When Micro-Housing Misses the Point

A precious jewel-box tiny house isn't the same as dense, sustainable living. 

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Specht Harpman Architects

In a recent bit on Bloomberg TV, Louise Harpman, partner at Specht Harpman Architects, walks an interviewer through the basics of micro-living. For one project, as she explains, the firm transformed a dingy sixth-floor walkup apartment on the Upper West Side to a fully functioning, multi-tiered home—a feat, given that the entire apartment is only 425 square feet.

This is the sort of space that city residents both deeply desire and plainly dread. A 425-square-foot apartment in Manhattan might command the kind of rent that would fetch a mortgage on a single-family house in another city. But when that micro-apartment looks like this, who's going to complain?

Courtesy Specht Harpman Architects
Courtesy Specht Harpman Architects

The architects manage to turn many of the surfaces you see here into innovative storage solutions—the kind of clever cubbyholes that always make well-designed spaces, even well-designed tinyspaces, so appealing. 

Hold up, though: This Manhattan Micro-Loft renovation weighs in at about $950 per square foot. That's a figure that puts this option out of reach as a solution for the housing-market mismatch that Harpman describes in the interview. 

"We're so program intensive, we use every nook and cranny of the space, there's not a lot of wasted space. That's the cheap part of an apartment," Harpman said during the segment. "When you use every bit of the space, that's where the cost comes in. So on a per-square-foot space, it's high."

Which is all reasonable: That's what the client wanted. But as the segment continues, Harpman introduces another project that is closer to the market with regard to creating affordable housing in difficult urban markets: zeroHouse.

Courtesy Specht Harpman Architects

The zeroHouse, Harpman explains, is a pre-fabricated, 650-square-foot house that sells for a little less than $450 per square foot and can be erected in a day. The house, she says, is extremely efficient: With solar panels, a rainwater collection plane, and organic-waste digester, zeroHouse is designed to take its owner entirely off the grid.

The zeroHouse is so modular and low maintenance, in fact, that all you need to own a zeroHouse is—after $350,000—a plot of land. Any kind of land.

Courtesy Specht Harpman Architects

Which is, of course, the problem with zeroHouse: Nobody needs micro-housing in places where plots of prairie, mountain, and sea (!) are available in plenty.

Now, the zeroHouse might not be designed for the urban dweller at all. Several of the home's signature features seem as though they're meant for another type of buyer altogether. The design specs note that the house is entirely secure, with tempered "Sentry-Glass" windows, Kevlar-reinforced doors, and fully mortised locking systems. (Shocking that a house that looks like a Transformer could double as a bunker!)

Given the design features, land-parcel requirements, and other aspects of the building's design—it can go into an energy-conserving "hibernation" mode for extended period of times—zeroHouse sounds like it might be better suited for Cliven Bundy country than for downtown infill construction. But then, that Manhattan Micro-Loft isn't a much better model for addressing the lack of affordable housing in major U.S. cities. 

I don't mean to pick on Specht Harpman Architects, a New York- and Austin-based firm that's mostly in the business of designing interiors and elegant single-family homes. Tiny-house offenders are everywhere, from the pages of any shelter magazine to the real-estate section of the New York Times, where per-square-foot costs and land allotments are out of sync with what (say) most New Yorkers need from micro-housing. 

This 700-square-foot tiny house in Portland, for example, occupies a plot of land that's 5,000 square feet, making this home more precious than urbanist. Dwell founder Karrie Jacobs is right to describe a 550-square-foot house that sits on 194 acres of farmland as a "fetish object." It certainly isn't micro-housing. Renzo Piano's micro-housing design is at root a single-family home; so are the even tinier houses built by Portland Alternative Dwellings

Lovely granny flats, Voltron head-cubes, and stories that tug at the heart-strings are nice, but support for these doesn't amount to support for real micro-housing—or congregate housing developments, perhaps a better term for urbanist housing solutions. In Seattle, for example, a working group of developers and neighborhood advocates aims to improve micro-housing legislation being mulled by the Seattle City Council. There, parking requirements and regulations designed to prohibit congregate housing developments in places zoned for single-family home are threats to micro-housing. 

What cities like Seattle need look more like the "Before" than the "After" of that Manhattan Micro-Loft renovation—or at least the option to build for a range of buyers and renters, at a range of densities. When tiny-house enthusiasts go on about what are essentially single-family homes, they are confirming the status quo, if shrinking it a little.

 

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.