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The Cost of Space

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I know it’s common practice in Western Europe, Japan and China, for residential unit listings to include not only the price but also the floor area of the dwelling. Some agents will even provide the cost per square metre so you can make your own judgment about the effects of factors such as location, view and condition. It’s the same whether you’re buying or renting.

In large cities, most people will be familiar with the trade-off between commuting time, floor area and price but the calculation has many other variables, including time. Areas that once had underpriced dwellings because of a need to change from a metro to a commuter train now have stations surrounded by multi-household buildings with reduced-size units. The week before last I wrote about some 27 sq.m units with high ceilings and suitable for conversion into 47 sq.m loft units. A new train line and station will open nearby within two or three years.

The Vientiane units I mentioned in that Headroom post are different from those of Nakagin Capsule Tower because they have the potential to increase the floor area. Both buildings ask what an acceptable minimum dwelling is. Both have one window associated with the living area even though the Vientiane units have a wall of glass and the Nakagin ones a single large-ish porthole. Modified Vientiane units stack sleeping areas above living areas while the Nakagin units have flexible usage for either sleeping or sitting on the same raised floor space, and the same table for eating and working. This won’t seem strange to many Japanese but some people might prefer to sacrifice headroom for having more places in which to be.

Of course it’s possible to work and to eat at the same table without having to do anything other than clear some space and, if you like your bed hard, it’s neither inconvenient nor uncomfortable to sit on a cushion on the floor during waking hours. Every now and then we’ll be shown some shipping container fitted out with all manner of furniture that folds down or pulls up to allow for different activities. I’ve always found the results of these displays of ingenuity unnecessarily restrictive. Some people like watching television in bed while others enjoy napping on a sofa.

In this post, I won’t consider RVs and mobile homes because, even though they contain many spatial contrivances, the deal is that this is the price you pay for mobility and the theoretical possibility of access to Nature. I also won’t consider tiny homes either despite spatial inventions such as entering via the bathroom because, again, it’s same tradeoff between mobility and a supposed access to Nature. Left and middle below is Renzo Piano’s Diogenne at home at the Vitra zoo. On the right is Horden Cherry Lee’s micro-compact home.

Houses like these are all very amusing and clever if you have access (rights) to a nice piece of land/landscape and don’t intend to live in them full-time. But what if you don’t have the necessary land buffer between you and the next full-time household? Land-hungry tiny houses aren’t a solution. What other solutions are out there for locations and situations more real? Let’s start by setting the bar low. Hong Kong’s infamous coffin homes don’t allow a person to stand. Ablution and kitchen facilities are shared and often in the same room. [images] These dwellings are like capsule hotels but capsule hotels were never intended as a residential address. Perhaps their typological equivalent found its place in Hong Kong because the residents want little more than a place to sleep.

Also in Hong Kong are units with a marginally larger floor area but the headroom to stack beds and shelves. This is something IKEA is always encouraging us to do with cramped living areas. “No space? When you’re not using them, just hang your chairs on the walls!” said one catalogue. The vertical stacking away of furniture is the western equivalent of Japanese space with its flexible usage, but the stacking of furniture that can still be used is an option because, unlike the coffin home, it creates spaces for a person to lay down, to sit, and to stand up, even if there’s more headroom than needed to stand.

Laying down is generally associated with sleeping, standing up with showering and preparing food, and sitting in a chair with relaxation or desk work. Laying down doesn’t require the headroom for standing any more than showering requires the area of a bed. We might be missing something by seeing domestic functions in terms of floor area without regard for the height of that area. Some of the proposals I mentioned in the Headroom post gave thought to this. Many had a reduced-height sleeping area and a reduced ceiling height for bathrooms and kitchen areas. However, the volume “saved” was often “diverted” to the living area that then became unnecessarily tall. Although generally thought pleasing, this height excess was merely a redistribution of volume already built.

