Making Apartments Work Harder: the 3rd Bedroom Challenge

by Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner michael@liveablecityplanning  ©2016

Preamble: This article was referenced in a Vancouver Sun story on April 7, 2016. As a planner, I do think there should be a legitimate debate about what constitutes a third “Bedroom” from the perspective of Planning and Zoning Bylaw requirements. This blog post explores how we can design more efficient 2 bedroom units to potentially yield a third bedroom / flex space (ie. I would not expect that all the examples herein would qualify as “3 Bedroom” units from the perspective of Zoning Bylaws).

We definitely need more 3+ bedroom units in the supply of new development projects. An approach that requires direct outside windows for two bedrooms and some flexibility on the location of a third bedroom is an interesting one that should be explored and tested (pilot projects are a great way to test these issues quickly and get some good post occupancy evaluations).  As part of a broader mix of conventional 3 bedroom units, those 3Bed+ units with an “inboard” bedroom could significantly increase the number of  units suitable for families with children while also addressing affordability.

Michael Mortensen
Updated 7 April 2016

In a previous article, I asked, ‘how can we make our inner suburbs work harder to accommodate more people in housing that is more affordable and fit for purpose, better adapted to the changing demographic of our society?’ The same question can be asked of our existing multi-family areas. How we can make new apartments and smaller homes work harder – particularly to better accommodate families without drastically increasing unit sizes and costs? Read on to see how a couple design experiments can be used to generate a set of principles for getting a 3rd bedroom into an existing two-bedroom floor-plan. What conventions must we challenge? What rules do we need to flex?

header image

Can we turn this into a 3 Bed?

The 3rd bedroom challenge

Space and affordability have always been challenges to accommodating families in high density urban environments where land and construction costs are typically high. The low availability of 3 bedrooms has become a big issue in Greater Vancouver’s political and planning arenas (story here) – there simply are not enough 3 bedroom units being built. Developers generally find that these units require more space and are harder to sell because of their price points. Cities are increasingly moving to require a mix of larger units in new development approvals. This can help with supply but not as much with cost. With high land and construction costs, I think we need to approach the challenge of the third bedroom with a little more creativity and also by looking hard at how we design two bedroom apartments so they can flex more.

From a design perspective, it is fairly easy to design a studio, or a one-bed or two-bed unit within the envelope of a typical apartment. The way our buildings are put together, units are typically 25 to 30 feet deep accessed from a 5 foot wide common area hallway that is connected to a core with stairs and an elevator or two; the width of the apartment can be adjusted to fit the number of bedrooms required. However, you generally need exterior perimeter windows for each bedroom, and this is the major challenge in getting a 3rd bedroom into the mix without drastically expanding the overall floor area of the unit.

Typically a 3 bedroom flat in a slender tower requires a high-value premium corner location. One solution is to allow some “inboard” bedrooms with operable upper clerestory windows that allow for some natural “borrowed” light and ventilation while affording some privacy. City planners have long wrestled with these issues, and from a policy perspective they are often uncomfortable with the livability tradeoffs inherent in living smaller (some of the debate here and also a good summary of the issue by Frances Bula of the Globe and Mail here).

Key interests include

  • Natural Light
  • Adequate Ventilation
  • Visual Privacy
  • Acoustic Separation
  • Storage

A plan from Wesgroup properties illustrated in the Vancouver Sun article illustrates this challenge nicely: “placing all three bedrooms along the exterior walls would require an extra 264 square feet of space. If the condo were sold at a relatively reasonable $600 per square foot, that would add nearly $160,000 to the purchase price”. The “inboard” third bedroom (image on left, below) addresses most of the key interests above with some “borrowed light” and some system of ventilation. I think the plan could be further improved by flipping the location of the bathroom to the more inboard location (pushing the bedroom closer to natural light and ventilation) and perhaps by also shrinking the size of the bathroom, eliminating the tub in favour of a small shower.


Wesgroup Properties space-saving inboard 3rd bedroom

Existing Design Guidelines
The City of Vancouver has had design guidelines in place since 1992 for accommodating families with children in high density environments (here) – the result of a “living and families first” approach to redeveloping many of the older industrial areas in the downtown core. Through the 90s many places were redeveloped complete with parks, schools, day cares, and grocery stores – the infrastructure that’s needed to support families. Many of the City’s guidelines deal with the location of buildings and the arrangement of outdoor play space and common areas. With respect to unit designs, they call for a minimum of 2 bedrooms each with sufficient area to accommodate a single bed, a dresser and a desk or table with some floor space for playing. Acoustic and visual privacy are flagged as key interests that can reduce the feeling of overcrowding. Add to this some space for bulk storage and entries that can accommodate extra coats and the stuff that comes with having kids.

