Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
The dormitory meets the real world.
Micro apartments are rapidly becoming the favorite affordable housing solution for young professionals and moderate-income renters in high-cost, crowded cities like New York and San Francisco. But the reality of living in less than 400 square feet is seldom as charming as all those pictures of custom Swedish furniture suggest. The reality looks more like this: Your bed is also your dining table. Your bathroom would fit on an airplane. And you can never invite your friends over for drinks.
So how do you turn the micro apartment into something more humane (without, that is, exponentially driving up the costs that make micro apartments necessary in the first place)? One model has been to try to create shared common spaces. Sure, you don't have a living room, but there's an all-purpose lounge in the basement!
"When you have to go down four stories to use it, it’s not very useful," says Chris Marciano, who recently finished his bachelor's at Northeastern University, on his way to becoming a master's student in architecture there this fall. As part of a project alongside classmates Mark Munroe and Ryan Matthew, Marciano designed an alternative: shared living spaces between micro-apartments that enable them to temporarily scale up into something larger:
"You offer these little pockets in between units, and then it becomes useful," Marciano says. His proposal, shown above, sits somewhere in between a multi-bedroom apartment, a studio and a dormitory. "This is a housing typology that doesn’t really exist."
In his scheme, 419 square-foot private quarters are paired around a reconfigurable social space for dining or entertaining. Each unit still has its own private entrance, its own bathroom, its own kitchenette and small balcony. But some of the walls around the shared space can also be reconfigured to create either one seamless outdoor space, or an expanded balcony for one unit and a private living room for the other. Marciano is picturing here the young twenty-something who no longer wants to clash with roommates over the cleanliness of the bathtub, but who also can't afford his own full-fledged one-bedroom.
In downtown Boston, a one-bedroom of around 500 square feet can go for as much as $2,100 a month.
"For $2,100 a month, that's asking someone to come out of school making $79,000 a year," Marciano says. "And that’s not going to necessarily happen."
He's picturing that unit like this might go in Boston for more like $1,200 to $1,400 a month (yes, this is relative affordability).
A division of space like this invites some interesting social dynamics (would you even call the other guy your roommate?). Plenty of people might move into a set of units like this alongside a friend. But if you were a lone renter trolling the market, would you consider sharing a living room – and coordinating dinner-party dates – with a stranger? Wouldn't this arrangement be at least more appealing than the potentially sketchy roommate house on Craigslist? The idea may well tap into the appetite among Millennials for sharing just about anything.
Marciano is weary of the possibility that dense clusters of low-cost apartments like this could become the new tenement housing (and it's worth asking about all micro-housing if we should construct whole buildings, or even blocks, exclusively devoted to it, rather than interspersing it with other housing). As part of the completed project, Marciano envisions his micro-lofts adjacent to family-oriented row houses and up-market condos designed by Matthew and Munroe.