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Mini Architecture, A Gigantic Challenge

Making the most of the conditions and restrictions of size, shape and place is the essence of the architectural pursuit.

Creating an impression of spaciousness and comfort in a small house.
Creating an impression of spaciousness and comfort in a small house.
Christian Tröster

BERLIN — Three young London architects found themselves faced with very little space. Their clients’ property was only 2.3 meters wide by 32 meters long (7.5 feet by 105 feet). Worse, there was a protected house on it. But they built a clever extension that nearly doubled the living space for the four-member family – and there was still room for the garden.

The edifice has become known as "Slim House."

Architects don’t like freedom. Ask them to go ahead and design their ideal house, and they’ll tell you those marching orders aren’t precise enough. Architects need guidelines, specifications, conditions. Theirs is a craft, not free-form art, even if some architects like to act as if it were. The fact is that architecture is bound by realities such as location, budget and the wishes and personalities of the clients.

If we take this idea further, then the best architect is one on whom the most limitations have been placed. For example, someone who can build a small house on a difficult piece of land. The challenge is to come up with something great in a mini format.

Architects Chris Bryant, Caspar Rodgers and Tristan Wigfall, who together go under the name of alma-nac, solved the "Slim House" dilemma by building into the garden, which enabled them to add an extra 17 meters (56 feet) to the house.

The two floors they added were built set back from the street so that they would not interfere visually with the protected historic facade, and that space added an extra 46 square meters (495 square feet) of living space.

The ingeniousness of numerous other solutions they found for "Slim House" earned them a 2014 Häuser Award.

Inventive architecture

But the solutions for winning more space and the illusion of it don’t always have to be as clever as they were with "Slim House." In Bettina Hintze’s new German-language book Kleine Häuser, Grosse Wohnarchitektur (Small Houses, Great Home Architecture), the author outlines more common solutions such as corner windows and glass walls. Colors and materials can also help — light ceilings and walls as well as reflecting surfaces all create the illusion that a space is bigger, for example.

The Dutch architects at Gaaga Studio used all the tricks outlined in the book to create a house in Leiden. Not that it was as simple as ticking items off a check list, because the project required them to create living and office space for a two people in a crowded urban area. There was only 95 square meters (1,022 square feet) of land to build on, and because clients also wanted a garden, that left 48 square meters (516 square feet).

The architects organized the interior so that the office is on the ground floor while living space, including the kitchen, is on the first floor, and sleeping space is on the third. Then comes the roof terrace. But how did they manage to create such an impression of spaciousness and comfort?

The answer lies in the way they handled exposure to daylight. The office, living room, kitchen and dining room have floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides. The living room even has a third window in the part of the room that is two stories high, thus giving the entire room a surprising feeling of spaciousness.

The window in the bathroom is a skylight, the frame of which is painted yellow so that even on gray days the light seems sunny. All these features and more create thoughtful and inventive architecture in a very small space. The Leiden house also won a 2014 Häuser Award.

A carefully engineered use of light also plays a role in the excellent design of another house, this one located in Esslingen, Germany. Its most noticeable feature are its sidewalls consisting of translucent polycarbonate panels.

The panels mean additional light, even if muted, and also shield residents from people looking inside in a neighborhood where the houses are very close together.

"We fell in love with this area right away and wanted to live here," says homeowner Thomas Finckh. "The challenge was to make a building with a maximum allowed width of 4.7 meters (15 feet) seem generously proportioned inside, and to create the perception that the space was open and light."

Finckh himself was the architect, and the project was the most personal challenge of all.


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