On Microapartments

Microapartments — loosely defined as units smaller than 400 square feet — are rapidly becoming a reality of urban residential development. And the rationale for them is clear. More Americans — many of them single — want to live in cities. And there is significant public and regulatory resistance to building taller buildings. Therefore, creating smaller, more efficient living spaces is a critical part to keeping cities affordable. But as we begin shrinking units, we must ensure we are creating homes rather than mere people storage.

Despite being the hottest trend in the residential real estate industry today, developers have done a mediocre job making microapartments appealing to humans. Which is a shame if you believe the logic of keeping cities affordable.

The fundamental problem? Micro-apartments are defined by what they’re not rather than the value they bring to the customer. They’re good for society because they’re tiny, but tininess alone is not a strong consumer value proposition. An apartment needs to appeal to me for some reason other than it being tiny. The cost, perhaps. Or the location, or the amenities, or the people around me. But I don’t want tiny for tiny’s sake. A Murphy bed may make a small space livable, but all else equal I’d rather not have to fold my bed into the wall every morning.

IKEA-designed furniture for microapartments. Photo courtesy Inhabitat.

The real estate community needs to get out of its own head. They have let their own perspective and interests infect how they speak about the product to consumers. But their goals are orthogonal if not at odds: the developer wants to get more dollars per square foot. The consumer wants a home. Each can get what they want, but consumers are going to fall in love with a home, not a macroeconomic narrative.

But it gets worse: designers have shrunk the rentable unit to adapt it to the increasingly large number of single adults living in our cities, but they’ve kept the same old multi-family building layout we’ve had since the ’50s. Building lounges are sterile and empty, designed for everyone and no one at once. Community spaces are not programmed and go unused. In the Northeast and Midwest, roof decks are habitable for half the year at most. It’s a design for living in anonymity, but now we live in anonymity in 250 square foot shoeboxes.

Here are the three things we need to do to make microapartments work:

1. Clusters, not hallways. People don’t want to live in a hotel. Microunit doors opening to a long hallway harkens a hotel at best and an SRO at worst. Small clusters of units around small common spaces encourages neighborly friendship and a sense of belonging. Which brings me to:

2. Spread the common space love. Giant, all-purpose common spaces shared by the entire building rarely work. Those “lounges” don’t exist on a human scale — you can’t possibly know everyone with whom you’re sharing the space — and are often programmed for generic uses, which usually means no use at all.

3. Be proactive, be a facilitator. Traditional residential property management is a reactive business. Toilet’s broken? Time to fix it. To make microunits livable, property managers must become more proactive, programming spaces with events and encouraging community. There are a number of parts to getting this right, and we’ve written about our experience at Common here. We’re actively partnering with developers to help them get this right.

The fault here does is not entirely on developers: they’re responding to the incentives they’re given. And at the end of the day, every construction project needs a bank’s support to proceed. And banks — particularly in residential real estate — are exceedingly conservative, with the hint of something different or innovative scaring off potential lenders. While some banks have come to see the need for serving the huge number of single people living in cities, they need to be leaders in actively supporting and encouraging smart, innovative developments. Ultimately, this will decrease turnover and create happier, more profitable buildings.