Flexible space transforms compact apartments into eminently livable units

4-D design, which incorporates the element of time, can make a monumental difference

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      Vancouver planner and developer Michael Mortensen knows that not everyone is a fan of small apartments. But the founder of Liveable City Planning Ltd. also insists that there are many misconceptions about this topic.

      “The biggest one is that more compact units are less livable,” Mortensen tells the Straight by phone. “I think that’s just a fallacy.”

      As a director of the nonprofit Small Housing B.C., Mortensen is one of the province’s foremost advocates for a looser municipal planning approach to allow for more bedrooms in smaller spaces. This can be accommodated by what he describes as “4-D design”.

      “We have to add the dimension of time to the design of more compact apartments,” he says.

      In a 2019 speech to a planning audience, Mortensen noted that 38 percent of the typical two-bedroom apartment unit is only used for about eight hours per day. He’s a fan of “flexible space”, in which rooms are reconfigured through convertible furniture to allow for different uses throughout the day and night.

      One of the early efforts at creating convertible space occurred at Bosa Properties’ Alumni Tower in Surrey Centre. Walls separating the bedrooms could be rolled back to increase the size of the living room, with the bed being folded back into a sofa. (See pictures at the bottom of this article.)

      Nowadays, at higher-end home-interior shops like Resource Furniture in Gastown it's possible to buy multi-purpose furniture.

      A desk, for instance, can be converted to a bed “with your pinky finger”, Mortensen says.

      In fact, he points out that it’s possible to pull down a bed from a wall unit to cover a desk without even having to remove books, a computer, or a glass of wine from the surface.

      Tables are also being designed for multiple uses. They can be lifted higher to convert from a coffee table to use as a desk or elongated to accommodate more guests for a postpandemic dinner party.

      “We’re seeing the furniture industry responding to consumer desires for more flexible, adaptable space,” he declares.

      Video: Space-saving furniture ideas for small apartments.

      Inboard bedrooms allow families to grow

      Mortensen also wishes municipal planners would be more receptive to “inboard bedrooms” not adjacent to windows.

      He says that these interior bedrooms can be convertible as well, with a transom window bringing in “borrowed” natural light from the outside.

      The ability to add a third bedroom in a 900-square-foot apartment can save growing families vast amounts of money if it means they don’t have to buy a larger unit.

      Mortensen also thinks it’s possible to create an “eminently livable” two-bedroom apartment in 600 square feet—citing an Anthill Studio video showing off such a unit in Southeast False Creek.

      Video: Anthill Studio designed this 600-square-foot apartment.

      “As someone who has lived in the city centre with a family—in an apartment with his family—I know by experience what it’s like to live in compact spaces,” Mortensen says. “It has enormous benefits in terms of affordability and proximity to work.”

      He adds that too much emphasis is being placed on the number of square feet in an apartment as opposed to the “volume”, which can be boosted with higher ceilings.

      This can make it possible to make better use of space above or below beds.

      This video by Ori Living shows how apartments can become flexible spaces.

      High costs require creative design

      A 2019 report by Small Housing B.C. noted that the “cost of housing has outpaced incomes exponentially” in Vancouver in recent years.

      West Side condos shot up 100 percent in price from 2006 to 2017, whereas East Side condos rose by 116 percent over the same period.

      With the cost of land, construction, and government fees and taxes going up, Mortensen believes it’s imperative to be more imaginative about the use of space.

      “If you want more affordable units, you’re going to have to get much more creative with design,” he says. “And you have to make much more judicious choices about how you, in a sense, spend your space.”

      Below, you can see an artist's rendering how an apartment in Bosa's Alumni tower can be reconfigured, depending on the time of day.