Teensy Tiny Apartments
Tuesday, March 4th, 2014
When Mayor Bloomberg announced a competition last year to design and build the city’s first building composed of only micro apartment units, he wasn’t really breaking new ground. Teensy housing options have already become popular in cities across the country, particularly in urban areas where increasing density and demand have created extremely high costs of living. These are essentially dorm-sized rooms—sometimes with shared common spaces—that are being marketed as affordable alternatives for cost-conscious single people.
Single occupants, of course, because there is not enough space for co-dwellers. Populous cities including Boston, Portland, and San Francisco have all been amending their building codes to allow for smaller and smaller apartments—like spaces that are 300 square feet and under. In Seattle, more than 40 micro developments have been built in the last three years. In San Jose and Santa Barbara, the legal minimum size for an apartment is a whopping 150 square feet. Imagine this: Everything you own—sleeping-living-eating-bathing—is contained in the equivalent of a 10-foot by 15-foot room.
So, when The Museum of the City of New York put on a show this past summer called “Making Room: New Models for Housing for New Yorkers” that prepared Manhattanites for the “official” arrival of this new tiny living trend, it wasn’t talking about the future. It’s already happening. We’re in a micro apartment boom, folks.
But what exactly does this mean for New Yorkers? People here already pack into small quarters in dense buildings and neighborhoods. In fact, many already live in acutely small apartments. But until now, the tiniest of these have always been ad hoc and scattered about town—not sanctioned by the city’s building codes. These are either illegal (one apartment chopped into sev- eral), or they’re really, really, old—built tenement-style before we learned to regulate for density, overcrowding, and safety. They include places like Felice Cohen’s Upper West Side 90-square- foot abode (of the illegal variety), which earned her 5 million YouTube views and Internet stardom. Wanting to live in Manhattan but needing to do so on a tight budget, Cohen hunkered into a 12-foot-by-7-foot single room where she lived for four and a half years.
“You can make a lot in a toaster oven, and I got pretty creative. But then you’re filling a hot pot in your bathroom sink and thinking, ‘Didn’t I do this in college?’” Cohen says. “You just have to put your mind to it and learn how to live with less. It’s not about buying what you want. You can only have what you absolutely need.”
Like many others who choose to live “tiny,” Cohen talks a lot about extreme minimization. Living small means not being able to cook at home, not being able to entertain, and bidding farewell to luxuries like closets and cabinets. Comfort hinges on cleanliness, and transformation is key. Cohen’s living area is a combination kitchen, bedroom, and office; so when one activity is happening, the others need to be “put away.” But she was more than happy to sacrifice her quality of living to accomplish her greater priorities: writing a book and saving to buy a place of her own. At a bargain rent of $700 per month, her tiny abode was a steal by New York standards. She did publish her book, called What Papa Told Me, a Holocaust memoir, and she also recently upgraded her space. Cohen now lives in a 490-square-foot apartment (still tiny by many standards), for which she paid less that $300,000. “I still come home and pinch myself. I love it,” Cohen says. “I have a doorman, an elevator, and a lot of sun. It’s been fun cooking. I still can’t believe it’s all mine. I’m proud of myself for saving for so long.”
Just like Cohen, fellow New Yorker Graham Hill also preaches living a life of extreme minimalism. He’s the founder of LifeEdited, a consultancy that works with architects and developers to “bring small-space living ideas to larger buildings.” In fact, Hill recently spoke at TED on the topic and wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times called “Living With Less. A Lot Less.” In it, he talks about his own life change, during which he downsized from multiple homes, gadgets galore, and personal shoppers into a 420-square-foot modular apart- meant, all in the name of environmental sustainability and personal fulfillment. Because according to Hill, you can live small without “things” and be happy.
It’s the same mantra that Cohen espouses, but the differences between the two tiny apartment advocates are striking. Cohen kept her space clutter- free with mismatched shelving, inexpensive containers, and handwritten index cards. Hill, by comparison, is a serial entrepreneur who sold his first company for undisclosed millions and his second for $10 million. After a stint of world travel, he simultaneously purchased two SoHo apartments, crowdsourced architecture students to redesign them, and then hired professionals to gut and rebuild. The result is a “Transformer”- style, high-tech living space with walls that glide, sleeping areas that metamor- phose, and wall-to-wall custom cabinetry. The few things he does have are significantly finer than the average Joe’s: robotic floor care by Roomba and Scooba; polar-cap quartz-stone countertops; a nifty expanding dining table that pulls out to seat 10 (with a price tag of $5,595); a solar-powered charging station for his electronics; built-in invisible speakers and a LED/laser projection system. Felice Cohen had to sit sideways to fit on her toilet in her tiny bathroom. Graham Hill has a “Caroma Invisi Series II Cube” with dual flush.
But it’s not really fair to pick on Hill. He really is sincere about his enthusiasm for edited living. “Half the size of the apartment means half the energy used, and half of our footprint in a building. It also requires fewer materials to build. And since you have less space, you buy less stuff,” he says.
The problem is when someone like Hill—who is neither an urban planner nor an architect—has the power to influence decisions regarding our future city and how people should be living. He is a self-proclaimed leader in New York’s tiny apartment initiative.
