19 February 2013

Modern architecture for VERY small homes

These days more young people are marrying later, having their first child later, remaining single or not having children at all. At the same time, more older divorcees and widows are surviving alone and are choosing not to remarry or move in with their families. Thus a larger proportion of the housing stock in every city will need to be for single people.

Exterior of The Cube, 2011
Photo credit: The Melbourne Age

The question is: can housing for one person be compact, comfortable and well built? The Cube Project, as presented in The Age Newspaper in 2011, is the work of Dr Mike Page at Hert­ford­shire University. He wanted to build a very compact home, no bigger than 3 x 3 x 3 metres on the inside, in which one person could live a decent life with a minimum impact on the environment.

His first cube was unveiled in April 2011 in St Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh, as a part of the Edinburgh Science Festival. Built from sustainable materials, the Cube included a lounge/dining area with a table and two chairs, a kitchen and a bathroom, and a bedroom upstairs with a small double bed. The space was divided into three levels connected with clever space saving stairs and custom-made furniture. For example, the two chairs transformed into a sofa. Appliances included a fridge, stove, oven, sink, microwave oven, cupboards, a washing machine and a composting toilet. The home had two-metre head height throughout.

Interior of The Cube, 2011
Photo credit: The Melbourne Age

The Cube was designed to generate all the energy it needed, given its two solar modules. It was a well-insulated building, with space-heating and a regular supply of hot water. Water use was minimised by the use of Ecocamel low-flow, high-performance showers and taps that provided 100 litres of hot water per day, at 40c degrees. Electrical demand was estimated at around 150W on average, including energy for high efficiency LED lighting, a laptop computer, a low-energy LED TV etc.

Stephen Sainsbury is a Sydney-based architect who specialises in building small, but perfectly formed houses.  He started EcoShelta years ago, making a series of very small buildings based on traditional Japanese joined-wood pavilions. With a floor area of just 3.6m x 3.6m, his house was marginally bigger than Dr Mike Page’s Cube but efficiency was still the most important factor; everything folded away neatly, even bedding and the fireplace, while the chimney winched up to the roof.

Sainsbury started pre-fabricating aluminium framing elements with infill panels: walls, ceiling, roofs. They were flat-packed and dropped into remote areas by helicopter, often being erected in one day. Saisbury created his own way in achieving space via staggering a series of levels. Even in an inner city location, Sainsbury might use the ground floor for the entry, storage and bathroom; the second and third floors for living space and the top floor for bedrooms.

Sainsbury's ground floor in Newtown, Sydney
Photo credit: The Australian Newspaper
The total footprint of this house, including garden and pool, is tiny.

Sainsbury understood that good design was imperative to ensure people were happy living in these very small spaces. I love the notion of very small homes, but it is not just claustrophobia that I worry about; rather I wonder if four storeys involve a great deal of climbing.


Robert Morschel said...

I don't think a couple living in such a confined space would last very long....

Andrew said...

Stairs are the last thing older people should choose to have. And where would all Hels books be housed?

jeronimus said...

I often fantasize of decluttering completely and living in a Zen hut somewhere.
For most people in Australia though, including myself, they would probably need storage space at least threes times as big as that 3 x 3 x 3m cube.
Good that some architects are at least aware of the issue of changing demographics.

Hels said...


This type of house is definitely for one person only. Even in the most loving marriage, the individual needs some private space. In my case, plenty of private space!

There is a small double bed in The Cube, but focus on the "small", not on the "double".

Hels said...


*agreed* It is always a compromise - the footprint of the house can only be small IF the house uses vertical space instead. But if the house is high and narrow, slightly frail people cannot manage the steep steps.

Hels said...


Cupboards are essential. Nonethess getting rid of junk seems like a very good idea, even for people who live in a normal sized house.

From mid Nov 2012 to mid Jan 2013, i boxed up 15 crates of old art and history text books, and took them to an auction house. Then heaps of bin liners full of sheets, table clothes and towels went to a charity shop. More to come!

jeronimus said...

