Living Small in the Big City

Text Bruce Haden
Research Molly Steeves 

As a 20-year-old University of Waterloo architecture student taking a year out in London, England, I lived with two other students in a room of about 350 square feet. The corner “kitchenette” consisted of an electric ring on a tiny counter surrounded by a curtain that doubled as a changing area—our small concession to modesty. A shared bathroom upstairs accepted a single coin to provide enough hot water for a splash or two while two coins provided enough for full immersion.

But outside this little room was the vibrant expanse of London.  We worked in bars, returning home late and leaving early. I joked to my roommates that we were probably in our space for a total of one to two hours of daylight per week. Although we prided ourselves on the occasional “fry-up” on a Sunday morning, our most common meal was a late-night donair eaten while walking home from the tube station along the greasy sidewalks of Earl’s Court Road.

I never imagined that I would live in this space for very long, and I didn’t. But as our cities grow and densify, the choice to make the micro-apartment tradeoff—small space, big city—for the longer term is one that is becoming more common across North America, including Canada.

The micro-apartment carries a symbolic weight heavier than its slight footprint would suggest: a blend of history, hipness, sustainability, affordability and morality. It also has a lineage that spans from grimy affordability (the Single Room Occupancy unit, or SRO) to prefab tech (Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo) to bohemian chic (nARCHITECTS’ design for a micro-apartment building in Manhattan’s Kips Bay). Small spaces come in a myriad of styles, united only by size.

But how small is too small? Global expectations about size of living space are shaped by culture. There are two useful metrics for thinking about this. The first is the average number of square feet per capita. By this measure, Canada ranks third amongst major developed countries (second only to Australia and the United States) at 779 square feet per capita. At the opposite extreme is Hong Kong at a spectacularly low 150 square feet per capita. The United States clocks in at 832 square feet per capita.

A second important metric is average house size. Scanning the globe, the average new dwelling unit ranges from a high in Australia of 2,303 square feet to a Hong Kong low of 454 square feet. Canada is at the high end of the range at an average of 1,948 square feet. If the definition of a “micro-apartment” could be considered to be anything less than 300 square feet, it sits at the extreme low end of these ranges. 

The precedent for micro-apartments was the decidedly unhip SRO. This formerly common feature of 20th-century cities has slipped to a limited residue in historic neighbourhoods. In author and urbanist Alan During’s analysis, this decrease has not been entirely positive. “The consequences of imposing middle-class norms of decency are to increase homelessness, to raise the cost of housing—especially at the bottom end of the market, but more generally for everybody, to make housing less abundant, and to accelerate sprawl,” he said in an interview with journalist Emily Badger. “Politically, it’s a coalition of the greedy and the well-meaning that led to the banning of private-sector affordable housing in our cities,” he continues. “The well-meaning folks were appalled by the living conditions of poor and working-class families. The greedy folks were appalled by the prospect of living next to them. Together, this awkward alliance helped advocate laws that established minimum living conditions not simply for safety, but also to define how much space an individual should reasonably be expected to live in.”

Like the SRO, the micro-apartments trend has an affordability underpinning. The dramatic increase in Canadian housing prices over the last 15 years has created intense financial pressure on those with low or even moderate incomes. They are faced with a disturbing choice: small apartments close to downtown, or long commute times. The desirability of inner-city living, together with a greater realization of the social, personal and economic costs of long daily travel, have shifted the balance of preference for many towards tighter urban living as opposed to the open lawn of suburbia. 

Demographic transformations also helped create the groundswell that underlies the move to tiny spaces. A crucial shift is the growth in the percentage of people that live alone. In 1950, four million Americans lived alone. Today, more than 32 million Americans and 3.3 million Canadians live alone. This trend has multiple roots—women’s economic independence, shifting social expectations around marriage, technology and communications, social mobility and longevity. We tend to think
of solo households as representative of failure, as many dating sites subtly (or not so subtly) imply. However, there is an emerging counteracting trend that suggests living alone allows freedom, autonomy, and strong voluntary connections with others. 

It would be nice to suggest that the environmental movement has also pushed the rise of more efficient living spaces. But one of the characteristics of the otherwise laudable advancements in consciousness with respect to green building and green urbanism has been the ability of the marketing community to use “greenness” as an underpinning for any strategic direction. Luxury penthouses with solar panels are as likely to be marketed as ecologically sound as the tiniest unit. Small may be green, but it’s the enhanced revenue per square foot that is a key driver.

There are several examples of micro-apartment projects planned in Canada. These include the Smart House development in downtown Toronto (architectsAlliance with II x IV Design) and the Janion MicroLofts in Victoria (Merrick Architecture with Riesco & Lapres Interior Design). However, this is a design type that must be seen in person to properly evaluate. The Burns Block in Vancouver is a 36-unit renovation of a former SRO completed by Bruce Carscadden Architects. It is clearly an unreservedly delightful place to live. The units feel generous in spirit despite their tautness of plan. In the units, this generosity of volume is created by the interplay of clean-lined windows, glazed bathroom partitions, integrated lighting, a crisp white colour palette and well-detailed hidden storage.

The architects of the Burns Block also recognized a crucial aspect of small-space buildings—the quality and character of the common spaces. Life in a small unit is much enhanced by the ability to stretch out in a larger common area. The amenity spaces of small buildings are vastly more important to the residents’ quality of life than the too-often underused amenity marketing bling in wealthier buildings. For example, no matter how finely thought-out a sub-300-square-foot unit is, it won’t be easy to hold a great party. The roof deck currently under construction at the Burns Block will provide a glass-box social space and deck with extraordinary views that will be a fabulous social destination. No doubt the residents will fight over Friday night bookings. It’s too bad the gym and the laundry aren’t up here as well.

Along with desirable common space, creative detailing helps make small spaces liveable. The Transformer-like reconfiguration of a young architect’s Hong Kong apartment ( demonstrates the degree to which thinking of micro-apartments as industrial design interwoven with architecture can provide a variety of living opportunities even in the smallest of spaces. However, clever mechanisms dependent on exotic hardware are often not durable over time, and can have the same short popularity
and effectiveness as the latest digital gadget.

Nonetheless, thoughtful detailing in small spaces is essential. At the Burns Block, the simple mechanism by which a dining table folds out from the underside of a Murphy bed creates a transformation that is eminently logical, highly durable and lest we forget, fun. 

In surveying the multiple manifestations of micro-apartments popping up in Canadian and global cities, the central question seems clear: is there an opportunity for dwelling units of less than 300 square feet to provide the essentials of urban life, and can they do so in a way that confers dignity, pride and joy? For the Burns Block as a single example, and there are many others, the answer is unreservedly yes. And the architecture is central to this dignity. Had my colonial landing pad in London been designed with the same degree of care, I might still be there. 

Bruce Haden is a Vancouver-based principal at DIALOG.