The idea of having different spatial experiences in a small housing unit is good but maybe the spaces should be thought of more in terms of whether we need to be sitting, standing or laying down, rather than in terms of what we actually do in those positions. It’s strange how we readily accept a lowered ceiling height for bedrooms in which we are generally laying down, but a lowered ceiling height for bathrooms and kitchens where we are generally standing, or for living areas and dining areas were we are generally sitting. Even if the concept of minimum areas for certain functions grates, we nevertheless have different standards when it comes to necessary and unnecessary heights for those areas. We tell ourselves that a living room has extra height because it’s the space used for the longest periods – a dubious claim – but living rooms are also the spaces used most frequently for the conspicuous display of architectural excess. You can think of your own examples. There’s plenty.

The object then, is to design a residential space with areas designed for standing, sitting and laying down. I should add the condition of using lightweight partitions and minimum structural contrivance in order to exclude solutions such as Sou Fujimoto’s Final Wooden Block House which satisfies the objective in having those three types of spaces, but at enormous structural contrivance with some many of its logs suspended by the tie rods you can see in the section below. There’s also the not-insignificant cost of those magnificent timbers.

Even though Philip Johnson’s Glass House functioned as a reception room, it could still theoretically be lived in as a house it was supplied with utilities and furnished with the accoutrements of habitation. I’m still not sure about Final Wooden Block House. I’ve never seen an image of the bathroom, I’m not convinced of the sincerity of the sink despite or perhaps because of its domestic styling. To the right of and beneath Space 2 is a machine room but for what we don’t know. I can’t see power sockets or fixed light fittings. The sight of an exhaust fan outlet on the elevation is reassuring but why through the wood? According to the section above, the door to the bathroom is 150cm high, and the “countertop” 60cm high. Moreover, this system of timbers 30cm x 30cm in section can’t make a table and chair without the “seat” being either 60cm below the “tabletop” or the “tabletop” 30cm away from the edge of the chair. Iffy.

I’ve many questions but, as an idea, Final Wooden House is, despite its name, worth developing further. It has to be or else we’d be stuck with Architecture as a procession of endings rather than a source of beginnings. Hmm – let’s leave this for some other time. The entry space between the kitchen and the bathroom is entered upright and from there one either turns right and goes down into the standing space of the bathroom, or moves forward and up into the lowered height Space 1 below which there must be some unused space. From there it’s up again (and above the mysterious machine room) to the still lower-height Space 2, right and up again (to above the bathroom) to the still lower-height space of Space 3, and from there up again to the still lower height of Space 4 (above Space 1). This progression of spaces from standing to sitting to laying down is made possible (within the 3.6 m cube) by sinking the bathroom. The above-ground part of the house is a cube only because of that.

Still, Final Wooden House far better articulates this division of spaces by body posture than any proposal I’ve come up. All I’ve been able to think of is my House with a Sloping Wall – which wasn’t even my idea to begin with. This house used a sloping wall to redistribute volume from the bedroom and bathroom to the living areas. As well as producing spaces for standing and sleeping, the sloping wall gave meaning to both the sleeping area and the living area. However, the first proposal didn’t carry this through to sitting and, although a second proposal with a stepped floor did, it didn’t go far enough. [c.f. Misleading Narratives] What was good about both these proposals was that they weren’t conceived of as detached houses with roof lights, multiple window openings and picturesque settings. All the landscape was internal. Moreover, the idea hasn’t been designed around the use of a single premium material.

My other proposal dealt with similar themes of headroom for standing and sleeping but this time, and perhaps not entirely consciously, for sitting as well.

The good things about this proposal are:

  • There are six different places to be in this 25 sq.m house.
  • Each of those spaces is suited (to varying degrees) to whether an activity is performed while standing, sitting or laying down.
  • Each of those spaces has a window suited to that space.
  • A partial inclined wall is used to divert (admittedly unusable) volume from the laying down area to the recreational sitting area.

