Getting big ideas about small spaces

Cause+Affect’s Steven Cox insists there are ways to design today’s tiny condos so they feel more spacious

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      It’s an inescapable reality: as downtown Vancouver’s real-estate prices shoot ever skyward, new living spaces grow smaller. But that the city’s condos regularly come in at under 500 square feet these days isn’t what’s wrong with them, in Steven Cox’s mind. The creative director behind the young, multitasking design firm Cause+Affect isn’t necessarily against doing things on a small scale. What bothers him about today’s often Lilliputian-sized living quarters is, well, that they feel Lilliputian because they aren’t more livable. And his company has devoted itself to changing all that.

      “Space is at a premium and it’s up to designers to make sure those spaces are well-designed, and we think that’s completely possible,” Cox says, sitting on a mod purple chair that’s pulled up to the futuristic, glossy-white-oval boardroom table at Cause+Affect’s East Cordova Street headquarters. “A lot of people live in condo units that could be better”¦.In Vancouver we have, like, six floor plans for condos.”

      The problem, as Cox sees it, is we are all squeezing ourselves into cookie-cutter layouts that are being shrunk down from larger models. The reasons, he argues, are complex, only starting with the fact that Vancouver has been built up at a fast rate, and the city has a sales- and developer-driven market that doesn’t leave a lot of time, resources, or incentive for innovation. But through a handful of projects, the Cause+Affect team is joining the few firms slowly cooking up ways to encourage urbanites to live better, smaller.

      The firm’s first stab at changing the way condo dwellers live dates back to 2005, soon after Cox had arrived back here with his wife (and Cause+Affect managing director, Jane Cox) from London, England. (He had been working in the offices of design heavy-hitters Alison Brooks Architects and Softroom in the U.K.) Their upstart company was contracted to create a tiny 325-square-foot Concept Condo for the Design Vancouver show (the precursor to IDSwest). The idea would eventually lead to what amounted to a windowed box outside of Canada Place, where someone would live in the public eye for five days.

      “People think that in order to make small spaces feel bigger you have to open them up,” Cox explains, sketching out what his team decided to do instead. Rather than pushing the kitchen to one end, Cause+Affect placed an H-shaped wall right in the middle of the unit. One side of this central “core” partially enclosed a bedroom with a bed that folded up into a computer desk; the other housed the kitchen area.

      The result was a surprisingly airy living room on one end of the space, and a dining room with a wall of storage units on the other side of the core. The resident could circle the entire unit, from room to room, around the central walls.

      The Concept Condo at the former Design Vancouver show revealed what’s possible in a tiny 325-square-foot space.

      The project was one of Cox’s favourite undertakings, and it stuck with him until his company had the chance more recently to design the interiors (as well as the branding and marketing) for the Rolston—a funky 23-storey condo tower set to rise over the historic Yale Hotel on Granville between Davie and Drake streets.

      Here Cause+Affect took on the grandaddy of Vancouver designs: the one-bedroom condo. The standard layout for the typical rectangle is to push both the bedroom and the living room toward the front window, where the unit looks outside. There they sit, side by side and separated by a wall, with the dining room and kitchen pushed toward the back, by the entrance.

      “So your living space is actually this tunnel-like space,” explains Cox. “If you have the benefit of a deck, it’s broken up by your bedroom. And that’s 99 percent of units.”

      Cause+Affect’s innovation was to question why the bedroom had to be where it is, in the primo position of sharing the dominant window space.

      “Bedrooms in Vancouver have very little privacy and chances are your view isn’t fantastic. From what we’ve seen, the majority of bedrooms have their blinds closed all the time,” Cox says. “So we said, ”˜Let’s move it to the interior of the plan.’ That instantly gives us a big space, the entire width of the unit, for the living room. And with a deck, you get this amazingly large space on the front of the unit.

      “So right away this space starts feeling bigger and the bedroom becomes more like a cocoon. You can cloak it in softer, warmer materials and it becomes about seclusion and coziness,” he continues, pointing to a computer image of a display unit that features gauzy grey curtains that can open or close around the bed. “Why do you give up all this space and premium location when you don’t use it much?

      “When you’re in a condo that size, you can’t have everything, and that’s the problem.”

