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Exploring the Threshold of How Small is Just Too Small: a Look at Urban Micro-Homes Across the Globe

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Welcome to Thinking Big, wherein journalist Bridget Moriarity (whose work has been published in Travel + Leisure, Art + Auction, and Time Out New York, among others) joins Curbed to explore large-scale trends and topics within the design and architecture community. Have a pressing issue worth discussing? Drop a note to the tipline.

Last summer, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited developers and architects to submit proposals for a building of 250- to 350-square-foot micro-units in Kips Bay, a neighborhood on Manhattan's East Side. Among other requirements, the Mayor waived the city's rule, instituted in 1987, that new units in many parts of the city must be at least 400 square feet—a calculated move to test the market's appetite for compact apartments.

With the winning team for this adAPT NYC competition—nARCHITECTS, developers Monadnock, and the nonprofit The Actors Fund—making headlines and a new show at the Museum of the City of New York about this very topic drawing heavy traffic, New York appears to be in a frenzy over small design. And that city is not alone: San Francisco just passed legislation allowing for the construction of hundreds of 220-square-foot apartments, and Denver just launched its own micro-unit design competition.

The micro-home movement has also propelled a collection of international players into the limelight. These experts, whether scholars or salesmen, know the small-space scene inside and out—including the tricks of the trade when it comes to creating the illusion of more space; who the ideal buyer is for these tiny dwellings; and whether there's such a thing after all as plainly too small.

Living a "bigger, better, richer life with less"

One such individual is Graham Hill, founder of TreeHugger, which he sold in 2007 for $10M to Discovery Communications. In 2009, Hill launched an online competition to find a designer to turn his tiny Manhattan apartment into a unit that would provide ample space for entertaining, guests, work, and play; plus, according to the project description, "it had to have very clean air and be built in an environmentally responsible manner." LE1 (?), a joint effort among Hill and the two Romanian architecture students who were ultimately awarded the assignment, now serves as a prototype for an apartment he hopes to create in cities across the country. Thanks to features like an expandable dining room table and a Murphy bed, the 420-square-foot space boasts the usability of 1,100 square feet. Even the sound-proofed bathroom multitasks: it features a wood slab that drops down over the toilet to double as a meditation seat. (Watch a video tour over here.)

Hill now runs LifeEdited, a company whose motto is "design your life to include more money, health, and happiness with less stuff, space, and energy." But living small can come with a steep tab initially. He paid about $300K to kit out his home—more than the $287K the apartment itself cost. The table cost about $4,000, while the Murphy bed cost about $13,000, not including the mattress. Both pieces were purchased through the well-known distributor Resource Furniture. Yet Hill insists that while his apartment will serve as a model for his company in terms of its innovation, its expense is not representative of the residences he hopes to build. But even at the high end, he believes the math works out: "If we were to sell my apartment, don't look at this as the cost of a 400 square foot apartment, think of it as the cost of a 600 square foot apartment—you're getting a lot more functionality in that space, and that's what's important." Additionally, Hill recently wrote an Opinion piece for the Times in which he further discusses transitioning from a 3,600-square-foot Seattle house to this 420-square-foot space, a move that has taught him to "live a bigger, better, richer life with less."

LifeEdited (with partners Jonathan Rose Companies, Curtis + Ginsberg, Grimshaw, and Scape Studios) also participated in Mayor Bloomberg's micro-apartment competition (?), proposing a shared "product library" featuring kitchen appliances and hardware, which apartment dwellers could borrow rather than buy. "We want to build big buildings composed of small spaces paired with sharing systems, like communal spaces, product libraries, bookable spare bedrooms, bikeshare, and carshare sorts of things," says Hill, who is already in talks with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who has visited LE1, about erecting a LifeEdited building in downtown Las Vegas.

As someone who has logged many hours in a compact home, Hill seemed fit to answer the following: is there such a thing as too small when it comes to an apartment? "Fire, safety, and health issues are really important," he says. "But I think it's different strokes for different folks. If you're a 22-year-old coming to New York City, you may be out a ton and not have much of a budget, so maybe you want to rent a 200-square-foot place that's closer to the center instead of having a bunch of roommates or having to live far out and commute all the time."'

Attracting different generations

Mimi Hoang and Eric Bunge of nARCHITECTS, part of the winning adAPT NYC team (?), are a couple who spent five years sharing a 350-square-foot space in NYC—perfect training for the task at hand. The modular units they designed make smart use of high ceilings, storage space the size of a Volkswagen Jetta trunk above the kitchen and bathroom, and oversized sliding windows. While it was evident from Mayor Bloomberg's request for proposals that their intended audience is young people starting out in the city, Hoang feels that the elderly, who want to be in a central location without the work of maintaining a bigger property, might also be well suited for these homes. After all, 40 percent of the new units will be affordable—a profit loss mitigated for the developer by the fact that these dwellings are pre-fabricated. The affordable rents will range from a little over $1,000 to around $1,800 a month.

And the running question: How small is too small? "In New York, there are all kinds of rules and regulations about living quality and minimum sizes," says Hoang. "It would be pretty impossible to play by the rules and go below 250 square feet." A practical approach.