Its shortcomings are:

  • The difference between the upstairs sitting height and the downstairs sitting and standing heights is still excessive.
  • The space above the bathroom isn’t used for anything else except a terrace.
  • Whereas the former proposal recognized that people both stand and sit in bathrooms, this proposal doesn’t.
  • Similarly, the diagonally opposite corner of this house has an unused empty volume. (This now suggests that these units should be terraced in some way, with raised floor portions of one unit interlocking on one side with lowered ceiling portions of an adjacent unit.)
  • Each elevation has a window and this precludes this unit being terraced, while the complex volume precludes it being stacked.

As with Final Wooden House, this proposal is entered on the same level as the kitchen and bathroom and has a variety of spaces from standing to laying down but they’re not arranged in a sequence of decreasing height as with Final Wooden House. What’s wanted is:

  • An internal volume that can be stacked and terraced.
  • An internal volume that has a interlocking spaces for standing, sitting and laying down (and the activities performed in those positions).
  • Realistic construction and materials.

I’m not sure whether it’d be better to tweak this proposal or start again. I’ll probably begin with the former before deciding on the latter. Although it’s a stretch, this is one problem where 3D printing could be used to create an interior for plugging into a concrete matrix from the outside and an external wall with windows fitted afterwards.

This could be an opportunity for some intelligent (in the sense of clever) 3D design and 3D printing explorations using some very real spatial, servicing, structural, construction and installation constraints for a change.

Or maybe not. Once 3D layouts become consumer objects with a lifespan approximating that of a sofa, we’ll need a way to install and change them according to real or imagined needs once the cladding is in place – much as what happens with those loft installations that only require a competent installer and a kit of parts. Sou Fujimoto’s Final Wooden House is basically a kit of parts for a 3.6m cube house with internal dimensions of 3 x 3 x 3 m. In any variation, the entrance, kitchen and bathroom are always going to be together. Everything else depends upon how to access the space above the bathroom while wasting as little volume as possible below and above the platforms stepping up to it – otherwise there’s no point to this exercise. The internal footprint of Final Wooden House is 9sq.m and (forgetting about the “machine room”, the only area gained is that above the bathroom – another 2sq.m? The area of Kurokawa’s Nakagin capsules was 10sq.m. Space for a washing machine, refrigerator, cooktop, bedding and a bit of storage would be nice. An insulated shell 4 x 4 x 4 m should be more than enough.

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  • says:

    You also have to consider issues with accessibility.
    Almost (?) everyone is disabled at some or other time in their lives, from various reasons and in various degrees.
    Most of those spaces, especially in Final Wooden House look like their will be nightmarish to navigate with broken limb, bad depth perception or balance problems. I imagine pregnancy could also be problematic in such spaces.
    As I think of it, name of FWH is misleading. It should be “Final Wooden House for Fit Young Male”.
    Or should we consider more fluidity in changing of living spaces?

    • Thanks Andrzej! You’re totally right about this. Paul Rudolph once said of the architecture of Mies van der Rohe that it was successful – or beautiful (I don’t remember which) – only because it solved sod few problems. This is why I’m suspicious of FWH as a solution to any problem other than which the architect set for himself and it probably is why you are too. Now I think of it, it’s not at all clear what that problem was. I suspect it was no more or less than the generation of architectural (media) content, and it has definitely been successful on that count. 

However, your question about considering more fluidity of living spaces suggests a different kind of internal organization. Offhand, I can think of early Richard Rogers and Gio Ponti among others who, in the 1970s, proposed living areas that had flexible partitions whose position could be changed over the course of a day. More recently, I can think of a recent Solar Decathlon House Competition winning proposal that had horizontally moveable walls so the lengths of the study, living room and bedroom could be altered according to time of day or usage. Such flexibility in area doesn’t have an easily attainable equivalent for flexibility of headroom within a fixed volume. It would be possible to have something like a loft level with adjustable headroom for a stacked bedroom and living area but even this will have issues of access. If one doesn’t want to have an internal elevator, then the only spatial compromise is to have raised level living space for as long as one can access it, to not use it when inconvenienced by pregnancy or injury, and to remove it when one begins to have more long-term difficulties. Some kind of less extreme stacked space solution might be able to widen the window of accessibility but, other than that, the two needs are mutually contradictory. I think. Thanks again, Graham.

