Micro-dwellings: Part of the solution or just more problems?


October 1, 2012

How do micro-dwellings effect the demographic and political structure of major cities? (Image: Shutterstock)

How do micro-dwellings effect the demographic and political structure of major cities? (Image: Shutterstock)

Image Gallery (9 images)

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

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer. All articles by Brian Dodson

One question that wasn't asked. What about when this fad has run its course? What happens when those that jump on the band wagon early and wholeheartedly adopt the idea of these communal areas, to include the upkeep, the gardening and their own little social experiment get tired of it?

Will there be another wave of people that are just as willing and able to continue these microcosms of society or will they be relegated to "project" housing?


Edward Bernays would disagree that "there is no magic wand to remove ingrained opinion."

We will buy anything we are told to buy.


The concept is intriguing, but it makes the assumption that everyone lives by themselves. How do couples or families coexist in these structures? The unattached young urban professional might be prevalent in certain urban areas but is by no means the norm in our or any society.


Oh Boy. Looks like they are making more room to bring people into the cities. This is right on target with Agenda 21.

see the link if you don't know what Agenda 21 is...

Kurt Tompkins

Eventually, the governments of the world will realize that in order for the world to support an ever-increasing population, people must become smaller. At that point, size restrictions on the populace will make these habitats an excellent place to be for multiple families. Exercise and energy generation can be provided by a large wire wheel in the common area.

It woud also be an excellent place to stash Grandma....


Many cities have accepted Axillary Dwelling Units, check your local building department for ADU's. The property owner can build a ADU in code approved areas. There was a day we called these mother-in-law apartments. Some property owners are moving into the smaller dwelling and renting out the larger home. This is also a way of bringing low income people into nicer, safer neighborhoods.

Lon Wells

High density population centers are a health hazard. Epidemics spread like wildfire; the emotional stress of the lack of personal space degrades the immune system, creating vulnerability to health problems; violent behavior escalates; fires or chemical incidents kill in high numbers. Tell me again why we should promote this kind of living?

Distributed living styles, aided by today's enhanced electronic communications, can reduce or eliminate the problems listed above. Remote work environments can eliminate the commuter problems. Distributed power systems make us less vulnerable to widespread power outages. Efficiency can be achieved in more than one way.

Pat Kelley

@ Rt1583 there is no "when this has run it's course. This is UN Agenda 21, and like it or not they intend to make this as permanent as possible.

Unfortunately, in every generic socialogical experiment, cramming mammals to closely produces violence....Just about every High School has demonstrated this with lab rats, generally social, over crowd them and watch out.

@ KMH, how does that Kool-Aid taste?

I wouldn't live in a house that is the size of an average bedroom...and neither would most Americans. Heck, our holday decorations take up more space than this..not to mention camping gear, or fishing or Model airplanes ..or..or... these are Soros' idea of storage units for his "masses.

Rick Lees

One might want to stack containers into interesting shapes. They have an ability to withstand earthquakes and fires also.


You might as well live in a Motor Home. I have, and loved it, same space and you can take off and see the sites. Even travel trailers have as much or more space. I know no one wants trailer parks in their backyard but they could be designed just as nice and much more affordable.

Steve Leibovitz

Just how much space can one person use at a time?

I live in 190sq' now and building a 144sq' cabin to move into. It has everything one needs or even 2 people with room for 8-10 to visit and 4 to sleep if needed short term.

Why do this? Plain and simple, money!! It costs far less to build, heat, cool, rent, lease that one can save or spend for other things than paying for space one doesn't use.

Or work less and have more time for fun, etc. Big housing is mostly an ego or ignorance issue.

Similar to the big car problem. Does one really need a 3-4,000lb car to move 1 person around? My lightweight EV's cost 25% of a similar ICE does to run and built in stronger than steel composites is more safe while getting 600 and 250mpg equivalent..


If you want to relieve overcrowding you need to do the opposite... You need to put limits on the number of people per square foot of housing. If you force this to happen residential areas will spread out more relieving overcrowding... too many people in the same place is the definition of overcrowded... this type of housing will only add to the problem.

Eddie Hagler

So, they're going to allow developers to make smaller apartments and charge as much as, or more than, the regular ones.

Brilliant. Too bad it won't actually solve any problems, and will likely cause even more.

William Lanteigne

I am a product of a similar experiment which was put in place - very seriously - by the then 1% who had all the money. Glasgow's industrial area was similar to many tenement development schemes all over Europe (and similar projects were evident in N.America). Our building had 5 levels (which was the practical limit, since elevators did not yet present a viable financial or safety facility); the stairwell provided access to 4 two-room units on the ground floor and 3 three-room units on each of the upstairs levels. Today it would probably be seen as an exemplary utilitarian effort by many of today's social theorists, citing the community interactions that were inevitable: we worked together to ensure that the stone stairway was maintained properly (with a pipe-clay scrub once a week); the "leerie" came each morning and evening to turn on (and off) the gas-powered lighting on each landing. The neighbors, refugees from the potato famine in Ireland, the revolution in Russia and the clearances in the Scottish Highlands, had little choice but to cooperate with one another. The sense of community which resulted can be seen in the many friendships which exist to this day - and in the care which has been required to ensure that the lifelong disabilities eventuating for most of those essentially imprisoned there. The dreamers who have assisted our monied classes in their campaign to best bring their underlings and utilize their strengths has doubtless been inspired by the fun they have experienced in their cramped yacht harbors and weekend cabins; perhaps things would be different if we required some of them to attempt seriously to limit their entire living areas to such limited spaces.