      The Rolston’s developer, Rize Alliance Properties, which is still selling units into the project, took a leap of faith and decided to offer buyers a choice of two layouts: Cause+Affect’s innovative interior-bedroom model (the “Cecil” units) or a more standard Vancouver version, save for an elongated, European-style eat-in kitchen (the “Yale” units), rather than the usual galley. The show suite displayed both designs, each about 480 square feet, so that people could walk through and see the differences. (The bulk of the Rolston’s one-bedrooms will span about 460 to 560 square feet, with some bigger two-bedrooms.)

      The results were interesting, to say the least. Although visitors instantly remarked on how spacious the Cecil suite felt, and some opted for it, Cox reports many chose the more traditional design thinking it would make a safer investment.

      Undaunted, Cox says the project shows how ingrained the standard condo unit is in this city and compares it to other real-estate sales concepts that are hard to shake. “Why do people think granite countertops are important? Because they’ve been told that,” he argues.

      More recently, Cox has been taking his ideas about space and applying them to improve the model for a duplex in Vancouver. The challenge? How to create two attached, 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom houses on the basic Vancouver 33-by-125-foot lot—especially since the reality of purchasing a single 2,400-square-foot house on such properties is hitting the million-dollar mark and becoming unreachable for most young families.

      Like condos, there are standard designs for the duplex in this city, but each poses challenges. The Vancouver Special finds units stacked on top of one another. Comments Cox: “It immediately sets up an upstairs/downstairs scenario, and how do you share a back yard?” The other format, with a front and back unit, usually means only one household gets the back yard. The only other option, building the units side-by-side, creates a long, narrow living space—a 12- or 13-foot-wide corridor, if the property is 33 feet wide, Cox says.

      His firm’s innovation on that side-by-side layout? It’s bent the dividing wall twice in the middle, like a stretched-out Z. “That gives you big spaces and small spaces,” he says, pointing out the zig-zag creates up to a 16-foot-wide space for the living room in each suite.

      Upstairs, the design includes a master bedroom, two small rooms for kids, and even a little study—all with the dynamic look of the slightly angular walls.

      It also has the benefit of being adaptable to townhouses (with the rooms gaining even more width), or to digging beneath to build income rental suites below the units. The plan is in the very early stages, with Cause+Affect looking at development strategies.

      Also in the early stages is the firm’s project with the innovative new developing company NOW (New Original Works), for whom Cox’s team has already done branding. Among the ideas they’re floating for a new multiunit building at Fraser Street and East 27th Avenue are urban roof gardens, an Intranet to connect the condo’s dwellers, and ways to house bicycles in smaller units.

      As these new projects with NOW aim to eventually show, small-space living in this city clearly goes beyond inhabiting an ever-shrinking box. Perhaps because its work spans everything from communication to museum exhibitions to interior and graphic design, Cause+Affect sees that living not-so-large is good for our planet and our city—so rather than fight it, we should work better with what we have.

      “We want people to live in smaller spaces, whether that’s condos or townhouses,” Cox stresses. “We’re equally concerned about the details of bedrooms and bathrooms as how we should be living in a sustainable way.”

      In other words, it’s good to see the big picture when it comes to small places.



      Dave W

      Feb 25, 2011 at 4:41am

      Ha! Nice effort on the marketing! This concept of less is more is ridiculous. In other words, more homes per square foot = more money in the pocket of the developer and more tax revenue for the city. The sad thing is that there are too many people willing to buy these little dorm rooms. These types of dwellings in Vancouver are just compounding the already existing problems of over-congestion. The lack of pubic transit and major traffic routes in this city is just one example of the mess we're already in. ~ i know, why don't we just get everyone to ride bicycles. Sound familiar? I guess you get used to small spaces when you walk around with your head up your ass.


      Feb 25, 2011 at 2:52pm

      Is this really about livability, affordability, and sustainability or profit, superficiality, and someone's tarted up art/architecture school project


      Mar 8, 2012 at 10:38am

      If you have a better way of making homes more affordable in the city, step up to the plate and I'll buy 20.


      Nov 15, 2013 at 5:22pm

      Weighing in with another viewpoint here. We just bought a 480 sq foot condo in Whistler. Part income property, part Western power base as my corporation is transforming itself into a cloud-based national distribution company where the traditional bricks and mortar warehouse/office base will be only part of how we run the business . We're selling our 2500 sq foot home on a huge lot (65trees) and will establish several tiny residences in different parts of the country, the better to meet our customers. Love the imaginative ideas of multipurpose furniture and rooms. We have whole rooms right now that I don't even walk through in a week. Thanks for the ideas!