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Buildings with double height spaces have existed for as long as there have been haylofts, minstrels’ galleries and artist’s studios, but the history of making more efficient use of the height inside residential space is about a hundred years. Many of the first proposals were entries to the 1926 Comradely Competition for Communal Housing organized by Soviet architectural journal Sovremennaia Arkhitektura [SA, “Contemporary Architecture”].

The proposal by the Georgy Wegman team had central bathrooms that could be stacked down the middle of the plan. This is best described by the sectional drawing.

The inventiveness of the Nina Vorotynzeva and Raissa Polyak proposal was apparent in the section where the kitchen, bathroom and the sleeping areas have reduced heights that, when stacked, are more than the height of the living area. Alternating floors interlock to repeat this advantage. 

Mosei Ginzberg and his Stroykom team used a similar device in their Type B residential units, leading one critic to complain that alternating the direction of alternate floors meant the services and utilities pipes had to be duplicated. This is true, but the point was to redistribute the ceiling heights within the unit so that each space had a height commensurate with its use and its frequency and period of use.

Of course the Type F unit had the three floors of an access corridor with bedrooms and bathrooms above and below on one side, and the two floors of one-and-a-half storey high living rooms on the other. Again, the point was not to make a double-height living room, just to redistribute the heights so the living room was more pleasant to be in during waking hours. None of these proposals was for a double-height living space. [c.f. The 1+1/2 Floor Apartment]

More recently, many a microflat is entered via a short corridor with a kitchen or maybe a closet on one side and a bathroom on the other, and the space above being used as a sleeping space accessed by a steep stair or ladder. This next example is by Julyan Wickham of Wickham van Eyck. It has the sleeping area above the entrance with the kitchen to one side and, behind that, the bathroom. The net gain in floor area is about 12 sq.m. Each of the stacked spaces maybe has a headroom of 2.1 metres and the height of the “double” height living area is maybe 4.3 metres.

Stacking infrequently used spaces such as kitchens and bathrooms is not new, and neither is adding the sleeping area to the stack as sleeping remains something that doesn’t require much headroom – a fact that has been exploited by RVs stacking the sleeping area above the driver’s cabin.

Bunk beds are a simple piece of furniture that stacks two or sometimes three beds in the area required for one. Some submarines have stacks of four.

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The architectural examples are all proposals for manipulating building elements (such as stairs and floors) to provide more useable area within a residential unit. Bunk beds are items of furniture that do the same thing and for the same reasons of providing additional area for sleeping. Here in China, I recently started noticing advertisements for various types of freestanding partitions and dividers that do the same job as the first examples, but as a piece of furniture rather than an arrangement of building elements. Many of these create additional space for children where the headroom requirements are less crucial, and where additional space is more likely to be needed when the space for one child must be used as the space for two. Adding extra space to a house often means adding a room but this can’t be done with high-rise residential units. All that can be done is to horizontally divide space into rooms of smaller area, or to vertically divide it into spaces of reduced height. These loft furniture items divide that space vertically, often into separate spaces for sleeping and study.

Similar products exist to increase the living area for grownups. In a small unit, this isn’t so much to provide different spaces for different activities although this is often the case but, not counting the bathroom and bedroom, it is a way of creating more places in which to be as a way of making that space feel more spacious. If the space is shared, having more places to be means having more places for the other person to be.

The takeaway from this is that, in China, there are many variations on the loft space as a piece of furniture that fits into an existing space, and there is also an accompanying industry for the design and installation of these secondary structures.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called The Winter Garden – that I accidentally deleted and am currently reconstructing. I mentioned how many high-rise residential units have their balconies enclosed almost immediately after occupancy. I wondered about the reason but was later told that, when it comes to later selling the unit, enclosed area sells for double the price per square meter as unenclosed area. Enclosing the balcony is therefore an easy win when it comes to resale. Providing a balcony is a kind of gift or incentive from developer to purchaser.

It also accounts for the inclusion of spaces such as this next one that’s not a balcony or even a convenient place to store anything. A purchaser will happily remove and relocate the window to extend the room to the far wall and gain perhaps three square meters of internal space. And nearly every occupant of units with these unexploited spaces has done so. I see both balconies and spaces such as this one below as incentives to purchase the unit with an eye on future financial gain. In other words, the potential for additional sellable space is built into the design of the unit.

Close to where I live are these two buildings completed about three years ago. The one on the right has horizontal banding alternating for every floor and every other floor.Thist confuses the building scale a little, but not enough to stop me n noticing that its floor-to-floor height is larger than that of the builiding on the left. Something’s going on.

The railing you can see in the unit below is exactly one meter high. It’s is safety requirement for the developer to provide but, oddly, not for the purchaser to keep. We can deduce that the ceiling/soffit height in this unit is somewhere between 4.0 and 4.5 metres. In other words, it can have a reasonably hight loft space inserted and, moreover, that loft space will also have its own openable window. A local real estate agent tells me the floor area is 27 sq.m with larger units being 45 sq.m. They’re sold as finished and immediately habitable shells with a kitchen and bathroom provided. I have no information as to whether they’re being sold to speculators or to people intending to live in them but, even if only some purchasers are the latter, then we have a new housing product to suit a new market. Given the proximity of this development to a large-ish shopping mall, I could imagine some units being purchased as dormitory accommodation for mall salespersons.

About three quarters of the units have had L-shaped lofts inserted into them and that will almost certainly be used for sleeping and wardrobes. Guidelines for loft conversion must be in place because all have the same height for the inserted floor, and all have what looks like a set minimum amount of perhaps 25% “double” height space. No unit has a full floor inserted. Contrary to the Chinese preference, all units in this building and the neighboring one have internal bathrooms. As there is no opportunity for cross ventilation, both buildings have double-loaded corridors with windows at each end by way of compensation. I can’t tell if the kitchens are separable but they will definitely have the kitchen exhaust ducted to the roof.

The shorter building on the right in this next photo has split system air conditioning.The ceiling height of the taller building on the left is lower but whether this has something to do with it having ducted air conditioning I don’t know. It does however have the same potential for loft insertion, even if headroom of the upper level will be less.

Outside a local estate agent was the following advertisement for a 27sq.m unit. The price is approximately US$70,000. The name of the development is 万象之光 (“Light of Vientiane’). A search produced the following images and plans for the building with the higher ceilings. The plan is for a 45 sq.m converted unit, with the plan as sold on the right. We can also see the typical floor plan and the double loaded corridor with windows each end. This link to a sales site may break at any time.

In the 1980s and 1990s London there was a fashion for loft apartments converted from disused warehouses, often in waterside locations. They weren’t cheap, and many were sold as shells with only utility and services points provided. Often, a condition of purchase was that the conversion and completion of the interior be completed within a certain period after purchase. Sometimes, architects would be engaged to design the internal layout. What we’re seeing with these mini-loft apartments is a housing product with some additional volume in the form of height built in at the outset. This additional volume doesn’t come for nothing as it’s still space enclosed by structure and the cost folded into the purchase price. However, this additional volume has the potential to recoup that additional outlay by increasing the floor area at one’s own cost. That buildings like this exist means that, for both developer and purchaser, the sums stack up. That two residential buildings different from the small-district/gated community, family-oriented three-bedroom norm have been built, but with slight differences such as ceiling height and air conditioning system, suggest the developer is wanting to fine-tune their product. Whichever way proves more profitable, we’re looking at a new housing product that’s already highly evolved and doesn’t require any architect input.

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