“This is a model apartment that would be a part of a larger system: a whole building of these, then a whole neighborhood, et cetera,” he says. According to Hill, his entry in the adAPT NYC competition for the first micro-apartment building was not only a final contender, but a close second to the winner. Yet he is most definitely an entrepreneur. When asked about issues relating to neighborhood density, safety, and quality of living, his response reveals his lack of education in these areas: “The market either likes it or it doesn’t, and the market should decide what gets built or not built. If people want to live in 90 square feet, then great. I’m not responsible for who lives in these units 15 years down the road.”
However, 90 square feet is an extreme example. (To be exact, it’s the size of two regulation Ping-Pong tables). We are not really supposed to be living in such tight quarters. Since 1987, the minimum regulation size for an inhabitable, new residential construction in New York City is 400 square feet. (You also need things like a window, running water, a specific ceiling height, and a toilet.) So small is OK... but too small, now that’s against the law. At least for now.
AdAPT NYC My Micro Apartment
“We were quite horrified by the idea of designing for such small apartments when we were first approached,” says Eric Bunge. Along with Mimi Hoang, Bunge is a partner at architectural practice nArchitects, winners of the city-sponsored adAPT competition for their My Micro NY concept. This challenge, initiated by Mayor Bloomberg in 2012, is actually a pilot program designed to test the validity and practice of micro living. If the program is successful, New York City could completely overturn its 400-square-feet minimum size rule for all new buildings moving forward. That’s right. The laws might be changing.
“It was a sympathy ‘horrified’—we thought people should have more space,” Bunge says. “But after doing research and looking at the demographic data that Citizens Housing Planning Council and others have put together, it points to a global trend—which is that more and more of us live alone. In Manhattan, there is a housing shortfall currently of 800,000 studio apartments. In terms of economic viability, the city is really quite worried right now that single people will be priced out and move to the suburbs. This would basically suck vitality out of the city.” Besides, adds Bunge, there are lots of people already living in very small, illegally subdivided apartments. And many of them don’t have proper light and air, with multiple unrelated adults living together. “Here’s our chance to ensure that the tenement era doesn’t happen again, because it’s here,” he says. “We saw this as an opportunity to do something right. We can create the humane and well-designed alternative. Additionally, this is our opportunity to help identify a new—and better—prototype for the city. ”
For the adAPT competition, teams of architects, development, and management companies partnered to create proposals for a building comprised entirely of single-person units ranging from 250 to 370 square feet, which will be completed in 2015. According to the NYC Department of Housing, this was the largest response ever received for a housing project—the competition proposal was downloaded more than 1,600 times and generated 33 entries. The winning design by nArchitects focuses on quality of life and livability, and features 9-foot to 10-foot ceiling heights and Juliette balconies. It is also the first multi-unit building in Manhattan to employ modular construction—meaning the units will be completely prefabricated off-site, and then over a two-week period delivered to the Manhattan location, hoisted into place, and wrapped in a brick façade.
Bunge suspects that the city will do away with specifying any kind of minimum size rule, however, he makes the caveat that there are other constraints that will keep the square footage up. For example, no single room dimension can be smaller than eight feet, and bathrooms and kitchenettes need to be accessible. As it stands, you have to be pretty clever in design and configuration to meet these specifications. But there’s always the question of the long-term future.
“So far, I would credit our current administration with the vision to improve New Yorkers’ lives in terms of public space and housing. But beyond that, I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Market pressures may take care of some aspects of this—which is that if developers simply provide the smaller apartment with eight-foot ceilings, they may start to realize they don’t get the return.” Bunge also adds that even micros can be expensive to build—it’s not a matter of just shrinking the size to shrink the cost. “Will developers rush to build tons of these? Some. My guess is that there will be an influx of micros, but it will still be one of many choices.
“We hope the city won’t just allow developers to create smaller apartments. We think they should be required to have higher ceilings and more windows, not to mention more public spaces. I’d like to see guidelines that go hand- in-hand with the new zoning. But that could be a naïve architect hoping that things go well.”
Lifestyles of the Future
While tiny apartments are ideal for many demographics—young, elderly, singles, and low income in particular— it’s not surprising that they’ve attracted a lot of attention from a huge creatively minded audience. For this crowd, it’s an exciting way to see what kinds of unique solutions architects and product designers are proposing to make these small spaces livable: walls that move, rooms that convert, hydraulic beds that hide away, and purposeful nooks and crannies that maximize every extra inch. Everything is designed to cleverly tuck, stack, and fold away just so.
But the question is, could you really live in a space where you’re limited to only the barest of essentials? Even Felice Cohen, who lived in her illegal- style micro apartment for more than four years, says there’s a limit. “It’s not for everyone, and it takes a lot of work to maintain the minimalism. You have to completely change your attitude. I had only initially planned to live there for a year. I figured that, at least, could be do-able. For the rest of my life? Definitely not.”
Actually, the question is more sobering than that. Because the regulations that cities have (or had) in place weren’t put there to protect the creative classes. They were put there to protect the poor—people who can’t afford anything but the smallest. So we must strip out the expensive furnishings and moderate the beautifully designed renderings as we consider this new “tiny” future. Remove all the expensive electronic gadgets and space-saving new products. Take away the granite countertops, 10-foot ceilings, Juliette balconies, and sweeping city views. Eliminate common spaces, parking spaces, game rooms, workout facilities, and rooftop gardens. After that, what we’re left with is just very, very... small. So, if this is the future we are building, ask yourself: Would you live here?