FlexNatür: Designing Condos For Flexibility And Change


All images credit AndCo

Studies have shown that multifamily housing in transit oriented neighbourhoods is the most energy efficient, and that more young people want apartments, not houses. But with most apartments and condos are WYSIWYG; they are inflexible and hard-wired to resist changes.

But people's needs do change. That's what is so interesting about the creatively named Downtown condo in Toronto; it is designed to support change. Architect Dermot Sweeny calls it FlexNatür.

Image credit &co; click to enlarge

The building, designed by Sweeny Sterling Finlayson & Co Architects (Danger, excessive flash) AKA &Co;, is different. The architect explains the problem:

Downtown living has become almost unaffordable in major North American cities, including Toronto. Without a viable apartment-style solution, people have been buying single family homes where they can afford it, choosing massive and ever-increasing commutes, smaller dwellings, or both.

The single family home is thought of as something that is flexible, but those of us who have renovated/added to them, know they are not flexible relative to cost and process. We buy small ones. Then, if possible, keep buying bigger ones. Most families rarely experience a sense of permanence or true belonging: "We bought a starter home... we will be looking for something bigger, something closer, something cooler and more stylish..." or "we will be renovating, adding-on, finishing the basement... and then moving...".


&Co; adds flexibility in two ways: they raise the floor of part of the unit for the same reason that office buildings often do; to permit change.

A significant portion of the area of the units/suites have modular reconfigurable raised floor system which is 10" above the concrete slab. This allows us and the future owners to reconfigure the suite(s) in the future without penetrating the slab and suite below. Drains, taps and plumbing are all in the raised floor. Connection is easily made to strategically place plumbing risers: you could move your shower on a weekend, move the kitchen, etc. The raised floor area is only on the empty side so you step down into sunken (higher ceiling height living rooms, kitchens, dining areas and bedrooms (9'-0" high ceilings vs. 8'-2" above)).

They also make it easy to change walls between units.

This building has no concrete shear walls and therefore no concrete demising walls. All the loads/slabs are carried on small simple concrete columns at the exterior and only a minimal number within the space.

But there is a real cost to this; they cannot use the conventional flying forms, and the reinforcing is a lot more expensive, especially if they are going to eliminate capitals at the top of the columns as shown on the rendering here. Without a concrete wall between units, they have to spend a lot more on the partition to get effective soundproofing. That's why this isn't commonly done in condos in Toronto.

One option that this kind of construction permits is the ability to buy one to live in and the other to rent out, until you need and can afford to combine them.

The project is a "machine for living" that can easily and very cost effectively be transformed to meet the occupant's needs over time. The cost to transform would be less than a third of the cost of major renovations to a home. As an owner builds equity in the property, they can earn income through rental of suite(s) while remaining as occupants in a smaller portion when they do not need as much.

Here is an example of two small units combined and reconfigured to make a larger one.

This is not the first time we have seen apartments designed to adapt to change; see Recession-Ready Apartment Plans Could Help Avoid Foreclosure. Nor does it mean that people actually do it; ever since I read Cohousing: A contemporary approach to housing ourselves I was impressed with their ideas for flexible rooms that could be traded between units (shown at the bottom of this post here); When I met architect and author Charles Durrett last year, he told me that it had never actually happened.

But if we are going to be more like Parisians and Romans and New Yorkers and live our lives downtown, raising kids and retiring, we are going to have to look at options like this that increase our flexibility, that make it easier to adapt our homes to our changing needs and to changing technologies. Perhaps Dermot, Mark and Mary Jane of Sweeny, Sterling and Finlayson, with developer Parallax Investments, have come up with a better way of building condos.

More at This is Downtown (Danger: excessive noise) and at Sweeny Sterling Finlayson (Danger: Excessive Flash)

The firm employs one of my favourite young architects, Chris Hardwicke, who has been the subject of a number of TreeHugger posts:
Carrot City: Urban Agriculture Exhibition in Toronto
Velo-City: Cycle Tracks Will Abound in Utopia
Should Cities Have "Bicycle Highways"?
Velo-City in New York

Tags: Architects | Toronto | Transformer Furniture