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

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?"