By Marc Huminilowycz

Getting the most out of compact living spaces

Small living space design for modern condos

The dream of owning an affordable detached family home remains a formidable challenge in Ontario, leading many in our urban centres to turn to smaller multi-residential units—primarily condominiums.

But that doesn’t mean there can’t be a place for everything in those more compact abodes. To meet a growing demand for living spaces at affordable prices, Ontario’s developers, architects and designers—supported by furniture, cabinetry, storage and appliance manufacturers and retailers—are coming up with creative ways to do more with less space. Architect Rod Rowbotham, president of Toronto architecture and design firm One Space Unlimited, recognizes that the proliferation of smaller-unit buildings in the GTA is due to high land costs, which is compelling developers to include as many suites as possible in order to make a profit. But intelligent small living space design and efficient layout choices can often offset some of those limitations in square footage.

Making Adjustments to Maximize Space

“The key to maximizing space is minimizing circulation areas in small condo design as much as possible, such as eliminating long corridors and ensuring that the main entrance opens directly into a room,” Rowbotham says. “In the suite, you need to make adjustments and be creative, especially in kitchens, using space-efficient cabinetry, single sinks and compact appliances. There are, though, some areas where you can’t compromise or minimize, like bathrooms, which need to meet building code requirements for barrier-free access, including wheelchair accessibility, counter height, wider doors and a clear area in the entranceway.”

To create a feeling of space in tight quarters, One Space employs a design approach that is characteristic of many Toronto condos. Bedrooms are moved away from exterior walls, while a galley kitchen and living areas are kept adjacent to exterior glass walls, maximizing views outside. In addition, says Rowbotham, a Toronto zoning bylaw specifies that 40% of a bedroom wall facing an exterior wall must be clear glass, which gives residents a sense of consolidated space. “Interestingly, this layout is now being adopted by smaller municipalities beyond the GTA, such as Barrie,” he says.

Innovative Products

GTA designer Ramsin Khachi believes that creating an attractive, livable small space comes down to good design and hardware.

“Convertibility and double-duty are key factors these days, such as transforming a bed into a work desk without having to remove paperwork off the desk, or turning a kitchen island into a dining table,” he says. “Capitalizing on depth, width and height, things need to tuck into each other to maximize walking floor space, like placing dog bowls in a drawer in a kitchen kick space. If you cut down on contrast and clutter, you create a home that looks and feels bigger.”

Khachi elaborates on some of the systems and small living space design techniques that are currently available to maximize use of floor area. “A company called Duravit manufactures an ‘OpenSpace’ shower with two walls that fold into a corner—a great innovation that makes a difference in a small bathroom,” he says. “And Robern makes recessed medicine cabinets and vanities that take advantage of the space between walls, including lots of accessories inside.”

To maximize floor space in bathrooms, wall-hung toilets and integrated bidet toilet seats are becoming prevalent, according to Khachi. “These days, we always install wall receptacles behind toilets,” he says. Some other small condo design items include closet rods that pull out of walls, accessories for electrical and USB outlets in furniture and sliding barn doors.

On the small appliance front, Khachi likes to see everything grouped and tucked away along a single wall for a clean, seamless look. As to compactness, he notes a few European appliance makers such as AEG, Miele and Liebherr who offer narrower and thinner dishwashers, 24-inch wide refrigerators with lots of space and combination clothes washer/dryers.

These and other small-space items are available at Canadian Appliance Source, a GTA retailer catering to consumers and builders looking for compact appliances. “Small-space living is on the rise, and we offer many options including 24-inch wide refrigerators right through to 18-inch wide modern dishwashers,” says product knowledge specialist Andrei Volintiru.

Small Living Space Design Does Not Mean Less Quality

“Customers are always worried that they need to sacrifice quality for size,” says Volinturi, who carries products from over 40 manufacturers. “We reassure them that quality will never be compromised in their small footprint. One of the hottest items for small spaces is an all-in-one washer and dryer system. Even though cycle times are a bit longer, they offer the same, if not better efficiency as conventional machines. They are simple to install, offering ventless condensation drying and a standard wall plug.”

