In a city filled with pot-bellied monster homes and barn-sized penthouse condos, the architects of a new Vancouver project have devised a svelte alternative: the micro-loft.
Working with architect Bruce Carscadden and ITC Construction, Reliance Properties has transformed the Burns Block at 18 West Hastings into five floors of affordable compact rental units. "Affordable" in this case means between an average rent of $850 a month, utilities included, for the furnished units. And "compact" means really, really small: between 226 and 291 square feet. That's roughly the size of a monster home's linen closet. Yet tenants quickly snapped up the units when they were first craigslisted in August, and the wait-list endures.
The renovation has yielded 30 units of what has become for Vancouverites a coveted and scarce commodity: downtown mid-price rental housing. In exchange for providing the double-hit of heritage restoration and rental housing, the developers received a density bonus which they transferred to another project elsewhere.
Built a century ago when Hastings Street was the city's main promenade, the Burns Block had devolved into a grotty Single Resident Occupancy hotel. The transformation into midrange rental housing was supported by the City of Vancouver, but sparked some pushback from sporadic protesters fearing wholesale (or, in some cases, any) gentrification of area. Yet the new units are a socio-economic equalizer at least in regard to size: they are even smaller than the 350-sq.-ft. non-market housing units down the street at the redeveloped Woodwards department store.
To create livable spaces in such an insanely small layout, the architects drew upon the City of Vancouver's own 1996 research into the micro-suite concept. Working with architects, city staff had determined that the "critical living qualities" fell into two categories: environmental (view, natural light, security, sound insulation) and spatial (entry threshold, efficiency, storage, flexibility of use, separation of spaces).
Mr. Carscadden and his team devised specific design gestures and strategies to address these essentials. Compact furniture and space-saving appliances were an obvious help: the units' mini-kitchens are equipped with two-burner stoves and counter-height fridges. The interior wall dividing the bathroom from the living area is an plane of translucent glass, which not only makes the living space appear more expansive, but also saves four and a half inches of floor space that a conventional interior wall would have required. Each bathroom door swings open inside the bathroom to double as the shower door, saving more crucial space. And the selection of a compact wall-hung toilet helped not only in terms of literal space, but also the sense of space that you perceive in beholding the unbroken grid of the tiled floor beneath the john. Alas, there are no bathtubs in any of the units—that would have swallowed up, whoosh, at least another four square feet of floor space.
So who, actually, could live in a place like this? Certainly not everyone. Not hoarders, nor party-throwers. A few couples apparently do live in the building, although it seems hard to fathom how any duo beyond the agglutinant first chapter of a love affair could share such a space. The micro-loft concept seems to be made for the contemporary urban monk: people like Andrea Wong, a young hair stylist with a modest income and a fervent wish to live on her own. Wong, who decamped from a Trout Lake-area townhouse she shared with her then-boyfriend, can see her salon door from her sixth-floor window. Her shoe collection is neatly packed in white-canvas boxes stored horizontally atop the kitchenette bulkhead.
Separation and flexibility are eye-poppingly clever around here: the pull-down wall bed folds up into the wall after use, of course, but then out of the bed-bottom-turned wall pops a foldaway dining table. "It's layered with as many ideas as is practical for such a small space," says Mr. Carscadden. In the end, they laid out each floor of the triangular building so that the three corner units on each floor boast intriguing trapezoidal layouts. Wong's, in fact, is more like a ziggurat, which actually makes it seem larger than it is, because you can't see the entire unit from any point in the interior.
Wong's unit also boasts a small balcony - actually a repurposed fire-escape landing. The building's major upgrade required the dismantling of the original outdoor metal fire escape: contemporary building codes demand double interior stairways instead. (Oh, but where will action-film characters fight in their finale chase scenes?) "That's a shame, really," says Rob Leshgold, senior project manager at Reliance. "We like the feeling of the old fire escapes, so that that's why we kept them."
Each tenant seems to negotiate his or her own living solution and space: for Jace Ardiel, a dashing human-resources specialist who lives in a more straightforward rectangular-plan unit, the answer is to move the sofa up against the wall-bed as soon as the bed is folded away for the day, and then push it aside again at night to create the bedroom afresh. Wong folds away her bed but leaves the wall-bed clear so that she can use the integrated foldaway dining-table.
Joshua James, a personal trainer, seems to have transformed his own unit into a bona fide micro-gym, with barbells and other training apparatus arrayed on the window ledge. The tiny apartment even feels like a workout room, complete with an aura of sweat-infused humidity. In the acute-angle corner of James's apartment is a full-throttle home-entertainment system, complete with large flat-screen television, iMac desktop computer, and 16-speaker stereo system squeezed into the vertex of corner angle. "It doesn't get any better than this," he insists. "It's condensed living, that's what it is. And it's very cool."
And at the end of the day, if claustrophobia still creeps in, the tenants can always escape to their communal 1,000-sq.-ft rooftop deck. Alternatively, tenants (and the general public) can migrate to the building's gastro-pub, Bitter Tasting Room, embedded on the main floor. With neither ovens nor dishwashers, the nano-kitchens are the one aspect of micro-loft living that Jace Ardiel bemoans. So like many others in the building, he heads down to Bitter about three times a week.
That concept of a communal living/dining room extends to all the pubs and restaurants in the neighbourhood, adds Mr. Carscadden. "People are making the choice to live in less space, so they can live where the action, and walk home without getting into trouble with the drinking laws, " he says. "The city is your living room."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Editors Note: The original print and online version of this story had an incorrect company name in paragraph two and a typo in paragraph nine. This online version has been corrected.