      • says:

        Sorry, English is as you can probably see not my first language, and I was unclear when I wrote about fluidity.
        I meant that we should consider being less attached to our homes, that maybe we should move more fluidly when live circumstances change (which should be helped by community/government) rather than force our initial home space to fit our new needs.

        It’s interesting, how this notion of whether you own or just rent a home is viewed in different countries.
        I live in Poland, and almost everyone here owns or dreams of owning his home.
        Not everyone can afford credit, developer cuts are insane, and great demand makes this unattainable for many. So when we have our own flat or house, we feel secure and fulfilled, and would rather not risk anything to loose it.
        The fact that low social trust among Poles, and poor regulations and overworked courts makes renting a risky affair for both parties involved.

        But I also know that in western Europe more common form is renting either from private or public (like in Vienna) owners.
        My aunt for example when her health got bad moved from her majestic apartment in centre of Vienna to smaller, more modern flat, more suited to her new needs.

        But what you mentioned:
        “However, your question about considering more fluidity of living spaces suggests a different kind of internal organization.”
        Is also fascinating new take on this matter, so I’m glad I was unclear in what I meant 😉

        Also, maybe this will interest you form point of accessibility.
        In Polish building code there is paragraph requiring that every flat should have entry hall and corridors that will allow to manoeuvre with wheelchair or EMT stretchers. Also internal doors should have at least 80cm width, so maybe barely, but you can fit wheelchair through them.
        So in theory, by law, every flat built, after 1950-60 (don’t know when this law took effect) should be more or less accessible.

        Thank you,

  • I was starting to worry when you promoted that 3d printed designs, but you came up with a nice twist at the end of the post! The Wooden House gives an organic feeling like being in a cave, and it would have been a good design if it was careved out of a large tree or a rock. But it was not. That said, I would like to see an update of your proposal that use volume more efficiently.

    • Thanks HCS! Let’s suppose the volume of FWH is 3m x 3m x3m despite the downwards extension of the bathroom, the 30cm wide window sills and the flat sheet of glass above the highest “sleeping area” raising its effective height from 60 cm to 90cm. There’s the matter of the (let’s say) 1 cu.m below Space 2 and maybe half that below Space 1. This is already about equal to the volume “gained” as additional height above Spaces 2 and 3. Volume has simply been redistributed. But, if you add the unnecessary internal volume taken up by the non-/structural members, then you end up with far less than 217 cu.m internal volume. If the goal of FWS is to provide a prototype for many different types of space within 27 cu.m then it is successful. However it is done it will appear as a coherent “architectural” concept and whole because of the all-pervasive timbers. There’s also that. Geometrically/topographically, the effective internal volume can only approach 27 cu.m if the whole thing is made out of steel with internal partitions and platforms only 10 cm thick instead of 30 cm and the space “under the stairs” is better used. A Final Steel House wouldn’t be so photogenic. At 10 cu.m, a Nakagin capsule makes better use of its 24 cu.m of internal volume. I think the volumetric problems of FWH are insoluble as long as it is a Final Wooden Detached House. Some volumetric efficiencies would be possible with a different structural/construction system and more might be possible if the units could somehow be interlocked by stacking and/or terracing so that volumetric losses in one unit were gains in hoirizontally and/or vertically adjacent units. I suspect this is possible, especially if one forsakes the conventional hierarchy from standing (entry) – sitting (reception/living) – lying down (sleeping). The challenge then becomes one of not complicating access and structure so much that the whole enterprise becomes pointless. For me, Final Wooden House is final not because of any perfection that’s implied, but its design premises won’t let it be taken any further. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything. There’s also the not-unimportant matter raised in the next comment. Cheers, Graham.