Active abode: Why small is good

Gary Chang believes that compact living has become a global phenomenon, and he is taking his message to international developers that value small as beautiful.

On the evening of 7 December, members of the American Institute of Architects, Hong Kong Chapter, gathered on colourliving’s third floor to hear Gary Chang discussing the reality of many Hongkongers’ lifestyles – we live in small spaces.

Chang, one of the city’s best known advocates for the benefits of living in small spaces, is perhaps most famous for his work on how to make homes more flexible. While the trend has been the norm for Hong Kong, he feels that compact living is now a global phenomenon.

In rural areas, it means that people can live closer to nature off the grid, and in urban centres, it allows people to afford their own homes where real estate is expensive, but services are convenient.

“This is the new age of city dwellers seeking homes that are compact, innovative and smart,” he says.

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He feels the key to successful compact living is maximising volume, optimising elements of construction, compact organisation of needs, generous furniture in limited spaces, time-based evolutions, multifunctional furniture, mobile elements and prefabrication.

His family home, a 32 square metre flat with three bedrooms in Shau Kei Wan, helped shaped his ideas of how spaces can be used. “When I lived there with my parents and sisters in the ’70s, we would sit down at the same table and do different things. We had folding chairs. My home made me become an architect.”

After Chang purchased the flat in 1989 for his own personal use, he set about transforming it as a kind of experimental exercise in compact living. The latest incarnation was completed in 2007 and is the subject of a book published by MCCM Creations.

He dubs the apartment a domestic transformer, as it contains a number of movable walls, furnishings and cabinets that allow him to enjoy the space in many different ways.

“There is a yellow tint on the windows so the flat always looks sunny,” he says.

“The outside becomes a painting. My desk is 2.1 metres long and can swing out for dining.” His first architectural project was the 250 square metre Suitcase House at Commune by the Great Wall near Beijing.

“It is the ultimate in flexibility – all the functions are in the floor, with 15 panels that can be raised or lowered. It’s like a continuous game of hide and seek. Now that the house is part of a boutique hotel, I am told it is used for yoga during the day and dances at night.”

International developers have begun seeking his input on flexible small spaces.

Stockholm-based developer SSM Bygg & Fastighets AB is currently constructing the 700 unit Tellus Tower in Stockholm’s trendy Telefonplan quarter, scheduled to be completed in 2019.

With architecture by Gert Wingårdh, Chang was tasked with creating a fully equipped wall loaded with the functions for daily living such as a closet, fridge and even a coffee nook by the entry.

Last year, Chang created two houses in Shanghai’s Jing’an Sculpture Park to illustrate different qualities of living within the same confines. Consisting of two red glass houses each 10 square metres in size, one is outfitted with eight caged beds while the other features an abstracted bed, chair and table all in one piece of multifunctional furniture.

He has also developed a 35 square metre family home template for a prefabricated building in Bangalore and worked on a 15 square metre residence as a research project for Henderson Land.

“We determined that a 2,450 by 6,450 mm size flat was ideal,” he says.

“We considered the enjoyment of spaces as well as their practical functions. Living in the city centre means that your home is the entire city.”