Living Large in Small Spaces

Since the 1920s, largely due to increased land values and the application of developer economics to projects, the size of typical one-bedroom apartments in the city of Vancouver has decreased from an average of 650 square feet to 547 square feet. This loss of more than 100 square feet of living space has happened incrementally, without any concurrent re-evaluation of the relationship and hierarchy of the living and service spaces.

From a consumer’s perspective the net result, as manifested in many apartment developments of the 1980s and 1990s, has been a proliferation of cramped and inefficient living spaces that fall well below the expectations of many prospective purchasers. Such was the case for Gair Williamson of Baker McGarva Hart Architects who, in a search for some of the spatial quality of his previous home–a 1920s rental suite–purchased and converted one of these speculative units, an intervention that formed the basis for Case Study 547.

The apartment shell was an elongated rectangle, approximately 17 feet wide with a nine-foot high ceiling, divided lengthwise by a central wall into two train-like compartments. On one side were the bathroom, a laundry/ closet space, bedroom and balcony, while on the other were the entrance hall closet, kitchen and living area. At no place in the apartment could the full width between the party walls be seen and appreciated.

Williamson’s intervention involved three strategic moves. The first was to relocate the bedroom area eight feet back from the window, thereby creating a larger and more flexible living area that extends the full width of the apartment.

The second was to raise this area by 18 inches, and surround it by low walls 44 inches in height, one of which contains cabinets accessible from the kitchen side.

The third was to screen the bedroom area with two suspended walls containing shelving for books and other items. These walls are held back from the building shell, and from each other, to allow light and air to reach the bedroom. The separations are oriented to prevent clear views to the bedroom from other areas of the apartment.

The relocation of the bedroom was achieved by re-orienting the stacked washer and dryer to make them accessible from the bathroom, and moving clothes storage to the main entrance closet. Elevating the bedroom has made the space more intimate and helps to articulate it from the rest of the apartment. Additional bedroom width was gained by rationalizing the original kitchen and hallway into a single galley arrangement, where the circulation space serves both functions. Cabinets are kept below counter height to create a more spacious feeling. Lowering the ceiling at the entrance to the suite has created a sense of entry and made space for overhead storage.

However, the most dramatic transformation of the space has been achieved by making the suspended wall between the living and bedroom areas moveable. In its closed position, it completely separates the two areas, and appears from the living room side as a blackboard, and from the bedroom side as a bookshelf. In the fully open position, it rests flush against the party wall, and the living and bedroom spaces flow into one another. With this arrangement, the living space appears to extend almost 20 feet in each direction. The wall may also be positioned at an angle between the fully opened and fully closed positions, bringing a dynamic quality to the space.

Case Study 547 successfully defines a workable prototype for improving the quality of one-bedroom apartments. In the Vancouver market, the necessary modifications can be achieved at a premium of $12,000 over the basic price of an apartment, factoring in credits for items normally provided by the developer but not required for this design.

Case Study 547 has already generated interest in the architectural community–it received a British Columbia Lieutenant Governor’s Merit Award in 2000–as well as with one local developer, who has begun to offer it to buyers as an optional package. It remains to be seen whether this kind of considered design approach will find widespread favour in the marketplace.

Jim Taggart is an Associate of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia