How small can you go? Smart House condos test the limits

More and more people are living alone, and more want to live downtown, close to work, where the action is. Graham Hill is a pioneer in this trend with his LifeEdited project; the TreeHugger founder was in Toronto recently to speak at the launch of Smart House, a condo project composed of mostly very small units, starting at a mini 289 square feet. Making units that small isn't actually very easy; Developer David Wex noted that if you're not careful, "the kitchen, bathroom and shafts can eat up the whole thing."

© Smart House

The project, designed by the Architects Alliance, hits many of the buttons that we have talked about on TreeHugger over the years.

Reducing your carbon footprint without reducing the function of your space is smart. Complementing the walkability of our location, Smart House has features that significantly conserve energy, including energy-efficient windows, lighting, appliances and ventilation. From bike parking to the ability to individually control the use of energy in your suite and more, our green features ensure the everyday ease of eco-smart living.

Walkscore/Screen capture

And indeed the site has a Walkscore of 100, which I have never seen before. (Walkscore is the wonderful tool that looks at the walkability of a neighborhood, although looking at the Walkscore page itself, I think the algorithm needs a little tuning up. The schools are all private, ranging from salsa dancing to languages; the shopping is very Queen Street West, ranging from the Condom Shack to edgy stores with names like Lavish and Squalor. It's not exactly what you need for everyday life)

© Smart House

The kitchens are particularly interesting. Closed up it is all very neat, but there is a lot hiding behind those doors.

© Smart House

The fridges are small (because small fridges make good cities), the range top gets by with two burners, the oven is a little combo microwave convection (the marketing person said "who cooks turkeys?"

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There is a fancy Fisher-Paykell dishwasher-in-a-drawer and, surprising in a unit this size, a combo washer/dryer. (Why not a smart shared laundry room?)

David Wex demonstrating cutting board/CC BY 2.0

There is a clever cutting-board pullout extension and other touches that add up to a very clever kitchen.

© Smart House

As in Graham's LifeEdited apartment, there are lots of moving parts.

A bed that folds into the wall and becomes a sofa. Or a desk. Kitchen counter space that expands and retracts. Dining tables built into islands. Niche shelving in what would otherwise be wasted pipe space. Integrated cabinetry and smart appliances. Moveable partitions. Storage conjured all over.

The developer will happily sell a furniture package option that " aims at maximizing and transforming space through smart and multi-functional features. For instance, one room functions as two when there’s built-in furniture that switches from a sofa in the daytime to a bed at night, and European hardware that makes the transformation effortless."

© Smart House

The plans do raise the question of how small is too small. Graham's LifeEdited apartment is a positively spacious 420 square feet; Mayor Bloomberg's competition called for apartments ranging from 250 to 375 square feet. The smallest unit in Smart House is 289 square feet and it looks really small. I think too small.

© Smart House

Crank it up to 350 square feet and it gets very interesting. I really like the linear service wall and the breaking up of the bathroom like this (although I would have put the sink in with the shower and left the toilet alone in its water closet, with a sink built built into the tank lid.) This is a really liveable unit and it doesn't need an expensive wall-bed.

US Census/Public Domain

David Friedlander of LifeEdited points to this graph from the US Census Bureau that shows how the number of people living alone has increased significantly. He published it as part of a longer response to comments in the National Post that were critical of the project, where readers complained that they had walk-in closets bigger than these apartments. Many people do; that is the problem. Walk-in closets are the cheapest space to build, they don't even have windows, so builders pump them up. Building serviced space on a downtown site is expensive, and building really small apartments reduces the absolute cost of the unit, if not the per square foot cost. Kitchens and bathrooms are expensive. A big dishwasher is half the price of the Fisher Paykell drawer unit. But it is all that a lot of people need. (See David's article, The Three Biggest Objections to Small Living)

There is no question that a 300 square foot apartment isn't for everyone. But given the demographic, cultural and technological shifts we are going through, I suspect we are going to see a lot more of this kind of condo. I hope they are done this well.

More at Smart House.

© Smart House

The almost vestigial radiator fin balconies could be another story.

Tags: Less Is More | LifeEdited | Living With Less | Toronto

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