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Narrow Houses: New Directions in Efficient Design

by Andrew Wade

Sliding House by
MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects (Canada)
It is not every day that you find a publication that functions equally well as a glossy-imaged coffee table book, a substantive addition to any architect’s library, and an informational resource to the wider public that speaks not only to why efficient design is highly valuable and contextually imperative but also to how it can be successfully implemented in the twenty-first century. At its best, Avi Friedman’s "Narrow Houses: New Directions in Efficient Design" presents paradigmatic examples of beautifully and responsibly designed residences to demonstrate why those in high-income nations should reformulate sustainability not as sacrifice, but as a modern and creative appropriation of an increasingly valuable and contested asset: Space. By functioning on these multiple levels, "Narrow Houses" becomes relevant to a diverse readership and, at its most prescient, connects the efficient and bounded appropriation of space with desirable and modern form-making, materiality, and precise design detailing. In these aims it seems to further the notion that planning restrictions and regulations on site use, building footprint, and volumetric form (self-imposed or otherwise) can often unleash latent creativity to solve pressing problems of energy consumption and scarcity of land. The book depicts houses in both rural and urban sites, demonstrating how to preserve much of the former as unclaimed natural land, or how to potentially divide the latter to yield a higher density, effective housing solution.

Beginning with the simple premise of defining a "narrow house" as a single residence with a frontage and continuous width of less than 25 feet (7.6 meters), the book presents 28 case studies from several countries, ordered in the distinct categories of 18 detached dwellings and nine townhouses. Encased within these typologies are three basic modes of intervention: building from scratch on greenfield sites, the conversion of existing structures, and urban infill projects that operate in harmonious relation with surrounding built form and street frontage. Less a typology than a dimensional constraint framing several typologies, the "narrow house" allows the wider application of sustainable design through efficient and restrained site use and building orientation.
Sliding House exterior
A noteworthy feature is the selected criteria by which each project is summarized, usually incorporating the site area, building footprint, and floor area; drawing attention to their interrelationships and ratios, and leveraging this as both the key constraint and the main driver of design innovation in the use of space and application of materials. Spilling over with artfully composed images and a full-bleed photograph per project, one impression remains noticeably absent from all of the narrow houses presented the feeling that they are small.  Perhaps the most pressing argument put forth in this book is the notion that the considered employment of design and construction techniques within spatial constraints trumps an alternative built product expansive residential space lacking the added value of refined form, material, and layout consistently delivered in good architecture. In doing so, the book espouses counter measures to the McMansion and sprawling low-density development, leading with the aesthetic argument of high-design and supporting with the moral argument of social and environmental responsibility. While all of the homes are designed by architects and show interior finishes and furnishings to a very high standard, their generally compact footprint and floor area demonstrates how a fundamental and intentional financial decision may be made in favor of smaller, more efficiently designed projects.  Rather than opting for larger, vacuous spaces, this book champions an alternative agenda of high-quality materials, sparingly applied in well-crafted rooms.

Holly Barn by Knox Bhavan Architects (UK)
Perhaps a natural conceptual extension of Avi Friedman’s Grow Home (co-designed with Witold Rybczynski and Susan Ross), the case studies explore functional research through design, offering a palette of diverse approaches to the efficient use of space in various climates, geographical contexts and site topographies. The book concludes with a shift from the glossy and visually descriptive pages of the case studies to four short essays that critically reflect on the multiple options and impacts of the narrow house. Complimented by plan and section diagrams, along with axonometric exploration of three-dimensional implications, this portion of the book not only serves as a "how-to" of considerations and strategies for efficient design but, perhaps more importantly, it grounds the evolutionary relevance of exploring narrow housing typologies that have emerged over centuries, not merely ones that espouse restraint for the sole purpose of adhering to an agenda of sustainability.  The design principles detailed in these essays hint at the underlying ecological and economic networks of production behind housing, geared toward the professional architect but beginning to pull that group into a wider and multi-disciplinary discussion of what constitutes sustainable development. By mentioning the impact of design on cost, use and transport of materials, energy consumption (heating and cooling), and relationship with the surrounding site, the essays begin to delve into the impact that architects have in non-architectural territory — something that must be thoroughly considered to achieve more sustainable and appropriate housing proposals.

While "Narrow Houses" does include one case study from Brazil, I imagine a companion piece that selectively documents the immense creativity and adaptation of residential space in emerging economies. Introducing the strata of political and social factors would necessarily add complexity to the cases and demand an extended written component; however, it could provide a subaltern counterpoint to this book, hinting at methods to not only achieve environmentally sustainable housing, but socially sustainable housing as well. In that sense, "Narrow Houses" presents a limited view — one that focuses on professionally designed residences in high-income countries for reasonably wealthy clients — of the vast spectrum of efficient housing design. It suggests the potential to compliment this by locating the significance and possibilities of the narrow or compact house in the urbanism of continuously growing mega-cities.

Complementing the logistical details of the essays with a coffee-table-style glance at selected narrow houses exhibiting "high-design" allows the book to reach a wider audience and operate on multiple levels, serving the interests of both the architects keen on embracing efficient design as well as those simply attracted to the materiality of interior and exterior residential spaces. This bifurcation of the book’s sequencing into graphically-rich case studies and concise essays also makes it more than simply a valuable library of recent and successful forays in spatially constrained design solutions; this text provides a foundation for a wider discussion on why determined action must be taken in both individual and collective ways to encourage efficient land and material use in building. Often such constraints are met in middle- and low-income countries out of necessity. However, such creative use of resources is often bypassed in high-income countries because it is seen as regressive rather than innovative. "Narrow Houses" serves as a noteworthy advocate for the use of design to promote efficient residential layouts as the desirable, sustainable, and responsive housing future.

Credits: Images from "Narrow Houses."