Doing more with less is the name of the game now more than ever in home building, thanks to soaring construction and labor costs.
But it isn’t so new in the world of home design, particularly when it comes to saving space with multifaceted furniture.
There aren’t many college students in Greater Boston who haven’t turned to IKEA for at least some form of space-saving furniture from the Swedish home goods brand: Dropleaf dining table-turned-workstation, anyone?
The pull-down wall bed — better known as the Murphy bed, thanks to its inventor William Lawrence Murphy — is the reigning champion of space-saving furniture and has been since it was patented in 1911.
The story goes Murphy was inspired to create his folding bed while trying to woo someone: Moral codes at the time meant a woman wasn’t supposed to enter a man’s bedroom. Therefore, Murphy’s folding bed meant the bedroom was suddenly a parlor for entertaining, Smithsonian Magazine reported. Murphy married the woman he was trying to entertain 11 years before achieving a patent on his foldaway bed invention.
But the space-saving furniture of today comes in a variety of forms, tech capabilities, and purposes.
“Technology from the 21st century is not all Murphy beds, which worked great for some time, but we need new technology solutions,” said Hasier Larrea, chief executive officer of Ori, an MIT-incubated and now New York City-based robotic furniture maker and designer. “What if instead of having to adapt to a space — which is you walking around a home to find that next room — what if the space can adapt to be whatever you need at every moment?”
Ori is one of the best-known players in the robotic living and design space. The company’s most popular product, the Ori Cloud Bed, lifts into the ceiling by day to open up living space for a studio.
The company has other offerings — such as roll-out walk-in closets and home office spaces — to build what it calls the expandable apartment.
“We talk about mobility on demand, we talk about entertainment on demand with Netflix, but we don’t talk about a space on demand,” Larrea added.
A 2020 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University notes various ways thoughtful design can deliver high-quality, affordable housing in multifamily residential developments. While the feature doesn’t call out robotic or space-saving furniture specifically, it does emphasize the importance of layouts that promote flexibility. This, in turn, enables developers to add more units to a single project.
“It’s really hard to be building any kind of new multifamily housing right now due to a lot of market factors,” said Ted Tye, managing partner and cofounder of National Development, the team behind projects like Ink Block in the South End. “One thing that everyone is looking to is what can you do to really make multifamily more feasible, as land costs are high, construction costs are high, and interest rates are high. One of the ways is to make units smaller.”
Developers can trade in square footage without sacrificing living space if they turn to more flexible designs that involve multifunctional furniture, the thinking goes.
But don’t expect to buy robotic furniture at your local Pottery Barn. Some of these more advanced space-saving solutions are largely operating via partnerships with developers.
Ori’s partners hail from a wide range of real estate sectors, from apartment-operator Greystar to hotel company Marriott International. Developer LBC Boston utilized Ori’s expandable furniture in 40 studios at its Nova Quincy apartment development and sees an opportunity to utilize it in future projects.
Larrea said a developer could expect costs starting around $10,000 for full delivery and installation of an apartment retrofit utilizing the Ori Cloud Bed. Margarita Casto, chief executive officer of LBC Boston, said the Nova Quincy project utilizes a different type of Ori expandable furniture that creates a bedroom alcove in studio apartments.
“We look at it more as making ourselves different on the market and giving people options rather than just having a studio,” Casto added. “You have a furnished studio, and then you can charge a little bit of a premium for that.”
Ori-designed studios at Nova Quincy now rent for just under $2,000 a month, Casto said.
In the South End, National Development’s 7Ink “all-inclusive” style of apartments feature furnished units that utilize compact and adjustable furniture from Italian company Duebi. Wardrobes, television stands, and beds are all convertible to allow a smaller space to flex between day and nighttime living.
Duebi isn’t as mechanical of a system as Ori, Tye said, but there are still savings to be had. A 308-square-foot studio in 7Ink, when available, rents for about $3,000 per month, and that includes all utilities, cable and streaming services, and a weekly cleaning.
This kind of space-saving design and layout is a vital part of providing more residential units in bustling parts of the city for those just starting out in their careers. The average rent for an apartment in the South End is $4,105 per month, according to Rent Café.
But don’t expect space-saving furniture and design to stick to just the bedroom and living areas. Mechanical and plumbing systems may make kitchens and bathrooms fixed components of a house, but the Harvard Joint Center report noted that building a single “wet” wall can make those spaces more efficient.
Larrea indicated it’s an area Ori is looking to for future offerings. There’s even an accessibility argument for going in this direction.
“When you design kitchens and bathrooms, you have to design them with the [Americans with Disabilities Act] in mind. But an elderly person with problems moving around has the exact opposite requirements of a person in a wheelchair, because they need to have countertops close to each other,” he said. “So that’s where you can start thinking about bathrooms and kitchens becoming more flexible, and that is attractive to us.”
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