Growing pressure for better design
The pressure for family-friendly units in our downtowns will only grow with the increasing cost of ground-oriented townhouses and single-detached houses. Increasingly, families are trading off space in favour of the convenience and amenity of high density housing in city centre locations. I’ve long had an interest in small space design. In 2005, the New York Times featured my family and others in a story exploring the growth of Vancouver’s downtown “One Family at a Time“. More recently the NYT published an article on “Growing Families Staying Put” in NYC flats.  Local  contributors  in Vancouver include Adrian Cook’s excellent blog 5Kids1Condo which chronicles his family’s compact lifestyle in the propinquity of our lovely downtown.

These wider cultural trends are also reflected in the success of shops like Ikea which make small living easier with furniture and accessories that make better use of existing space. People are hungry to adapt their space for livability, economy or convenience and more intense use.


The need is great and sometimes it sneaks up on you. Many young households living in the downtown eventually start families and find themselves trying to adapt their apartments meet their new living requirements. Some, for example, convert enclosed balconies into an additional bedroom – not the most comfortable arrangement as many are not insulated as indoor spaces. We need to do better.

Feedback on current designs
In 2008, UBC Planning Students conducted a post-occupancy study of North False Creek residents under the direction of former Vancouver Director of Planning and Professor Larry Beasley. They found that families generally sought more flexible, adaptable space with a bit more storage and fewer walls and design constraints (summary here).

The 3rd Bedroom Challenge

Picking up on these themes, I challenged myself to take a few two-bedroom designs currently being marketed in Vancouver and elsewhere to see if I could fit a liveable third bedroom into the same space. What would I have to change? What rules and guidelines would I have to flex?  The Experiments are illustrated below but what follows immediately is a summary of what I learned after playing this game.

Principles for harder working apartments

  • Use Open Concept design
  • FT2ŸHours: Design for “24 hour use of space”
  • Rethink Bedrooms
  • Use Borrowed Light and Alcoves for “Inboard” Bedrooms
  • Use Space Above and Below For Storage
  • Layer  Uses
  • Eliminate Design “Fixes”
  • Rethink Space Priorities
  • Take Advantage of Household Micro Trends

Use Open Concept Design
Open concept designs avoid space-wasting vestibules and hallways. They have more light and air, direct views outside, and they give occupants the perception of more depth and volume. This is particularly effective if the same flooring flows through all of the unit.

FT2ŸHours: Design for 24 hour space
Many people focus on simple square footage as a measure of livability. However as prices for new apartments rise, I think it’s also important to look at the temporal element as well. Some years ago, I coined the term “square-feet-hours” to describe an apartment based on its area but also on the amount of time those square feet can be useful. In my view, an important design goal should be to make expensive real estate flex its function more for the convenience and benefit of its occupants. For example, if a 100 sf space is only useful 8 hours a day, then it should be discounted or valued at “33 FT2ŸHours” on that basis. That’s why some large apartments seem small – too much space is functional for only part of the day. Too often I see unit layouts where 50% or more of the unit is dedicated to bedrooms, built in closets and en-suite bathrooms … all of which are really 8 hour spaces; little open space is left for the other 16 hours of the day.

Accommodating larger households means one has to provide more bedrooms AND more social space (generally ‘open use’ space that can be used 24 hours/day). This forces a wider rethink of the form of bedrooms (see below) and it challenges us to create more flexible shared open space within units.

Rethink Bedroomspattern language

In A Pattern Language (1977) the architect Christopher Alexander questions the concept of a single type of bedroom. He notes that in many cultures there are many types of sleeping quarters.“Bedrooms make no sense” he says. “The valuable space around the bed is good for nothing except access to the bed. And all the other functions – dressing, working, storage of personal  belongings which people stuff uncomfortably into the corners of their bedrooms  – in fact need their own space, and are not at all well met by the left over area around a bed.”

