Friday, November 22, 2013

Making Micro-Apartments Livable

In my last post, I wrote of the continuing momentum toward micro-apartments, small, usually urban apartments of less than 400 square-feet and usually targeted for singles.

Not surprisingly given the market interest in the concept, developers and interior designers are finding more and more clever ways to make micro-apartment living seem surprisingly comfortable. 

Sarah Goodyear of Atlantic Cities writes about a 325-square-foot micro-apartment in an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.  She’s particularly impressed by the number of storage nooks that are provided and compares the layout favorably to a larger apartment she once rented.  But she also notes that many cities don’t allow apartments to be less than 400 square-feet.

Eric Jaffe of Atlantic Cities reviews a number of micro-apartment projects and notes that San Jose and Santa Barbara permit micro-apartments as small as 150 square-feet.  Which raises a question.  Why do we even need specified minimums?  Building codes specify elements that must be included in dwelling units and minimum spacing for many of those elements.  If a developer can comply with the building code and meet market acceptance, what is gained from another level of constraint in the form of a minimum apartment area?

Emily Badger of Atlantic Cities provides a partial answer to that question by noting living spaces in Hong Kong that may well be unhealthy places to live.  But a consistently enforced building code can address that concern.

If your Friday permits, you may also enjoy the video linked near the bottom of the Badger article, showing that the height of a micro-apartment can also provide options.  A property owner, with a 182-square-foot apartment that was over 10 feet in height, found a way to build multiple levels, creating a quirky but livable home.  Although given some of the maneuvers required to move between levels, it’s not a unit in which one could age in place.

Lastly, Badger returns with a proposal from a recent architectural graduate, suggesting the shared and conveniently located common spaces could make micro-apartments more livable.  Each apartment would retain a separate door, but internal doors would provide access to shared space for occasional entertaining.

Micro-apartments aren’t for everyone.  But they are a trend with enough momentum that they’re not going to disappear.  Nor should they.  They can be a key element in an appropriate urban housing mix.  Now, as is true with many aspects of urbanism, it’s up to municipalities to get in front of the trend rather than being reactionary.  Such as changing impact fee tables that work against micro-apartments.

Friday Ruminations

A few miscellaneous thoughts with which to conclude the week:

Batkid: Perhaps one can quibble about the civic disruption or the cost, but it’s more mentally healthy just to admit that last week’s Batkid phenomenon in San Francisco was cool.  Furthermore, is it possible to conceive of Batkid happening anywhere except in an urban public place?  If I squint my imagination, perhaps I can see Batkid in Sonoma Plaza.  But a big box parking lot?  Never.  Big boxes are where people look to buy cheap Christmas gifts on Thanksgiving Day.  Urban settings are where people create great memories.

John F. Kennedy: Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK.  (I was sitting on the family room couch watching “Concentration” and nursing a 5th grade case of mononucleosis when the first news bulletin broke in.)

Fifty years later, I find myself wondering if the assassination affected the urban perceptions of my generation.  We were the first generation to fully experience drivable suburbia.  And the first national memory for many of us was the charismatic young president being shot from a tall building while being driven through a downtown plaza.

Personally, I don’t recall feeling anti-urban because of the assassination, but I also know that I passed on several opportunities to live in a city during the years of my early adulthood.  Except for my college years, I was nearly 30 before I first lived in a city.  So maybe there were subconscious lessons to be unlearned.

City Repair Petaluma:  Momentum continues to slowly build around City Repair Petaluma.  Spurred by the November 12 meeting, several neighborhood groups are making plans for further activities.  And yesterday’s Argus Courier included a positive article.  If you want to participate or to receive email updates about the projects being bandied about, please email me.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Check out the link to an article in the Chronicle a few months ago where a reporter spent a night in one of these new "micro-apartments".

    Its a kind of humorous description of what its like to actually stay overnight in one of these micro-units. But then again, I shared rooms all through college so it does work.

    Great posting. I definitely agree that the large single family 3000 square foot home is an energy hog and out of place in a more pedestrian friendly community but I am not sure I could make it in one of these units.


    1. Roger, thanks for the link. Someone should have told the writer that the key to living in 290 square feet is spending the evening in a pub.

      Yeah, I also remember dorm rooms. Even worse, I once spent a night in a 35-square-foot New York hotel room. It was 5-by-7. (Obviously, it was not en-suite.) I'm 6'4", so sleeping was a tight fit. With my head nearly brushing one wall, I kept kicking the window sill on the other wall.

      I had warned my traveling companion that rooms would be small. He said he understood, but later reported he spent five minutes trying to open the mirror, convinced that there had to be more room somewhere.

      I don't think I could do 300 square feet, but with serious lifestyle pruning I could probably live in 400 square feet, especially if they came with a 9-foot ceiling. Heck, my first post-college apartment was 600 square feet and I felt like I was swimming in excess space.