Wed. May 29th, 2024

Australia has some of the largest homes in the world. Many who do live small aspire to one day live big. But around the world, limited space is not always seen as a sacrifice.

From Sweden, where the average size of an apartment is 68 sq metres, to Hong Kong’s micro flats as small as 18 sq metres, globally architects are used to getting creative with tight spaces – they must let as much light in and offer individuals and families the same flexibility as a larger home.

Demands for affordable housing in Australia, and the rising cost of living and building globally, has seen an increase in alternate living arrangements from granny flats, to van life to the tiny home movement. But small living doesn’t have to be microscopic. So how does the world live small well?

Madrid, Spain

Architects Patricia Carrasco and Ricardo Mancho’s 55-sq-metre apartment makes use of glass to allow natural light to reach every room. Photograph: Alberto Amores Montiel

Architects Patricia Carrasco and Ricardo Mancho have lived in their 55-sq-metre apartment for the last five years. They say it is the “best house ever.”

“We wake up every morning and say we live in the best house in the world,” says Mancho.

The apartment’s living and sleeping areas are separated – the bathroom and bedroom are set back from the kitchen and open plan living, but the use of glass and floor-to-ceiling balcony doors allow natural light to reach every room, while curtains offer flexibility and privacy. Corridors function as storage for shoes and other household items, while plants fill the balconies and hang from the ceiling.

Mancho and Carrasco say that all this can be done cheaply: most of their cupboards and storage are from Ikea. Discarded materials from construction sites were used to make some furniture, like a marble slab that is now their coffee table.

Being able to move furniture around gives Carrasco and Mancho freedom to use the space in their apartment. Photograph: Alberto Amores Montiel

“Why this house is really good, even though it’s not really big, is because of its flexibility” says Carrasco.

For the few times a month when friends visit, bedside tables can brought into the living room as extra seating and the TV moved aside. “When we do yoga, we move the furniture around, and it really gives us freedom in a small space.”

The couple’s apartment is in one of Madrid’s “corralas”, dating back to the 1860s. With inward-facing patios, windows and doors facing inwards, which often remain open encouraging neighbours to talk throughout the day.

There are some sacrifices to be made. The couple would like an air fryer, but they don’t have the bench space. They have a one-person coffee machine to reduce clutter. But living small, they say, has made them live within their means.

“When I was a kid, I had a really big house with my family. I thought that my house had to be like that … and I really thought that I had to have a wardrobe for the plates … the kind of plates that you only use once a year.”

The size of the average home in Spain is growing and bigger homes are desirable. But cost and a desire to be in Madrid’s city centre has Spaniards in the capital sticking to 60 to 70 sq metres dwellings.

The couple are about to upgrade to a 90-sq-metre apartment, so their home can double as an office and have room for a future family. But they say this is their limit.

‘If we have smaller houses, we have more density and density gives you everything.’ Photograph: Alberto Amores Montiel

“If your house is 250 sq metres, that means that there is almost no density in your area,” says Mancho.

“If we have smaller houses, we have more density and density gives you everything … I work, and I have a place to buy bread, I say hello to the person selling flowers, I talk to people, I have an interaction with them. We love our neighbourhood.”

Paris, France

Architect Bertille Bordja says ‘every corner, every centimetre in Paris especially, and in France, is precious’. Photograph: Agathe Tissier

For architect Bertille Bordja, giving a second life to the historic buildings of Paris is a welcome challenge at her Ovo Studio business.

“Every corner, every centimetre in Paris especially, and in France, is precious,” says Bordja.

“We have a big history, so lots of buildings and old stones.”

Apartments in Paris are about 40 to 45 sq metres on average. Bordja says many Parisians are willing to sacrifice space to be in the city centre, where apartments are often in or next to iconic 19th century Haussman buildings that dominate the city.

Space is at a premium in Paris. Photograph: Agathe Tissier

Bordja commonly removes large corridors taking up valuable square metres, instead creating a thicker wall to house inbuilt storage, but maintaining the division of space and isolating noise. She also embraces open-plan kitchens and living areas to let light in.

Bordja says even though living smaller is normal, families in particular are always trying to find ways to squeeze in more space, and she encourages clients to think about the whole space, floor to ceiling.

“They ask, every time, for the famous third room, in the two bedroom apartments,” she says.

“I say, ‘you will have the third room, but maybe it is only eight sq metres, but it’s OK, it will work’. I work more with volume than with sq metres … eight in volume is very different.”

Ovo Studio aims to retain the character of any place they renovate. Photograph: Agathe Tissier

She always tries to use sustainable materials, often multiple times, throughout an apartment while maintaining the character of the space. Heritage buildings can have layers of structural problems under the surface, but Bordja says new developments made with cheap materials are not always easier to design for.

“It is very important for some French people to renovate, to take care of these buildings,” says Bordja.

New York City, US

Michael Chen says ‘there is a degree of motion and transformation that happens from morning to night’ in his apartment designs. Photograph: MCKA

New York City is the most densely populated city in the US. In the historic, desirable suburbs of Manhattan, apartments are an average of 50 to 60 sq metres.

