The city with the world’s tiniest and costliest living spaces may soon convert drainpipes into homes. The aim is to get young people on the property ladder – but how small is too small?

“Both indoors and out, life in Hong Kong can feel pretty suffocating at times,” says 39-year-old finance worker Wai Li, who rents a 200 sq ft (19 sq m) “nano flat” by herself in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan neighbourhood. Li’s living area is little more than the size of two standard Hong Kong parking spaces.

“I’ve just learnt to work around the lack of space by keeping things tidy and only holding on to the stuff I really need. My bed is the largest piece of furniture here and so that’s where I tend to hang out. There isn’t room for much else.”

Li has been renting the apartment for HK$23,000 (£2,165) a month for the past two years. “For now, this is the most I can afford and so I’m making it work. Anything bigger in this area is far too expensive. To get somewhere cheaper I’d have to move much further out.” Li accepts that living small is just the way it is in Hong Kong and has grown used to it. “I’ve realised that I can get by without having too much stuff and that can be a relief. The only thing it’s lacking is a proper kitchen, so I have to eat out a lot which isn’t so healthy. Other than that it meets most of my needs.”

Can you imagine being the kid who lives in a converted drainpipe? That’s not what I picture when I think ‘home’

Paul McKay

William Lim believes that creative design can be a solution to the city’s dire lack of housing space. As the founder of CL3 Architects, Lim recently designed the world’s smallest fully equipped “nano apartment”: it features two bedrooms, a kitted out bathroom and kitchen, all within 194 sq ft – about the size of a standard cruise ship cabin.

“I looked at the area not as a flat surface but as three-dimensional space,” says Lim.

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Living in nano flats (which are classed as saleable areas of up to 200 sq ft) is fast becoming the norm in Hong Kong. The government estimates at least 200,000 of the city’s poorest residents live in subdivided apartments. Some, known as coffin homes, are 15 sq ft cages – not even half the size of a standard parking space. These offer significantly less than the minimum 75 sq ft that the Housing Authority requires for each person living in public housing. Prisoners in the city’s maximum security jails have more living space.

At what cost?

Unlike cities such as London, New York and Sydney, Hong Kong currently does not have a legal minimum space limit for private residential units, hence the proliferation of shrinking home sizes at ever increasing prices. In 2016, a developer filed plans with Hong Kong’s buildings department to convert a commercial building into 68 apartments, some as small as 61.4 sq ft – less space than a standard prison cell. In March this year, A 209 sq ft unit in Hong Kong’s Pok Fu Lam area was sold for HK$7.9m (HK$37,700 per square foot), a record price for micro-apartments in the city.


The OPod Tube House, a low-cost housing unit with a bed, mini-fridge, storage space and a bathroom compartment.

Irrespective of how creative their design might be, nano flats have been labelled by critics as a ruse to make developers richer. Despite repeated calls from local lawmakers to regulate the size of private flats, the city’s housing chief has declined on the grounds that size regulation will adversely affect affordability.

According to the independent research group Shrink That Footprint, apartments in Hong Kong are on average the smallest in the world (484 sq ft). The average one-bed flat size in Manhattan, New York, is 716 sq ft, in London it is 550 sq ft.

Now flats in Hong Kong are set to shrink even more: the property management company JLL predicts that Hong Kong is set to see at least another 2,100 nano flats completed by 2020. But how small is too small? And what are the implications of such cramped living spaces for mental health?

Last year the Lady MacLehose Centre, a local NGO, together with the Hong Kong Jockey Club Disaster Preparedness and Response Institute, surveyed 104 households living in subdivided flats in the city, and found that 80% of occupants experienced mental distress. In a follow-up study in October last year, 10 households were interviewed. Seven displayed signs of depression and/or anxiety while two had members diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Research has also highlighted how living in crowded housing can have a negative impact on our wellbeing, leading to withdrawal and difficulties in concentrating, especially among children. According to the environmental psychologist Dak Kopec, associate professor at the University of Nevada, there is also research showing that crowding-related stress, caused by living in small apartments, can lead to increased rates of domestic violence and substance abuse.


Apartments in Hong Kong are on average the smallest in the world.

“A person who lives alone in a small living space will begin to feel trapped and want to flee; this is similar to cabin fever,” says Kopec. “There is a reason why prison cells are the size they are – they are meant for punishment.” He adds that we all need sufficient levels of space to process stress and regenerate our coping abilities. He believes that size regulation on new apartments should be introduced to make sure businesses remain humane.

Layla McCay, psychiatrist and director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, says: “If such small apartments are to be allowed, I believe the developers, in partnership with town planners, need to have formal responsibility for investing in protective factors to mitigate the risk of mental health problems,. For example, welcoming, attractive, safe and accessible communal spaces, indoors and outdoors, where people of all ages can relax, socialise, eat, play and study.”

But it’s not just lack of space that’s causing Hong Kong’s current housing crisis – it’s affordability. According to the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, Hong Kong has been the world’s most expensive property market for the past seven years.

James Law, a local architect, has a radical solution. Law has created a prototype of what he calls an OPod Tube House – a converted concrete water pipe, offering 100 sq ft of living space, designed to be a low-cost starter home for young people in Hong Kong. This micro-apartment is equipped with all the mod cons, including a bench that converts into a bed, a mini-fridge, storage spaces and a bathroom compartment with shower and toilet. The OPods can be stacked on top of each other and slot neatly into gaps between city buildings.

Law plans to charge HK$3,000 rent per month. “About HK$1,000 of that would be the management costs, the remaining two thousand would be saved on behalf of the young people,” says Law. “It will be invested with interest, and at the end of their tenancy we will return the money to them to help them embark on the next stage of their lives.”


William Lim’s Nano flat

Law says that construction of a multi-storey OPod building is already under way in Shenzhen, in mainland China, and will be ready for rental by September. He is in talks with the government to find possible sites in Hong Kong.

“We’ve had young people tell us that they would definitely live in an OPod,” says Law. “Some have said that the OPod is bigger than their room at home, or even bigger than their whole family’s space at home.”

Creative thinking

Not everybody is convinced that living in a converted drainpipe would be the best solution. “I’m a bit concerned that some of the more recent designs lack the hallmarks of a home, such as dignity,” says Paul McKay, associate at Hong Kong architecture and design firm PMDL. “Can you imagine being the kid in school who lives in a converted drainpipe?”

For now, inspired by similar projects in London and Amsterdam, it appears the Hong Kong government will forge ahead with prefabricated homes to help ease the city’s housing crisis. The city’s secretary of development announced last year a plan to launch container homes of 194 sq ft in two pilot projects at universities in the city, for staff and students. Monthly rents is expected to range from HK$8,000 to HK$10,000.

“One better solution would be to use existing buildings more creatively,” says McKay. “This could be in co-living – which isn’t for everyone – or it could be in bringing unused or underused buildings back into circulation, adapting them for residential use.” McKay says this would require careful design and a flexible regulatory attitude, but could potentially create new, permanent homes for families without developing more land.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has recently launched a public consultation on boosting land supply for new housing. Over the five-month process, members of the public will be asked to choose from 18 options to address the city’s shortfall of land for housing over the next three decades. In addition, the government has pledged to spend HK$550m (£52m) of taxpayers’ money in the next two decades to rehouse and compensate residents in the city’s New Territories region who are being forced to move out and make way for new developments.

“I have spent time in container dwellings in Hong Kong, and I wouldn’t be inspired to make one my home,” says McKay. “A windowless shell, dependent entirely on artificial light and mechanical ventilation, it was oppressive in summer and frigid in winter. It didn’t meet any of the criteria that I would have for a ‘home.’”

Via The Guardian