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MIT Media Lab software could help city dwellers live big in small spaces

Posting in Cities

With more people on Earth living in cities than in non-urban environments for the first time, some researchers and designers believe it's time to improve how city dwellers live in often-generic apartments. Sure, numerous home-furnishing options exist to brighten a plain box of a home in a boring high-rise building. But are there other ways that renters or owners without the means to hire interior decorators or architects can make a cramped and characterless space more appealing? Could there be an app for that?

At the MIT Media Lab, the Changing Places Group is creating software that helps people quickly customize their apartments into multi-tasking environments, in which rooms can take on various functions. It aims to go beyond the simple cosmetic programs that exist today that, say, allow home remodelers to layer virtual paint samples on digital photographs of their real-life walls. As the online design magazine Dezeen reported from the Urban Age Electric City conference in London recently, Kent Larsen, co-director of the Changing Places Group, explained that the new tools have the potential to allow urban citizens figure out how to reposition walls and add fitness equipment or an office. Potentially, they could even become more productive and live healthier lives by configuring comfortable places to work and work out at home -- even in a very small home.

"It doesn’t scale to have an architect work on homes for 300 million rural Chinese who are moving to the city over the next fifteen years," Larsen said at the Urban Age Electric City conference, Dezeen reported. "So we’re looking at design algorithms where you match a personal profile to a solution profile, you assemble a completely configured apartment and then you give people the tools to go into that space and refine it using these kind of advanced computational tools."

The CityHome project at MIT's Media Lab also created an 840-square-foot home that has moving walls that integrates furniture, lights, and office and entertainment equipment systems. Dwellers can turn the living room into a dining room or the bedroom into a home gym. While admirable, the critic in me can't help but notice that the concept simply reflects how everyday New Yorkers -- and others living in similarly space-limited cities -- conceive of their homes: as flexible spaces. Shove the living room couch into a corner and add an inflatable mattress, and you've got a guest room! Add a leaf to the "desk" in the alcove/"home office" and you've got a dining room table to host six friends for dinner! Break out the free weights, and you've got a gym!

The Transformer-style apartment concept isn't new either. But most tend to be more high-end offerings. Back in 2010, for instance, SmartPlanet covered a stylish yet teensy Hong Kong abode with sliding walls that allowed the owner to turn an apartment into the equivalent of a 24-room home. More recently, this year we covered the design for a chic 420-square-foot space offered by LifeEdited (the company launched by Graham Hill, founder of the website Treehugger). What's fresh about the Media Lab's projects, however, is that they address the idea of potentially making the concept available for a more mass-market audience.

Below, here's a video featuring the CityHome Changing Places project from the Media Lab, including an overview of the software tools and its Transformer-like apartment. At the very least, the initiatives -- especially the software app -- are likely to continue the conversation on how design can play a role in redefining comfort for everyday citizens of an increasingly urban planet.

Image: YouTube still.

— By on December 16, 2012, 4:09 AM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure