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Compact house on a compact Land

By Archt. Trinuki Fernando
Chartered Architect AIA (SL)

Mies van der Rohe’s wise words “Less is more” is the ideal theory to apply when designing a compact house on a limited land. Having anything and everything is not possible; it is best to stick to the necessities.

 “I believe that architecture is a pragmatic art. To become art, it must be built on a foundation of necessity.” ― I. M. Pei

An architect would default to an architectural design approach regardless of the size of land or structure. Here we consider houses on a small site.

The first thing architects take into consideration is the site. It is important to understand the topography; i.e. flat land or sloping land, which could determine the orientation and form of the structure. The existing vegetation and surrounding environment also important to take into consideration, to decide on views and how  natural light might flow into the created.

An Architect’s sketch of a site based on their site analysis. (architectureacademia, 2012)

“Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.”  – Le Corbusier

 Concept development would be the second stage of the architectural design approach. For a compact land a compact house is the ideal design response. How does one apply the less is more theory? This is when the architect comes up with a concept which ties in the interior and exterior elements of the design. To optimize the site’s small land restriction, the open plan concept and contemporary style of architecture would be most suitable.

Open plan is the use of large, open spaces which minimize the use of enclosed rooms. When applying this concept to a house; the living room, dining and pantry all inhabit the one space. Having each of these functional spaces flow into each other rather than having them in segregated rooms saves space and prevents the need for additional living spaces and dining spaces as some clients require. The bedrooms, washrooms and laundry spaces would be situated based on the main open plan concept. Ideally the client would have provided the architect with a list of spaces and functions required for their dwelling at the start of the project. There will come a point when the architect would have to advice the client that some spaces may be one too many, and require to reduce some of the spaces and functions, as this is a compact house and its best not to over crowd it. It’s important to have open outdoor spaces rather than building a dwelling on the entire buildable area of the plot. John M. Johnson says, “Very often the opinion of the clients must be disregarded in their own interest”.

“The primary function of this type of floor plan is to ease the flow of traffic in a home, and to encourage casual living as well as entertaining. Ideally, this floor plan also blends interior with exterior, make space bigger visually.” (Istanbul, n.d.), (SILVERMAN, 2019)

“Open plans make home look more spacious: With fewer walls, you will experience the appearance of more space since people are likely to judge spaciousness in accordance with sightlines. We tend to feel more comfortable in an open space. In short, it makes any home “live largely.” If you are preparing food or cleaning your kitchen, you can communicate with others in other rooms. “This is concept is an Ideal layout for entertaining: The inherent capability to move from group to group makes for a remarkable party. In this way, your social life might even be improved with open floor house plans”. (Istanbul, n.d.), (Cupelli, 2015)

“Flexible design: With a few sturdy pieces of movable furniture, you can make a great room into almost any configuration you want.
Open floor plans offer the flexibility of use. It is easier to transfer a few pieces of furniture than it is to transfer a solid wall.”
(Istanbul, n.d.), (Dalton, 2018)

898Studios, n.d

“Contemporary architecture, it comprises a range of present-day building styles that often look radically different from one another and sometimes from anything that has come before. This is thanks to myriad innovations in building materials and techniques that have made contemporary architecture possible in all its infinite iterations. “ (Hohenadel, 2020)

Contemporary style of architecture in my opinion defines the “less is more” theory. The appearance of such stylized dwellings is pleasant on the eye, not bulky or overly dominating, but light and slender. This style is the ideal exterior approach when designing on a compact site. The type and shape of the roof plays a role with the overall building. In order to comply with the contemporary style a lean-to-roof or skillion roof, a pitched roof or a slab roof would be the ideal choice.

“Pitched or flat – whichever roof type you choose for your house, it’s essential to make sure the style works holistically with your final house design. Today’s modern roof designs can reduce energy costs, improve drainage, increase natural light, and add a sense of contemporary grandeur to a home.”,
(.jameshardie, 2019)   , (Visuals, 2019)  , (Hoover, 2019)

“Not forget about the all-important aesthetic appeal of a house and how your roof style fits in with other design aspects such as exterior walls, windows and verandahs.” (.jameshardie, 2019),  (Atelier, 2019)

“As an architect you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown.” – Norman Foster

The third stage of the architectural design approach is connecting the outdoor and indoor spaces. This is in par with stage one. It’s vital that a house open to its immediate environment. This enhances good air flow and brings an influx of natural light into the internal spaces. The use of open spaces and courtyards, large openable or fixed windows are other ways of connecting the indoors with the outdoors. There could be instances where the existing site may not have the best appearance to connect with the indoors. Decks and landscaping can be employed to remediate this. If the site consists of trees its best to take note which trees are older and stronger and worth having. Thereafter the ideal way to go forward is to design the house around the trees. The concept of connecting and opening up the indoors to the outdoors will make the dwelling generously spacious whilst being compact.

