May 29, 2013

Living small in a modern world

Architects optimize every nook and cranny when designing micro houses



For an architect who thrives on the challenge of constraints, little compares to the test of designing a home with a 37-square-metre footprint, but that is exactly what Dan Boot did. “When I have a constraint around the location where the house is supposed to go it really kind of gets my creative juices flowing,” said Boot, president of Victoria’s Small Modern Living. “I like to work to maximize the space, so I take advantage of every little nook and cranny.”

Small Modern Living designed the 37-square-metre (400-square-foot) unit known as Studio37 as a prototype of a house that could be lowered into place by crane if need be. Units like those being created by Boot’s company are part of a larger movement within architecture and design to create small and even tiny homes which increase urban density and provide solutions to municipalities struggling with affordable housing shortages.

In addition to the creation of the Studio37 prototype, Small Modern Living has been working with Victoria residents who are interested in building self-contained garden suites in their backyards that can be used for student rental or in-law flats. “The genesis of Small Modern Living came out of a response to densification and also the City of Victoria has a policy for garden suites, which kind of runs in parallel to laneway housing that they have in Vancouver, which has been very successful,” said Boot.

While Studio37 was designed to be built either in a factory or on site, Boot said most of their homes are site specific due to technicalities that arise around issues like property setbacks. Then architects and designers have to get creative in determining the layout and furnishings of the spaces. Many decisions depend on whether the small home is being built as a primary residence or secondary unit.

“In the bedroom of Studio37 we incorporated a Murphy bed,” said Boot. “When it is folded down it is a bed, but when it is in the upward position there is a hinged partition that folds down and forms a work station.” Another space-saving feature of Studio37 is the use of pocket doors for the interior instead of traditional hinged doors. The idea of living in smaller spaces may be new to cities like Victoria and Vancouver, but Bruce Carscadden, architect and partner of Bruce Carscadden Architect, said it is something Japanese and Europeans have been doing for years.

“There is no end of precedents for people living in small spaces,” said Carscadden, who worked on the 18 West Hastings project in Vancouver. “Maybe what is interesting or what is notable is that it is new to Vancouver but certainly not new to Japanese or European markets, where people have lived in significantly smaller spaces for a lot longer,” he explained. “We certainly did look to a lot of Japanese precedents for living in smaller spaces.” The 18 West Hastings project, which was built in the historic Burns Block building, incorporated 21-square-metre (226-square-foot) microlofts.

Carscadden said one of the most important factors in designing a livable unit that is only 21 square metres was providing natural light. Because the building has a flatiron shape, the rental units have windows on all sides. “The uptake of these units was quite quick,” said Carscadden. “The quality of the fit and finish of all the units was done really nicely, first class with modern esthetics and materials.

“I think that affordability and the quality of that space, in addition to living in the city where your living room is Gastown where all of the cool and trendy things are going on, was particularly compelling to the young people who rented those spaces.”

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