Making microflats liveable is simply a matter of good design

Hong Kong developers have done a brisk business with microflats, but architects say they can only be liveable with a new approach to design

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 February, 2015, 4:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 5:13pm

In a city of sky-high real estate prices and ever-dwindling square footages, affordable housing for many now means a flat smaller than 250 square feet. Far from a purely local phenomenon, however, microflats are a trend in many of the world's most expensive cities, from London to New York to San Francisco, where they have been proposed as solutions for young people looking for places to live.

In Hong Kong, people have been living in microflats for years, often in illegally subdivided apartments in tong lau walk-ups and old warehouses. The Society for Community Organisation says at least 100,000 people are living in rooms as small as 40 square feet, often without proper ventilation or adequate toilet facilities. Many more students and young professionals live in spacious apartments that have been divided into microflats of 100 square feet, each with its own toilet and miniature kitchen.

Bigger, but still controversial, are the Lilliputian apartments built by developers. Last year, Cheung Kong unveiled Mont Vert, a Tai Po estate where 177-square-foot flats had price tags of HK$1.55 million. Despite that, or because of it, those sales have been brisk and other developers seem keen to follow suit.

Many new developments have been edging in the microflat direction anyway; the New York Times recently profiled one 275-square-foot Shau Kei Wan flat with the astonishing headline, "A One-Bedroom Apartment That Could Fit in a Bedroom".

Are microflats liveable? Yes, say architects and designers - but not how they are being built in Hong Kong. "The problem is they've taken a standard flat and just shrunken it to its absolute minimum," says Dylan Baker-Rice, founder of local design firm Affect-T. "The way they're being conceived of now is not sustainable because it's being driven only by cost."

Last year, Affect-T worked on a research project that led to a conceptual design for bamboo microflats inside industrial buildings. It reflects the already pervasive phenomenon of illegal cubicle homes inside old factories.

"It's happening on its own, and there's a beauty to that informality. It's like what happened in the Kowloon Walled City. It continues on, but instead of a walled city it is spread throughout Hong Kong," says Baker-Rice. Unfortunately, without regulation, many of these ad hoc microflats are unsafe, he says. "A lot of them are just horrible."

Many of the people who live in such microflats are on waiting lists for public housing that could see them in limbo for the better part of a decade. Affect-T's bamboo flat proposal would provide transitional housing with safe, attractive rooms that are built inside existing spaces. "It would create a series of communities on different floors of industrial buildings," says Baker-Rice.

More upscale microflats could be possible, but only if they are designed with flexibility in mind; 150 sq ft can work, "but the only way is to take some of the things that were inside the flat before and make them communal", says Baker-Rice. Not only that, but the flats' layouts would need to allow for a variety of lifestyles.

"Combining two micro-apartments into one could allow families to grow - or shrink and find another source of income," says architect Jason Carlow. "If you had a more flexible building code, in which you could legally combine units, you could have micro-apartments that meet different needs."

That's the dream - but there's also the reality, which means that first-time home buyers are likely to be faced with ever tinier versions of the box-standard Hong Kong flat. "It's very challenging to work with," says interior designer Keith Chan, of Hintergro. "The first thing I would do is knock down all the interior walls, if possible." He would also recommend installing folding furniture to maximise space, like the desk/bed or "stealth kitchen" systems made by New York company Resource Furniture.

Architect Gary Chang received worldwide attention when he designed a system of transforming furniture that allowed his 344-square-foot flat to become 24 different rooms. So far, however, no developers have expressed interest in implementing Chang's system in their own flats. If they aren't built by developers, it is unlikely that individual homeowners would be able to commit to such innovations.

It's a Catch-22: the more space-efficient a piece of furniture, the more expensive it is. Transforming furniture systems often cost upwards of HK$50,000, says Chan. "People who can only afford such a small flat can't afford such furniture."

That doesn't mean microflats should be ruled out entirely. They simply need to be designed with the best interests of their occupants - not developers - in mind. "I do think there is a lot of potential in microflats," says Baker-Rice. He notes that much of the anger that led to Occupy Central is tied to the lack of affordable housing and upward social mobility in Hong Kong. "Microflats could be the answer," he says.