“Light creates ambience and feel of a place, as well as the expression of a structure”-Le Cobusier,(Dornier, 2020)


“It’s natural to think of home and garden as two separate entities with a strict boundary in between. But linking indoor and outdoor spaces – even if it’s only a tiny garden or terrace – can help an interior feel larger. With the exterior connected to the house your eye sees further and a garden-facing room appears larger.” (GREG TOON S. W., 2019) , (ELLWAY., 2019)


Boost the glazed elements at the back of the house and you’ll make both garden and sky views part of the room. (GREG TOON S. W., 2019), (Jacobsen Arquitetura, 2016)

“Light, God’s eldest daughter, is a principal beauty in a building”- Thomas Fuller

This type of study shows an example of how the architect would try to design and come up with an ideal form for the land based on the topography. In other words response to the site context. (pinterest, 2018)

Louis Sullivan’s “form ever follows function” brings us to the fourth stage of the design process. By arranging the spaces and understanding the topography of the site the architects then design the form and shape of the dwelling. If the land has a sloping terrain, the use of different level to hold the spaces can help create the form of the house and maximize on the spatial requirements. If the land is flat the architect would have to build the house vertically in order to maximize the land use and to incorporate the spatial requirements. If the land is narrow and long, the house would take a linear shape.

“Architecture is not based on concrete and steel, and the elements of the soil. It’s based on wonder”- Daniel Libeskind

“The truthfulness of materials of constructions, concrete, bricks and stone, shall be maintained in all buildings constructed or to be constructed.”- Le Cobusier

The fifth stage would be the choice of materials.  Would it be one single material or a combination? The ideal choices for the “less is more” theory and contemporary concept would be brick, concrete, cement rendered  floor and walls  or titanium floors, timber floors and timber cladded walls, and steel structures. It’s important that you choose materials that make a homely, relaxing and welcoming ambiance.

“We shape our buildings: therefore, they shape us” – Winston Churchill

 “Architecture is really about well-being. I think that people want to feel good in a space … On the one hand it’s about shelter, but it’s also about pleasure”. – Zaha Hadid

“All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space”- Philip Johnson

“Architecture domesticates limitless space and enable us to inhabit it, but it should likewise domesticate endless time and enable us to inhabit the continuum of time”- Juhani Pallasmaa, 

 Brick finish could be used as; exposed brick, painted brick, or plastered brick walls. Concrete on the other hand can be left exposed or plastered and painted over for wall finishes.

The combination of these two materials could include; brick walls with concrete structure, or a mix of concrete walls and brick walls with concrete structure. Timber is also used for the cladding of walls both internally and externally. When it comes to floor finishes it could be cut cement flooring or titanium or power float finish and timber flooring. Steel is ideally used for structural columns and beams with a combination of brick walls and concrete walls.

The grouping of any of the above-mentioned materials will comply with the contemporary style concept. The choice of aluminum framed windows would be the added compliment to the selected material choice and concept.

“Contemporary design is all about contrast. Mixing metal with wood, or stone, or brick, brings those colors and textures and flavors together to entice the eye and boggle the mind.”, (Form, 2016) , (Williamson, 2017)


“Architecture arouses sentiments in man. The architect’s task, therefore, is to make those sentiments more
precise”- Adolf Loos (SHANKS, 2018)


“It is all about how to get a material to stay true to its function while being an element of the building’s aesthetics.” (Basulto, 2019), (Arquitectura, 2018)


“The quality and quantity makes a major impact during selection of appropriate building material. Site surrounding also suggest the building types as well as help to choosing particular materials.”, (Partha Sarathi Mishra, 2014) , (Porter Architects, 2018)

“The home should be the treasure chest of living.” – Le Cobusier

It is important to remember that it’s not about how big your house is, nor is it about having every single function one could possibly have, it’s not about quantity. But it’s about quality, not quantity…”is what Cathy Ilani said. As architects it’s important to direct and guide the client to see the importance of quality over quantity.


 “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci


Reference (Hohenadel, 2020)  (898Studios, n.d.) (Cupelli, 2015)  (Dalton, 2018)  (Hoover, 2019)  (Porter Architects, 2018)    (Williamson, 2017) (Istanbul, n.d.)  (.jameshardie, 2019)   (GREG TOON S. W., 2019)   (architectureacademia, 2012)     (pinterest, 2018)        (Form, 2016)    (Basulto, 2019)        (Partha Sarathi Mishra, 2014)      (SILVERMAN, 2019)    (Visuals, 2019)  (Atelier, 2019)   (Dornier, 2020)  (ELLWAY., 2019) (Jacobsen Arquitetura, 2016)  (SHANKS, 2018)  (Arquitectura, 2018)

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