The newest trend in urban development? Micro units.
By Karrie Jacobs
Posted April 9, 2013
In Seattle, they call them “apodments,” a neologism that could have come straight from Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel, Microserfs. Certainly that’s the target market. Some of these apodment buildings are even in suburban Redmond, convenient to Microsoft headquarters, with units that measure a mere 140 square feet. Kitchens are communal, like laundry rooms. The rent is about $800 a month, including Wi-Fi. Similarly, in some of Seattle’s most desirable residential neighborhoods, such as Capitol Hill, skinny towers full of tiny dwellings have popped up in recent years, encouraged by a loophole in the zoning law that allows as many as eight unrelated people to share a kitchen. Eight living spaces with one kitchen count as a single unit, allowing developers to add density without applying for a variance.

This explosion of micro units, as they’re more commonly known, is the next real estate boom, the emergence of a housing form clearly inspired by the recent recession. Now that cities are reviving, maybe suburban McMansions can recede into the past, and this incorrigibly macro nation of ours can begin thinking micro. Hallelujah!

Of course, tiny apartments with common facilities have been around forever. When I lived on Capitol Hill in Seattle, in the wake of the 1970s Boeing bust, I rented a one-room apartment that was just big enough for a single bed and a desk. It had a kitchen, but I shared a bathroom with the guy next door, whom I nicknamed, owing to the aroma of his aftershave, Jungle Gardenia. Rent: $110.
I moved out shortly after Jungle Gardenia got drunk and fell asleep in the bathtub with the water running (an ax-wielding fireman came to get him out). Back then I knew plenty of people who lived in crappy little studios with bathrooms down the hall. We were in our twenties and chronically underemployed, and Seattle was a cornucopia of substandard housing. Since Microsoft (and Amazon and Adobe) have grown, that supply has dried up, and today’s twentysomethings have a much harder time gaining a toehold in the housing market.

I found the most intriguing micro project in, of all places, Providence, Rhode Island. What’s interesting about the nearly completed Arcade complex on Weybosset Street downtown is that, unlike almost every other existing micro building built from the ground up with ruthless expedience, this is an example of adaptive reuse. The 48-unit complex (38 of which will be 298 square feet or smaller), is “designed for low-impact micro-living,” according the press release. Fourteen ground-floor retail units, which will consist of what local developer Evan Granoff calls “micro retail,” have been inserted into an imposing 1828 edifice regarded as America’s first indoor shopping mall. Massive Ionic columns mark the facade; inside is a long, narrow space covered by a roof that’s mostly skylight. Above the ground floor, two tiers of balconies are lined with micro flats.

Granoff specializes in finding new uses for Providence’s many old buildings. He is working with Northeast Collaborative Architects to restore the building’s historic luster, reopening bricked-up windows, for example, while adding contemporary amenities, such as underground bicycle parking. The apartments, like most of the new breed of micro units, are outfitted like cabin cruisers, with all the necessities built in. Cabinets, beds with drawers underneath, sofas (with more drawers), and even a 46-inch flat-screen TV are included.

The kitchen and bathroom appliances are shoehorned in: an elfin dishwasher, a postage-stamp-size sink, wee drawers, a microwave, but no stove (Granoff says that they’re not permitted in a residence this small). No pets are allowed either, not even goldfish. “It’s too small,” Granoff says. Rents start at about $550 a month, and the developer says there’s a waiting list to get in. I liked The Arcade because the peculiarities of the historic structure make each apartment a little different. They lack that seamless shelter-book sheen common to the typology.

More typical of the trend are the apartments in SmartSpace SoMa, a new building in San Francisco where almost 40 percent of the population lives alone and where the Board of Supervisors recently voted to allow units as small as 220 square feet (the old minimum was 270). Photos of SmartSpace SoMa show sleek, tightly configured 300-square-foot rectangular apartments with cool white kitchens (including a two-burner stove) along one wall and a Murphy bed and dining table magically occupying the same piece of floor space. Developer Patrick Kennedy ticks off all the obvious essentials: great storage, lots of daylight, good ventilation, and mentions one I hadn’t thought of: “incredible soundproofing.” To enjoy life in a micro unit, he says, it helps if “you’re not aware of your neighbors.” The rent: $1,600 a month, 25 percent less than the average studio price in San Francisco, according to Kennedy.

In New York City, where micro units were once known as “tenements,” we now have a museum show about this reinvented housing type. Currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York, the exhibition, Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers, represents the confluence of two civic initiatives. One was a call from the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a nonprofit focused on housing policy, to develop new apartment types for a changing and growing city. The other was a design competition staged by the Bloomberg administration’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, called adAPT NYC. It called for teams of architects and developers to come up with a design for a complex of small units, 250 to 370 square feet, on an East 27th Street site. The winner, announced in January, was a project called My Micro New York by a team made up of Monadnock Development, the Actors Fund Housing Development Corporation, and nARCHITECTS. The building, sober and innocuous, looks like a ten-story sandwich composed of four grayish brick slabs, but it’s actually a stack of prefabricated modules (to be constructed by the Capsys Corporation in the Brooklyn Navy Yard). The apartments are notable for high ceilings, generous overhead storage, Murphy beds, and kitchen counters that also fold into the wall. Rents will range from a subsidized $914 to a market rate $1,873. If this first micro-unit building is deemed a success, the assumption is that zoning (which sets the minimum size of new apartments at 400 square feet) will be changed to allow more.

Unfortunately, the opening of the MCNY show (which includes The Arcade and SmartSpace SoMa) coincided with the announcement of adAPT NYC winners, so the competition is only represented by a slideshow on a wall-mounted monitor. There was no time to build a full-scale model of the winning design. Instead, the life-size micro unit on display is a 325-square-foot concept apartment with interiors by Pierluigi Colombo and architecture by Amie Gross. The design is chic—it looks like a very compact Italian furniture showroom—and conspicuously overdetermined. It features a lot of gimmicky ways of maximizing limited space: Everything is multi-functional—a chair magically morphs into a stepladder; a home office pops out of the wall; the flat-screen TV glides on rails to reveal built-in storage. Most impressive was a Murphy bed designed by Colombo and manufactured by Clei, which somehow somersaults out over the sofa (which itself conceals more storage) in such a way that the sofa back becomes the bed’s headboard.

Sitting in the museum version of the micro flat, I meditated on all the small, crummy apartments that I’ve called home at one time or another. Their virtue: they were all cheap and easy to come by. Clearly, the rising popularity of certain American cities means that the inventory of marginal apartments that formerly existed through neglect and a lack of demand now has to be refreshed. The basic thing most cities once offered people just starting out (or winding down) in life must be reinvented and repackaged. It’s great that we’re building smaller living spaces and taking their design seriously. Again I say: Hallelujah! But I also see the micro boom as an unintended consequence of the urban revival; there are an increasing number of desirable U.S. cities where one can no longer afford to be young (or old). At least this time around, given the clever new designs, no one will have to share a bathroom with Jungle Gardenia.