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When bigger isn’t better

Avi Friedman’s narrow home designs save space, money, and resources

Avi Friedman, professor of Architecture at McGill, told me that his office, on the third floor of the Macdonald-Harrington building, is the size of a house.

While his office is bigger than most, Friedman, who was selected by Wallpaper magazine as one of ten people most likely to change the way we live, wasn’t exaggerating. Houses “that literally have a small footprint,” he said, are the future of home design.

His new book, Narrow Houses: New Directions in Efficient Design, suggests that homes less 25 feet (7.6 metres) wide are a sort of panacea for so many of the problems currently faced by our cities.

Narrow houses use fewer resources during construction, and consume less energy once they are built. These homes, which can be built in high density, help combat urban sprawl and provide a sense of community not present in the large majority of newly built urban and sub-urban environments.

Friedman, the director of the Affordable Homes program in the McGill School of Architecture, notes that these “sustainable homes” also respond to demographic trends: “families are smaller, not everyone needs a home with six bedrooms and four bathrooms all connected to the internet. People are willing to live with less.”

“Once you train yourself to live with less, and you are happy with what you have, you don’t seek more,” he told me.

Friedman, also the author of The Adaptable House: Designing Homes for Change, doesn’t believe that you should have to throw away your house once your needs change.

“You don’t need to gut and throw away walls if you can design a wall that can easily be dismantled and be installed somewhere else.”

This is a topic of current research for Friedman and his students.

“What I have been trying to do over time is to introduce concepts that let people intervene and easily adapt homes to their conditions.”

The homes highlighted in Narrow Houses present a more human alternative to space-saving high-rise apartment buildings. They provide tenants with a “relationship to the ground,” as most have back or front yards. This provides space, he said, for further reducing our environmental footprints.

“One way of reducing our footprint is to grow our own food. This can be done individually, you can do it at home on a balcony, on a roof, or in your backyard.”

Most of Friedman’s designs are meant for factory production. Conventionally built houses, he said, often create tremendous amounts of waste.

“Usually, if you are building on a cold day, on a rainy day, you don’t have time to think, you just want to finish quick and go home.” In a factory, however, there are opportunities to take waste and reuse it in constructing other parts of the building.

While looking to the future of home design, Friedman notes that the narrow house is not a new concept.

“The origin of the narrow home dates back to the middle ages, when cities had to limit what they could build within their walls.”

Flipping through the book, which is filled with lavish colour photographs of narrow homes in over 14 countries, Friedman pauses on one project, the Modern Wooden Town, in Porvoo, Finland. He points out to me the most exciting, grounding feature of this town:

“Near every group of homes, there is a place to play.”