Life in a Hong Kong drainpipe

Hong Kong: “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 square foot (19 square metre) “nano flat” in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan neighbourhood. Li’s living area is little more than 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. There isn’t room for much else.”

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

HK$7.9m
for a 209 sq ft house in a Hong Kong area

Li has been renting the apartment for HK$23,000 (Dh10,766) 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.”

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 lacking is a proper kitchen, so I have to eat out a lot which isn’t so healthy.”

How small is too small?

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 square feet – 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.

15.9
sq. ft size of some ‘coffin homes’ in Hong Kong

Living in nano flats (which are classed as saleable areas of up to 200 square feet) 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 square foot cages.

According to the independent research group Shrink That Footprint, apartments in Hong Kong are on average the smallest in the world (484 square feet).

The average one-bed flat size in Manhattan, New York, is 716 square feet, in London it is 550 square feet.

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 square feet 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 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.

Oppressive living

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?

“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‘.”