The art of living in small spaces: Architects are learning how to make less, more

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

New flats are smaller than ever and space in cities at a premium, as Chris Beanland discovers.

"You don't get much for your money, do you?" It's a sympathetic refrain, flecked with just a little pity, that anyone who lives in a big city will have heard many times from country-dwelling friends or family round for the weekend. For urbanites in London, New York, Moscow, or any other world city where housing demand outstrips supply, living spaces are getting smaller. We have to adapt.

"When I was a student, I had a very tiny room," Julia Kononenko reminisces. Her story of make do and mend will be familiar to many a hard-pressed hostess: "When guests came, it was necessary to move the furniture. The computer desk became a dining table, extra chairs were brought from the neighbours."

Now, Kononenko has come up with a versatile solution for such small rooms: a sofa that folds into a dining table. The cushions lift out and miraculously morph into chairs. The modular living advocate is based in Kharkiv, Ukraine. And her Russian-doll designs could transform the way we utilise cramped flats.

"Not all of us can afford large apartments in major metropolitan areas," Kononenko muses. "They're expensive. So young professionals are trying to rent a small room to live in."

In New York those small rooms and small flats are what the city has decided it needs more of – to house a burgeoning population of singletons who are having too much fun to get married and move to a four-bedroom house on Long Island. By 2030, there will be an extra 600,000 singletons in the metropolis. Already – according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office – 45 per cent of New Yorkers live alone.

"We're living in smaller spaces because we're changing," states Eric Bunge, the head of nArchitects in Brooklyn. "We're marrying less, divorcing more, taking longer to get married, living longer, living alone. The resulting problem is that there aren't enough small apartments." Bunge's firm recently won a competition to design a batch of 300 sq ft "micro-apartments" in Kips Bay, Manhattan.

How will he combat claustrophobia? "We make small spaces as humane as possible with tall ceilings, large windows, and overhead storage." But nArchitects' big idea is to "divide the apartments into two areas. In one, that we call the 'toolbox', we provide the amenities you need – kitchen, bathroom, storage. In the more open living and sleeping area that we call the 'canvas' we decided to let residents express themselves."

With its prefabricated exterior, artists' impressions of Bunge's My Micro NY suggest it won't be much of a beauty queen on the outside. But anyone who helps to provide cheap, well-designed flats for young people rather than giant condos for the jet set deserves to be bought a beer.

Good design is the key: it can turn hovels into cosy homes. In his 340 sq ft Kowloon, Hong Kong flat, local architect Gary Chang managed to dream up a flexible layout using sliding doors and dividers to create 24 different configurations, each perfect for a unique household activity: sleeping, resting, entertaining, cooking.

Many other Asian cities suffer from overcrowding. In Tokyo, single professionals rent geki-sema coffin apartments – each barely bigger than a capsule-hotel pod. The pressures posed by this lack of space – combined with a fetishisation of technology – mean the Japanese are the world leaders in adapting to lilliputian living.

"They're open-minded, they invent and try anything," agrees Simon Woodroffe, the founder of Yo! Sushi. But it wasn't just conveyor belts groaning with maki rolls that fired Woodroffe's imagination. It was how the Japanese designed their way out of small spaces. Woodroffe used the capsule hotel kernel to launch Yotels at Gatwick, Heathrow, Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and Times Square in New York.

Yo! Home is the latest idea from Rod Stewart's former roadie. "I'm using counterweight mechanics developed for theatrical stage sets to easily and reliably change the entire space of a small apartment from a bedroom to a sitting room, kitchen, dining room, office or cinema – at the flick of a switch or the pull of a wall," Woodroffe says. In the prototype, a bed floats up to the ceiling to reveal a sunken dining table – and a hidden drawer boasting a bottle of bubbly.

In its unabashed embrace of glamour and technology, Yo! Home isn't so far from the Jetsons-esque "flats of the future" that wowed visitors to the Ideal Home Exhibition in the 1950s and 1960s. Anyone who thinks that brave new council blocks built back then are beyond salvation should check out the recent refurbishment job that designers Thomson Brothers did on a flat at Thomas More House in Barbican, London. The company used original ideas and graceful features that architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon came up with – such as signature sliding doors – and added new space-saving devices, such as yacht-style bunk beds for visitors, to create a flat you'd love to live in.

The Parker Morris standard of the 1970s guaranteed council flats such as these would be built to generous proportions, even before the original space-saving tricks were installed. Now, it's a free-for-all. Building small means more flats can be crammed into a small space. So if we encourage this living in a box, aren't we just lining developers' already-bulging pockets? "It's not necessarily a true argument," Eric Bunge counters. "The bottom line is we need this to keep our cities vibrant and economically viable."

With downsizing, "there's more money to do the things you want to do – it's the atmosphere of our time," Simon Woodroofe thinks. "If it's cool, beautifully designed, and you can push buttons so the room changes – why wouldn't you live in a small space?"

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Highs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
News
news
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam