Here’s how to get the most out of a small living space
Gary Chang, founder of Edge Design Institute, says multifunctional furniture and thinking in 3D are the keys to creating the perfect ‘micro flat’
Architect Gary Chang Chee-keung is best known for his 344 square foot “Domestic Transformer” apartment that can morph into 24 different rooms by sliding furniture and walls. But recently, the founder of Edge Design Institute has given himself a more ambitious challenge: to design a home about the size of a standard cruise-ship cabin.
While the 194 sq ft show flat in Tsim Sha Tsui’s Miramall is undeniably micro, it contains all the essential elements of an apartment and even includes a wine fridge, washing machine and a shoe cabinet that can hold up to a dozen pairs of footwear.
"I will not go any smaller; this drove me crazy,” says Chang, who relied on design savviness to make the interior work. He shared some of his tips at the Knowledge of Design Week, a conference held by the Hong Kong Design Centre. Multifunctional furniture was crucial, as was resisting the urge to create separate rooms. It was also important to think in 3D and choose the correct height at which to install each piece of furniture.
The most critical element of the apartment, though, was a set of sliding panels, complete with clothes hooks, in the centre of the apartment. “Once you pull it shut, one space becomes public and the other private,” says Chang. “You cannot walk around in the bathroom because it’s really small. But once you close the panel, the corridor becomes private, and you can walk from the bathroom to the wardrobe. So even just one sliding door can create different practical scenarios.”
Yet the most complex part of the challenge, says Chang, is how well you understand yourself and your family. “Even if there is a designer, in the end, you have to make a lot of decisions about what you really need and how you want to use that space. It’s a matter of give and take.”
His own experience of playing with space began long before he became an architect. “For me, [architecture] is not an interest, it’s more like problem-solving,” says Chang, who shared his own 344 sq ft flat with five family members while he was growing up. Because they had little money to spend on interior design, Chang’s sister made curtains to inject some fun into the decor and he made do with basic shelves, arranged like Lego bricks, and decorated with large landscape posters showing forests.
As he developed new skills as an architecture student, he began playing with light and colour. But the most serious renovation of the flat took place in 2007, when he returned from an overseas trip to find that pipes had burst and water was leaking into the corridor. That gave him the impetus to revamp the entire apartment, a project that took more than a year and cost HK$100,000-plus. But the money spent was worth it: that apartment ultimately earned him international attention for its pioneering design.
Although his experiment with microflat-living continues, Chang spends most of his time in hotel rooms, which are also the subject of his latest book, What Hotels are Silently Doing, published by Business Weekly in Chinese. “My personal record is staying in nine different hotels for nine consecutive nights in New York,” says Chang, who even in Hong Kong checks into hotels during weekends “in the name of study”. In a notebook he takes with him everywhere, he sketches the floor plans of each room he occupies.
The book lists 37 critical factors that make a hotel great. Some are obvious, including the design of the lobby and the flexibility of the ballroom. However, many are seemingly trivial elements, such as what is stocked in the minibars, quality of the services provided by the butler, and even how a room is named. “They don’t seem very important. But as people in the industry would say, the quality of a hotel is determined by the details,” says Chang.
He was particularly impressed by one hotel chain. “[The Peninsula Hotels] really are way ahead of their competitors in terms of room technology and designing from users’ perspectives,” says Chang, who was invited to visit its research and development facilities in Aberdeen. “It was like the headquarters of James Bond, where they invent new technology, much like Q does in the movies.”
For example, The Peninsula Hotels are among only a few to provide free long-distance calls. “They have nail dryers in the Tokyo branch and you can do everything – adjust the air condition [temperature], lighting or order ice – through a tablet,” says Chang. He adds: “And it’s a Hong Kong company.”