Unveiled: how to add space with glass
Many Hongkongers harbour secret fantasies of breaking down the walls of their homes, welcoming light and a sense of freedom into their lives. Far from being poetic, this desire to live without boundaries is a pragmatic solution to cramped urban living.
Blurring the divide between living spaces is the core principle behind transparent boundaries.
It may sound like living in a greenhouse but with simple solutions such as glazing external walls, homes can be opened visually and physically. Ken Leung of Original Vision used a double-glazed glass panel as a replacement for a wall in a home in the New Territories, creating a feeling of outdoor resort-style living.
'We were trying to take advantage of the garden area and beachfront by blurring the boundary between the spaces,' Leung says. 'By making the ocean-facing exterior wall almost entirely of glass, we brightened the indoor space, providing both transparency but natural privacy. As a result the house is awash with natural light.'
For Hong Kong homeowners, such an open design will naturally be the privilege of only the lucky few. But within a confined high-rise space, the same sense of freedom can be had. Both flat and homeowner though must be prepared for the structural and practical challenges.
'If you're considering installing a glass wall you have to be conscious of how the connected rooms will flow together,' says Philip Liao of Philip Liao and Partners. 'Glass walls are a tool that can be used to extend and expand the perception of space, not simply space-creating devices themselves. The design must consider the whole package.' Liao suggest glass walls in a home be used sparingly and with purpose.
'The main goal should be increasing the permeability of light, air and space in the interior,' Liao says. 'I'm not so much a fan of building glass interiors as I am of light. The sculpting of light is a real art form and we now use a whole spectrum of transparent materials besides glass in order to bring light into a space.'
Liao's passion for light can be seen in his design of Yin Serviced Apartments on Wellington Street, Central. The brief was to create luxury dwellings that carried an inner-city opulence that was also enhanced by the feeling of open space.
'Like many Hong Kong homes, we didn't have a great deal of space to work with,' Liao says. 'Even when you start with the blank canvas of an open shell, once you brick up some walls and divide the space into three rooms it can become a fairly cramped environment. We decided to install transparent room divides in order to keep the space open.
'When you install a transparent internal wall, you are actually just borrowing space from another room. It's often a good idea to tap into the places in the home that you don't use very frequently.'
Occasional rooms such as a study, dining room or a home office can be ideally suited. Such rooms, however, are often limited to large homes that don't need more open living.
'In a large space you have much greater flexibility,' he says. 'You are able to arrange glass walls into a wider array of configurations. Unfortunately it is usually in small spaces people have a strong desire for more light. When you start taking out the internal walls in a smaller area you have to be more conscious of what you expose.
'Naturally, there are [also] structural limitations on where you can place transparent walls,' he says. 'You will always end up exposing something. When we were designing Yin, we made a deliberate choice to reveal the plumbing work. By polishing the exposed pipes we gave the apartments a real artistic and industrial quality that went on to define much of the overall design.'
People usually have concerns about privacy. Bathrooms and bedrooms naturally fit into the bracket of under-used, even utilitarian, spaces. In many respects they are the perfect candidates for borrowing space. In reality, it's not something that suits everyone. 'Glass interiors can look brilliant when they're part of a chic, contemporary design,' says Jason Yung, director at Jason Caroline Design. 'When I was a bachelor, I used to love having an extensive glass interior. Now, with a family, I don't think it's quite as practical to use it throughout the entire home.'
Yung explains that glass, though strong, isn't as soundproof as more traditional materials. It can also leave the occupant feeling vulnerable. 'The transparent nature means that you don't feel quite as secure,' he says. 'Very few people in Hong Kong would use it for their front door, for example. There are, however, people who have built entire homes out of glass. A lot of the success depends on the level of transparency people are comfortable with.'
Yung says his most successful use of transparency has been in the homes of clients prepared for such exposure. He has opened up kitchens, bedrooms and even showers with varying degrees of visibility. In designing Yin, Liao and his team tackled the exposed bathroom problem head on.
'We actually made the decision to approach the bathroom as an integral part of the interior,' he says 'We kept the toilet out of view, but there was no real reason why the bathtub couldn't be visible from the living space.'
The idea of letting a bathtub take centre stage in a living area may sound outrageous to some. With Yin, though, the Japanese-inspired stone bath looks like art. Framed in striking black-rimmed glass and carved from solid stone, the tub becomes a luxurious focal point for the interior.
Achieving the perfect balance of privacy and space within a flat is actually becoming much easier. Both Liao and Yung point to the wealth of finishes now available to clients who want the aesthetic provided by more light, but don't want to bare all.
'There are semi-transparent glass panels with fibre optics embedded into them that throw the light deeper into the space,' Liao says. 'Similarly, there are glass designs that have water bubbles inside. When you shine a light through that glass it feels like you're inside a bottle of champagne that has just been opened. It's an excellent choice if you're craving light, but require a degree of privacy in places such as the bathroom.'
Opening up personal spaces may take the average homeowner beyond their comfort zone but replacing bricks and mortar with transparency is a clear route to creating an airy feel. For those prepared to expand their interior view beyond the conventional, the reward is a level of liberated living.