This idea forms the foundation of a new project called LifeEdited from designer and entrepreneur Graham Hill. Hill, who is the founder of TreeHugger.com, a site devoted to making sustainability mainstream, realized that despite a huge increase in the amount of space people occupy, happiness levels have plateaued.
Hill observed the times he was most happy were often when he had the least amount of things.
"The inspiration came from times when I lived simply, but happily—my time at university, traveling, camping, etc. I realized on those occasions that I needed very little stuff. I wanted to bring that philosophy to everyday life, so we launched LifeEdited as a design contest to crowd-source the best design ideas for small space living and get a conversation about this lifestyle going," says Hill.
The contest generated a number of smart ideas.
"We assembled a great team and raised $70,000 in prizes, got an amazing judging panel and received more than 300 entries from around the world," he says.
Ultimately, one design was selected—that of two Romanian architecture students named Catalin Sandu and Adrian Iancu—and construction began in a 420-square-foot apartment in Manhattan's posh SoHo neighborhood.
To appreciate the versatility of the LifeEdited apartment, it's helpful to first review the rigorous design brief Hill gave during the contest stage. Designs had to allow for dinners for twelve, civil accommodations for two overnight guests, a home office, a home theater with digital projector, lots of storage for Hill's Thinbike and kite surfing gear and last, but not least, it had to have very clean air and be built in an environmentally responsible manner.
One of the most-noted aspects of the design brief was the ability to host dinner parties. Most people would agree that one of the common sacrifices made to live in highly dense urban areas, like Manhattan, is forgoing the ability to host a large group at home. But Hill wants LifeEdited to show that this doesn't have to be the case.
The success of the design is centered—literally and figuratively—on the moving wall that allows the space to transform into multiple living spaces. The wall rests on a heavy-duty steel track and base by Modern Office Systems (normally used for libraries or offices) and features custom cabinetry made from formaldehyde-free plywood by Ramawoodshop and American Custom Made Cabinetry, both in Brooklyn, New York. Building materials—such as the lumber, insulation, and low/no-VOC paint—were sourced from Green Depot.
Throughout the living area, space-saving solutions from Resource Furniture do much of the heavy-lifting to meet the strict design requirements. The Swing sofa/bed/shelving unit is the focus of the main living quarters. It features a queen-sized Murphy bed that hides away in the wall when not in use, making room for the sofa and chaise longue. Additional storage for bedding in located beneath.
In the guest bedroom, the Lollipop bunk-beds allow the apartment to sleep up to four and fold up into the wall when not in use.
I recently attended a dinner party in LE1, as this first unit is being called, and was able to see the space and function transform up close. Upon arrival, the apartment was still in "living room mode", so the ten or so guests had plenty of room to mingle around and enjoy cocktails in the main living room. With the bar and hors d'oeuvres stationed on a movable breakfast bar that also houses the dining table, it felt similar to the way guests tend to congregate around eat-in kitchens in much larger houses.
After final food preparations were finished in the kitchen, I watched as Graham transitioned the space to "dinner-mode" by expanding the Goliath dining table from Resource Furniture from a small 17-inch-wide rectangle to a 114-inch-long table top that could comfortably seat ten. Just as there had been when Hill demonstrated the fold-away bed, moving wall, bunk beds, and a plethora of storage compartments, there were audible "oohs and ahhs" as the guests marveled at the table's space-efficient design. The stacking Eco chairs by Voxia are made with molded beech and were stored in a closet when not in use.
It's no exaggeration to say that these design solutions are almost a form of entertainment unto themselves, simply because most people do not live like this or have not been exposed to these ideas, but that is precisely what Hill and the LifeEdited team hopes to change.
Asked about the goals of LifeEdited, Graham put the project in historical terms.
"Americans are using three times as much living space today as they did in the 1950s. Even with all this space, we’re supporting an 22-billion-dollar personal storage industry. I see a home like this as a compelling alternative to the status quo. The short term goal is to show people that they can do more with less as well as the Dieter Rams maxim 'less but better.' I think the apartment is a great demonstration of that. We also have a website that promotes those ideas. Long-term, we want to design and build big buildings with awesome small units. With larger developments, we can incorporate things like a shared 'product library,' bookable guest rooms, and achieve greater efficiency and cost savings."
