How small is small?

Chunyang Chang wants to recreate the interior of a mere 18 m2 apartment to see what it’s like to live in such a small space. The replica in Rotterdam is a copy from the Lu Xian Dong project being built (by his employer) in Shenzhen, south China. This area has an interesting history. Up until 1979 it was primarily a market town with some 30,000 inhabitants bordering the British colony of Hong Kong. In 1980, under official ‘Chinese economic reform’ policies, Shenzhen was designated China’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) which instigated an enormous transformation here. In addition to the growth and expansion of various industries, including one of the largest container ports in the world, Shenzhen became home to one of the world’s greatest and most successful technology campuses and one of the biggest financial centres in China and the world. In 2015 Shenzhen’s GDP was USD291 billion. According to official 2015 Chinese statistics, the city had 10,778,900 residents and more than 18 million in the greater metropolis spread over some  2000 km2. Statistically, this translates as 5300 inhabitants per square kilometre.

The housing needs of megacity Shenzhen are formidable, not least because of the continued economic growth and the many (foreign) manufacturers that continue to set up in the region. Of course, this kind of pressure leads to high prices in the housing market. There’s little that can be done about this basic principle of supply and demand, but there’s another reason that housing needs have become such an issue. Apart from the real demand, there is an extra strain on the residential market. People in China see residential property as a safe investment and everybody is jumping on board. Even when they already have a home to live in, they buy a second or third property as soon as they can afford it. Many of these homes remain empty, despite the great housing shortage, resulting in a fraught market and continuously inflated prices.

The Chinese government has introduced new laws concerning the minimum floor area of residential flats and have made location and other circumstances the determining factor in where to allow property development and where not. Several larger municipalities have, additionally, tightened some regulations regarding the purchase of homes in order to temper the housing market. Shanghai, for example, has stipulated that the down payment for a second or third home must be 50% to 70%, as opposed to the 40% previously. The consequences of such a hyperactive residential property market can take some strange forms: in July-August 2016 the price of a house in Shanghai jumped 13.6% in the span of one month. Merely the rumour that that the municipality was about to tighten some rules to make it more difficult for people to buy houses if they were already in possession of a home, instigated long queues at the offices of divorce lawyers because people deduced that they would have a greater chance of buying more properties as two singles.

An article in the Guangzhou Daily on 26 September 2016 demonstrates the severity of the real estate crisis in Shenzhen. A developer in Nanshan District in Shenzhen was offering 9 studios ranging from 5.73 to 7.48 m2 in a converted hotel. The ‘Pigeon Cage Apartments’,  as they were dubbed by the press, cost 150,000 YEN/m2, or  22,500 USD/m2 and were sold out in a single morning. The interiors had a closet with a pull-down bed, a bathroom, a small kitchen unit and a desk with chair.  After the Municipal Land Committee announced they would investigate this case because according to Chinese national law, the minimal surface area of an apartment must be 22 square metres, it turned out to be a publicity stunt by the developer who wanted to highlight the reality of the housing market problem. The actual sale of the apartments, however, was no stunt. Since it was a conversion property and not new build, the developer was not fined for not keeping to code.

An 18 m2 apartment is three times the size of a 6 m2 one, but still not the minimum 22 m2.  I don’t know how that rhymes with local regulations, but I do know that it’s really small. The Lu Xian Dong project seems to have 150,000 m2 of floor area. That makes for an awful lot of apartments and an awful lot of residents. If the discipline of architecture has the power to make a difference in the circumstances of living, then this is exactly the type of project that needs its powers.

Dikkie Scipio 
4th quarter, 2017