One Seattle architect traveled the world to learn about tiny, smartly designed homes. His research is on display in the exhibit “Living Small.”

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Walls that move. Windows where the corner of a building should be. A house with an odd, polyhedron shape. No, this isn’t some sci-fi future. These homes exist, right now, in Tokyo, New York, Copenhagen, Stockholm.

Seattle architect Garrett Reynolds saw some of these houses himself. After winning a scholarship for emerging professionals from the American Institute of Architects, Reynolds traveled around the world to learn about small, smartly designed spaces. The fruits of his research can be seen in an exhibit, “Living Small,” open through June 11 at the new Center for Architecture & Design space downtown.

Though many of the houses featured are upscale, as the real-estate market heats up and housing becomes more expensive to rent or buy, more people are turning to compact housing as an affordable solution.

Living Small: Ideas For Living In the City

Exhibit open through June 11; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 1-5 p.m. Saturday at Center for Architecture & Design; 1010 Western Ave., Seattle; 206-667-9184 or cfadseattle.org

The exhibit is part of a spring program aimed at discussing urban-housing issues and includes public discussions, forums and architecture tours hosted by AIA Seattle, Seattle Architecture Foundation and Design in Public.

For more information about other events, visit:

• AIA Seattle: cfadseattle.org/aia-seattle

• Seattle Architecture Foundation: cfadseattle.org/seattle-architecture-foundation

• Design in Public: cfadseattle.org/design-in-public

Still, the difference between Seattle and Tokyo in attitudes toward smaller housing is vast, Reynolds said. While so-called “apodments” get a bad rap in Seattle, he said, in cities like New York and Tokyo, compact-living solutions are far more common.

“Tokyo is really interesting — it’s more of a culture that is accustomed to living in smaller spaces and the scale of their city is way smaller than what we think of in a city,” Reynolds said.

Instead of buildings that are so big they take up a city block, Tokyo’s grid is filled with smaller houses and apartments that nestle next to commercial buildings. This allows for more irregular and unconventional shapes to be built. (Those complaining about Seattle’s cookie-cutter cardboard-like condos, take note.)

New York, with its abundance of small apartments, has already forced residents to become more creative with their living spaces. One of them was the former apartment of Graham Hill, the founder of Treehugger.com and LifeEdited.

The ingenious 420-square-foot apartment has a movable wall that transforms the space from a bedroom into an open, airy living room. The bed folds up Murphy-style, the wall moves back and presto! — party space. He even has the ability to “build” a guest room with two bunk beds. (He’s since sold this apartment and is working on a new, smaller one — 350 square feet.)

Hill has Seattle roots. After making a mint here in the ’90s with Sitewerks, he took off for New York, where, after living in a 1,900-square-foot loft, he decided to simplify his life. He wrote a New York Times Op-Ed in 2013 that explained his choices and gave a TED Talk that garnered 3 million views.

“We’re realizing bigger is not always better,” Hill said. “It’s not making us any happier. We have supersized ourselves to the point where the average new house is 2,600 square feet. In most European countries, it’s 1,000 square feet.”

Reynolds agreed: While Seattle is experiencing a building boom, many of the new apartments, built for one or two people, are still designed with the “bigger is better” model in mind.

“I think part of it is cultural,” Reynolds said. “That’s what’s so interesting about visiting Japan, where size doesn’t really equate to status … it doesn’t equate to an easier, more livable lifestyle.”

Reynolds said that developers should take heed of the new residents’ lifestyles. Many of Seattle’s newest citizens work in the tech sector, eat out five days a week and hold meetings in bars or work in coffee shops, and don’t particularly need or use all the space in their apartments. Yet, Reynolds said, “The typical one-bedroom apartment hasn’t really changed in the last 50 years.”

A sense of spaciousness is created by slicing away a corner of the continuous four-story space in R torso C, in Tokyo. (Courtesy of Matthew Williams)
A sense of spaciousness is created by slicing away a corner of the continuous four-story space in R torso C, in Tokyo. (Courtesy of Matthew Williams)

In Tokyo, he studied a project called “R Torso C” by Atelier Tekuto that hewed more closely to the inhabitants’ lifestyle. The unconventional building has elongated windows that follow the spine where a corner would normally be, creating an interesting light dynamic.

“It’s very much designed for the two people — potentially three — living there,” Reynolds said. “It is connecting them with nature and basically slicing away the corners of this concrete form in order to get light into all spaces of the dwelling.”

As cool as most of these buildings and apartments are, it isn’t an affordable endeavor. From the high-end materials to construction costs, to simply being able to own real estate in some of the most expensive cities in the world, these designs are out of reach for the average resident. Most people can’t build a movable wall at will.

But Hill — whose apartment cost an initial $287,000, and he estimated an additional $300,000 for renovations — said that the time will come. “One of the roles that the rich play and don’t get a lot of kudos for, they may do sort of cutting-edge stuff and pay for stuff that is overly expensive, but it helps do a number of things,” he said. “It works out the kinks. … Prototypes of any kind are super expensive and complicated, once you figure it out, it gets better and better.”

Reynolds, though, doesn’t think a transformer apartment is necessary to live small — grab a rolled-up futon and a closet, and voilà!

“I don’t think that needs to be an expensive endeavor,” he said. “The Japanese are masters at that.”