Are micro-units the future of city living?

Space is sparse, costs are high, and finding a suitable place to live has become a real challenge. One solution, in short, is to go small. Micro apartments have cropped up in dense cities across the globe.

September 24, 2018

With cities now home to over half of the world’s population, space is sparse, costs are high, and finding a suitable place to live has become a real challenge.

One solution, in short, is to go small. Micro apartments have cropped up in dense cities across the globe, from New York to Beirut. The average unit is between 300-400 square feet, or around the size of an average one-car garage. While it might sound cramped, they have been praised as one way to stem a mounting housing crisis.

“Micro-units are a viable way to meet a pressing need as long as they’re in walkable neighborhoods with excellent transit options,” says David Venance of JLL’s Capital Markets Multifamily team in Vancouver, where vacancy in the residential sector is as low as 1 percent. “Living in Vancouver, you only need a 300-square-foot home, because you have a three million-square-foot backyard.”

Amenities instead of square footage

A desirable live-work-play environment trumps size for many city-dwellers now more than in generations past. While older generations may have dreamed of mansions in the hills with a house staff, many young urbanites prefer a small unit in the heart of the city with laundry delivery, a cleaning service and open-bar rooftop parties.

“Young, single professionals aren’t in it for square footage or privacy—they’re in it for location, connectivity and amenities,” says Nick Whitten, Director of UK Research at JLL.

Many developers are building units that cater to these changing tastes, with quality-of-life amenities that mimic those of a luxury hotel.

Developer Jonathan Rose Companies and New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, for example, incorporated micro-units into Caesura, a new mixed-use development in Brooklyn. The building boasts a range of fitness spaces, a game room with a wet bar, and a lending library of items with luxuries you can’t store in 300 square-foot units, like a guitar with an amp and an ice cream maker.

Similarly, Washington, D.C.’s first micro-unit building, The Belgard, is decked out with a 560-gallon exotic saltwater aquarium, a “speakeasy” entertaining space and a pet spa.

Micro-units, however, don’t have to offer luxury amenities. The bare-bones versions cost less to build and maintain, allowing developers to offer lower rents. They provide one solution to the massive affordability crises sweeping many global cities.

Compact design

New technology and design principles make living in tiny spaces possible. Space-saving solutions include convertible seating that doubles as bedding, elegant Murphy beds that fold into the wall, extendable tables and overhead storage. In one Stockholm micro-apartment, for example, architect Karin Matz designed a bed that sits elegantly atop a creatively designed closet with a carousal clothing rack.

Sliding doors and partitions can create privacy and divide up a room without taking up too much space. And once smart robotic furniture becomes more commercially viable, residents will be able to transform space from a bedroom to a lounge to a working area with a touch of a button.

Micro-units can also seem more expansive than their square footage betrays when they are decked out with features like big windows, vertical storage and sliding doors. In Beirut, a local architect and designer created an illusion of openness in a 161-square-foot studio by painting everything white to better reflect the natural light pouring in through the windows.

Getting creative with space

Micro-units are gaining popularity in many cities, but as urban populations continue to swell, they won’t be the only answer to the world’s housing shortages. Developers are also ramping up other creative uses of small space, such as co-living, the latest extension of the sharing economy. In these communal environments, strangers reside together in a house or apartment, sharing a kitchen, bathrooms and other living spaces.

From San Jose to San Juan, co-working operators are offering perks like cleaning services, high-design common areas and community activities to bring people together, for rents that are typically less expensive than those of a one-bedroom apartment.

“The nature of the way we live itself is changing,” says Whitten. “As demographic changes meet affordable housing challenges, expect to see more interesting uses of space, particularly in dense urban communities.”

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