The inexpensive(ish) way to live downtown? Go small.
When Sean Solowski saw his 27-square-metre apartment for the first time, he was struck by the huge windows and the flood of natural light. It was 2009, and Solowski had just moved from Ottawa, where he had been studying, back to his native Toronto. The apartment was on the second floor of a building dating back to the early 1900s near Dundas and Gladstone, and even though it was considerably smaller than most studio apartments, it was perfect for the 33-year-old.
In Ottawa, where he received his graduate degree in architecture from Carleton University, Solowski lived in a 51-square-metre apartment, and sizing down meant getting rid of some of his belongings. “It really makes you think, ‘What are the essentials of life?’” he says. Because the apartment only has one closet, he put many of his possessions on display. Two shiny motorcycle helmets are perched on the wall above an orange swivel armchair. A streamlined and expensive-looking Cervèlo road bike hangs from another wall. “Plan for things to have more than one function,” says Solowski, who made the best of his tiny pad with a futon couch that folded into a bed at night and a work desk that doubled as a dining table.
Solowski isn’t the only Torontonian purging his belongings and sizing down into a tiny apartment. Today, condominium developers are turning to micro condos to satisfy a growing need for downtown real estate.
In the last year alone, the number of micro condos in Toronto’s new housing market has risen to 11 per cent, up from five per cent, according to a study from Urbanation. Micro condo units appeal particularly to the younger crowd—people in their late 20s and early 30s who want to live and work in Toronto’s vibrant downtown core. The condos are smaller, cheaper, and easier to clean and organize, ideal for a young person who has recently landed their first professional job and may want to find a beginner’s footing in the city’s expensive real estate market.
Over the last decade, Toronto has experienced a massive condo boom. There are more condos under construction here than any other city in North America. Since 2005, the Ontario government has focused on controlling urban sprawl and has introduced policies to protect farmland and ecological regions near the Greater Toronto Area. As a result, Toronto’s downtown core has seen a dramatic increase in condos, and the growth spurt doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Toronto is about to join other big cities with its first official micro condo building, called Smart House. Construction is now underway at the corner of Queen Street and University Avenue, and a move-in date is set for 2017. Like Solowski’s building, Smart House will have units of varying sizes, but it’s the first building in the city to market itself as a space for tiny but luxurious living.
Micro condos are units that measure under 45 square metres. In recent years, these suites have been taken to the extreme, with apartments regularly measuring under 27 square metres in some of the world’s largest and most populated cities, like New York, London, and Tokyo. Although these apartments are smaller than normal, they’re far from cramped. The suites are often packed with clever objects that turn saving space into an organizational art form.
This is particularly true in Smart House, where special multi-functional furniture is built right in and allows residents to move into a pre-furnished apartment decorated by II BY IV DESIGN. The furniture at Smart House includes “beds that tuck into the wall to become a sofa or desk, kitchen counter tops that can expand or retract, a dining table built into the kitchen island, and niche shelving and movable partitions.” The kitchen features a downsized stove with just two burners, a pull-out fan that stows into an overhead compartment, and a pull-out cutting board that folds into the countertop.
Despite all these space-saving intricacies, Nadine Burdak, the marketing manager at II BY IV DESIGN, says that it’s always hard to downsize and squeeze life into 27 square metres. “Small space living is a lifestyle—one that is about editing and prioritizing, really looking at what is important,” she writes in an email. Burdak suggests that buying smaller furniture and fitting the custom-built closet with extra organizers can help residents make the most of their space and avoid feeling overwhelmed.
To fill this need for interchangeable living, there are several condo-friendly stores all over the city that deal in furniture and organizational systems. Queen West’s NEAT is one of these stores where customers can find toothbrush holders that can be attached to the wall to save counter space, vanity organizers to keep lipsticks in line, and garbage cans designed to fold against walls when they’re not in use. NEAT also has skinny shelves to fit in tight corners and floor cushions, for spaces where chairs would take up too much space.
Pouneh Rouhani loves using floor cushions in her apartment. The 32-year-old real estate developer uses them in her 42-square-metre, two-storey loft apartment in Liberty Village. The second floor is big enough to fit a queen-sized bed and even has a second washroom. Rouhani says that the high ceilings and great lighting make her forget how small the space is.
Living in the tiny space, Rouhani adds, has contributed positively to her social life. Since entertaining friends at her place is hardly an option, she has been inspired to go out more often. She usually meets her friends at bars and restaurants or at her sister’s apartment, which is in the same condo complex. “People go out more so you don’t need as much space,” she says. Rouhani prefers paying lower rent for the smaller space and spending her savings on going out or travelling.
Solowski agrees with Rouhani, and says that the increased demand for small living spaces has created more need for public spaces, like parks, in our cities. He has also noticed that many condominium complexes are building amenities—yoga studios, gyms, and rooftop gardens—where residents can get out of their apartments and socialize. Solowski adds that since there is more demand for downtown real estate in big cities like Toronto, it’s inevitable that square footage will shrink, but he thinks that the need for small spaces will in turn create demand for small family housing. “People can’t live in 300 square feet [27 square metres] their whole life, they have to get out,” he says.
But, as it turns out, Solowski is giving up tiny living. After spending five years in his studio apartment, Solowski moved in with his boyfriend last June. The couple found a 93-square-metre apartment in Little Italy. Solowski is excited to live with his partner. “Every space is like a little project,” he says—though this one is a bit bigger.