architecture  research  design

Compact Multi-use Spaces


We often are asked to get a small space to perform like a big space.  Luckily, the size of a space is only partially determined by its square footage.  A room’s proportions, adjacencies, and layout all play a substantial role in its perceived size.  Over the years, we have developed many tools for having a small space feel much bigger.  Here are three strategies:

1. The programmed edge

One way to have a small space feel larger, and perform multiple functions successfully, is to pack a lot of program and storage along one wall while leaving the rest of the room open and flexible.  Closed storage allows things to be housed more compactly than is possible in open shelving.  Functional elements such as desks, countertops, entertainment centers, and kitchen equipment, are incorporated along this edge so they do not need to be accommodated elsewhere in the room.  With mostly closed cabinetry, and some open storage and display for visual interest, the wall is effectively thickened and the remainder of the room feels open in contrast.

multifamily compact townhouse programmed millwork

The design of the units in our City-House project is a great example of the programmed edge.  These two-story  micro-units are just 634 square feet over two floors.  On the lower floor, the kitchen / dining/ living space is a single room with its functions running along one wall of cabinetry.  As shown in the diagram, in addition to providing lots of storage, the cabinetry holds the kitchen elements, provides seating for the dining area, and contains the living room entertainment center.  By organizing all these functional elements along the one wall, they are more compact than with furniture solutions, and the rest of the room is freed up to be open and flexible.

multifamily compact townhouse unit floorplan

2. Zone the space for different uses

Another way to get a small space to feel larger is to keep an open floor plan and avoid a series of small, separate rooms.  It increases flexibility, allowing a function to expand to fill the entire space as needed.  It allows for biophilic strategies such as bringing views and daylight into spaces that would otherwise be closed off.  But as tempting as a larger open space can be, it is still important to design and zone it for its uses so that it can function effectively.  Also, by carefully considering things like storage and support functions, these remain compact and keep more of the space open and flexible.    Often, with a bit of design consideration in making some items more defined and concrete, flexibility is increased.

small office floor plan

Our design for a storefront office space is a good example of using zoned functions.  This small, 650 square foot space is on the ground floor with large windows in the front.  A goal of the design was to keep the space feeling open and bright with lots of daylight.  This compact space also needed to accommodate a lot of different office functions such as meeting space, individual work stations, collaboration, and office support functions like library, printing, and kitchenette.

The floor plan is split into three zones: public at the street front, working in the middle, and support at the rear.  A compact, efficient support zone (including its large storage closet) keeps the rest of the space open and airy. The work zone is anchored by a collaborative scrum bar running down the middle for team meetings, extensive layout space, and additional storage.  The individual workstations face the wall to create more focused conditions for heads down work.  The public space can be separated from the work space by sliding translucent fabric panels between the two zones within the room.  The spaces can flow into one another when open and be visually separated, while still allowing daylight to filter through, when closed.  By carefully considering how each function is supported, the overall space is very flexible.

3. Design for the future renovation

Sometimes the multi-functionality to be considered is over the span of years, not days or weeks.  When designing for a future renovation in mind, considering where the services (such as plumbing, heating, air conditioning) and structure are located is key.  Those types of things are much more expensive to rearrange than moving a partition wall, and hence they want to be placed efficiently and grouped together in a zone.  They can be thought of as anchors to the space – things that will remain over longer periods of time – with other elements designed to be less encumbered and more easily changed.

Our approach to the layout of this 900 square foot live-work unit considers multi-functionality over time.  This design recognizes that the market demand for live/work units versus typical bedroom units can change throughout the years.  Similarly, a resident’s needs can shift over the course of ownership.  Hence the unit is designed with future renovation from two-bedroom unit to one-bedroom live/work to a studio live/work in mind.  This is achieved by having a core with all the support spaces.  By grouping the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry together, all the major utilities are in this part of the floor plan.  The other interior walls, marked in red in the diagram above, can be removed efficiently without larger impacts to the unit or building.  The design of the floor plan considers how the unit’s circulation path achieves public work and private life needs for each of these possible floor plan configurations.  The unit is designed for flexibility over its lifetime.

Also, check out Atelier et Alia’s small space tip featured in Boston Globe Magazine’s September “Small Space Living” issue.  The small space strategy refers to our Modern Kitchen: Traditional Home project if you’d like to read more!