More urban Chinese buy smaller homes and remodel them to suit their fancy in the face of spiraling housing prices

By He Keyao Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/1 13:18:39 Last Updated: 2016/12/1 18:53:40

Liu Haitao's wife Hu Xiaofei in their 27-square-meter house Photo: Courtesy of Lei Min

Liu Haitao's wife Hu Xiaofei in their 27-square-meter house Photo: Courtesy of Lei Min

When Liu Haitao, 30, sits on his sofa and looks at the morning sunshine pouring into his apartment, the light reflecting on the ceiling and glass stairs and illuminating the whole three-bedroom space, he is content. It is how he and his wife imagined their perfect home would look and feel. Beautiful paintings, delicate artworks decorated all around, an exquisite cloakroom and a terrace with an excellent view of Beijing's Olympic Forest Park, this is all he wanted, and he got it all in a small attic with a net area of only 27 square meters.

Facing the sky-high and still growing housing prices in China's metropolises, such as Beijing, Liu is just one of the many people who has decided to live in a small space. In fact, the overheated housing prices have pushed many people to give up or postpone their dream of owning a big home. But that doesn't always mean settling for a lower standard of living. By remodeling the limited space, Liu and many others like him have created their perfect home.

Matsumoto Daisuke relaxes in his cozy home. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Matsumoto Daisuke relaxes in his cozy home. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Less space, same lifestyle              

"The place you call home is not just where you live, but a carrier of your lifestyle," said Liu, a product manager at an IT company, who returned to Beijing four years ago after studying in the US for years. "We don't want to make any changes because of house prices."

After returning to China, Liu felt a brief culture shock when he saw many of his peers struggling to purchase an apartment only to then shoulder huge mortgages.

Liu has many hobbies, such as boating, skiing, photography and most of all, traveling around. He and his wife travel abroad every year and didn't want to give up this enjoyment because of a heavy mortgage. When he decided to purchase an apartment two years ago, his budget was only 1.5 million yuan ($217,800) for a three-bedroom space, which is nearly impossible given his requirements for their future home.

"We wanted high ceilings, a good view of the city, a cloakroom. Also, it better be near to a garden or a river so that I can exercise and boat in the summer," Liu said.

His high requirements and limited budget led him to a little attic near the Olympic Forest Park.

It was not exactly what he expected, but the reality didn't beat him down; instead, it cheered him up.

Liu found that the interior of the attic was full of potential for remodeling. He was fully confident that, with enough creativity and persistence, he could redesign the space and make it their home - a bold decision for someone with limited design experience at the time.

The remodeling took around nine months. Liu had gutted the apartment and started from scratch.

"I searched online for different design strategies and tried to make each inch of the space count," said Liu.

He made full use of the irregular space and designed each section differently according to its size and shape. For example, in their triangular attic, the lowest place is used for his wine collection. As the space goes higher, there is a tatami and sofa where people can sit or lay down. Meanwhile, glass rotary stairs split the space into two floors and help lighten the interior. On the terrace outside, the attic is fully developed into a perfect place for an outdoor dinner or a barbecue party.

The couple did more furnishing after moving in and made many personalized designs for every detail of their home. For instance, the main door is a replica of Monica's apartment gate in the American TV series Friends.

After constant furnishing and decorating for another eight months, the couple has finally made it all happen - everything they ever wanted and imagined is there.

"It's our attitude. This is the way we want to live," Liu said. "We want to have a free life."

Allen Li's husband puts a pair of shoes back into their place in his super big shoe closet.  Photo: Courtesy of Allen Li

Allen Li's husband puts a pair of shoes back into their place in his super big shoe closet. Photo: Courtesy of Allen Li

An unearthed treasure

Buying a small apartment not only means less financial burden but can also bring about new experiences and a sense of fulfillment. That was the case for Allen Li and her husband.

Li, 29, is a founder of an animation company and her journey of designing and remodeling her home began when the couple bought a small apartment with 40 square meters of usable space in Beijing.

