When Canadian Graham Hill bought his 420-square-foot Soho apartment in New York City he saw it as a chance to prove that even a tiny apartment could be luxurious – luxury being defined as being able to hold everything he wants.
Founder of the website treehugger.com that tracks, among other things, developments in green design, Mr. Hill, a designer himself, espouses the joy of living with less and the necessity of doing it in as small a footprint as possible.
Mr. Hill, originally from Hudson, Quebec, threw down the design gauntlet on the Web and offered up to $70,000 (U.S.) in cash and prizes. Wanting to generate a public discussion, the competition to re-design his tenement apartment would be crowd-sourced, which means it would involve mass collaboration of ideas from everyone who registered online.
The criteria were specific. There had to be room for 12 people to have a sit-down dinner; for “a comfortable lounging option” for eight people; and room for two overnight guests with “some visual and, ideally, auditory privacy.” In addition, it had to include a home office, a work area with space for a rolling tool chest and a kitchen that could be hidden. Creating the illusion of spaciousness was critical, or, as Mr. Hill explained it: When “the room function is changed, it should not feel like you are sleeping in your office or eating in your bedroom.” The hard part, said Mr. Hill, would be to find an easy way to change functions so that the owner “would actually do it.”
Designers were required to use furniture from Resource Furniture – one of the contest sponsors – which deals in small designs. Mr. Hill wanted to store his bicycle out of sight. He wanted room for the usual fridge/freezer/oven/stove/microwave and dishwasher as well as small appliances like an espresso machine and juicer. He specified that he preferred a “modern, timeless” look, with no clutter and white walls. The design aesthetic needed to be detailed because none of the competitors would ever likely meet their client. They were given three months and a hypothetically unlimited construction budget.
Most architectural competitions publish the criteria, submissions are created and submitted in isolation, the winner is announced and building begins. In this online competition, all the competitors saw each other’s designs and feedback was encouraged. Tweaked designs were re-posted and received more feedback.
People who registered were encourage to vote for the winners of smaller prizes, but a jury of 16 designers, writers and architects selected the main winner. That person or team won a $10,000 cash prize and up to another $10,000 commission as project consultant, plus various gifts.
Crowd-sourcing competitions often refuse a “winner takes all” model. Offering smaller prizes where the designer may at least cover their costs, and the designer owns the idea, encourages submissions. In this contest there were seven other prizes – the lowest being $500.
Mr. Hill had to find facilitators to ensure transparency and monitor this process. He found Jovoto, a German company which runs crowd-sourcing design contests. He also partnered with mutopo.com, which specializes in social media and social production, and Autodesk Inc., providers of engineering and architectural software.
Sponsors were found. Some were strictly environmental like The National Resources Defense Council, and others , like Resource Furniture and Amina Technologies Ltd., makers of invisible speakers, whose products will appear in the finished apartment.
Last year, two Romanian architecture students, Adrian Iancu and his best friend Catalin Sandu, both 25 and studying in Bucharest, were announced as the grand prize winners. They shared the cash prize and agreed that Mr. Sandu would be the ongoing contact for Mr. Hill’s project. Neither student had ever been in a crowd-sourced competition before, but a classmate posted the site, lifeedited.org, on his Facebook page. They said they “were really excited about the brief, the location, and the fact that this could actually be built after the contest.” They decided to design it during their winter break.
By that time, the contest had been open for a month and, according to Mr. Sandu, they “kind of missed the open source aspect of the contest” and submitted straight plans. When they saw 100 entries already posted (the final tally was 304) they realized they’d missed a month of feedback and suggestions – some from Mr. Hill and the jury. So they re-posted their plan with detailed images of the interior. Simultaneously they had to check out the competition and make comments since even ‘best feedback’ won small prizes. The students worked feverishly: Mr. Sandu was making 3D models and renderings at 4 a.m. on Christmas Eve. They updated their design four times, twice with major changes on the bathroom/kitchen and the moving wall. The other changes were more minor, detailing finishes and materials.
Mr. Hill loved their plan immediately. They had “nailed the plan. It was simple. It was very clear.”
Mr. Sandu is now collaborating with Mr. Hill on other projects, including a second, even smaller 350-square-foot apartment in the same building that Mr. Hill has bought.
“This is not a time-effective or cheap way to renovate” Mr. Hill admits. But he says he achieved his goal of opening a public discussion on small-scale residential design.
“We got over 300 designers all over the world to think about small design. That in itself is amazing.”
The apartment is now in construction phase, with the new plumbing being installed. It’s due for completion by March 31st.
The project managers say a cost estimate is difficult to nail down because of the sponsorship support and long timelines, but $300,000 for primary construction wouldn’t be far off. While that might seem a bit steep for a 420-square-foot space, even in New York City, they hasten to add that it’s important to keep in mind that they are creating a living space that packs in the utility of one that’s at least 200 square feet bigger. In order to create a real comparable, you’d have look at renovating a larger, 620-square-foot to 650-square-foot space. The advantages of starting out small also include a cheaper buy-in, less energy use and, perhaps most importantly, a much more simplified lifestyle.
Special to The Globe and Mail