space | order | flexibility

Blurb: In this write-up, the adaptability of spaces within singular homes shall be discussed, with reference to both classic and contemporary exercises in the theme. Since the objective is ‘flexibility’ examples are valued on whether the period of change is relatively inexpensive, not their initial construction costs.

A change will do you good?

Flexibility seems to contradict having the design of a residence predetermined by a particular spatial organisation system, for example, Feng Shui principles. It also conflicts with one definition of ‘space’, that is, when it is used as a term to describe the character of a room. We often believe our homes to be unchangeable or rather, something we’d like to think we can always depend on (Friedman, 2002). Accommodating changing inclinations serves individual tastes and is, perhaps often regarded a luxurious add-on to an environment which is already capable of working alone.

And yet, an inclination towards flexibility may result because of an innate dislike for rigidity and obstinate surroundings. Homes are the product of an environmental decision inevitably representing one’s lifestyle during a short period of time. If this premise were true, in today’s fast-paced society, our habitats become obsolete as quickly as our lifestyles.

The myth of flexibility still keeps most designers in awe and is steadily appearing in design literature as a factor home-owners should be asking for. Periàñez (1993) lists synonyms which describe one and the same building type: adaptable, enlargeable, à la carte, convertible, dynamic, elastic, extensible, flexible, mobile, module-friendly, customable, versatile, transformable, and variable. A contemporary architectural writer, Helmut Schramm (2004) admits that it is difficult to give an objective view of what makes qualitative housing, however includes adaptability when adopting criteria to guide his analysis.

“Flexibility and variability, passage, spatial structure, privacy, the integration of garages and low energy concepts” are all listed as qualities which improve the value of a domestic space. (see Schramm, 2005 Website).

Periàñez adds that in any home there in fact exists a near infinite micro-macro system of activities which regulate the adaptable quality of a space. They may be schematised as follows, starting from the least drastic:

The re-arrangement of utensils and perishables
Moving portable furniture (ex. Chairs)
… and larger ‘family’ furniture (ex. A bookcase)
Changing the identity of a corner of space
Reassigning rooms (ex. A study becoming a newborn’s bedroom)
Remodelling non-load bearing partitions
Boring load-bearing walls
Division of volumes, ex. The introduction of a mezzanine
Demolition and reconstruction of the house
Successful adaptation when a new household settles in

Reasons for change

People may wish to change their habitat for a number of reasons whose validity is difficult to dispute. Habraken (1974) lists the following main contenders:

Individuality and personal identification
Changes in life-style
New technological possibilities (also see Forty, 1975 )
The changing family, including the single and the elderly (French, 2002)

One does not come by such chameleon homes every day, however, a number of authors have illustrated how adaptability may be achieved in physical terms. In this chapter, the flexibility of spaces within singular homes shall be discussed, with reference to both classic and contemporary exercises in the theme. Although the sort of modifications listed will be on the higher end of the Periàñez scale, since the objective is ‘flexibility’, examples are valued on whether the period of change is relatively inexpensive, not their initial construction costs.

Non-kinetic adaptability measures for single dwellings Although sliding partitions, Murphy beds and furniture on wheels have a strong connotation with adaptability, non-kinetic solutions are also available for designers who may wish to adopt a less obvious approach.

Avi Friedman identifies a number of room dimensions which facilitate the multipurpose use of a room. This method is particularly useful when spaces within a home are reassigned.

This could include allowing space to annex a building horizontally or providing a roof construction able to take the load of additional floors. Maltese flat-roof construction is particularly useful in the latter case. While the first means is obviously restricted by matters of space and compromising garden ground, the second is limited by building height regulations which vary from one locality to another.

A long-term consideration is designing with a higher floor-to-ceiling height – an alternative which serves the possibility of adding a mezzanine in the future.

Shells allow ‘expansions’ which are not extraneous to the existing perimeter.

For example, architect Israel M. Goodovitch exercised this possibility when he designed a 46-unit development in Kiriat-Ono, Israel. In each of the units a single floor was constructed within a shell with enough room to include a second and third floor later on.

Kinetic Solutions for Single dwellings

(a) Partitioning

Partitioning, on plan, is the division through lines, or otherwise, spaces within a home. Therefore, the operation of a sliding partition may serve to make distinct, as well as to unify two spaces.

As we have seen in the first two chapters, the Japanese value the quality of their inhabited space in ways which are not necessarily related to size, and base their architectural geometry on modularity. Another Japanese trademark is the ease with which interior spaces may be transformed. Employing folding screens i.e. byobu in order to partition interior space is as ancient as the Japanese residential dwellings of nobility which formed part of the Shinden-zukuri style of architecture, later superseded by the shoin-zukuri style. The mature shoin period assimilates all the familar elements of traditional Japanese interiors being shoji/fusuma i.e. movable walls and tatami as the floor covering. The traditional Japanese home is usually associated with a later development, that is, the simpler Sukiya-zukuri style.