Use Borrowed Light and Alcoves
Alexander is onto something.  There are other ways to create private sleeping spaces and plenty of interesting precedents. Living in the UK and travelling in Europe, I’ve had the opportunity to tour many palaces with grand rooms for receiving visitors and entertaining heads of state; many of these rooms feature an alcove behind curtains or doors which reveal the bed of a past king or some lesser royal. You can find similar design in early North American homes.  Thomas Jefferson (the third President of the United States) placed his bedroom in a hall between two larger rooms. Why? Because he found it convenient! Alcoves – good enough for kings; good enough for Presidents; so why not good enough for us?  There are plenty of interesting alcove designs up on Pinterest that show how families can make better use of space with sleeping alcoves.

Sansoucci Palace

Alcove in the “Voltaire Room”, Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam Germany

Jeffersons Bedroom

Jefferson’s Bedroom, Monticello House, Virginia USA

Sleeping Alcove

Contemporary Alcove Beds

Inboard Bedrooms
Squeezed for window perimeter space, one might consider creating an alcove or a small inboard room that has operable upper transom windows that allow for light and air. The concept of new purpose designed bedrooms with borrowed light is contentious in the planning and design community but it has been used in limited applications with guidance to ensure there is enough borrowed light and air circulation (for example, for heritage conversions where the depth of the building compels the solution). This solution could perhaps be extended on a limited basis to a third bedroom where it was not otherwise achievable with direct light. Glass walls and sliding doors offer better light and ventilation.


Inboard bedroom with borrowed light.

Use Space Above and Below For Storage
Storage is another issue for families, particularly those with children who generate a lot of stuff.  Designs that make use of floor to ceiling storage and volumes below furniture (beds, sofas, seating) or flooring are very useful. Here I am also thinking about traditional Japanese house designs that make use of under-floor storage.

Layering Uses: Multi-functionality saves space
Where possible, make floor space do double duty. A good example is a linear kitchen that doubles the use of a hallway corridor for kitchen circulation space.

Eliminating Design fixes: Negative space creates more use options
Decades ago we designed rooms without built in closets. People instead used wardrobes to store clothes and placed these pieces of furniture within rooms as they saw fit. However once you’ve designed and constructed a big walk-in closet, that’s it – there is little flexibility as few people are going to tear out drywall and steel studs and (possibly) re-route wires and sockets if they want to use that space for something else.

By leaving that space open, we can make more use of a bedroom and accommodate an office or storage or another bed. Yes this is leaving a bit of work or expense to the owner or renter, but that’s the way they do things in other places. Consider what you get as a renter in Germany, for example: your flat comes as basically a vanilla shell with a kitchen space that has only electrical outlets and plumbing connections (example below from Munich). You as the tenant bring your own cabinets, counter tops, sinks and appliances.

Rethinking space priorities: Do you really need 3 bathrooms?
In the Pedestrian Pocket Book (1989), Doug Kelbaugh observes,“Europe has its cafes; America it’s bathrooms. What America needs is more espresso, and less plumbing.” Do we really need three bathrooms in an apartment? Just after the Second World War, the average North American family of four lived in about 1,200 sf with generally one full bathroom. All that plumbing requires expensive space, mechanical and electrical services, fixtures, millwork and and finishes. Can we get by with a full bathroom and a second toilet room?

Take advantage of Household Micro Trends
Compact technologies are replacing many large household items. For example, a new iPhone is a bit like a Swiss Army knife: it replaces stereos, land line phones, cameras and video cameras, video players, clocks, alarm clocks, timers – literally dozens of things that probably now sit unused in our drawers. I am also particularly intrigued by new lines of compact adaptable furniture that offer fantastic versatility and allow layered use of precious apartment space. This amazing video by Resource Furniture is well worth your time. Such great ideas for making multiple uses of space convenient and cool.

So on to my experiments … more to follow

3rd Bedroom Experiments

Experiment 1: Eliminate Walk In Closets

In this experiment with an 830 sf 2 bedroom flat, my attention was drawn to the large amount of space dedicated solely to a walk-in closet with access to an en-suite bathroom.

Get rid of closets.jpg

Removing the walk-in closet and the access to the bathroom eliminated a “Design Fix” and opened up enough space to create two queen-sized loft bed sleeping quarters divided by a sound-insulated set of shelves. Each loft has storage below and there is enough room for a long work desk. The sleeping quarters could be fitted with screens for visual and acoustic privacy if needed. If the room was not needed for kids, it could easily be furnished for an adult with options for wardrobes or a small home-office work space.

Some work was needed to create more of a “Master” bedroom out of the other bedroom – primarily through the use of furniture for storage along the wall rather than a typical bed headboard. Notice also the full use of vertical space for storage.This created enough storage so that we could re-purpose the space previously designed as a bedroom closet – converting it into a work station facing the kitchen, re-oriented to the social “24 hour” part of the apartment.

