May 8, 2006

Big Ideas for Small Homes

Last week, Vancouver by Design reviewed an exhibition called, Some Assembly Required. The Vancouver Art Gallery is presenting the traveling show from the Walker Art Center, Minnesota on contemporary pre-fab housing (that review will be posted soon).

One of the goals of the show was to feature architects who designed contemporary or modern-styled prefabs. It also underscores how modern design ideas are at work in
new smaller homes and suites no matter what style the come in - neo-Craftsman, Palladian stucco, or high-rise slick - it doesn't matter.

Open plans, which means not parceling space into small rooms (living, dining kitchen) and the extension of visual space by using lotswindows and views to bring the outside into the home are two obvious examples of modern architectures contribution to domestic home design.

But what are the other ways to make small homes, both apartments and single-family residences, look and feel bigger? This is especially relevant to the Vancouver market where a new home (albeit a condo) may along offer 500 square feet.

Heather Howat has a few techniques for dealing with limited space.

She's a principal with Battersby Howat. Howat and David Battersby recently completed two homes near Main Street. Each are 1500 square feet, 2 1/2 levels. And the project uses a very modern, semi-minimalist look.

Heather says, "We wanted to expand your experience of the space and
provide spatial diversity of the house without necessarily putting up
walls." One way they achieved it was by making the ground floor one room. You can see clear through the kitchen-dining-living area from the front to the back.

But the exciting part is they also able to integrate the kitchen and
the dining table by raising the floor six inches at the dining area. Whereas, most popular TV design shows would recommend a different paint or floor treatment create distinct zones, Battersby Howat used a far more sophisticated and spatial solution without resort to a warren of walls. And here, no guests are required to sit on stools to eat their dinner.

They also used the same idea in the master bedroom where the bathing
area is open to the main room and once again there is a shift in floor height to
distinguish the two different functions.

But that's a 1500-square-foot house. What do you do about really small suites?

Howat recommends in a small home that furniture be multi-functional by doubling as storage. She also recommends built-in furniture because it will intentionally be designed for your space and will be seen as part of the space instead of an object that's is taking up room.

Howant also recommneds furniture with legs, so you can see lots of floor,
which helps convey a sense of spaciousness.

If open plans may not be your style, architect James Gauer has some suggestions. He wrote, The New American Dream: Living Well in Small Homes.

He used to live and practice in New York, but now works remotely from his new home in Victoria.

He says, "If you put your mind to it and treat it as a serious piece of architecture, it can work. But you can't treat, something which you
have to pack closets and storage."

In sizing up a potential new home with wall, Gauer says, "You have to take stock of what's there. What are the natural attributes of the existing space. You have to cast a cold calculating eye on the space and you have to understand simultaneously the limitations and the possibilities of the suite."

Second step, he says, "Prioritize your needs. You can't have everything. You've got
to be able carve out one good-sized room. And you have to pack all the
stuff at its edges."

Most condo suite design strives for bland balance. Gauer says, "They are able to give an okay, and medium bedroom, and a medium living space. But there's no sense of proportion."

For his own New York apartment, he made a choice. He wanted a decent-sized living room that took advantage of a view of the Manhattan skyline and consolidated and squeezed in everything else (see the results in the image above).

Gauer says, "If you're lucky enough to get in during the pre-construction phase, most developers will make changes at no-additional or little cost. You do not have to accept the floor plan the developer is offering, they may not encourage to change it and they may not like it. But a good developer will make the changes."

And if you haven't been able buy pre-construction, Gauer advises a furniture plan where the scale of your furniture part of your home-buying equation. He says, "Plopping your favourite giant couch and plunking down two easy chairs isn't going to work. Do a furniture plan."