Although appliances for small spaces are available, designer Khachi believes that the industry needs to catch up to the current demand. Enter appliance electronics giant Panasonic, inventor of the microwave oven. Recently, Panasonic Canada entered a partnership with Canadian cabinet and door hardware manufacturer Richelieu to create a line of home storage and organization products called Smart Living Solutions, innovative systems designed to optimize living spaces, including a selection of multifunctional kitchen and closet accessories for small condo design.

In addition to three ‘core’ Panasonic small-space appliances—a built-in induction cooktop, a four-in-one combination oven (conventional/steam/microwave/infrared) and a counter-depth, energy-efficient ‘smart’ refrigerator—key systems developed by the partnership include a soft-down cabinet, revolving shoe system, a pull-down cabinet, wall-mounted clothes drying, a revolving closet and a combination shelf.

Space design, compact appliances and storage solutions make up a large part of designing small spaces. But what about beds, seating, tables and cabinets? Resource Furniture, located in Toronto’s design district, is the Ontario licensee for a chain of retail stores specializing in small space furnishings, founded 14 years ago in New York City. (There are three other Canadian franchises—in Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver.)

Resource Furniture’s showroom offers a number of products, designed and manufactured in Italy, such as a range of multi-function wall bed systems, systems that convert a bedroom into an office or a dining room into a bedroom, coffee tables that quickly and easily transform into dining tables and a variety of small-space seating options.

Seeing a growing trend of smaller living spaces in the city, with increasing numbers of down-sizers and new residents moving to condos, owner Brian Dazé secured his Ontario franchise and hasn’t looked back. “Our suppliers are mostly family-owned Italian companies who have been doing this for a long time,” he says. “Their products offer style, functionality and durability using quality fabrics, millwork, mechanisms and engineering. They may be higher-end, but from a cost perspective they make a compelling business case.”

Resource Furniture works primarily with designers and consumers on layouts for their spaces, creating 3D renderings to make sure they get exactly what they want and need. “Furniture is a key element in design,” says Dazé. “With shrinking floor plans, we want to reach out to developers with our product offerings and ideas to show them how to make their spaces work.”


One Toronto developer that has won numerous accolades for its high-end, yet functional urban condos is Urban Capital. According to Director of Development Taya Cook, small condo design is all about vertical space. “Because it comes down to cubic feet versus square feet, we design our units with maximum ceiling height, floor-to-ceiling doors, windows, closets (where possible) and exposed ductwork to avoid bulkheads wherever we can,” Cook says.

Cook notes that the kitchen is an area that merits the most thinking in a condo. “It’s important to make the best use of the kitchen space to minimize its impact on the rest of the unit,” she explains. “Smaller appliances that allow for stacking storage on top, space-efficient cabinetry and a functional pantry space are key” to small living space design.

As noted, small condo design for bathrooms is more limited by accessibility regulations, but there are things that can be done to maximize the space. “It’s all about storage under the sink, a cleverly designed mirror/medicine cabinet and finishing,” says Cook, whose company likes to continue floor tiling up walls to create the appearance of a bigger space, and use an oversize mirror that slides away to reveal double storage cabinets in the wall behind it.

Smart electrical and mechanical design is also critical in small condos according to Cook. “It’s all about coordinated design between the components,” she says. “We devote a lot of thinking to using the most efficient machinery for the space, as well as the best (and most aesthetic) placement of mechanical units and switches.”

As the cost of housing continues to rise and living spaces shrink, developers, architects and designers—fed by ingenious new products from manufacturers—are finding innovative ways to create attractive and functional living spaces.

Thinking small has never been a bigger deal.

Originally published in Ontario Home Builder Fall 2018  issue.

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Small living space design - small condo design for modern apartments