For some, the choice is quite openly about sustainability, about a rejection of the inherited assumptions that equate one’s status with the acquisition and display of material goods; for others it is simply the convenience of having a variety of amenities within walking distance from home. Either way, the reality is that urban land is more expensive on a square foot basis than suburban or rural land, and that the same amount of money will, therefore, buy less physical space in a city core than in a suburb.
This, together with the fact that many urban infill sites have numerous constraints not found in subdivisions, means that standard solutions cannot be applied in cookie-cutter fashion, and that careful and creative design is required to extract the greatest possible value from each and every square foot.

There are of course physical design strategies that can be applied to achieve economy of space, but more important is the philosophical approach of both architect and client. Most clients are used to thinking of a house as an assemblage of spaces with names such as dining room, kitchen and bedroom – rather than as a holistic enclosure in which our daily activities such as eating, cooking and sleeping take place.

Thinking in terms of the synergies between these activities, rather than aggregating individual areas on a plan, can lead to greater flexibility and economy in the design of urban houses.
There is also a tendency for us to want spaces to accommodate all our activities however infrequently they might occur. We want an oven capable of cooking a Christmas turkey, a dining table that will accommodate the 8 or 10 people who have gathered to eat it, and a guest bedroom for out-of-town relatives who visit twice a year. It has become the norm to design for these special occasions rather than simply for our daily needs.

By definition, this is inefficient design, with spaces lying idle and unused for much of the time. Not only does this unused space require more land and resources to build, but it costs more to heat and cool and takes valuable time to clean and maintain. By contrast, efficiency comes from providing for our basic daily needs, and designing spaces to be flexible and adaptable to other uses when required.
As examples, a house that is within walking distance of local shops needs less storage space for groceries and other items than one that is not; and a bed that unfolds from a closet can convert a study area into a sleeping area when required. In one instance we designed a kitchen for a client in which the cooking facility was an induction hot plate that could be stored away in a cupboard when not in use.

In a house, the feeling of spaciousness comes not so much from the plan area of individual rooms but rather from the manipulation of volumetric proportion, the interconnection of space either physically or visually, the introduction of natural light and the control of external views.
While these principles can be seen as generally applicable to any small project, the specifics of how they can be used will vary in every case. While the position of the sun may be predictable, the orientation of a lot will determine how it can be used for both light and passive heating. Other buildings in close proximity will determine how windows are positioned, and what shape and size they can be. Even in a small plan, the creation of an internal courtyard can increase the sense of space and ensure high levels of natural light.
Small urban houses are representative of the lifestyle choices that more and more people are making to reduce their own ‘footprint’ both literally and figuratively, to live more simply, to shop locally; to eat better and to walk instead of drive. As such, they are a physical manifestation of the emerging values that are beginning to transform our major cities.

FOLD PLACE

This modern infill house in Ottawa fits both the dimensions of its irregular [20’x60’] lot, and the owners’ pattern of working and living. The home is a unique resolution of the Modern design sensibilities and habits of the clients, who chose the location because they like to walk to work, and walk to get groceries.
The challenge of Fold Place was to design a house with light, privacy and a sense of space within a small footprint. In response, the spaces are designed to flow into each other, while bending and overlapping to create definition and visual interest.  The spaces are simple yet warm, as clean forms and minimalist detailing highlight views, natural materials, and favourite pieces of art.

Connected by similar design elements – including the light-coloured walls, dark flooring, light fixtures, and the repeated use of charcoal-coloured porcelain tiles, the rooms have a casual relationship, distinguished more by use, than by opaque barriers. Translucent screens, frosted or narrow windows, shoulder-high walls, and a cedar-slat fence around the backyard, permit physical and visual connections and the infiltration of light, without the discomfort of feeling exposed.
The wooden treads of the central staircase seem to float within a vertical shaft of diffused natural light. The staircase acts as a connection between spaces and allows traffic and fresh air to travel from the interior garden at the entry, to the rooftop garden overlooking Lansdowne Park and the Aberdeen Pavilion.

  • Materials
  • – Wood-frame construction insulated with Heatlok SoyaTM spray polyurethane foam by Demilec; aluminum frame windows western red cedar siding finished with solid exterior stain
  • – Radiant floor heating system, high-recovery hot water tank, hardwood flooring
  • Project credits
    Architect: Andrew Reeves
    Construction: The Lake Partnership Inc.
    Photos: Erin Warder

MINI HOUSE

Mini House sits on a 14ft x 70ft lot in the ‘Tiny Town’ neighbourhood of Toronto. A former railway right of way, the area was first developed in the 1880s as worker housing, with homes between 300 and 500sf in size.  Over time, the area has developed into a stable, affordable yet endearingly quirky neighbourhood in which innovation and experimentation are the norm. The client for the Mini House also found the tiny lots the perfect scale for the ultra-compact, fully detached house he dreamed of building.
The budget was set to match the cost of owning a comparably sized condo which meant that creativity and resourcefulness were needed in design development.

The contractor was included early on in the conversations and design process. This open and collaborative dialogue helped keep the project on track by facilitating flexibility in the construction approach and adapting the design as required to economize building. Inexpensive and recycled materials were sourced from stage sets or salvaged from demolished houses.
Mini House embodies a “hard loft” style with an industrial aesthetic and flexible floor plan. Despite its very small foot print of less than 550sf, the home feels open and spacious. The client’s Spartan lifestyle is reflected throughout as the house remains true to its materials and requires minimal maintenance.
The floors are poured concrete, the walls are concrete block or white painted drywall without baseboards and the windows are oriented to coordinate desires for view, natural ventilation and passive solar gain in the winter.
As one of the first new, modern houses in this part of Toronto, Mini House is a testament to the idea that bigger does not necessarily mean better and that loft-style living is possible outside the bounds of a high-rise building.