Micro-living: small on space but big on ideas

Ingenious design can transform small spaces into attractive and liveable homes that are efficient and affordable

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 6:05am

Bigger is not better in housing anymore. It just doesn't seem right to be living large in opulent, resource-hungry properties - and with more of us choosing to squeeze into cities, it's not an option anyway.

What is achievable, and ultimately far more liveable, is an efficient, well-designed, small apartment. Where else but New York, one of the most densely populated cities on earth, to show us how?

The recent Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers exhibition of real life design solutions, which ran at the Museum of the City of New York, was sparked by a growing disparity between planning codes and actual need: currently, small apartments (defined as less than 400 sq ft) are prohibited in many areas of Manhattan, yet the reality is that one-third of all households are single people living alone - and this doesn't count the large number of singles forced to share, Friends-style, because of prohibitive housing costs.

Indeed, only 18 per cent of New York's housing is occupied by the so-called nuclear family (two parents, two children). To anyone who has lived in Hong Kong or Tokyo, this housing mismatch surely resonates.

Designers from around the world contributed ideas for strong design and smart living in futuristic micro-apartments, including Hong Kong's Gary Chang, of Edge Design Institute. His "Domestic Transformer" is a reinvention of a 344 sq ft Kowloon apartment, which once housed a family of six (Chang, his three siblings and their parents).

The exhibition's centrepiece was a furnished apartment of 325 sq ft by Pierluigi Colombo of Clei, an Italian company that designs transformable furniture. Just like Chang's metamorphic flat, Colombo's apartment featured furnishings that transform, tuck away, and reconfigure - a Murphy bed concealed in the wall behind the couch; a closet that swings out and a coffee table cocooning a complete set of stools - to leave the floor space open.

Architect Azby Brown, founder of the Future Design Institute in Tokyo and author of books including The Very Small Home (2012), showcased examples from Japan, where homes can be as small as 172 sq ft.

In his adopted country during the 1990s, the American says, "feeble attempts" to mimic Americans' living large lifestyle ("big homes, full of stuff") simply had not worked. What Japanese architects can do well is design smaller spaces cleverly.

By the 2000s, Japanese had given up on their glamour-and-glitz lifestyle aspirations, and "many people began to prefer smaller homes because of the quality of design they exhibit," says Brown. To furnish these, there was a ready-made range of space-saving household items - flexible furniture, mini-appliances, and nifty storage solutions: inventions born of necessity for the small apartments of the post-war era.

Japan's very small home model worked because, as in early Hong Kong, the city provided amenities to support them. The idea of a public bath house may no longer appeal, but Brown certainly sees a place for shared living and co-working spaces within a building, outside laundries, and community cafes.

How small can you comfortably go? A minimum of 108 sq ft per person per household is "probably enough", Brown says; and 320 sq ft "adequate" for a sole occupant (assuming there is "a bit of a kitchen somewhere", and communal spaces). Which doesn't mean cookie-cutter design - rather, devising a living space that is small but supports your identity. "I use the expression, 'a big idea'," says Brown. "That is, try to emphasise one aspect of your character and lifestyle, and use design techniques to enhance that."

These techniques, which make a small home feel larger, include ingenious use of natural light, well thought-out loft spaces, snug but functional kitchens, unobtrusive partitions, and unobstructed circulation paths.

Downsizing to more affordable spaces makes financial sense these days, and is more environmentally responsible. This is far from a new idea. In the 2013 edition of his book Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, Brown relates how, without the aid of modern technology, ancient Japanese society managed to forge an existence that was "conservation-minded, waste-free, well-housed, well-fed and economically robust".

Micro-living is therefore not a model of the future, but the present, Brown argues. "Limited water resources, deforestation, food shortages - all the challenges society faces today (due to climate change), Japan faced, and overcame, 200 years ago."

Sarah Watson, deputy director of New York City's Citizens Housing & Planning Council, which initiated the Making Room project, says the choice is simple. With more people moving into cities (two-thirds of the world's population will be living in cities by 2050, the World Bank estimates), we can either build up, or design smarter. And those smart designs should also take into account that, statistically, more of us are either staying single, or becoming "suddenly solo".

"People are getting married less, and divorced more. The idea (in some societies) of caring for an elderly relative is changing," says Watson. It's a social shift that's happening not just in New York City but in places like Hong Kong and London, the council's research found.

"Unless we keep building more and more vertically - which we could do, but communities aren't fond of it - then we have to find new ways to increase the density inside of buildings. This is what micro-living can be."

The Making Room message might well be that small living spaces are desirable. Indeed, says Watson, in feedback from 120,000 visitors to the exhibition, no one complained that the apartments felt cramped. Rather, "they were surprised how spacious it can feel if a space is small but designed well."

But how to sell that idea in Hong Kong, where a large home, traditionally, is associated with prosperity? Chang, who happily lives in a Kowloon shoebox, doesn't feel it's much of a stretch.

"The world is shrinking, including the apartments of people in all major city centres, from Paris to London, New York to Hong Kong - and they are not cheap at all," he says. "Seoul is also booming with big demand for micro units (around 323 sq ft) from single householders."

Besides, adds Chang, the notion is already catching on here. "In most new 'luxury' developments in Hong Kong, significant proportions of micro-units are incorporated - and they are always in great demand."