One reason many families give up on the promise of an urban lifestyle is the belief that they can’t afford the space that they want for their family within an urban community. Whether it’s a spacious home interior or outdoor living space , many people believe that they need to move to the suburbs in order to find their castle. As we have discussed before, we believe that is a mistake, and is based on common misconceptions about total home costs and what is possible in an urban property.
With thoughtful and innovative design, it is possible to achieve spacious living at a fraction of the cost of homes designed following traditional approaches. Purchase and maintenance costs can be lowered by reducing the amount of wasted yard and interior home space, as well as the square footage required to achieve a spacious feel in the home.
There is no question that building a standard suburban model home within an urban community is more costly than constructing the same cookie cutter home in suburbia. Certainly land values are higher in urban environments, and most urban properties require expensive deconstruction of existing buildings as well as more challenging zoning and permit issues. In addition, urban homes are custom built and don’t benefit from the economies of scale that can be realized when building dozens (or hundreds) of identical or similarly designed houses. So, all in all the costs and value – on a square footage basis – of an urban home is going to be significantly greater than the equivalent home in suburbia. This is true of freehold homes as well as condominium towers.
We understand that the added investment value of an urban home doesn’t matter if you can’t afford the initial investment, or if you simply don’t want to allocate a larger portion of your family budget to a home. In order for urban homes to fulfill a family’s need for space at an accessible price point, a systems approach to intelligent space efficient design is essential. This requires many elements of home design and construction be brought together effectively in order to create a truly spacious and luxurious home within a smaller footprint. It is this art of smart urban home design and construction that will help meet the needs of more families. And it is what we obsess over ever day; from conceptualizing a new home design for a given lot, all the way through to the fine construction details as we implement the architect’s vision.
In the process, we have discovered several key design strategies that can have a huge impact on the spaciousness and livability of a new home – things that are usually overlooked in the rush to build most new homes. When combined, these strategies and features can have a profound impact on the feeling of space and luxury, as well as the utility of a new home. In the process, less square footage is required to achieve the goals for the new home, resulting in lower costs. Over the years we have been amazed by the effectiveness of combining the techniques that we have learned.
- Open concept design: Perhaps the most commonly used approach in new home construction today, open concept designs – especially on the main floor of a home – naturally create a more spacious feel, but they also improve the enjoyment and utility of most homes. It achieves this by enabling more opportunities for social engagement during every day activities with the family, or with friends when entertaining. We have found that it can even be important to just remove portions of walls in key areas to open up the living space even further. These details can have an immense impact on the overall feeling of space. For example, in a recent build, as the framing on one of our properties began taking shape, we noticed that walling in the stair well at the entrance gave the impression of a smaller entrance than we had expected. We decided to halt construction and to remove some of the wall. We also decided to convert a closet at the rear entrance to an area with a small bench and hooks instead. The impact of these changes to the ‘feel’ of the space as well as the utility of the rear entrance was striking.
- High ceilings: It is amazing how much larger a room will feel simply by raising the ceiling height. All our homes are built with 9 foot ceilings that create a feeling of more space as well as an ambiance of refined luxury.
- Large windows in key areas of the home: Adding large windows is a commonly understood principle of design to enhance the spacious feel of a new home. It achieves this by increasing the natural lighting and also by ‘bringing the outside in’ to the house, thereby making the occupant feel that they are living beyond the walls of their home. But just simply putting lots of windows into the home will not necessarily have the desired effect. The orientation of the building; the design of rooms and building flows, all have an influence on the placement and sizing of windows in order to achieve the greatest effect. When done properly, not only will the sizing and placement of windows improve the spacious feel of a new home, it can also add a sense of refined sophistication as well.
- Bulkheads: Another area that we have worked on with surprising effect, is the placement of bulkheads in the design and build of a home. This is an area that we almost always tune as part of the construction process, since it’s difficult to properly account for in the design process alone. It takes a surprising amount of effort to do well, but the removal of bulkheads (that accommodate utilities such as HVAC vents) from certain areas of the home can provide improved line-of-sight views, giving the home a cleaner, more spacious look. The strategic placement of these bulkheads around a room can also effectively create a tray ceiling – a sophisticated design feature that can give an additional ‘wow’ factor to any room.
