

However, perhaps the most revolutionary space-maximising design is found in Hong Kong. In 2007, architect Gary Chang did away with the traditional concept of a home as a series of connected rooms, each with their own specific function. He has transformed the 32 sq m apartment where he grew up into a “24-room mansion” by replacing partition walls and furnishings with a series of moveable walls that double as defined storage spaces.

For example, Chang can pull out a wall of DVD shelving to reveal a linen closet, which in turn can be pulled out to reveal the bath, above which is a concealed guest bed. These sliding walls move along tracks in the ceiling, which is mirrored to make the apartment appear bigger and brighter.

Chang calls his home “Domestic Transformer” to describe its adaptability and the way it has inspired him to think flexibly and economically. “One should rethink and relook at what one really needs and when,” he says.

The idea of a sliding wall doubling as storage space is used in Chang’s commercial designs. At the 20-storey ACTS Rednaxela tower in Mid-Levels, Chang’s studio, Edge Design Institute, has designed 15 serviced apartments that each measure 27 sq m and feature a sliding door to the bathroom that houses a television and shelving.

Closet House, Matosinhos, Portugal, where a €40,000 refurbishment doubled the property’s value to €180,000

A Portuguese architectural studio has also solved problems of limited space with a moving wall. Consexto has installed an electronically controlled moving wall in Closet House, a 44 sq m home in Portugal in 2010. The dividing wall between bedroom and living room can be moved back and forth, so one room can be made temporarily smaller to expand the other. Running along 1.2m-long ceiling tracks, the wall is operated from a wall-mounted control panel. The wall doubles as a storage unit, containing drawers, cupboards, television screen and speakers. A dining table for six people can be folded out from it. Consexto’s €40,000 refurbishment of Closet House was profitable for its owners, doubling its value to €180,000.

Space-maximising designs by architects have added value to homes in London, where property is increasingly priced on a per-square-foot basis, and many houses get chopped up into flats.

Hogarth Architects increased the size of a Kensington conversion apartment by nearly 40 per cent by adding a mezzanine. Situated within a mid-19th-century white stucco town house on Queen’s Gate Terrace, the apartment had been the first-floor reception room for the house before it was converted into flats. The architect created a single open-plan space and fitted an oak mezzanine level under the 4.5m -high ceiling in 2010. On the market through Douglas & Gordon for £2m, Hogarth estimates the mezzanine adds £500,000 to the sale price.

The Victorians’ love of high ceilings has presented opportunities to build mezzanines at other large, 19th-century houses in London, including The Lancasters on Bayswater Road, where joint venture developers Northacre and Minerva are creating 77 apartments. The developers are putting mezzanines into 45 apartments, including a show home where slightly under one-third of its 500 sq m is on that level. Sold for £16.8m, the developers calculate the mezzanine added £5m to the show apartment’s value.

A hundred years ago, the rich filled domestic space with luxuries. Now, space is a luxury itself, from which architects extract maximum value.


Edge Design Institute tel: +852 2802 6212

Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture tel: +1 718 852 2650

Consexto tel: +351 222 022 106

Hogarth Architects tel: +44 (0)20 7381 3409

The Lancasters tel: +44 (0)20 7402 8822

Micro houses

Japan’s answer to small and beautiful

One country that can teach us how to design space-saving interiors is Japan. Anybody visiting the country could not have failed to notice its capsule hotels. However, the problem is often not space so much as the allocation of space. Tokyo might have followed other modern cities and built wholly vertically to create more spacious living quarters. But in Japan, as in the UK, the ideal is a house, not an apartment. Sumeba miyako – a man’s home is his castle – goes the saying. Consequently many city residences are surprisingly low-rise, or even detached, writes Michael Fitzpatrick.

So how do the Japanese square some of the world’s highest land prices and the small plots that are typically available in central Tokyo and other Japanese cities, with a yen for detachment? The answer is the micro-house.

“The Japanese have a knack for ‘shuno’ – squeezing extra storage capacity out of easily overlooked voids tucked within the interstices of their homes. This is evident in products like those trapdoors for storing items below the floor,” says Alastair Townsend of Tokyo-based BAKOKO, who has designed his own capsulated home – the M Mansion.

Japanese architect Hiroaki Ohtani also found the prospect of small living spaces an inspiration and is now one of the country’s top champions of building and renovating small houses with a view to optimising light and space. Ohtani turned to traditional Japanese ideas to get him and his family comfortably installed in the city of Kobe in a 33 sq m house (the average British semi is about 100 sq m), an area some might think twice about parking a couple of cars in.

“It was a huge challenge to create as spacious and rich an indoor space as possible within this tiny little lot, which is neighboured by existing buildings at both sides and the back,” says Ohtani.

To combat the problem, the architect looked to Japanese building methods from the eighth-century Nara period, and specifically the simply-built Shosoin pavilion – part of the famed Todaiji temple in Nara near Kyoto. Maximum privacy is maintained by locating floors higher or lower than ground level. The end result is a house that has been photographed countless times to illustrate stories on the virtues of space saving. Ohtani says there are certain secrets to maximising space and making life liveable in micro-houses.

“Storing shelves and book shelves should be elevated from the floor level, so that every corner of the floor surface is visible, which makes the room [appear] spacious,” he says. “Place no partitions on each floor to obtain one large, integrated space. And you should dare to install gentle-angle flights of stairs in a small house. Not one but two flights. Stairs are part of a room and can be a place to sit or relax. Regard all the floors as space for circulation.”

Kado House

This is a lesson well practised in the tiny two-storey Kado House in Tokyo with a minute 34.7 sq m footprint that designers and real estate agents have on their books. Space is maximised with clever optimisation of ventilation and light throughout the sloping structure. Also listed by the same agents Boo-Hoo-Woo is the Skylight House in Kamakura, a seaside commuter town, at Y52.8m.

Despite the logic of buying high-rise in cramped cities such as Tokyo, housing can still be an attractive option, says Azby Brown, author of The Very Small Home: Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space.

“It’s a period of innovation and adjustment, and lots of ideas are being tried. Any new home will grow and evolve along with its inhabitants, the failed experiments will get modified, rough edges smoothed,” he says. “But technically, engineering wise, spatially, almost anything is possible today, and the Japanese have been pushing the envelope.”



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