Gordon McShean

My 86 year old Mom wants one to live in on her ten acres here in Oregon, mothball or rent the main house, or umm me in the main house, this structure is not just for cities, it can be all by itself, artsy people like my Mom love them, (retired Professor Portland State University, Art History and Calligraphy)

Bill Bennett

I agree with the person that said this doesn't prevent overcrowding, cramming more people into the same space is the definition of crowding.

With that said, our cities are bursting at the seams while populations are declining in nearly all rural areas and even many smaller cities. Companies generally do not want to operate and hire in rural areas and they have a difficult time convincing young skilled workers to relocate to these areas.

Urbanization isn't going away any time soon and once commute times reach 2 hours you can't enjoy being "home" anyway because you are only there long enough to sleep and turn around to drive back.

As long as urbanization is here to stay there is no choice but to find ways to pack people into more confined spaces. Personally, I think there are tons of space saving ideas that could be implemented.


Personal tastes; personal budgets; population squeeze....whatever. I'd rather be dumped naked in the desert. People may be adaptable to this but I think it is also a recipe for mental illness for a significant part of the populace. Time will tell....

Mark Laube

The more space you make, the more space you're bound to take up. With little houses or apartments means more toilets and more water usage in a more dense space. There's no easy answer, I feel we need to build up with newer engineering ideas. Lets use space that isn't farmable and build larger cities with taller buildings. Explore the idea of cities on the ocean. With time we could terra form Mars and have people working in space to mine Asteroids; Earth doesn't have limitless natural resouces, so we need to look outward..


Oh yes this is very good it will create a whole new real estate market for pre-pubescent girls and their unwanted dolls houses.


"Yes, these are stereotypes – but stereotypes embedded in the public consciousness and regularly reinforced by history, the silver screen and the idiot box."

If you want me to take seriously the argument you are about to make, saying things like "idiot box" is not a good start.

"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."

I disagree with this completely. New York's housing shortage has more to do with rent control and development restrictions than the increased costs of urban living. The supply is artificially restricted, so the price goes up. But to say that people are "rattling around" in small apartments (which are often subdivided "normal" apartments already) is making some pretty broad assumptions about consumer preferences. For sure they are more costly than an average NYC renter would like, but larger? I seriously doubt it.

"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."

Because you cannot understand how someone else would use or appreciate "extra space" (which is a misnomer in itself when used to describe a studio apartment) it does not mean that use is ineffective. "Many people find" is an unsubstantiated assertion that relies on a completely subjective measure. Standard of living is a quantifiable metric that does not include square footage. Perhaps what you are referring to is "quality of life", which is subjective.


A lot of density sceptics in these responses, which is understandable given existing examples, but IMO density can be socially desirable, and unarguably so from an environment viewpoint.

I agree that 20m2 for 2 people is too tiny, but then the 100-200 m2 apts that people aspire to is way more than necessary. As for single suburban houses, SPRAWL is the root source of ALL our environment problems, and IMO most social and political ones too. How many so-called "greens" are saying this?

Studies put "adequate living space" at 50m2 per couple but smart design can make small spaces feel much bigger. (loft bedrooms or built-in furniture as in boats, caravans, etc) Esthetically it is also important that all apts have private outdoor patios (not just a tiny wind-swept open balcony) and easy access (10 min walk) to a nature zone.

I own a cute waterfront bolt-hole just 27.5 m2 (incl. loft bedroom) plus 5m2 sunny west-facing patio. Ideally it should be 50% bigger (for 2) but it is designated as a "holiday-home" and not for all-year living. A car is un-necessary because there is a good bus service to the nearby (1 mile) city and 5mins walk to a big supermarket, restaurants, pubs, gym, and other facilities. When I want a car I hire one - remarkably cheap and carries no ownership hassles.

Living in small spaces also teaches "retail restraint" with the frivolous purchases that invariably end up in the garage or "spare bedroom". You simply cannot collect too much of the "stuff" we regret buying when moving-day eventually comes around. Small spaces generate less waste, use less energy and without the incessant roar of traffic, the horn-blaring, the tyre-squeeling, the door-slamming and the revving-up of motor vehicles, is so blissfully tranquil.

"Futuristic" drivel about electric cars, hybrid cars, driverless cars, car pools, massive govt subsidies for retro-fitting ugly energy-draining and poorly-insulated old buildings, massive govt subsidies for forests of gigantic wind turbines, massive govt subsidies to cover every suburban roof (in cloudy countries) with ev panels, etc, etc, is not just a total waste of money, it is barking up the wrong tree...!!

One car for every 2 people - and its closing on 1 for 1 in "some" countries - is not just an absurdity, its an obscenity. I ask you - if our cities were to suddenly disappear would we rebuild them the same, or even vaguely similar? The answer of course is a resunding NO - so why do we persist with ever-expanding such an outmoded concept?

The cities I envisage will use 80% less energy and emit 90% less carbon than an energy-sucking waste-producing sprawl city. Once you factor in all the wasteful infrastructure of a sprawl city, they will be much cheaper to build too. The overall density of 30,000 per km2, includes 50% of the land reserved for parks and recreation.

Density can and should be desirable - cruise ships, for example, have densities about 10x higher. Does anyone complain about the the noise, the stress, the crime, the pollution, the crowds, except maybe on disembarkation day? What we need is self-contained, self-sufficient, off-grid zero-waste, car-free cities in which to live, work, and play.

So simple, so obvious, so why is nobody talking about this?

(if anyone claims otherwise I'd welcome the links, but dont waste my time with unrealistic floating islands or frivolous fortresses for multi-millionaires).

Anthony Rawdon

@ Anthony Rawdon - You command us not to waste your time yet you waste out time with a rambling statement that provides "facts" without any supporting information.

You even go so far as to compare urban, day to day living, density to that of a cruise ship in which the people are subject to that density for a relatively short amount of time.

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