Architect Gary Chang in his 32 square metre "domestic transformer" in Hong Kong.

Did you ever have a fort, cubby or tree house when you were a kid? Was it awesome? It wasn’t awesome because it was big, but rather because it was immersed in the garden, it had windows and doors and places to hide stuff and it was scaled for just you and it was yours. A fort as big as a house just wasn’t the same.

Let’s hold that thought as we explore the newest call in Melbourne, Victoria to raise the minimum apartment size from its current 37 square metres to 50 sq m. The claim (from academics, planners, councillors and architects) is that the rush of small apartments being delivered to market by developers are “dog boxes not suitable for people”, and that the solution is to raise the minimum dwelling size.

Um, Victoria apparently doesn’t have any laws governing how apartments must be designed (apart from the National Construction Code that establishes minimum compliance). Might this not be part of the issue?

I’m not sure what aspersions we’re casting on our furry friends (don’t dogs make the best people?) but this is certainly a topic that most of us have an opinion on, informed or not.

It seems to be shrinking

In the last five years the median size of a micro apartment in Australia has decreased from 52 sq m to 44 sq m. Compare this to the minimum new micro apartment size in New York at 37 sq m. For existing apartment buildings that are refurbished the rules don’t apply, so some apartments can be as little as 9.7 sq m… still an awfully big dog.

Let’s look at some micro-apartments that are less than 37 sq m so that we can visualise what we’re talking about – and yes I’ve chosen some nice ones, but that’s kind of the point.

Shoe Box apartment, Budapest; 32 sq m via shoebox dwelling by design journalist Natalia Repolovsky. Photo from the bed. Very un-dog like.

New York City – micro is going macro

Mayor Bloomberg in New York City has recently awarded a micro-apartment design competition that was launched in 2012, where the winning scheme on a city-owned site at East 27th street in Manhattan used pre-fabricated apartments of between 250 square feet (23 sq m) to 370 sq ft (34 sq m).

One of the finalists. Via Curbed

NYC has a bit of a housing problem where 1.8 million one- and two-person households have only one million studios and one-bedroom apartments to choose from. If they miss out they either move out of NYC or pay more for a larger pad that they don’t need. The obvious solution seems to be to develop more small residential units.

New York Loft Apartment; 22 sq m. Architecture by Tim Seggerman Design and Building Workshop. Image: David Engelhardt via Dwell

Bloomberg’s drive has been to cater for this housing demand and also to improve quality and habitability during the process. There is a need. It’s being met by the City.

Also in the US, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted in 2012 in favor of reducing the minimum apartment size to just 215 sq ft (20 sq m) in a trial across 375 units.

Micro meets needs

If the micro-apartment trend is being driven by developers wanting to make more profits (this is the claim in Melbourne), then so be it. If there weren’t a market for these small abodes then people wouldn’t be buying them – this is “supply and demand” – macroeconomics 101. Micro-apartments are filling a real need for more affordable accommodation within our cities, and if our changing family demographics towards singles and empty nesters is anything to go by, this demand is only going to grow.

Eighteen to 24-year-olds list proximity to the CBD as their priority when looking for real estate.

These small dwellings are becoming popular for a range of reasons, not only affordability but also:

  • a growing desire to live in inner city locations with the myriad of services, amenities and culture on offer
  • to live without the cost of a car
  • to have access to fresh food markets, public transit networks and nightlife
  • simply to be closer to work and remove the commuting time

If we care about ecological sustainability, community well-being and city economics then these drivers to live in the city are all good things, and for policymakers, politicians and academics to claim from on-high that 37 sq m is too small is arrogant at best and oppression at worst.

Psychological needs

One of the objections to the micro-apartment trend is the potential impact on our psychological wellbeing, particularly if a couple are living in the space, or parent with child, with “lack of privacy” over time being a major concern. Our dwellings also tell people who we are and what we’re about, self expression that might not be easily met in a cramped space. There’s a good primer on this issue in The Atlantic online.

To this I say, “Okay, so let’s get the design and quality right, and let’s get the right mix of apartment sizes in a city precinct, and let’s ensure that the design that is promised during planning is actually delivered and maintained.” These are all achievable if we want them to be. Even “privacy” can be delivered through clever design.

And, if we’re going to be concerned about psychology, let’s also consider the impacts of longer commutes that reduce family time, exercise and social capital while increasing obesity, heart disease and depression.

If there’s a need for micro, how should we do it?

Get the funding right

Most lending institutions start to lose their appetite for real estate that is less than 50 sq m. Loan applications from the banks might meet with a little flexibility, particularly if the micro-apartment is tenanted, has a kitchenette and bathroom, and is in a high-demand neighbourhood.

