Small spaces: the urban architects making the most of petite properties

Britain has long had the smallest homes in Europe, but now two urban architects are using clean lines and glass divides to bring light to dark corners
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The Independent Online

If you're not sure you have space to swing a rodent in your living room never mind a cat, you're not alone: Britons live in very small spaces compared to our neighbours across the Channel.

According to a report released last year by the Commission for Archictecture and the Built Environment, the Government's adviser on architecture, we are living in "rabbit hutch Britain", with new homes ranking as the smallest in Europe.

There are three principal reasons for this: no legal minimum exists for the size of a home in Britain; in the past decade many studios and one- and two-bed flats have been built; and the cost of land here often prohibites larger properties.

As an architect, Richard Dudzicki was only too aware of the high price of land, especially in London where he lives. He had acquired a tiny strip of land next to his office for £40,000 and, when the time came to find a new home for his growing family, he sought planning permission to tear down the garage and convert the narrow 45.5msq space into a three-storey, two-bed home with a garden and top-floor balcony.

The result, a smart white box of a building which shines like a pearl amid the surrounding Victorian brick terraces, is now home to Richard and his wife Eva, and their two children, who are three and five.

The house is only 110msq. "Every nook and cranny is designed to accommodate something," says Dudzicki, "such as the space under the stairs, and we have a wall of storage."

To fit a large shower into the main bathroom, which also has a spa bath, the Dudzickis slotted it in under the stairs, which means the ceiling is slightly sloping, but there is still space to stand up.

In the kitchen, Richard's favourite part of the house along with the third- floor balcony adjacent to the family's second living room (the adults' treasured quiet space), he benefits from the lack of room because all the cooking implements are within reach. There is space for two people to cook and prepare food and for parties of 20 for dinner.

Dudzicki insists that living in a small space doesn't require a minimalist existence. "It's definitely lived in. You'll find radio-controlled dumper trucks in the kitchen. But it only takes five minutes to tidy up."

In hindsight, he would have foregone the luxury of the en suite wet room in favour of more closet space because with small children one bathroom is enough. Otherwise the family couldn't be happier in their living space.

But Dudzicki appreciates this could change as the children grow. They are considering sacrificing their top floor sanctuary so the children can have a bedroom each, but they probably have a few years grace.

This sort of adaptability is key when it comes to fitting your lifestyle into a small home, says Dudzicki. Ben Paul, director of Neu Architects in east London, agrees. Paul says that the most common conclusion homeowners draw when they need more space is that they have to build an extension. "It is always best to think about modifying your home rather than extending," he says. "This was true during the boom, because house prices were too high for people to move, and it is true now, because of the recession.

"Change the way you use the space you live in. I might advise a client, rather than spending £20,000 on an extension, to knock a wall down and just spend £10,000. Maybe they could turn a disused dining room into a playroom."

On one job, Paul moved a kitchen into a large living space with high ceilings, building overhead storage above the kitchen which provided both cupboard space and the illusion of separate living and cooking areas. The former kitchen could then be used as an additional room.

On another, what appears to be a line of smart, fitted cupboards running down a hallway into a kitchen space at the back of a house actually conceals a host of necessary domestic evils: one door opens to laundry essentials such as a washing machine and ironing board, behind another is a below-stairs lavatory, one is a storage cupboard, yet another shields the ugly electricity meter and other nasties from view, and drawers have been built in to fit the lowest space under the stairs.

"Designing in is always better than buying furniture," advises Paul. "If you build in a wardrobe you make use of all the space, which a piece of furniture doesn't. You can create an awful lot of space."

When Neu Architects took on the job of designing a sleek, two-storey bachelor pad for television presenter Kristian Digby, the use of light was just as important as space.

"A small space flooded with light feels brighter and bigger and provides a link with the outdoors," says Paul. "It makes a lot of difference in terms of how you feel about the place."

They chose to sacrifice space on the first floor so that light could be directed down to the ground floor through two voids and roof lights. The ground floor is one long room but a series of different spaces: the kitchen, at the front of the house, gives on to the dining room, which in turn leads through to the living area, with a courtyard adding a fourth space. Rather than building storage under the stairs, the space beneath has been left open to afford more space in the dining area.

For ideas, Paul advises looking to Japanese designers and architects who are accustomed to working with limited space. Unsurprisingly, given their line of work, both Paul and Dudzicki advise getting the professionals in. Architects are much cheaper than most people imagine, and for a small initial fee you will at least glean some advice before deciding your next move.

Petite properties: Top tips

* Give the illusion of space with floor-to-ceiling mirrored cupboards. Position them opposite a window to bounce natural light around the room.

* Hang hooks on the back of doors. And hang clothes up out of sight instead of over chairs.

* Install a foldaway table in a small kitchen.

* Fix a shelf above the bed if there's no space for a table.

* Don't waste the dead space under a bed: use wicker baskets to stash bed linen and out-of-season clothes.

* To save wardrobe space keep belts, scarves and ties in order with a multi-use hanger.

Annie Deakin, Editor of

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