Hi Hels. Good on you. It's a liberating feeling to let stuff go.
I live with my 90 year old father, who has probably never thrown out a single item of property, no matter how useless, in those 90 years - just kept accumulating things, "in case they come in handy one day".
He once extended the house, quadrupling the area, just to accommodate it all. Seeing the size of the house, family friends and relatives decided to store their unwanted things here, and my father was more than happy to accept them.
After 10 council cleanups, putting out the maximum permissible volume, and even using the kerbside of the empty house next door to double it, I feel I have barely scratched the surface. My wife, son, and I have quite a bit to get rid of ourselves. I even caught myself once envying people who've lost everything in bush fires. That's how over stuff I am.

Hels said...


"minimum impact on the environment" is more difficult for us moderns to achieve than is living a comfortable existence.

Spouse and I use solar panels here, don't eat meat and water the gardens only with artesian water. Yet our cupboards have stuff we brought from Britain in the mid 1970s :(

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I don't think that sub-miniature housing is ever going to be comfortable for the majority of people. It is easy to agree with the high-minded principles behind it, but difficult to live with --again, for most people. I think there is a reason why comfortable houses are described by such terms as spacious and rambling.

When I lived in Ohio, I had tons of family furniture, dishes, linens, blankets, etc. The result was a comfortable home with an easy kind of hospitality which meant that I could have family dinners, host parties, and accommodate overnight guests. If I had had tiny "singles" housing, I would have had less enjoyment and less social interaction.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


of course you are right. Very few people would choose to live in a small space, if they had the money and land for a large house. And in any case, most councils won't give planning permission for what they would consider sub-standard room sizes.

However the clear trend towards changing demographics, changing economics and crowded cities make this exercise an interesting one.

faye said...

it's cute and nice to look at but i couldn't live in such a small space =/

Hels said...


I couldn't either, particularly because I need windows instead of closed walls. The part next to the window is small, but very pleasant:

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
This is a most interesting concept and clearly one which can work in a practical way. However, that said, the majority of people have a wish to surround themselves with 'possessions' which such small spaces rather mitigate against.

P. M. Doolan said...

A great place to study people living in confined spaces within a crowded city is Tokyo, Japan.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

Agreed. For most people, unless they are illegal boat people escaping from a brutal regime, would not voluntarily choose to live in a tiny cube.

What I think was brilliant about this design was that it included fridge, stove, oven, sink, microwave oven, cupboards, tv, washing machine, shower, toilet, insulation, hot water, space heating etc.

So Dr Page now needs to expand up to a 4 x 4 x 3 metre design.

Hels said...


what is the experience in Tokyo, as far as you understand it? Will single people voluntarily live in a confined space, if they have all the mod cons? Do they turn psychotic from being enclosed?

Jim said...

Interesting post.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

Hels said...


Thank you. You know the irony of ME writing this story? It is that spouse and I still live in the 4 bedroom family home, 13 years after the children were married and out of here.

Dina said...

Dina said...

Dear Helen, That's interesting about your thesis. You must have had fun with the MSS. Your post a few days ago made me wish my kids could build a tiny granny flat in their little yard in Bondi. I have fun following the http://tinyhouseblog.com/. Chag sameach! Dina http://jerusalemhillsdailyphoto.blogspot.co.il/ on Modern architecture for VERY small homes

Hels said...


I have never heard of the Tiny House Blog. Thank you!

ChrisJ said...

Interesting how often people assume that single people want smaller houses. When I was looking for my first house (alone), countless people commented about how I could have a cute little house! And I wanted space, even though I didn't have much stuff to put in it.

Hels said...


good to see you :) It seems there are three main reasons for building small houses for singles:
1. many people will never be able to afford normal houses.
2. the carbon footprint of small houses is greatly reduced and
3. although 3 ms squared is too small, many people might prefer compact homes.

However there is another problem. Everyone, including single people, has someone staying from time to time eg a boyfriend, a grandchild.

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