But mortgage insurers on the other hand are often not as flexible. Mortgage insurers will generally not service a loan for a micro-apartment, meaning that you’ll typically need to put down a 20 per cent deposit if you want the loan. The problem is that this cash demand squeezes out many of those who most need affordable accommodation in the city – putting down $30k on a $150k apartment is a tall order. Enter the investors who buy the apartments, lease them out and pay little regard to the deeper amenity of their investment, nor the wellbeing of their tenant.

Just thinking out loud, but perhaps if we start enforcing quality rather than size these micro-apartments will be delivered with a higher re-sale value?

New Design Controls

A common criticism by those against the micro-apartment trend is that the dwellings don’t have any direct sunlight. Well, why the heck not? This is not the fault of apartment size; it’s simply the result of what the planning controls and approvals process will let developers get away with.

Instead of lifting the minimum sizes for apartment living we need to be lifting their quality and amenity through better design control and more stringent approvals.

In particular, development controls need to take into consideration our biophilic response (our million years of evolution immersed in Nature) to our built environment, and require developers to pay greater attention to the liveability and biophilic quality of micro-apartments.

Here is a quick list of design attributes that would introduce higher quality of functionality, amenity and dignity:

Amenity

  • larger windows for increased daylight, and some glazing to floor level to allow views down into streetscape, tree canopies and the like
  • openable windows and Juliet balconies as a minimum (larger balconies preferred)
  • window planters provided with every apartment
  • minimum ceiling heights of 2.7 metres, allowing vertical storage solutions and more light (and long term building adaptability)

Functionality

  • services wall to cater for joinery, communications and power
  • space for a bicycle wall rack
  • drying cupboard with exhaust
  • best-practice acoustics on bounding walls, including impact isolation
  • kitchenette fully equipped with laundry, fridge and oven

I got wondering about that last one: “How would you fit it all?” Well, GE has already answered that one. Great little prototype kitchen with only one wet point connection, price tag around $15,000 (which is good in the context of the sale price of micros). You can check it out here.

General Electric’s micro kitchen: induction cook-top, two ovens, sink, dishwasher, fridge and freezer drawers, washer and dryer. Image from GE Appliances.

Planning applications must also include fully resolved furnishing layouts in all modes (morning, day, night) including all appliances, storage solutions and calculations proving sufficient circulation. Too many apartment plans get approved in ignorance of whether or not they can be sensibly furnished – the ultimate test of good apartment planning.

Conclusion

So I put it that the question is not “How small is too small?” but rather, “What is the appropriate mix of dwelling sizes in a development”, and “How do we ensure that micro-apartments also deliver quality amenity, comfort, health and beauty?”

Let’s be smart about this so that we don’t push more people out into the suburbs where dwell the furtive neighbours, leaf blowers, jet skis and long walks to nowhere.

Not bigger, but better.

Now if you still have some time up your sleeve, watch this short clip of a 24 sq m micro-apartment design in Barcelona’s Born district, complete with secret magazine rack in the toilet cubicle and bed under the balcony. Entertaining.

Digby Hall is sustainability leader at Aurecon. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

2 replies on “Micro-apartments: how small is too small?”

  1. Hi Digby, Many thanks for writing such an insightful and entertaining article. Your opening paragraph really touches the heart of the matter (imo)….I remember the long wish list I had as a child, secret places, climbing walls…loads of fun stuff. I think our adult ‘inner child’ still yearns for these.
    Having been brought up in Europe, and with an Asian wife, we are used to normal sized living spaces….what Australians would call ‘mirco dwellings’!
    How pleased we were to move with our two children into a 65m2, 3 bedroom flat in London back in 1998, all our friends were amazed at how big it was.
    I think we should expand our cultural horizons and see how so many of out brothers and sisters interpret living spaces. Thanks again.

  2. Hi Digby,

    While I would agree that good design can make the small appartment easier, the 44sqm is (and will always be) fine for one person or a young couple. It is also a good pad for those who actually live in the country and use it only for a few nights a week when they are in the city. They are not suitable for a family with children, not even a single parent one. No amount of good design will create capacity for kids to be able to bring a couple of friends and the parent to do some at home work in such a small space.
    HK does not have many options – they have no land, but Melbourne does. It is a very poor policy to support more and more small apartments (we already have more than enough for singles) – lack of decent size apartments in CBD or close means very few families can live there. Do we really want residential zone full of only singles? We do have land to create a mixture – it just needs an acceptance that density needs to be increased in the first two rings suburbs. Even just changing the planning regs to allow building on the side boundaries would allow double or triple unit developments on the single title – and these could be very good town houses each with a patio at triple/quadruple density of what is there now.

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