With recent news that New York, Boston, San Francisco and other cities are changing the definition of micro-apartments, architectural and design solutions like LE1 are inevitable, but even without fully committing to this living in a space this size, the materials and products Hill has curated can go a long way to making larger homes or apartments more space- and energy-efficient.
There's a lot to learn from the kitchen, for example. The Eco by Cosentino Polar Cap quartz-stone countertops and window sills are made of 75 percent recycled content. There is a Sub-Zero drawer fridge that benefits from the fact cold air sinks, so opening it doesn't result in temperature loss as much as a traditionally sized, vertical fridge. The Fisher & Paykel DishDrawer also saves space and uses just two gallons per wash, versus six gallons for an average dishwasher. Nesting Cooking Utensils by Joseph Joseph save drawer space and the company's Nest 9 Plus set of measuring cups, strainer, and bowls not only saves space, but also adds visual interest. The Arzberg Tric flat soup plate is big and flat enough for a main course, but also deep enough for soup or a salad.
Solutions like that one, in particular, may seem a step too far for fans of traditional table settings, but of all this, Hill says, "The apartment is really a laboratory, and as such, we’re testing products and ideas to learn what works and what doesn't. We learned that you really can pack everything you need in a small space, but making that happen hinges on having the right furniture and products."
In the bathroom, the Elementile mosaic tile is made of 97 percent recycled glass. Plumbing fixtures in the bath and kitchen are by Fluid, which use eco-brass and low-flow technology. The toilet is the Invisi Series II Cube from Caroma, which has a dual flush that uses just 1.28 or 0.8 gallons per flush. The Caroma Liano sink has a sloping bowl shape, which reduces the amount of water needed to fill the basin.
The windows are Serious Windows fiberglass 725 Series, which has an industry-leading .19 U-factor, which helps control the temperature inside. Each window features two sets of shades by Mechoshade Home Systems: one is a solar shade that allows some light in while providing privacy and the second shade is a full blackout shade for total darkness, ideal for the traveler battling jet lag or sleeping off a night on the town.
"Building with integrity has made a big difference too. By beefing up the insulation, we were able to go from four radiators to one and achieve a great acoustic barrier, which is a big issue in high density living. This means we don't hear the neighbors and they don't hear us," says Hill.
A Zehnder ComfoAir200 heat recovery ventilator above the water closet manages temperature, provides constant air circulation from the outside. An IQ HealthPro Compact HEPA air filter in the moving wall purifies the indoor air. A small Frigidaire air conditioner and a Cirrus ceiling fan by the Modern Fan Company keeps the space cool with minimal power consumption.
During the day, the space has a nice, natural light, which complements the solid wood FSC maple flooring by Custom Floor Design, Inc. At darker times, recessed lighting by Dimmable Lightolier LEDs illuminates the interior. A Voltaic Systems solar charger just outside the living room window charges a reading light above the chaise, a detachable chandelier (not pictured) and small electronics. It also provides backup power as needed, like during the recent power outage caused by superstorm Sandy.
Asked what he will do differently in future apartments, Hill mentions his interest in trying out other materials and design solutions.
"The white cabinets give the space a great, clean look, but the white furniture—namely the chairs and table—are tough to keep clean. We’ll go with something less fussy and easier to maintain. Ideally our selections will be the kinds of products that get better with age."
LifeEdited is in the process of developing a second unit in the same building and is looking for developer partners and building investors to create larger-scale projects. Hill is currently identifying people interested in a LifeEdited home of their own. To join the waiting list for your own LifeEdited space, visit LifeEdited.com. There you will also find information and advice on living a most streamlined lifestyle.
Chris Tackett is a journalist and photographer with a passion for sustainability, design, fashion and nature, especially areas where those topics intersect. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, MAKE Magazine, Planet Green and TreeHugger, where he has worked as Social Media Editor since 2008. Find him on Twitter @christackett.