Ron Barth, president of the space-saving furniture company Resource Furniture, has clients of all ages, and in all stages of life: the vacation-home-owners looking for extra beds, the 20-somethings with studios, the families with a two-bedroom apartment and two children, and the empty nesters, who maybe want a bunk bed for their grandkids.

And now, Barth has a new category of customers. The developers are "starting to circle," he says. "I have a developer in Vancouver who is putting one of our systems that retails for $4,200, not including the mattress, into 300- to 350-square-foot apartments that he's selling for $109,000." In other words, things could really take off if developers thought about this furniture much in the way they do about high-end appliances, for example—that it's a prerequisite to include these pieces before selling an apartment. Does it sound cheaper to go with a sofabed? Well, it is. Prices for Queen-sized Resource Furniture systems start at $3,250, not including the mattress. But these pieces come with lifetime warranties, and the mattresses are seven inches thick and often outfitted in the latest technologies, like aloe vera-treated fabric for cooling the skin.

Expansion across the globe

Azby Brown, who studied architecture and sculpture at Yale University, is an author and faculty member at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Japan. He consulted on the Museum of the City of New York show, which features a prominent section devoted to Japanese architecture. While homes in the United States average about 2,300 square feet, in Japan, 1,000 square feet is a big home for a single family, says Brown, who notes that the Japanese tend to live low to the floor, have connections to the outdoors, and differentiate space without using walls but rather by experimenting with level, color, material, and lighting. There's also a variety of approaches to storage. What's considered too small in Japan? "Everyone has their limit. And a lot of people are willing to live in a place that's very small if they consider it a temporary stage," says Brown. He adds that a new residence in Tokyo, called Share Yaraicho, by Spatial Design Studio and A-studio (?), is designed with seven extra-small bedrooms, at 116 to 122 square feet, but that generous communal spaces, such as a giant kitchen and a workshop for furniture construction, make it livable.

Meanwhile, Pocket Living, a London-based firm and another adAPT NYC finalist (?), believes that there is a firm answer to the "how small can you go?" question: "I balk at anything below 300 square feet," says Marc Vlessing, one of the company's co-founders. "You don't want to become the new student dormers. This has to be a credible alternative to living in suburbia. If it just becomes too cramped, then I think people go 'OK, it's terrible, but I'll do the commute.'"

Pocket has already built five residences in London, but has ambitions to build 400 to 500 400-square-foot one-bedroom apartments a year "for the squeezed middle" of the city (?). The sticker price? No more than 225,000 GBP ($348,000), a discount of 20 to 30 percent compared to the open market.

From a developer's standpoint, micro-apartments are more expensive to build than larger units—think of all the extra bathrooms, kitchens, and hallways crammed into the same total square footage—but Pocket negotiated with London policymakers to cut costs by avoiding the typical building requirements: no parking spaces, say, and one-bedrooms rather than a mix of unit sizes. One can only buy these micro-homes if they earn less than a set maximum salary, which this year is 64,000 GBP ($99,000) a household. "You need some kind of policy framework in which you can ensure that these units remain affordable, because the demand for these products is huge," says Vlessing.

Maybe so, says Seattle-based architect Michael Pyatok, but his advice? Don't flood the market with micro-units just yet. "I would approach it with a note of caution that we don't overbuild to meet this temporary financial need." Pyatok, whose namesake firm builds a mix of affordable, market-rate, and student housing, says this isn't the first time micro-units have been fashionable. He recalls that in the early part of the 20th century, the United States had SROs—single residence occupancies—for the wave of young men and women, often offspring of farmers, who flooded cities when the financial sector was booming. He also notes that developers produced a flurry of micro-units in the '80s, particularly in California, following the inflation crisis: "As soon as the crunch was over and prices began to come down, no one wanted to buy these units, and those that had bought them couldn't resell them," he explains.

Pyatok says that as people get older they lose interest in these types of abodes—they only appeal to the young who "use the city as their living room." But he adds that micro-units are becoming popular with developers, in part because they can be quite profitable. A 200-square-foot apartment in downtown Seattle might rent for $2.50 a square foot versus $1.75 a square foot for a 1,000-square-foot apartment. Pyatok thinks the answer may be to compose the units in such a way that will allow them to be combined down the road, when life and family necessitates a larger living space.

Not that Pyatok hasn't done downright miniature himself. He was asked by a developer in the Philippines to build a range of small apartments, as miniscule as a 95-square-foot studio, for the low-income population in Manila (?). "The bed was elevated, and you had a ship's ladder up to the bed," he says. "There was a desk, a little closet under the bed, a little kitchenette, and you sit on the toilet when you take a shower."

Need the question be asked whether there's such a thing as too small? "It's cultural," Pyatok says. "I think for Americans that's getting too small. And then again it depends on the length and purpose of the stay. Somebody's coming to town for one month and they want to be in the heart of Tokyo or Manhattan, they might say 'OK, I can tolerate that.'"

And perhaps anything beats taking up residence in your childhood home? "It's an interesting age—more and more young people are not even being able to afford the micro-units and are moving back in with their parents," he says. "That might be why the micro-units are coming into being, because the parents want their kids out."

· All Thinking Big posts [Curbed National]
· All Micro Homes coverage [Curbed National]