Most of us are fascinated by micro-homes and tiny apartments. Along with the urban planning benefits they promise, we love the ingenuity of their organization and debate alternate approaches to using the same space three times over. But how is this small-scale approach playing out in the real world? Let's take a look at the response to introducing micro-dwellings in major cities including New York City (NYC) and San Francisco (SF).

Micro-dwellings often seem a mixed salad, combining sweet and bitter together with the odd flavors of exotic dressings. Micro-dwellings offer the potential for large, overcrowded cities to bring people closer to their jobs, reduce the cost of providing infrastructural support to previously undeveloped areas, and curbing energy usage. However, these potential benefits come with a sociological price tag. There is little question that the ambiance of a neighborhood, or that of a building, is likely to change drastically if the population density increases by a factor of three to five times.

There is also a collection of stereotypes claiming that crowded neighborhoods with tiny, tightly packed dwellings are poor, dirty, and collect riff-raff. Open spaces disappear, traffic (both foot and auto) goes from quiet to impossible, minorities become segregated therein, anonymity breeds crime, and the noise! Yes, these are stereotypes – but stereotypes embedded in the public consciousness and regularly reinforced by history, the silver screen and the idiot box. Such viewpoints add greatly to the friction retarding evolution of cities better suited to their task, but unfortunately there is no magic wand to remove ingrained opinion.

Despite the problems, cities across the world are beginning to crack open the door toward welcoming micro-dwellings, with varying degrees of success. For example, NYC's Mayor Bloomberg has launched the adAPT NYC micro-apartment competition, looking for the best designs for living the world has to offer.

New York City

NYC has a very large proportion of singles and two-person families living in the city proper, with many families choosing to commute from suburban areas rather than deal with the very large expense of living in the city. There are about 1.8 million one- or two-member households in NYC, but only about a million studio and one-bedroom apartments. The result is that housing prices are magnified by supply and demand considerations, and the use of apartment space is forced to be non-optimal, with a significant number of people rattling around in apartments much larger (and more costly) than they would like.

Building site for the adAPT micro-unit design competition (Photo: adAPT)

The NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (DHPD) is sponsoring the adAPT design competition for micro-apartments. DHPD is going to build a new housing complex in Kips Bay on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. A historic area initially settled by Jacobus Kip in 1655, it was the landing point for the British assault on NYC in the American Revolutionary War. Now a patchwork combination of old and new construction, it includes the last unpaved street in Manhattan. The adAPT building site is just over a block from the East River.

Conceptual sketch for a 250 sq. ft. (23 sq. m.) adAPT micro-unit (Image: adAPT)

The adAPT competition is for a mixed-use apartment building mostly filled with "micro-units", which are studio apartments ranging in size from 250-350 square feet of floor area which satisfy a number of livability criteria, such as access to exterior light and air, attractive common spaces, and substantial access to light and air to create a sense of openness. The main living/sleeping area is to be least 150 square feet (14 sq m) in area and at least 8 feet (2.4 m) wide. The micro-units are to have a full bath and a separate kitchen as well. In general, federal, state, and city building codes must be followed. (A conceptual sketch of a different micro-unit appears in the Image Gallery.) Mayor Bloomberg has granted a variance to allow smaller living units (the usual minimum size is 400 sq. ft., or 37 sq m), and to allow more living units in the building than would normally be allowed.

Perspective sketch of a potential adAPT design (Image: adAPT)

To fit the available lot (45 x 105 ft / 4725 sq. ft. or 14 x 32 m / 450 sq m), no more than about eight to ten housing units can be built on each upper floor. No particular building height is mandated, but comments suggest that in the neighborhood of 60-80 micro-units is the goal. The ground floor will include a lobby, a restaurant, and a common area for the tenants. Conceptual sketches of the ground, second, and upper floors can be found in the image gallery.

The roof will be used as some variety of common space, probably a mixture of small gardens, recreational areas, and picnic tables. There is to be a back yard measuring about 35 x 45 ft - 1575 sq ft (10.7 x 13.7 m – just under 150 sq m), which will have sitting areas in a landscaped garden. The design must be innovative inside and out, and must work around existing trees and buildings. The competition deadline was the end of July, but the winner has not yet been selected.

San Francisco

We now turn from the welcoming attitude of NYC to the mixed response to micro-dwellings in San Francisco. San Francisco has been a forerunner in the adoption of the idea of micro-dwellings. However, the South of Market (SoMa) Community Action Committee (SOMACAC) recently protested at the SF city hall against a proposed amendment to the housing code that would permit dwellings as small as 150 sq ft (14 sq m). This would be a change from the already small (by current standards) limit of 220 sq ft (20.5 sq m).

SoMa already has a number of condominium properties specialized as micro-dwellings. Among these are the Cubix Yerba Buena, which has micro-condos as small as 230 sq ft (21 sq m), and the SmartSpace condominiums which comprise four levels of 300 sq ft (28 sq m) micro-condos. Their level of success has been erratic, however. The Cubix Yerba Buena was opened for sales in 2008, just in time for the recession. The condo units did not sell, and eventually the banks foreclosed on the building. The SoMa SmartSpace complex has just opened, and there appears to be some enthusiasm building for the micro-condo concept. SmartSpace has also built an experimental 160 sq ft (15 sq m) apartment which it is showing to developers and city planners around the country.

There is certainly a tension between developing housing units for relatively affluent singles and couples, and developing family-oriented housing units. One of the problems is a consequence of Mark Twain's famous utterance: "Buy land - they're not making it any more." Being relatively isolated on a peninsula, San Francisco has a limited amount of land with which to build a suitable tax base for the needs of the community. SoMaCAC is in part concerned that as more young, working singles and couples find affordable housing in SF, families will either be forced out of the city proper, or will face life in a city not willing to continue the present strong emphasis on child and family-oriented functions such as a superior school system.

Ultimately, financial and resource economics will decide the issue. In SF, micro-condos rent for about $1300/month, compared to some $2300/month for a conventional studio apartment. While the studio apartment has perhaps twice the floor area, such are generally not planned for effective use of the extra space, and many people find micro-dwellings to provide a higher standard of living experience. From the viewpoint of the city, encouraging micro-dwellings that primarily house working singles and couples reduces the effect of population growth on the extended infrastructure of the city. True, these benefits are largely blotted out if applied to a city without an excellent mass transportation system, as the infrastructure requirements for a million more cars carrying one and a half million new commuters to and from work each day, with parking at each end, are enormous. However, many cities will see micro-dwellings as a strategy toward handling future population growth without breaking the city's treasury.

Other cities are experimenting with micro-dwellings, a cautious step at a time – Vancouver, Seattle, Santa Monica, Toronto, Paris, Bangkok, Brisbane ... the list goes on. However, the degree to which micro-dwellings can become integrated with the mainstream lifestyle of major cities will depend on a combination of local issues such as population density, rate of growth, changing demographics, urbanization vs. suburbanization, employment portfolios, and more. Given current trends, however, it seems that many of us will occupy some form of micro-dwelling during our lives.

Sources: adAPT NYC, SFGate