When your floor space is cramped, look up. Literally.
This article on houzz describes how architects and interior designers establish a customer’s needs along several axes and can plan small spaces around them, overlapping functions as necessary. Often, the key to meeting every need is vertical space: a lofted bed above a bathroom or living space; storage above doorways and around windows. Just look at this pair of plans for the same space – one taken at an elevation 3 feet above floor level, the other taken 8 feet above floor level.
I’ve discussed the bed as a space-saving opportunity several times before. Sleeping is a horizontal activity, taking up a large footprint but only a couple feet of vertical space. Tiny houses on wheels and small apartments often use a lofted bed configuration. This one-story house goes the other way, placing a bed on the ground level (to stay cool in the summer) under a three-foot ceiling, with a living space above. The Interlocking Puzzle Loft in New York City, pictured at top, takes advantage of space under the bed to enable two levels of living in a volume with only 11-foot ceilings.
Overhead and low-level spaces are also great for storage, and even mechanicals. You can run your kitchen cabinets right to the ceiling, and many cabinet-makers now offer slim toe-kick drawers. You can line your living spaces with upper-level shelves as you’d find on a boat or RV. Instead of a whole room for your utilities, you might consider placing hot water heaters and heat recovery ventilators on floor level, perhaps hidden under a built-in seat. You can even build a secret soaking tub under the floor. Be creative and think in all three dimensions!
In the latest example of adaptive reuse, a Denver hotel was converted to apartments. This Denver Post article explains how Turntable Studios, near the Highland neighborhood a mile from downtown, hopes to attract young professionals who value low cost and great location. The studios offer 335 square feet of living space and rent is about half of what you’d pay for a two-bedroom nearby.
Hotel conversions are an exciting idea. A typical hotel room is already set up like a small house, with a full bathroom and an open space for living and sleeping. That means a hotel conversion probably costs less than (say) a factory conversion, using fewer new materials and generating less waste. Developers can pass these savings on to the folks who live there by offering some of the most affordable rents around.
In practice there are mechanical requirements that do require the contractors to open up the walls: you’ll need to add hookups for a kitchen, and reroute utilities like electric and hot water so they’re metered individually. Still, reusing an existing structure makes much more sense than tearing down and building from scratch. The converted Turntable Studios, with its enlarged windows and kinetic-art multicolored shades, is a neat improvement to the booming Denver skyline.
Question: What do you call a one-bedroom apartment with a dining room? Answer: A two-bedroom apartment.
Urban housing prices are skyrocketing, and those who want to live there cope by finding efficient ways to use space. Legally, you can only sleep in a room with a closeable door and a window for egress. To count as a bedroom in real-estate parlance, a closet is also required. Two-bedrooms cost much more than one-bedrooms, even for dwellings of equal square footage. Savvy house-hunters know this, and they judge dining rooms, offices, and large living rooms for their potential to carve out extra beds.
This New York Times article explores what some homebuyers are doing at the high end of the income spectrum. One featured family paid $500,000 for an Upper East Side one-bedroom with a dining nook, which they converted to a nursery. Another family lived in a Midtown studio with an infant who “slept behind a partition in a corner of the bedroom”, until they found a one-bedroom with an already-transformed dining room and scooped it up for “less than the listed price of $699,000.”
But how many families can afford a half-million-dollar house? And live somewhere else for a year while renovating it? I’m happy for anybody to see the value of efficiency, but to talk about affordability at this price point is sort of insulting. This Los Angeles Times article examines the other end of the income spectrum, where a rented studio in Historic South Central might house a family of seven.
When homeowners stretch their space to accommodate more people, it’s called pragmatism. When renters do that, it’s called overcrowding. Think about what’s going on here, and decide who embraces efficient living by choice and who does so by necessity.