Domestic Transformer


GARY CHANG stood in the middle of his apartment on a recent Saturday morning, ignoring a message from his Nintendo Wii on the wall-size screen: “Are you fidgeting? I can’t seem to analyze you.” He repositioned the game system’s balance board, stepped on for a second run of downhill skiing and began to shift from side to side, a computer-generated figure swishing in time with him across the room.

Soon enough, having worked up an appetite, he was ready to move on. He used a remote control to raise the screen, revealing a large yellow-tinted window behind it, filling the room with radiance. “Like sunshine,” Mr. Chang said, though the colorized gray daylight made the view a forest of apartment towers in Hong Kong’s bustling working-class Sai Wan Ho district look dusky, like an old sepia print.

He grabbed a handle near the wall-mounted television, pulling a section of the wall itself toward the center of the room. Behind it, a small countertop with two burners, a sink and a spice rack appeared. Opposite the countertop, on the back of the now-displaced wall, he lowered a hinged worktop made of a lightweight laminate of honeycombed aluminum. Suddenly, he was standing in a kitchen.

This room the “maximum kitchen,” he calls it and the “video game room” he was sitting in minutes before are just 2 of at least 24 different layouts that Mr. Chang, an architect, can impose on his 344-square-foot apartment, which he renovated last year. What appears to be an open-plan studio actually contains many rooms, because of sliding wall units, fold-down tables and chairs, and the habitual kinesis of a resident in a small space. As Mr. Chang put it, “I glide around.”

Mr. Chang, 46, has lived in this seventh-floor apartment since he was 14, when he moved in with his parents and three younger sisters; they rented it from a woman who owned so much property that she often forgot to collect payment.

Like most of the 370 units in the 17-story building, which dates to the 1960s, the small space was partitioned into several tiny rooms in this case, three bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom and a hallway. Mr. Chang’s parents shared the master bedroom (though when they first moved in, his father lived in the United States, where he worked as a waiter at Chinese restaurants in various cities). His sisters shared a second bedroom, and the third, almost incredibly although not unusually for Hong Kong was occupied by a tenant, a woman in her 20s, whom Mr. Chang remembers only for the space she took up.

Mr. Chang slept in the hallway, on a sofa bed.

These days, he uses a hydraulic Murphy bed of his own design, hidden behind a sofa during the day. “That old routine of folding out the bed is similar in spirit to what I do today,” he said. “But the reasons are different. Then, it was just necessary. Now, it’s all about transformation, flexibility and maximizing space.”

MR. CHANG’S experiment in flexible living began in 1988, when his family moved into a bigger apartment a few blocks away, with his grandparents and uncles.

Mr. Chang was then working for the P&T Group, an architectural firm, and living in a rented room near the University of Hong Kong, where he had studied architecture. His mother suggested that he take over the lease on their old apartment, “because the rent was unusually low,” he said. Instead he bought it, for about $45,000.

He had been itching to tear down the walls since his teenage years, when he sketched new designs for the family home, and he then began in earnest. In the last two decades, he has renovated four times, on progressively bigger budgets as his company, Edge Design Institute, has grown. His latest effort, which took a year and cost just over $218,000, he calls the “Domestic Transformer.”

The allusion to toy robots seems apt, given the science-fiction quality of the color scheme mostly black and silver, washed in eerie yellow light.


8 photos, 1 video and 3 drawings

Building Activity

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    A Tiny Apartment Transforms into 24 Rooms
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