Another view below:

eliminate closets closeup2

Experiment 2: Layer Uses and Add Storage

In the 990 sf two-bedroom apartment below, I was looking for some perimeter wall to use for a third bedroom. The dining nook looked like a good target so I took a page out of Japanese small space design to recreate an eating area with under-seat storage and a double size “Murphy Bed” that could fold down at night.

Futon Nook

The result is a generous flexible eating and sleeping area with plenty of storage. Shown below is a double sized Murphy bed tucked into one wall. Like a ship’s galley, the tabletop can be dropped before the bed is lowered. The downside might be sleeping next to the kitchen with the attendant hum of the fridge. However, the nook could also be screened for visual and acoustic privacy and it does have plenty of natural light and ventilation.

I am interested in your ideas! Let me know what you think. I will probably add a few more examples as I work on them.


    1. We converted the master into a huge kids room and made do with space for ourselves in the “junior” bedroom (king size Murphy Bed). It was not that hard. That worked for a while, but we eventually found a lovely 3 bed TH just off Main St. I think that had we not found that Townhouse, we could have stayed in place in the apartment (at Alberni & Bute) for some time. Great high rise community. 2 blocks from work. Walking distance to 3 community centres, Stanley Park, and a skating rink. We knew many of our neighbours – some quite famous people.



    1. This article was referenced in a Vancouver Sun story on April 7, 2016. As a planner, I do think there should be a legitimate debate about what constitutes a third “Bedroom” from the perspective of Planning and Zoning Bylaw requirements. This blog post explores how we can design more efficient 2 bedroom units to potentially yield a third bedroom / flex space (ie. I would not expect that all the examples herein would qualify as “3 Bedroom” units from the perspective of Zoning Bylaws).

      We definitely need more 3+ bedroom units in the supply of new development projects. An approach that requires direct outside windows for two bedrooms and some flexibility on the location of a third bedroom is an interesting one that should be explored and tested (pilot projects are a great way to test these issues quickly and get some good post occupancy evaluations). As part of a broader mix of conventional 3 bedroom units, these units with “inboard” 3+ bedrooms could significantly increase the number of units suitable for families with children.

      Michael Mortensen
      Updated 7 April 2016



  1. I would love to see some examples where you break up a living room into a bedroom and living space. I have a 2BR apartment with a large living room. I have used bookcases and screens to cordon off the living room, so that there is a bedroom. I’ve been reluctant to do major surgery, but I am thinking I would want to do something down the road. If I wall off the living room, my child will have the access to the balcony and I will lose the light from the floor to ceiling windows. I had been thinking that clerestory windows might be an option. But it is a shame for the entire apartment to lose all that lovely light from the large balcony windows. I know other families with older 1 and 2BR apartments have similar layouts, where you could steal a room from the living room. Any suggestions? I’d love to see you look at some of those 1960s and 70s apartments with the big living rooms. Yes, there is just 1 or 1.5 bathrooms, but my grandparents raised five kids in a bungalow with 1.



    1. Hi Andrea
      I think some flex-use of the living space would work better than closing it off. A hideaway murphy bed with storage might do the trick. The flex furniture link I posted should give you plenty of ideas: . In one downtown apartment, I had a king size murphy bed in a room off the living room, creating more daytime play space for the kids while not inconveniencing me or compromising on my sleep.

      The real challenge is privacy. Sliding doors work well but they require tracks and unless there is a good place to install a “pocket” for them, they take up space. This might be an alternative – a flexible wall system –

      Hope that helps. There are so many different types of room design challenges but the principles are useful. Use vertical space where possible and find ways to create visual and acoustic privacy while preserving natural light and ventilation. Good luck.



      1. Ikea is coming out with a proto-moving wall system that looks pretty “permanent”. Transom windows are good for borrowed light and if they’re operable, they’ll offer air exchange as well.


  2. Great article! I’ve lived downtown/Kits for 16 years, 11 with kids, and love it. I own a condo which has many of the sins you describe. Legally, a 1 bedroom, but with walk-through closet to a “tub room”(!), and not 1 but 2 large “dens” – no closet and no opening window to the outside. I was thinking of building walls and transom doors, but thanks for pointing me to clerestory windows, which would work even better.

    What do you think the appetite for changing the bylaws is a City Hall and any provincial codes that may need tweaking? Are they looking at this issue at all?



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