The secret to small-space residency? Few walls

Saturday, June 28th, 2008


The False Creek North survey was organized and financed by companies and individuals who led the conversion of the old Expo lands into a residential neighbourhood. It was conducted by University of BC graduate students enrolled in the community and regional planning school. It was directed, in part, by Larry Beasley, until his retirement as co-director of planning at Vancouver city hall. It was financed by Concord Pacific, Hillside Developments, Amacon Group, cith hall’s planning department, and two others, Beasley’s consulting practice and Sarkission Associates Planners. Wendy Sarkissian was Beasley’s co-director of the survey.

EDITOR’S NOTE – Fifty-five hundred households reside in the Vancouver neighbourhood called False Creek North. Last year, 500 of them participated in a survey organized to gauge their satisfaction with their neighbourhood and their homes and buildings.

Of all the things that might be said about these 500, or the 5,500 the survey organizers hope they represent, let us restrict it to this: By making their homes in the highrises along the north shore of False Creek, they returned to downtown Vancouver a residential purpose that it had lost, the West End notwithstanding.

What follows was excerpted from a summary of the survey findings.

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Overall, residents recognize that smaller living space is inevitable in multi-family housing and have adjusted their lifestyles to accommodate this constraint. Nonetheless, a commonly held view is that the unit (and building) space should be designed more creatively, flexibly and efficiently, particularly for storage.


Unit layout is a feature that elicits a high number of comments, particularly by those who live in L-shaped or traditionally compartmentalized units with walls dividing such rooms as kitchen and living room. These floor plans are less open, give the impression of more walls and create the feeling of too many hallways. This makes the unit feel smaller and, in some cases, darker than it might otherwise be.

Unconventional-shaped walls and windows are appreciated by some for their interesting architecture, but they contribute to inflexibility, invariably making it difficult to arrange standard furniture in smaller apartments. For some, the finer details of design, such as the placement of electrical outlets and overhead light fixtures, are not conducive to the arranging of standard furniture, further reducing flexibility in use of space.

Evidence suggests that many owners have made, are making or will make renovations to their units to meet their taste or changing needs. Some renovations are as simple as removing glass doors from the enclosed balconies or interior glass dens to incorporate them into the living space. Others involve an entire reconfiguration of the unit’s space. Esthetic changes are also very common, such as replacing carpet with hardwood flooring. In general, having a unit that lends itself well to renovations is a source of satisfaction for homeowners. Renters and people in co-ops clearly have less flexibility because they are generally not permitted to renovate.

Our findings indicate that residents with and without children are equally satisfied with the overall layout of their suites, but families with children express dissatisfaction with particular rooms such as additional bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens. Residents complain of odd-shaped walls and unconventional placement of light fixtures, which make arranging furniture difficult. A fireplace next to a window was identified as an example of inflexible design.


Bedrooms and bathrooms are considered by many to be rooms that require privacy and therefore should, wherever possible, not be accessible directly from the foyer or living areas. Those in units with more than one bedroom also prefer that the bedrooms not be adjacent to each other. Evidence suggests that many of the two- and three-bedroom units purchased in FCN are being used, not for more people, but for more flexible space.

Many residents with multiple bathrooms also note that multiple full bathrooms (with tubs) are unnecessary and are a waste of space when space is at such a premium. Additional bathrooms are noted by parents as being indispensable.


Private open balconies that are sufficientl*y large to allow for a conversational arrangement of patio furniture and a handful of adults standing comfortably are highly appreciated, particularly if they have sun exposure and good drainage. Glass railing walls are popular because they give the impression of a larger space.

Some units have multiple balconies, both enclosed and open. Whereas those who have an open balcony are very grateful for it, those with an enclosed balcony, particularly those with only an enclosed balcony, express mixed views about this hybrid feature. Some residents rave about it and use it as an office, dining room or solarium. Others feel that it is a waste of space because its function is unclear: a compromise of both indoor and outdoor space. At the very least, these respondents feel that residents should have the option of renovating the space to make it more functional.


Most residents who have in-suite storage consider it a major strength of their unit and use it for storage, instead of converting it to other uses. Those without in-suite storage complain of a lack of general storage for large household items such as vacuums and children’s sports equipment. Many point out a lack of specific storage spaces such as kitchen drawers and cabinets, linen closets and main bedroom closets. Many respondents indicate that their long narrow walk-in closets are so poorly designed they cannot get into the closet to retrieve their items.


More cupboards and kitchen storage space are the most commonly desired changes in the kitchen. A preference for an open-plan, as opposed to a separated kitchen, may be a matter of personal taste and is perhaps also related to generational and cultural preference. Most residents, particularly those in smaller units, value the openness, spaciousness and light that open-plan kitchens provide. Others enjoy some privacy in the kitchen, especially when entertaining. These findings suggest that it may be advantageous for developers to leave the design of the kitchen layout as flexible as possible as an option for purchasers.


Overall, noise is not as great an issue as one might expect in a downtown high-density, mixed-use neighbourhood. In fact, some residents even identify the quietness of their unit as one of its major strengths.

Where noise is a problem, noise generated primarily from outside of the unit and building remains an issue, particularly for those who live on Pacific Boulevard. Many residents cannot understand the rationale for having such a major thoroughfare in a residential neighbourhood and think that it is not only a source of noise, dust and pollution, but that it is also ugly and dangerous and acts as a mental and physical barrier separating their neighbourhood from the rest of the city.

Other sources of noise include sirens, party boats, construction, bar spill-over, noise from shopping carts in laneways or noise from activity from commercial and shopping areas such as Urban Fare.

The SkyTrain, once complete, is also anticipated to be an added source of noise. Those who face the water or pedestrian thoroughfares rate the noise levels from outside as quite low or explain that they hear only “people noises”, which they enjoy.

Noise transmission from other units is generally not a concern…Some residents mention that they hear less from their neighbours than they would expect or have experienced in other multi-family buildings. Hardwood and tile floors above units and renovations and repairs throughout the building are repeatedly mentioned as primary sources of noise within the building.

The noise level from within units (room-to-room noise) is unanimously not a problem for residents. Smaller spaces, in particular, could benefit from quiet appliances such as dishwashers.


Overwhelmingly, residents are pleased with the amount of sunlight their dwellings receive and, if anything, say that they have too much sun. This is a benefit in the winter in a climate that is notoriously cloudy most of the year and results in residents turning on their heat very rarely. This poses a problem in the summer, however, when the heat can be unbearable, particularly for those in the higher floors and south-facing units. Air conditioning or better cross-ventilation are identified by many as ways to improve thermal comfort. Several residents believe that more could have been done to mitigate temperature variability when the units were constructed, rather than installing air conditioning. For example, installing UV-controlled glass films or overhangs and designing windows that open more fully are potential passive solutions.

Large windows are generally appreciated because they add much needed light. Few residents report visual privacy as an issue and many comment good-naturedly on the “mutual understanding” that everyone living in a highrise building has with regard to looking into each others’ windows. For the most part, those interviewed and surveyed recognize this as an accepted part of highrise living and mitigate visual intrusion by drawing their blinds or curtains. Some, however, think that full windows in bedrooms are not appropriate for privacy reasons. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the bedroom also constrain flexibility in furniture arrangement and storage in rooms that may already be quite small.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

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