This article explores and elucidates the problems and processes involved in conceptualizing interior architecture for single-room micro-dwellings in urban Vancouver as part of the Ninety Square Foot Space project at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Solutions were developed based off of existing, client-built nine by ten foot rental spaces in downtown Vancouver. We focused our efforts on problem definition and re-framing, and identified the multiple stakeholders involved and their differing interests, in order to discern a feasible intersection within which to design. The intent of this project was to reconcile the issue of adding the basic furniture required for practical living (bed, couch, desk/table) while retaining ninety square feet of usable space. The resulting prototype seeks to offer a design solution that may be utilized in future rental developments as a means of increasing the number of affordable, small-space living environments in urban centres.
Vancouver is home to a wide variety of inhabitants including locals, tourists, students, business people, and working class people. The living spaces available in the downtown core often remain inaccessible to students and working class people due to the economics of the area. Our client, Instafund, is targeting this gap in partnership with Emily Carr students to retrofit existing, single-room accommodations with furniture installations that will better use these spaces to meet the needs of lower-to-middle income inhabitants.
Third-year design students working in teams of three were challenged to develop full-scale prototypes of built-in (non-removable) furniture or architecture. The resulting design had to meet the needs of not only the client, but also the intended target user. If successful in the eyes of the client, the system may be implemented in two existing locations owned by the client, thereby refitting a total of 150 one-room tenancy facilities with the newly redesigned furniture or architecture.
Defining the problem
As these redesigned spaces must fit within the rental system in place, our team adopted Susan Squires’ concept of “uncover[ing] and understand[ing] the cultural system that frames human action to provide direction for creating” our proposed solution. This meant identifying and understanding the multiple stakeholders (or different interest groups) involved in the system through the use of discovery research. These primary interest groups can be identified as follows: the property owner (client), tenants (users), and contractors/maintainers (secondary users).
Preliminary research revealed that each interest group possesses its own unique set of problems and needs; as Richard Buchanan states, the “designer’s task is to identify those conditions precisely and then calculate a solution.” The challenge involved in formulating a solution for these distinct groups is that the interests of each do not entirely correspond. Through our research however, we were able to identify some of the issues that were common to each group. These commonalities included the square footage of the spaces, the feasibility and usability for all parties involved, the efficiency of the space and materials used, and the cost for all parties.
Design constraints provided
There were several constraints placed on our design team by the client during project initiation. These constraints included that the design:
- Could not exceed a $1000 fixed budget
- Must be configurable for different rooms
- Should be able to be produced in multiples
- Needs to leave space for a mini-fridge and a bed (with the mattress being provided by the tenant)
- Will ideally increase the length of tenant stay
- Should discourage multiple occupancy (the spaces are intended for single occupancy only)
- Should discourage conventional cooking (space is not zoned for stoves or hot plates)
- Materials and manufacturing should remain as sustainable as possible, thus excluding MDF composite wood
Research and methodology
Target user research
The research and discovery conducted by our team was completed in several different phases. We were provided with a set of interests and constraints from the vantage point of the client, but we lacked insight about the situation, needs and desires of the target users (tenants).
To gather this data we employed the following research steps and methods:
- Conducted a site visit to observe living situations
- Photo documented the space and its surroundings
- Established user profile and target audience information
- Conducted a tenant survey to gather opinions
- Utilized a co-creation kit (a creative kit that enables the user to answer simple but insightful questions in a tacit and visual way)
- Constructed a scale replica of the ninety square foot problem-space to examine the relevant issues in context
- Conducted “day-in-the-life” walk-through studies to glean information about how
the space is moved through and used on a daily basis
- Established a needs vs. wants framework analysis
- Constructed scale mock-ups of the objects that must exist within the space (bed, fridge, etc.) in order to account for their presence in the space
Important observations made during the discovery process began with the realization that when conventionally sized furniture is brought into the space, it often creates additional problems rather than viable solutions. The rooms began to look disorganized and cluttered, despite our best efforts. Many furniture items introduced into the spaces were discarded or left behind for the landlord or site management to dispose of at the end of the tenancy. We also noted that vertical space was never really used in any creative or meaningful way, with most space existing above eye level remaining unused and ignored. We considered this neglected space to be valuable real estate in terms of space planning.
Inspirational and existing product research
We considered a plethora of influences during the ideation phase of our development to inspire our design. Some of these sources included existing small-space living solutions such as yacht/boat cabins, recreational vehicles, train cabins, submarine facilities, and bus interiors. These examples of space management proved helpful, but did not lend well to a sense of permanence in the space.
Influence was also drawn by looking at urban centres in other countries such as New York and Hong Kong for existing examples of compact living. Most examples found possessed a considerably larger budget than what was currently allotted, and therefore proved non-viable on a limited budget. Other examples of small-space furniture included hybridized furniture, which strives to combine articles such as a couch and bed.