The founder and principal architect at MCKA, Michael Chen, says that there is “a spirit” to those who want to live in cities and smaller spaces.

Chen became known for designing small almost 10 years ago, when he took 36 sq metres and created the “five to one” apartment – a custom-built, fold-out, multi-use space.

“One thing about designing for small spaces is thinking about time and how the space evolves over the course of the day,” says Chen.

“There is a degree of motion and transformation that happens from morning to night.”

Demonstrating what Chen calls the “choreography” of living, the apartment’s sliding storage unit creates the ability to close away day or night “rooms” as required. Transforming a dressing room to a sleeping space to an open plan living space, the “zones of overlap” feel spacious, separate and deliberate.

Leaving some space empty allows for ‘visual and spatial relief’.

Chen says he also hopes such designs allow for living small can be done with grace.

As well as using custom-built, highly engineered and malleable solutions to tight spaces, Chen extols the virtues of a particular piece of traditional furniture: the table.

Another design trick he suggests is leaving some space empty, which allows for “visual and spatial relief”.

As prices rise in boroughs like Manhattan and Brooklyn, Chen says people are rethinking the way they live in their apartments, and “planning in place” for families instead of relocating.

“The idea that multiple people might be in a small space, means you need to allow for coordination and privacy.”

Tokyo, Japan

The small parcels of land in Tokyo means architects have to adapt and think differently. Photograph: Kai Nakamura/Unemori

A city of 13 million, Tokyo is the most populated prefecture in Japan, where the average home is about 65 sq metres. At Unemori Architects, architect Ryosuke Koizumi says the smaller plots in the city force architects to think differently.

“I believe that thinking about spaces with extremes, such as light and dark, openness and closure, stretches the range of human perception,” says Koizumi.

Unemori project House Tokyo, built in 2019, has a total floor space of 50 sq metres despite being built on a 26-sq-metre block.

A house for two, it sits in a dark, narrow alley, but is full of light thanks to building upwards – a semi basement level for the bedroom leads up to an entrance, before the kitchen and dining areas on the first floor.

Large windows allow for natural light at varying angles. Photograph: Kai Nakamura/Unemori

Above them, large windows and various ceiling heights make the home feel expansive, bringing natural light from multiple sides.

Like Hong Kong, Tokyo is also known for micro apartments, starting at just nine sq metres, but small spaces often mean that more time is spent out in the community.

“They frequently bathe in a nearby public bath. That’s why there is no bathtub in this house” he says.

Building upwards is also common. Views of the sky, neighbouring houses and streets means homes have a unique relationship with the space around them. In Tokyo, creating new shapes creates the uneven landscape the city is known for.

Melbourne, Australia

Colin Chee bought a 37-sq-metre apartment in Melbourne off the plan in 2007.

The founder of Never Too Small, Colin Chee, says small apartments in Australia are often seen as dark and dingy.

Chee bought a 37-sq-metre apartment off the plan in 2007. A year and a half later, he was shocked to find his flat was cramped, dark and narrow. But stripped of brand new, ill-fitting wardrobes and replaced with Ikea furniture, floor-to-ceiling storage and mirrors, it became his home.

He recently upgraded to 40 sq metres – what he calls the sweet spot – where he now lives with his partner and his dog.

But Chee says Australia places too much emphasis on size, over quality.

“My mum used to say … you cannot judge the quality or the nutrition of the food by the size of the plate,” says Chee.

Chee says that Never Too Small has inspired people to pick up on hacks for small living. Pick the right furniture (chairs with skinny legs and low backs keep the space open), choose sliding doors and curtains over permanent walls and add mirrors where they will reflect natural light.

Also in Melbourne, Chee says the Cairo flat is one of the best examples of how high ceilings, dividing curtains and multi-use spaces can make a small apartment sing. In the heritage listed 1930s art deco Cairo flats, one of the first examples of medium density housing in Australia, surrounding vegetation and a courtyard offer both communal space and a green aspect for all apartments.

But Chee says new blocks in Australia typically don’t have shared spaces that encourage interaction, and restrictive floor plans and minimum standards for cubic metres of (often pre-built) storage make apartments hard to adapt.

Chee’s apartment prior to refitting.

In contrast, many apartments in Asia are “shells” when bought, allowing for more flexibility, as well an ability to respond to cultural norms, including the arrangement of the living space for prayer or a large entryway where shoes are left.

Architecture videographer and the creative founder of Simple Dwelling, Anthony Richardson, says, “There’s a really strong misconception that minimalism is empty, cold, white rooms.

“A simple home can have texture, it can have life and warmth to it … so many houses that are touted as minimalist are often quite excessively large … but when you really break it down, minimalism is about the essentials.”

Richardson says existing suburban terraces can be poorly oriented, but skylights and creative ceiling design can let the light in, while using textures like timber, brick and concrete can create warmth in small spaces.

But the biggest challenge in Australia is that small is seen as a backwards step.

“I think so many people would choose a larger, poorly designed house over a smaller, more refined, beautiful house just because of the size.”

“Everyone just thinks about resale, resale, resale.”

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