- Open plan stair cases: Staircases are an essential element of any multi-story home, and on smaller homes they generally occupy a greater percentage of the available space. Closing the staircase off creates a bit of a dead zone in the floor plan, and reduces the overall space that can be appreciated. We have found that there is a tremendous amount that can be done to turn staircases from a design liability into a design feature (with quality materials it becomes a piece of built in furniture), and to improve the overall spaciousness and luxurious feel of the home. Removing the walls and replacing them with either a quality railing system and/or a glass wall, makes a huge difference. Incorporating open risers goes even further to creating design statement. The end result is a much more open space and feel, which enables natural light to flood into more of the house. The effect can be startling, and we attempt to utilize these design and construction techniques where ever possible.
- Flexible layouts: An under appreciated element of a home design that contributes both to the utility of a new home, and feeling of space, is the use of versatile living spaces, and rooms within the home. Over time, a family’s circumstances change, and it is important to accommodate those changes with relative ease. One example is the need to accommodate guests and additional children, or a home office, and/or recreation room at different stages in the family’s life. In all our homes we invest in furnishing a very comfortable living space in the basement. Where possible, we include deep window wells to flood the room(s) with natural light so you don’t feel like you are in a basement. We also like to provide a full bathroom, so that the owner will have the added flexibility of an additional bedroom when required, and/or entertainment room, or home office. In many cases we are able to provide two spaces that can be flexibly configured as needs change. The value of this cannot be overemphasized.
- Space saving features: It is amazing how useful small design elements can be to improving the effective utilization of a space. Incorporating hooks and a built in bench, as opposed to a full closet, can be an effective way of creating a mini mudroom at a rear entrance to the home. Finding ways of providing built-in storage can also be important to avoiding clutter an improving the spacious feel of a home
- Unique outdoor spaces: Many people who decide on purchasing homes in the suburbs claim that one important consideration was the desire for a good sized backyard. Ironically, this space is seldom ever used – even by young children. A recent study that we discussed here, found that even in sunny California, where the weather for outdoor living is close to ideal, back yards were hardly ever used. We do, however, believe it is important to allow for the enjoyment of outdoor spaces beyond the improved access to quality public outdoor spaces that urban living affords. As such we try to include innovative decks and balconies with our properties. They add cost and design challenges, but the results can be exciting and well worth it, as these spaces are generally appreciated much more than the typical backyard.
- Optimal furnishings: While this is not strictly speaking a home design consideration, the choice of appropriate furnishings can have an enormous impact on the feeling of space and luxury in a home. McMansion homes require large bulky furniture to adequately fill the space, and work effectively in the cavernous spaces of these large homes. Lighter, more elegant furnishings work best in a smaller home. It’s amazing to see what a difference appropriate furniture will make. I witnessed this first hand with a friend who toured me around the inside of his new home. When he told me that one of his children’s bedroom was 2/3 the size of that in his old home, I couldn’t believe it. I had been in his former home and the two bedrooms looked of comparable size to me. He then explained that the furniture was ‘apartment sized’ furniture, and that made all the difference. It was beautiful furniture and I wouldn’t have noticed that it was somewhat smaller than his old furniture unless he told me. It just looked very elegant – more expensive looking than the older furniture – which he assured me, it wasn’t.
- Interior colours: The colours that our customers decide to decorate their new home with is none of our business, but we have noticed the rather dramatic effects that colour choices can have on the spacious feel and luxurious appearance of a home. In general, lighter and more neutral colours make a space look larger. And using a rich / bold accent colour sparingly – perhaps on one of the smaller walls – can bring an extra rich and luxurious ambiance to the space, without comprising its spacious feel.
Each of these 10 design strategies / features offers significant benefits on their own, but it is how they are combined that can have a profound effect. This is the art of space efficient home design, and when it is done well, the results can be extraordinary – a spacious feeling, highly functional home, offering luxurious details in a small footprint, and at a reasonable cost.