How to Fit Your Dream Home Into a Small Space in the City

By Victoria Harrison, Houzz

Living in a big city can be fun and rewarding. But when space is limited and costs are high, finding affordable, appropriate housing can be a struggle.

Related: 10 Essential Furnishings for Small Space Living

How crowded are our cities? Sydney has a population of almost 5 million, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics; Tokyo had 9.3 million residents at the time of its 2015 census; Moscow had more than 12 million, according to its Federal State Statistics Service; and London had 8.5 million residents in mid-2014, according to the Office for National Statistics.

In response to the population squeeze, designers are coming up with clever solutions to maximize space. These four London homes show how to approach small-space design creatively in a big city.

Alma-nac, original photo on Houzz
Alma-nac, original photo on Houzz

1. Slim House

The Slim House is squeezed into a 7½-foot-wide gap between two larger buildings. The narrow home is a master class in maximizing the smallest of urban spaces to create a home.

Tristan Wigfall, director at Alma-nac architects, transformed the two-bedroom, one-bathroom house with no dining area into a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a dining space opening onto the rear garden.

He did it by extending the building in back and up. The sloping roof and floor design raises ceiling heights in many of the rooms, increasing the sense of space. Multiple skylights and a central light well let sunlight into the narrow space.

The project has ignited imaginations since its build. “We’ve been approached by various housing associations and developers to look at how the principles of the Slim House could be adopted in different situations,” Wigfall says.

Use restrictions to inspire the design. “Through clever design and careful consideration, you can make the most of sites and spaces that appear otherwise unviable,” Wigfall says. In this example, “rather than compromising the finished result, the challenge of designing within such a narrow plot informed the design process and drove us to come up with a particularly innovative response.”

In a narrow build, maximize ceiling heights. In the rear addition, upper-level floors angle up to meet the sloped roof. “Cranking the floor plates to create the enlarged floor-to-ceiling heights was a key element of the design,” Wigfall says, “as was a central light well that brought natural light deep into the home, again enhancing the sense of space.”

Black and Milk | Interior Design | London, original photo on Houzz
Black and Milk | Interior Design | London, original photo on Houzz

2. Clever Studio Apartment

Studio living is largely an urban experience, and residing in essentially one large room poses interesting challenges. This studio apartment, redesigned by Olga Alexeeva of interior design firm Black and Milk Residential, is a brilliant example of making the best of a small footprint.

“It’s a tiny studio, and I wanted to create maximum space and functionality in it,” Alexeeva says. “I was literally counting every centimeter.”

Simplify the space. “The starting point for redesigning the apartment was to take out as many partitions as I could, to get it back to its rectangular shape,” Alexeeva says. “I’ll quite often remove all internal walls if possible. I put the furniture and kitchen in first, so it accommodated all I needed — washing machine, dishwasher, fridge, etc. — and only then did I build the walls around it.”

The main room in this apartment can now serve as a living space, dining room, home office and bedroom with just a few adjustments.

Black and Milk | Interior Design | London, original photo on Houzz
Black and Milk | Interior Design | London, original photo on Houzz

Avoid petite furniture. “Never go small in small spaces,” Alexeeva says. “I always try to accommodate generous and functional furniture. Rugs, in particular, should be large to make the space look bigger.”

This studio shows “you don’t have to compromise on the quality of life” in 270 square feet, she says. “You can have up to six friends over for dinner, plus you have a luxury bed, a functional and beautiful kitchen, and a bathroom. You can lead a comfortable life in the center of the city, with a five-minute commute to work!”

Before Photo, original photo on Houzz
Tom Before Photo, original photo on Houzz

3. Converted Workshop

Most people would walk past this rundown workshop and see just a neglected commercial property. But when Fiona Kirkwood of Kirkwood McCarthy spotted this space in east London, she saw an amazing opportunity to convert a derelict building into a home.

“Everyone laughed, but I had conviction and got stubborn about it,” the architect says.

Kirkwood McCarthy, original photo on Houzz
Kirkwood McCarthy, original photo on Houzz

The workshop is now a deceptively spacious home, thanks to a clever redesign and addition.

“We are seeing a growing interest in self-build projects, and I really back this option as a means for people to create well-considered, well-executed homes that suit their budget and needs,”Kirkwood says. “It’s not just more housing we need, but more variety in the types of homes available.”

Kirkwood McCarthy, original photo on Houzz
Kirkwood McCarthy, original photo on Houzz

Create sightlines to trick the eye. “It feels much larger than its built volume because of the view lines we established within the design. From any vantage point in the house, you can look beyond to another room or outdoors,” Kirkwood says.

“Achieving this entailed setting back the middle mezzanine [4 feet] from the external wall,” as seen in the picture above. “While forgoing this amount of footprint in a small house might seem illogical, it allowed us to create a double-height space with huge windows that gives the property an exaggerated sense of scale, daylight and views.”

Don’t forget about outdoor space. “The whole house is about pushing what can be achieved on a really small site,” Kirkwood says. The steps in the courtyard, for instance, are carefully designed to be at seating height. “The courtyard is furniture — it’s like an amphitheater. We’ve had 20 people sitting out there. It becomes a great social hub for the house and is a big part of the integrated indoor-outdoor sense we wanted to create,” she says.

4. Floating Home

“To combat the overcrowding in London, we seem to have seen a move toward making the most of the river and canals that run through London,” says houseboat owner Gary Marshall.

In a bid to find an attractive and affordable home in the heart of the city, he transformed this houseboat to create a chic and welcoming home for a fraction of the cost of a house in the area.

Marshall points to “the regeneration of warehouses along the canals and new developments along the entire length of the Thames” as evidence of a shift toward living on the water.

“Even though permanent moorings for boats are scarce, it allows an apartment, albeit a floating one, at a fraction of the cost of a land one,” he says. “If I were to look at purchasing an apartment in the heart of nearby Canary Wharf at just over 1,000 square feet, I shudder to think what the price would be.”

Chris Snook, original photo on Houzz
Chris Snook, original photo on Houzz

Open up the living space. As mentioned earlier, getting rid of dividing walls and a warren of small spaces can help a compact home feel larger, and it’s an approach Marshall also has adopted. “Allowing the central part of the boat to be completely opened up to create a living-dining-kitchen-hallway [area], and using similar materials and colors throughout, has created the feeling of a much larger space,” he says.

Related: Use a Bench as Dining Seating That Can Be Pushed In For More Living Space

Let in the light. All these designers stressed the importance of maximizing the sunlight in their urban builds. It’s something Marshall also used as a guiding principle in his houseboat conversion. “Allowing as much light as possible into the environment,” he says, was key to making this compact boat feel like a spacious home.

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