Even a small home can be designed to work – ”We cannot think that it’s a good idea to create a situation that we have to get out of”

Can you see the piles of dirty dishes straight from your bed? A doctoral researcher in architecture explains how a small apartment can be designed to work better as whole.

Original text and pictures: Inka Auranen

Graphics: Pauliina Lindell

Translation: Kiia Saarenpää

Artikkeli on luettavissa myös suomeksi.

University students often live in apartments that have very limited square footage. Especially in a small apartment, it is important that the space is designed to be functional, where living is comfortable despite the limited space.

A doctoral researcher in architecture Sini Saarimaa studies in her doctoral dissertation Tackling the challenge of user-centred urban housing: Enabling user preferences today and user adjustments in the future user-centred housing design. She defended her doctoral dissertation at the Tampere University on Friday 6 October.

In her research, Saarimaa examines how housing production can be enabled in accordance with housing preferences as well as spatial adjustments that the residents want to make.

In resident-oriented design, the resident is seen as a broad concept. The concept of a resident includes not only the current resident but also the future residents because when designing a long-lasting product, its future use must also be considered.

”My dissertation discussed residents both now and in the future”, Saarimaa says.

Saarimaa compares housing construction to creating a website.

”A website is not going to exist after a hundred years. If we build our environment in a sustainable way, it will still be in use in a hundred years’ time”, says Saarimaa.

The built environment must therefore enable things that we may not even be able to understand right now. Because of this, flexibility, or in this case enabling space conversions, is essential in design work.

Currently, many apartment buildings are being built so that the house has a long central corridor with apartments on both sides.

Corridor after corridor

According to Saarimaa, small apartments should be design by examining the residents wants and needs.

”According to my data, a really significant amount of the current housing stock is designed to be long and rectangular in shape.”

The study participants found the long, hallway-like apartments difficult. In a hallway-like apartment, all the living space is combined into one open space, and for example, the kitchen can be a direct extension of the hallway.

”If you wanted to section off a part of the elongated apartment to serve as a more private space, like an alcove, you would in a way create even more corridor in the space”, Saarimaa says.

On the other hand, housing planning should also consider the fact that the number of household units is changing. At the same time as the number of people living alone or in pairs is rising strongly, the ways of communal living and over-generational living are also attracting interest.

According to Saarimaa, it is worth considering whether small apartments could be connected with other small apartments. This would make it possible to change the sizes of the apartments in the future as well.

”It would be proactive, and thus meet the need for sustainability.”

The living space must be flexible

What would an ideal small apartment look like then?

People living alone emphasize that it would be good to have a separate space for sleep and relaxation. This would not necessarily mean a separate bedroom, but an alcove, for example. In a flexible space, the sleeping area could be separated from the main area, if desired, but also opened if needed.

”If you had visitors, a potential guest would not have to sit directly on your bed”, Saarimaa says.

Different levels of privacy would therefore be needed – common area from which to move to a more private space.

”This does not mean that all spaces have to suddenly be huge.”

More windows would enable indoor and outdoor connections, which, according to Saarimaa, emphasize the feeling of space even in small apartments. The spacious atmosphere and flexible space would require the entire building to have a smaller frame depth.

Currently, many apartment buildings are being built so that the house has a long central corridor with apartments on both sides. In this case, especially small apartments open in one direction, and there is only one window.

”So, the smaller frame depth allows for combining or differentiating spaces and highlighting the feeling of space, even if your apartment is not huge in square footage”, Saarimaa explains.

Before and after

Today, the most common type of housing is a long, elongated apartment type. A long central corridor is favoured in buildings, giving the house a relatively large frame depth. However, according to Saarimaa, we are possibly entering in the eye of a storm – housing construction is changing.

”The current basic solution for housing production is very different from what has
been in Finland since the post-war period until the 21st century”, Saarimaa says.

Finland has a long tradition of lamellar houses. Lamellar houses did not in fact have long centre corridors, but the staircases were situated in the building pointwise. This way, the apartments were built as apartments that have windows at both ends. Even the small apartments that remain next to the stairwell often had more than one window.

Various architectural choices have naturally been popular in different decades. For example, the lamellar houses of the 1990s often had a separate kitchen alcove. The kitchen was not a continuation of the hallway when entering, but it was situated as a separate space around the corner. In addition, it was possible to open up the space from the kitchen to the living room as well.

In the 1980s, facilities that made everyday living easier were favoured. At the time, you could find a dressing room in the apartments, or there might have been a direct access outside from the bathroom and sauna.

”In the 1980s, apartment building production shows few exceptional solutions for assisted living spaces, which is not seen today, and on the other hand, it was not seen before the 1980s either”, Saarimaa says.

No need for renovation to spruce up the place

Students often live in rental apartments, so it is not possible to modify the space how one sees fit, at least not on a very large scale. In the case of rental apartments, it is emphasized that the apartment is built to be flexible from the very beginning.

“Separation and opening of the space can be carried out with sliding or turning doors, for example. Such solutions do not require renovation in order to change the order of the space”, Saarimaa says.

On the other hand, it would also be important to enable possibilities for different ways to furnish the space.

”Different possible scenarios for how to furnish the space should be designed. By doing this, the person has much more influence to decide where to put the TV or what size dining table to put in the apartment.”

The study also highlighted the importance of outdoor space. Depending on your life situation, you can use the balcony for many things: to store things, to spend time on it, or to put your baby to sleep in a stroller. Therefore, the importance of outdoor space from the perspective of space flexibility is very important.

In the case of rental apartments, it is emphasized that the apartment is built to be flexible from the very beginning.

Saarimaa points out that when designing small apartments, other resident groups than students should also be considered.

”Young students probably have a lot of opportunities to use the city as their living room, so to say. However, we should also consider the fact that small homes are also used by elderly people, for example.”

The idea of creating a temporary dwelling is, in Saarimaa’s view, unsustainable.

”We cannot think that it’s a good idea to create a situation that we have to get out of in order to live a good life. Not everyone has that possibility”, Saarimaa says.

1. The entrance hall must be accessible, but storage space for outdoor equipment is also required.
2. The flexibility of the space makes it possible to separate and open the spaces. Guests do not sit on the bed, and the dirty dishes stay hidden.
3. A functional space is needed for the dining table. Eating breakfast is much more comfortable if you don’t have to do it next to the muddy rubber boots in the hallway.
4. Investments should be made in common spaces, and it would be good if they could be reserved for one’s own use.
5. Say no to a flat and sterile outdoor space. Park-like outside space with small, sheltered corners create a pleasant atmosphere and invite you to enjoy the outside space.