Post-beam construction, which dictates the ordered configuration of Japanese interiors, allows the introduction of walls which, in addition to being lightweight, may also be made mobile. The different between the two type of moveable walls, namely shoji and fusuma, may be observed by their structure and positioning within the house. Whilst the opaque fusuma partition the interior, shoji are lattice frame sliding doors which separate the interior from the exterior. They are also covered with translucent paper made from mulberry bark. (Myers, 2001)

The Schröder-Schräder House by Gerrit Rietveld and his client Truss Schröder is one of the first 20th century examples of homes which used kinetic walls, rooms and other interior design architectural elements to enhance the variability of space. Whilst the De Stijl architect Rietveld was primarily responsible for the design of the external architecture and colours, Truss Schröder is credited with the building’s interiors (Brown, 1958).

With the upper floor curiously dubbed an “attic” in order to get away with restrictions imposed by the local building code, the house had nothing to do with any of the others on the Prins Hendriklaan. (Overy, 1991)

Overy writes that the spaces created were composed by a disciplined an order of planar elements, composed asymmetrically in space within a coordinate system. No lines are oblique to this rigid system yet, nevertheless, freedom is attained through playfulness and movement. Flexibility was introduced in what one may call the ‘second construction phase’ (Michael Pace, personal communication, October 27, 2005) that is, the partitioning system and the third construction phase, or rather, fixed furniture.

One may observe how the large interior is only punctured by a few fixed spaces, namely, the WC and bath facilities, the kitchen and the stairwell. The need to provide fixed spaces for building services echoes Mies van der Rohe’s comments on the subject in 1927 with regards to ‘designing only the kitchen and bathroom as permanent rooms, on account of their installations’ (pg 156) and dividing up the remaining floor area in a manner suited to one’s needs. And yet, in this example, they too are negotiable since the non-occupied space in the bathroom doubles as a second mode of access to one of the smaller sleeping areas. It may be read as a ‘movable room’.

One would expect that open-closed duality of the space may have resulted in a few planning compromises. On the other hand, the various configurations of the scheme successfully propose a variety of interior planning situations. In Rietveld’s own words, the two succeeded in creating a background for living, as opposed to a “straight jacket” (Brown, 1958, pg 51) or a “cave-like volume for ‘those animals who prefer this type of lair.” (pg. 47)

The contemporary London-based practice Block Architecture employed similar principles, only were required to cater for a family. Through their New York project for a loft conversion they manifest a strong desire to enhance everyday interaction between family members by considering utility and private rooms differently to the shared spaces connecting them. Transgressions are allowed to occur, through slipping and sliding, between assigned spaces, for example, part of the bath in the girls room may push into the dining room, whilst the concrete shower may impinge on the adjacent study (Coates, 2004).

A similar ideology can be observed in Flat-Pack, a chameleon project by the same team, hailed a kit-of-parts which can be configured into any open plan layout through stretching, sliding and general ‘foldability’. (see Website, Block Architecture, n.d.)

(b) Rotor Houses

Homes which use rotor movement depend on a spinning action to transform a space. Thus, the architectural geometry is generally circular on plan.

Buckminster Fuller’s designs for a fully kinetic mass-producible machine for living was conceived and designed in the 1920s yet the first prototype was built in 1945. It earned the name DYMAXION since it brings to life, three of its author’s favourite words i.e. dynamic (DY), maximum (MAX) and tension (ION). The house is generally cited as a deployment unit and the fact that it could be shipped across the globe in its own metal tube, rather than for the flexible nature of its interiors.

The flexibility of the house relies on its o-volving shelves, namely, storage bins that rotated behind the Dymaxion House wall. Although easily accessed at the touch of a button, they stored junk out of sight, or perhaps, out of reach from children. (see Fuller, at the Henry Ford Museum Website, n.d.).

A similar year 2000 prototype has been conceived by über car designer Luigi Colani in his project for a rotor house which concentrates on maximising the use of a small 36 m² space through rotor movement. (see Colani Website, n.d.) Unlike designs by Rietveld and Mies van der Rohe, the kitchen and bath is reshuffled with the same ease as the bedroom, while the sofa and W.C. are fixed.

In contrast to Fuller’s DYMAXION House, the external perimeter of the Rotor House is square, while the revolving rooms, so to speak, occupy a circular space. Floor space is won back since the same floor is used to access all three revolving units, however, such design is only suitable for a single house-occupant, since gyration renders the rest of the rooms unusable.

(c) Wheels

Inevitably, architecture that moves has also paid homage to the invention of the wheel.

The direction of wheeling may also be streamlined. Pöppl & Straßburger’s competition entry for apartment blocks which accommodated change, placed mobile partitions on rails, such as those used for a conventional archive system, able to carry up to 1500kg. (French, 2002)

Shigeru Ban’s creation for a non-conventional Japanese family of five residing in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture is a classic example of how flexibility may truly be stretched to its extreme. The radical house earned its name because the client wished to have a house which bonded the family through the abolition of secrecy. The architect writes, on his personal website:

Having met the client only once, I was again considering what to do about the project of this house, when the client sent me a facsimile making precise requests. What he wanted was described as a house that “provides the least privacy so that the family members are not secluded from one another, a house that gives everyone the freedom to have individual activities in a shared atmosphere, in the middle of a unified family”. After reading his fax, I knew that I should take up this challenge.

