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Rethinking Multi-Unit Residential: imagining the future of living

Most city dwellers live in a multi-unit residential building (MURB). Rapid urban population growth has driven up land value and as costs associated with residential building construction have increased, the average unit size has decreased. When every room is competing for floor area, designers need to get creative.

BDP Quadrangle’s 'Shrinking Spaces Charette' stimulated innovative solutions for small units. As fate would have it, just one week later we had to close our physical studio due to the coronavirus pandemic and begin working from home. Isolating in response to the pandemic has prompted all of us to find more flexibility in our living spaces, and also to question how MURB design can support a sense of community and foster interaction with others while still maintaining privacy and a safe distance if required.


We began by reducing or eliminating set programmes. To optimise flexibility we blurred the boundaries between rooms, using a structural column grid instead of shear walls, reducing carbon footprint by using less concrete. We re-arranged fixed elements as open plan, locating the kitchen, bathrooms, and laundry closets on the perimeter. Integrating mechanical distribution into the floor eliminated awkward bulkheads and a raised floor system provided the opportunity for in-floor storage spaces. An increased floor-to-floor height allowed for in-floor plumbing and storage. While this could lead to fewer building storeys, the small unit design also allows for more units per floor.


The team created moveable partition modules with integrated functionality, such as storage, furniture, media units and communications platforms. Built-in data, power capability and automation facilitated an array of configurations. Prefabricated by manufacturers, on-site construction is reduced, saving valuable time in the building delivery schedule.

In practice, the modules offer the possibility for changing spatial divisions throughout the day so that parents can work from home while the kids have a separate play space. Work and play can be tucked away out of sight when the day is over, and the space becomes an open family room. Moving modules away from the dining area allows a multi-generational family to gather around a long dinner table to share their meal together. As the sun sets, built-in beds can be lowered into place and partitions extended to offer privacy and acoustic separation.


The same concept is applied to outdoor space. We designed an exterior space that could merge with the interior; this interstitial ‘sun bay’ is semi-conditioned to allow the inside out or the outside in, with operable glass partitions that can be opened to extend living space outdoors.

As city builders, we have a tremendous opportunity to learn from the coronavirus experience and make positive changes to the way we design our residential buildings. By altering our thinking and changing our approach it is possible to offer small units at affordable prices while creating valuable and desirable places to live.