Li said the original layout of the area was very problematic; it had a tiny and dark sitting room. For her, no matter where you live, whether it is in a small apartment or a big house, the quality of life that you enjoy in that space is something you create on your own.

The couple had many expectations for their new home. A bathtub and a super big shoe cabinet were must-haves.

"My husband has a special hobby: collecting shoes. He has hundreds of shoes in a wide range of colors and patterns," Li said. "[With this new apartment,] he finally got the chance to display them."

During the next three months, she became the designer, and he became the executive manager for their remodeling project. A non-load-bearing wall was torn down so that a bigger and more lighted sitting room could be created. The bathroom was completely remodeled, and a 1.2-meter-long bathtub was installed. A simple cloakroom was made, and most importantly, a big shoe cabinet stretching 2.5 meters high and 1.8 meters wide was erected - quite a luxurious design given their limited space.

"I still remember my husband sitting in front of the cabinet and looking at it the whole day when it was installed," Li said. "For him, it was a fulfillment of his life's pursuit."

Another pleasant discovery was that by doing this project together, Li found that she and her husband shared the same taste.

"We often went to furniture markets and never had a quarrel over purchase choices like many other couples do. It made me feel more assured that he is the right one for me," Li said.

After months of effort, the once dark apartment became a beautiful and delightful home. Now, the most enjoyable moment for Li is to take a warm bath at home after a day's work. She said the quality of one's life does not have anything to do with the size of their home; it comes from who you truly are and what you choose to fill your home and life with.

A perfect gift for loved ones

For some, a small room may mean a crowded living space with limited social function; yet for others, it could be a perfect gift for loved ones after remodeling. Japanese architect Matsumoto Daisuke, 35, is one of the latter.

Daisuke has been living in a tenement in hutong in eastern Beijing for years. His home was a tiny one-bedroom apartment with only 22 square meters of usable space, but now it is a delicate two-bedroom apartment with a sitting room, toilet and kitchen.

Daisuke remodeled the place in 2014 to greet his wife who came to Beijing to join him later that year.

Before the remodeling, the place was just one dark and damp room. There was nowhere to cook, and Daisuke had to use the public toilet outside. The whole remodeling project took eight months. Daisuke changed the place into a white mini loft. With a glass wall in the kitchen and two glass doors, the whole place became bright and light.

"When we cook and wash dishes, we can see the clouds drifting in the sky through the glass, which is so pleasant," Daisuke said.

He also built a toilet inside the apartment and made its roof a stylish sitting room where he and his wife would listen to music and read books.

Daisuke also remodeled the sewage pipe system to his apartment. It now benefits the whole community, an old tenement with nine families. Inspired by his move, some of his neighbors have started to remodel their home as well and sometimes asked him for suggestions.

"I don't just want our own life to be better, but others' too," Daisuke said. His Chinese neighbors are now very close to him.

Now, the old yet delicate apartment meets his wife's expectations for life in China: a real Beijing life with a sweet home and close local neighbors.

Future trend

Smaller and more economical spaces are growing in popularity in big cities in China, according to celebrated architect Lian Zhiming in Beijing.

"As the housing prices go incredibly high in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and some second-tier cities, the demand for a smaller living space is increasing," Lian said. "Property developers have noticed it, and some are already focusing on the development of small-sized dwelling units."

Meanwhile, remodeling and restructuring the limited space is a new direction that a growing number of people pay attention to.

"The trend is obvious," Lian said. "In the past, we focused more on interior design. Now, many of us are 'space designers' who work to make each cubic meter count."

He said the need for space design is growing fast as more and more people pursue smaller homes that can give them a better quality of life.

"It's a return to life itself. People have begun to pay more attention to their lifestyle and the quality of their home life instead of merely the size of the space," Lian said.

Fan Yang, founder and CEO of ELSEWHERE, a private city space sharing app, echoes Lian's opinion.

"Before, people tended to think that a small house is a temporary compromise, but now more and more people respect and follow those talents who can make a small space a comfortable and cozy place to stay," Fan said.

"What people value is changing. Sometimes, less is enough."

Newspaper headline: Cozy living spaces


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