Canada tower could teach Hong Kong a thing or two about design of small flats

A Canadian developer has built a condo tower that showcases how to make the most of limited space in small flats by using transformable furniture, writes Peta Tomlinson

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 May, 2014, 9:41am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 May, 2014, 3:43pm

For Hong Kong residents, especially those living in the inner city, small apartments are a fact of life. But with careful design, they don’t have to feel oppressive.

That’s the philosophy of Daryl Simpson, a a developer from Canada, whose small-footprint condominium concept probably sounds more dream than reality to anyone living in a Mid-Levels shoebox.

A new condo tower he’s building in Vancouver shows possibilities for a life urbanites may have chalked up to a pipe dream: Hosting dinner parties for eight, gathering friends around the television on movie night and space to practise yoga — all in the same 500 sq ft flat.

Watch: See BosaSPACE™ transform

The concept is all about “living better” in a confined space, and it’s displayed in not just one or even two show flats, but in an entire 35-storey condo tower now under construction in metropolitan Vancouver.

Bosa Properties, the developer behind BosaSPACE - billed as the world’s first fully transformable condo tower - has been building homes for Canadians for 50 years. But the ideas for small-space usage would be just as applicable here in Hong Kong.

With inner-city housing becoming unaffordable (homes in Hong Kong and Vancouver are the world’s most expensive, according to US consulting firm Demographia), the company noticed a need for alternatives.

Daryl Simpson, senior vice-president of Bosa, says that as developers try to maintain price points amid increasing costs, “something has to give.

“We [Bosa] are good at designing spaces, but at some point, as suites get smaller and smaller, the functionality is jeopardised,” he says. “In a one-bedroom flat that’s 500 suare feet, you probably don’t have a dining room, or your bedroom is small.

“We were getting frustrated ourselves that we weren’t able to provide living spaces that people could really live in, while at the same time offering affordability in the market. We felt there had to be a better way.”

The company spent 18 months working on that problem, looking at various projects around the world, and different transformable furniture suppliers, before coming back to start sketching out designs that were fully transformable and commercially viable.

Simpson says there are many examples where individual homeowners have taken a micro-suite and outfitted it like a yacht, with nooks and crannies everywhere, “and they’ve done masterful jobs”.

Here in Hong Kong, designer and architect Gary Chang Chee-kung made worldwide headlines in 2009 with his Domestic Transformer Home, a 344-foot flat in Sai Wan Ho that he renovated with movable walls to serve as 24 separate “rooms”.

In Japan, the Future Design Institute showcases the tiny homes designers there have conceived. Founder Azby Brown compiled those into books such as The Very Small Home, in 2012, which illustrates small-space concepts.

“They’ve taken a really small suite and found a way to live in it,” Simpson says. “We’ve done the inverse of that - taken a suite that is a market-acceptable size in Vancouver, and found a way to get more out of it.”

So instead of a three-metre by three-metre living room, you double the space by having a movable wall, and furniture that transforms according to needs. The “sleep theatre” comprises an entertainment unit where the television slides away to reveal a fold-out single bed. A table pulls out from the kitchen counter with seating for eight (chairs are included in the condo’s all-in package, along with a cupboard to store them).

The ability to entertain at home is something that has resonated with people, Simpson says: “The fact that you can stay in to entertain saves money.”

Simply retrofitting such concepts into an existing building doesn’t work as well, he says. Because of the specific geometry that enables the furniture systems to work together you need to start from scratch.

“In our living room, for example, the sleep theatre is 11 foot, 2 inches wide. To integrate seamlessly into the kitchen, the entire suite depth must be no less than 22 feet. Not all condos have that,” he says.

Interior design firm BYU Design was responsible for the fit-out. Lead designer Cheryl Broadhead says the difference between 500 sq ft and a smaller unit is personal space. In the former, you can leave one room and go into another.

All BosaSPACE suites have a separate bedroom, divided from the living area by a sliding, frosted glass wall — the bed transformable into a sofa when extra seating is required — as well as the Murphy-style single bed for guests.

Every cranny is used for storage. A wall-to-wall shaving cabinet in the bathroom, a utility rail hung on the kitchen splashback and an extra drawer snuck into the oft-wasted cupboard beneath the sink, are thoughtful inclusions.

The furniture, a mix of custom-built and locally sourced goods, is engineered for ease of use. The developer claims that all transformable actions can be performed by one person, using one hand, and that the suite can be fully transformed in 3.5 minutes.

Broadhead, who chose a neutral palette for the finishes, doesn’t expect the occupants would do this every day.

But it offers many possibilities that people usually have to give up when living in smaller spaces. “Say, you like to sew; you pull out the kitchen table and you have a work bench. You can practise yoga in the living room by folding back the wall. The concept is exciting as it allows people to live the life they want, by making the space work for them,” she says.

Since sales began in December last year, buyers have snapped up 160 of 300 units. They include parents of university students, young marrieds, and Canadians looking for a pied-à-terre or urban holiday home.

More BosaSPACE buildings, comprising transformable suites ranging in size from 400 sq ft to 1,000 sq ft, are in the pipeline.

Simpson says the designs could be replicated in any densely packed city where housing comes at a premium. That makes Hong Kong, with its cutthroat property market, a prime location.

Chang, the Domestic Transfer designer and founder of the Edge Design Institute, said he recognised the merit of the BosaSPACE as an initiative to make smaller homes more liveable - a need he sees in cities as he travels to discuss his own ideas. He also applauded the fact that a developer has backed it. After all, six years after Chang first unveiled his own project, despite widespread appeal and, even today, weekly visits to his home by interested parties, no one has yet committed funds. Developers, he laments, “don’t want to innovate”.

It’s just that he expected more. There is “nothing new”, from what Chang can see, in the BosaSPACE design. The Clei furniture systems, while admittedly user-friendly, were already commercially available.

“The project is just an ordinary unit with lots of transformable furniture from a commercial brand,” he says. “I would like to have seen more innovation - this, to me, is more of an opportunity missed.”