Again, with the only fixed points being the location of services, rooms, within what appears to be a massive two-storey volume a quartet of cubic rooms are literally placed on wheels, and may be moved or rotated freely according to the mood of its occupants.

It is also interesting to note that the translucent screens, infilled with corrugated plastic which make up the external walls, are a contemporary interpretation of the aforementioned shoji screens. In this case study, however, their traditional kinetic abilities has been restricted to the mobility of the interior rooms. (see Shigeru Ban, Website). Kinetic flexibility may add to the value of a dwelling when space is little. One advantage is perceptual, through concealment, since the removal of clutter annihilates the appearance being literally cramped. Secondly, it also allows the multi-use of access corridors which are not required permanently.

One is led to believe that what ‘maximisation of space’ really means is that a space’s worth is enhanced as a result of how much it can be used, granted that the different uses do not interfere with one another. However, as the above examples have shown, flexibility allows the practical discussion of privacy - whether to impose it, reject it or provide options.

(d) Retractable Matchbox Units

A number of interior designer use matchbox, or ‘drawer’ action to store or reveal units as necessary. The ever-increasing scale of such units (some examples retract entire rooms) is what is making this genre such an avant-garde concept.

  • Womb by Johnson Chou

Perhaps Rietveld’s cave has been re-interpreted as Womb by Johnson Chou, author to a studio flat in Toronto, Canada. Featured in the Jan 2003 issue of the Architecture Review, it is described as “a moveable feast, allowing its occupant to juggle the volumes” (pp. 20) A pivoting table, retractable kitchen units, a suspended fireplace and cantilevered seating are a few of the tricks the architect has conjured up. Of course, the real criticism here is that one should never assume that reasonably sized space can truly be maximised with the addition of gimmick-architecture. The apartment, a box-within-a-box takes up a fair amount of space in its perimeter to accept fold-away furniture and services.

In this case study, sliding elements are used by the Swiss architect Michael Alder to conceal bathrooms and corridors, whilst similarly to the Rietveld-Schröder house, he sometimes uses pop-out rooms to enable the space next to a bath tub to be used as a circulation route. (Kaltenbach, 2002)

Fred by Oskar Leo Kaufmann may be just another transportable living machine yet it contains an added surprise, perhaps literally up its sleeve. Conceived in 1999 following a collaboration with Zimmerai, (see Kaufmann Zimmerai Website, n.d.) it is perhaps one of the most concise experiments in flexible design. This ‘hotel box’ uses a simple matchbox mechanism to almost double in area, from 8 to 15 m2, while the WC and sink occupy the only fixed space in the room (see JKA Website, 1999).


Block Architecture, (n.d.) Flat-pack. Retrieved March 5, 2006 from

Brown, T.M. (1958). The work of G. Rietveld architect. Utrecht: A. W. Bruna & Zoon.

Coates, N. (2004) New Interior Design Collidoscope. London: Laurence King Publishing

Colani, L. (n.d.) Rotor House Retrieved October 11 2005 from

Forty, A. (1975). The Electric Home: A Case Study of the Domestic Revolution of the Inter-War Years, Milton Keynes: The Open University Press.

French, H. (2002). Accommodating change: innovation in housing. Ipswich: The Wosley Press.

Friedman, A. (2002). The adaptable home: designing homes for change. London: McGraw-Hill.

Fuller, R. B. (n.d.) Dymaxion house at the Henry Ford museum website Retrieved November 29, 2005 from

Johnson, C.. (2003). Womb Service. Architectural Review. 213:1271, Jan., 20-21

Kaltenbach, F. (2002). The quality of everyday things. Detail. B 2772, March, 181-182

Kaufmann, Oscar Leo (n.d.). Fred Retrieved October 5, 2005 from

Mies van der Rohe, L.(1927). Remarks on my blocks of flats. In T. Benton & C. Benton, Form and Function: A source book for the history of Architectural Design 1890-1939 (pp. 156) (London: Crosby Lockwood Staples, in association with The Open University Press, 1975.)

Myers, G. (2001) Article on Japanese Interiors Retrieved February 20, 2005 from

Overy, P. (1991). De Stijl. London: Thames & Hudson

Periàñez, Manuel (1993). L'HABITAT ÉVOLUTIF: du mythe aux réalités... Retrieved November 27, 2005 from

Schramm, Helmut (2004). Low rise – High density. Vienna: Springer-Verlag Kg

Schramm, H. (2005). Horizontal Densification - Living Quality at a Low Cost. Retrieved March 6, 2005 from

space | order | flexibility

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