Architecture in Small Spaces

Architects nowadays are increasingly facing the challenge of undertaking architecture in small spaces. As cities grow and as even smaller towns begin to pack up, large plots become rare to come by. Being able to construct effectively in a small plot of land is considered a kind of ‘rites of passage’ for an architect. Over decades there has been enough literature on how to interior decorate small spaces. But it is doubly efficient if the architect builds an effective house for a small space- the interior design part is the easier task to do. Limited budget is another challenge an architect must deal with when it comes to small spaces.

In large cities, small sites and often the only available sites are in awkward locations. Architecture in small spaces involves lengthy planning processes and extensive designing solutions. Once the axe is sharpened, it is easy to cut the tree. To maximize the potential of a site, an architect should understand technical constraints and work within them. It also isn’t just about space inside, but the frontage- how much can residents look out and see the world. Overall, an architect can deal with this interesting challenge by adopting certain pointers. Here are the top ones for us:

Intelligent Selection of Plots

It helps to note that architecture in small spaces doesn’t always imply a small budget. Space is the currency in large cities like New York and Mumbai. A sharp architect will envision what a plot can be, rather than judge it at its current face value. A good starting point is to look for ways in which you can utilize sunlight. Light helps in creating the illusion of space and makes the house look larger.

Never dismiss a slope- they are often economical and a great canvas for intelligent design. It helps increase the availability of space by sinking one side of the house. Many architects have created ‘upside-down’ houses, with the living areas on top and the bedrooms in the slope section. Unusual roofs are a mainstay of creating remarkable homes on slopes. Architects often also dismiss sites close to train stations and main roads. However, an architect can incorporate acoustical tricks to make the house almost soundproof.

From Outside, to Inside

Architects need to work in a counter-intuitive manner for small plots. They need to practice designing the house backward. Normally, builders consider the needs and want of the occupants and design a floor plan. This applies usually to stand-alone houses and not apartment complexes. This approach demands more external space and chances are you will build into whatever yard, garage, or garden space that was available to you.

Instead, set an external target frame and build your floor plan within. It forces you to get more creative and come up with a more aesthetically appearing exterior. Architecture in small spaces is almost like remodeling an existing house. One needs to learn to work within self-inflicted constraints. It helps one emerge as a better architect due to the rich experience gained through this exercise.

When in Doubt, Cube It

This is a geometrical trick used by architects for ages. A cube is the best shape to go for when undertaking architecture in small spaces. This is because cubes get you the highest floor to shell ratio. To put this in simpler words, for every square foot of exterior, a cube provides the largest proportion of liveable space.

Do a simple back of the envelope calculation for two options; a cube versus a cuboid. Even if the floor area is the same for both, yet the floor-to-wall ratio with being drastically different for both. Using a cube gives you higher flexibility with your floor plan as it drives down costs; the assumption here being cost is a key parameter.

Functionality First

An efficient way to approach architecture in small spaces is to consider the functionality of the house first. Of course, living and using the house is a function, but we are talking about the essentials. This includes gas lines, plumbing, electrical wiring, air conditioner vents, and other such mechanical elements.

Often considered the life-support of the house, ensuring you have all essentials in place,gives you the freedom then to design as you please. It saves on late disappointments where you might need to sacrifice a part of your creative floor plan to make room for a pressure pump or laundry area.

Open Living Areas

In contemporary times, this idea is a no-brainer. Most architects know that common usage area like the kitchen, living room, and dining room can often be clubbed. This helps cut down on claustrophobic walls and bring down construction costs. However, an architect should mind two aspects. The first is the structural integrity of the house, where key walls are missing. Ensure you have well-measured pillar support and the house overall, complies with safety standards.

The second aspect is to ensure that despite being clubbed together, each space has an identity of its own. Otherwise, you might just have what looks like a studio apartment. Use a little architectural drama such as well-placed arches, vaulted ceilings, and shapely pillars so that the appeal of the common area increases. Create perceptively long site distances so that the residents have the perception of living in a large space. Create space for the furniture against walls, by offsetting large windows. This leaves open central areas which make the rooms look larger. Open areas like patios and balconies are another element that helps with magnifying space perception.

Optimize Circulation Spaces & Hallways

A low hanging fruit when it comes to saving space is hallways and circulation spaces. While residents do need to move from a room to another through corridors, it is realistically a wasted space. It isn’t much you can do in corridors other than hanging pictures. It is simply a loss of precious floor area. Open plans are the easiest way to reduce hallways. Another idea is a room through room layout. It may not work for bedrooms due to privacy reasons but it can for the study, dining, or living room.

There’s another way to look at this issue. You can embrace hallways instead of cutting them out, by making them broad. Try giving it a purpose for existing such as setting up a library or study area there. Hallways can be made into convertible guest bedrooms, where outlets of the hallways can be closed for the night. A pull-out bed with an air conditioner can be made available so that guests have a comfortable stay. Ideally, most architects agree that circulation space must not exceed 6% of your floor area.

Narrow Houses

This is a specialized subject area by itself. Owing to restricted site availability in overdeveloped cities, the only way to build is to build upwards. The taller the house, the higher the opportunity to include more rooms. Of course, structural integrity needs to be ensured. Starting with the entry; garages can be built on the ground floor by raising the entry of the house to the first floor. Narrow houses should be built in a way that optimizes natural light flow and floor circulation.

The easiest trick in the box, for architecture in small spaces, is to build floating staircases or a void around it, so that light flows through. Traditional staircases create blockades in the line of slight. Architects also create split-level configurations to avoid corridors. This means each floor is dedicated to one room. One can always get creative with the outer shape. Some builders created homes with a vertical series of interlocking boxes, very much like the popular game Jenga. Rooms here jut out, in effect, creating more floor space.


To reiterate, the architectural design comes before interior design. The latter is easy, the former more challenging. If a house is badly built in a small space, there is not much interior design can do to help. We hope that the above comprehensive guide helps you pick out the right tools. After all, every architect in his career needs a project involving architecture in small spaces, to evolve in his craft.

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