Most of these solutions contained “Murphy style” beds (beds that lie flat against—and fold out from—flat surfaces and walls). These hybrid solutions are attractive and work well, but still carry the problem of requiring a determinate amount of free floor space in which to fold the unit out. In this instance, the space allotted was too small to accommodate these solutions, and would require repetitive movement of objects to operate. They also require repetitive configuration of several different components by the user in order to be used in a practical way.
Our design goals and approach
Since, as noted by Buchanan, “constraints can best be visualized in terms of three overlapping criteria for successful ideas: [feasibility, viability, and desirability],” we narrowed our design criteria even further in order to conceive of a feasible, viable and desirable solution. Following user and existing-product research, our team identified a new set of refined design goals in addition to those provided by the client that we felt would strongly address the problem sets we prioritized. These new, internally generated goals were as follows:
- Find a way to retain the ninety square feet of space
- Use the vertical space more efficiently
- Meet the users’ basic needs and add amenities and comforts wherever possible
- Make the design emotionally durable (foster an emotional attachment and give a sense of permanence rather than disposability)
- Make most of the elements static in order to reduce the feeling of transience as well as to reduce the amount of effort needed to configure the space
- Allow space for alternate cooking and food preparation methods
- Reduce or control the mattress size to a long twin
- To create a comfortable and inviting living space
The resulting approach and concept
To adhere to our now streamlined framework, our group attempted to empathize with each of the three main interest groups. This allowed us to make further decisions about material types, costs, construction, modularity and aesthetic qualities. By identifying with and assuming these three roles, our design team was able to avoid imparting too much of our own social, cultural and aesthetic preferences.
Our final concept iteration includes a platform surface directly above an extra-long twin-sized mattress and bed frame. The goal of this platform is to permit the bed to nest underneath when not in use, to enable the bed to be wheeled out half way and locked in place to convert into a couch or lounge, and to allow the bed to be pulled out all the way from underneath the platform for sleeping.(image 2) A combination counter/desk surface is placed on the platform above the bed, overlooking the rest of the space, to serve as a sitting, eating or working space.
This platform elevation enables us to solve several problems at once:
- It provides a sitting, sleeping, eating, studying and working space together in one unit
- It downsizes at once the main living components to an acceptable scale for smaller spaces
- It accommodates the largest piece of furniture required in the space without reducing the square footage
- It effectively uses verticality, and needs only a small stepping stool for access
- It creates additional storage nested along the sides of the platform, thereby reducing the need for additional furniture
- It functions as interior architecture rather than removable furniture
- Its solidity and attached relationship to the space gives it a clear sense of permanence
- It is an enduring object that can be customized by simple colour and accessory choices or modifications
- The main components cannot be lost or stolen
- It can be constructed on site with locally sourced materials, and repaired and maintained as needed
Undeniably, the greatest hurdle encountered during our design process was the mediation of different interests. Traversing these differences required careful consideration and compromise throughout the problem-solving process. During this time we drew much inspiration from Donald Schön:
“Designing is a social process. In every building project, there are many different kinds of participants. [these individuals] pursue different interests, see things in different ways, and even speak different languages. [Any] theory of design worth its salt must somehow take into account all of these tensions.”
We feel confident that the final prototype takes into account these tensions as identified during the design discovery process. Although the concept could be pushed further (given more time or a larger budget), we feel that the solution is certainly “worth its salt.”
In conclusion, our prototype was developed with less than five hundred dollars worth of locally-sourced materials. The design is configured for simple on-site construction and can be reproduced by contractors without any specialized training. The floor space has been effectively cleared for users to move through comfortably, leaving ample room for additional amenities. Most importantly, the space successfully fosters a greater sense of emotional engagement and permanence. Furthermore, we hope that our strategy can be used in future housing developments to increase the number of affordable, micro-living environments in other urban centres.
We would like to thank Karla Tull-Esterbrook, our third teammate for being an insightful and invaluable partner in this project. We also wish to thank the client, our investors and our design instructor, Christian Blyt, for his expertise and support in developing the concept. We greatly appreciate the opportunity to design for such a dynamic problem space. We would also like to extend thanks to the University’s staff and shop technicians for aiding and facilitating our design process, as well as our classmates for providing
-  Squires, Susan. “Design Research.” Design Studies: A Reader. Eds. Hazel Clark and David Brody. New York: Berg, 2009. 115-120. Print.
-  Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design Studies: A Reader. Eds. Hazel Clark and David Brody. New York: Berg, 2009. 96-102. Print.
Schön, Donald. “Designing: Rules, Types and Worlds.” Design Studies: A Reader. Eds. Hazel Clark and David Brody. New York: Berg, 2009. 110-114. Print.