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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!