Read the German version

Narrow houses: the art of small-space architecture

Urban planners and architects are coming up with a host of new ideas to cope with rising population densities in towns and cities. In areas where residential living space is limited – and, by extension, expensive – there has been an upsurge in innovative micro-living concepts – many of which we’ve covered in previous G-Pulse articles. Sometimes, the challenge lies not only in making maximum use of the limited free space available: Architects are also seeking to fill gaps in the otherwise patchy and unfinished-looking urban landscape. Japan has long been a pioneering force in the world of skinny house architecture.

Kyosho jutaku: A niche trend in the Japanese property market

The first “kyosho jutaku” – skinny houses built on incredibly narrow plots of land – started to appear in Japanese cities as early as the 13th century, and this style of building is just as relevant in the country today. However, in the modern world, the focus has shifted; architects are now increasingly focusing on this style of building for economic rather than aesthetic reasons. The four or five-storey buildings usually have an unassuming appearance, slotting into the streetscape in narrow gaps between existing constructions. The homes adapt to the space available – even if the plot is just a few centimetres wide with just 10 square metres of living space.

Inside, steep staircases wind up the building. The kitchen, bedrooms and living areas often occupy different floors and are kitted out with multifunctional flexible furniture.

In these narrow rooms, natural daylight becomes a key design tool. With multiple windows and large floor-to-ceiling glass panes on the upper floors, kyosho jutaku homes don’t usually feel anywhere near as claustrophobic as they would appear at first glance. Although skinny houses like the HX4 by Jun Ishikawa Architects only make up a small proportion of the Japanese property market, demand for these kinds of multifunctional residential buildings is on the rise, particularly in the overcrowded city of Tokyo. But the trend isn’t limited to Japan: Skinny houses can also be found in many other densely populated urban centres.

Keret House: The pinnacle of narrow architecture

Back in 2009, Polish designer and architect Jakub Szczesny unveiled his artistic concept for Keret House at the WolaArt festival. Three years later, he realised his vision in the city of Warsaw. At first glance, it’s hard to see how the steel construction – nestled between the bricks and concrete of two existing buildings – could ever become a home. At its widest point, this semi-transparent, windowless design measures just 122 centimetres, which drops to 72 centimetres at its narrowest point. In spite of its small dimensions, the first floor incorporates a kitchen unit, bathroom and living area. The bedroom and workspace are accessed via a ladder. The fully equipped skinny house is used as a temporary base for artists and writers, but the building is first and foremost defined as an art installation supported and sponsored by the Polish Modern Art Foundation (PMAF).

Keret House: Small-space living. Source: DW News / YouTube

Gap House: Maximum comfort – minimum footprint

The Gap House in West London proves that sustainable architecture and high standards of comfort can go hand-in-hand, even in the spatial confines of the urban environment. Tucked away on a side street between two listed buildings, architects have created an elegant 2.4-metre wide home for a family of four. The careful design by Pitman Tozer Architects – constructed in the middle of a conservation area – maximises light and space on an unpromisingly narrow plot.

Even at its narrowest point, the light and airy design makes the home feel welcoming and spacious. From an internal courtyard, light floods the entrance hall and penetrates through to the top floor of the four-storey building.

The Gap House was also designed with energy efficiency in mind: It is kitted out with a rainwater recycling system, cutting-edge insulation technology, solar energy and a heat pump as part of a holistic CO2 reduction concept. As a result, the skinny house uses just 30 percent of the energy that would be consumed in the day-to-day running of a “normal” home.

open livingroom with warm light
living space divided across multiple floors with wodden staircase
Narror houses: House london front door

Singel 166: The narrowest of the narrow houses

Amsterdam is famous for its narrow canals lined with tall houses. But there is one house in particular that garners attention from most city tours – at around 1.8 metres wide, the red brick frontage of Singel 166 is known as the skinniest house in Amsterdam.

Like most skinny houses, the building was constructed between two larger plots and extends backwards away from the street. It fills a gap in the walls of a medieval moat (the “Singel”), which encircled the western edge of the city until the end of the 16th century. The three-storey mini-home with canal views is still lived in today – but it is now a popular destination for tourist groups too.

A look inside Amsterdam’s skinniest house. Source: adisurd / YouTube

La Casa Estrecha: A miniature attraction in a historic setting

In the old town on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, there’s a building that proves that skinny houses are anything but a new trend: The tiny, two-storey La Casa Estrecha sits between the brightly coloured facades of two historic buildings. On a plot of around 1.5 metres wide, La Casa Estrecha extends around ten metres towards the back yard. Local residents and historians alike are unable to determine when this skinny house was built.

But now, after an extensive programme of renovations, the building has been given a new lease of life as an art gallery and museum.

Will it fit, or won’t it? Some architects seem to have long disregarded this question. The skinny houses found all over the world provide the answer: With a little imagination and ingenuity, architects can produce a design to fit any space.

Have you spotted any unusual buildings in your own city or on your travels? Let us know in the comments!

Architecture Buildings Design

Start a discussion about this article

This will also interest you