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What It's Like to Live in a Modern Micro-Apartment

By Rachel Swaby

How housing developers and architects around the world are designing tiny living spaces, and how residents who live in these spaces have to adjust to a 300 square-feet home.

Five years ago we hit a massive milestone; more of the global population now lives in towns and cities than don’t. Today that means that over 3.5 billion people live in concentrated areas. To accommodate the city-centered migration, places like Karachi are rapidly packing in more people, and others, like Shenzhen, are pushing out borders. But cities can’t expand infinitely. When space is at a premium, developers and residents have to learn to use it smarter.

Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong have been creating tiny living spaces for decades. It may sound like the antithesis to the American dream, but living tiny, when done right, invites a new kind of opportunity. American architects have started to catch on.

Photo credit: Flickr user nickdm via Creative Commons.

In 2007 Patrick Kennedy’s Berkeley-based company Panoramic Interests had just finished a big development project when he decided to shift focus. In a college town like Berkeley, studio apartments offered “the fewest headaches, and were the easiest to rent,” says Kennedy. So he set his sights on developing the perfect petite living space. And then he took it even smaller.

His first attempt, a 166-square foot prototype that he calls SmartSpace 1.0, was a test bed for teeny tiny living. On and off for a couple of weeks, a grad student from MIT lived in the unit, critiquing the configuration. Her feedback was invaluable. To be comfortable, she wanted a bigger refrigerator, an easier to access bed (a convertible couch was a pain), a wider main room, and a more spacious bathroom.

For Kennedy’s first micro-apartment development—what he calls SmartSpace 2.0—located on Harriet Street in San Francisco’s SoMa district, he created slightly bigger units, but was able to pack even more in by upping the efficiency. The goal was to have every piece of furniture serve two or three functions. In the units, the kitchen doubles as a work area, and a Murphy bed folds up to become a dining room table.

But multi-functional furniture, according to Kennedy, was the bare minimum. In terms of usage, they hoped the small spaces could accommodate a dinner party of five or six, seating somewhere separate from the dining room, and space enough for someone to crash on the couch—you know, the basics of actually living in an apartment in the city, one with filled with friends and social engagements.

Terencia Tervalon, who moved into her 295-square foot apartment when the building first opened in March, hasn’t had to make many adjustments to the way she entertains.

With three or fewer guests she can host without even flipping up her bed. The closer quarters has forced her to spend more time with her guests. “In my old apartment I remember spending a lot of time alone in the kitchen cooking while my guest were socializing in the living room, so I would miss out on some of the fun of the party,” she says. “And now I'm all in one space. But I wouldn't want to do too much cooking while guests are here; I would either try to cook ahead of time or pick up snack type things from someplace nearby.”

The layout is a riff on the great room, an all-in-one family room and kitchen now found in so many single-family homes. Apartment’s features are standardized and implemented on a multiple unit scale, which keeps the price down.

The biggest adjustment, says Tervalon, has been giving up her Costco trips.

The biggest adjustment, says Tervalon, has been giving up her Costco trips. “It’s kind of silly, but I used to really like buying in bulk. I would buy huge amounts of toilet paper and paper towels, and I would only have to worry about buying them a few times a year. Now I don't have quite enough space to do that; I'd rather have my cabinets available for other things.” One of the greatest advantages: “I get to live in downtown San Francisco, which is where I want to be.”

But micro-apartments aren’t necessarily just money saving options. The Paris-based architects Marc Baillargeon and Julie Nabucet recently completed an itty-bitty renovation, fashioned out of a former master bedroom, for sixty thousand Euros (nearly $80,000).

Marc Baillargeon and Julie Nabucet's Micro-Apartment Project.

The project—a mere 160 square-feet—was Baillargeon’s first attempt at fitting an entire apartment into such a tiny space. But he was undeterred. “I tend to have the attitude that the more constraints the better. It was easier to do the layout because you have specific measurements.”

First they had to figure out the owner’s requirements for the space. In this case, the client really wanted a real bed. So Baillargeon aimed high. “At one point, we started with the height of the bed. ‘Well, you know, we can probably use the bed as a sofa.’” The apartment also had a lot of space vertically, and Baillargeon and Nabucet noticed an opportunity to use the lofty ceilings. They realized that if they raised the kitchen and bathroom up on a platform, they could create a cavity that would swallow the bed when it was not being used, and at the same time make it easier to evacuate the water flushed out of the bathroom.

The levels create several discrete spaces, which made the Montparnasse apartment feel less like a dorm room. But it took a period of tweaking to get the layout right. “We were trying to do everything straight, at 90 degree angles.” But they found that by tilting the bed slightly, recalls Baillargeon, it actually opened up a decent amount of space for “pretty large” desk.

There are even flashier examples than the Montparnasse bedroom-turned-home. Hong Kong-based Gary Cheng fashioned a “transformer apartment” from his 320 available square feet, a home he has resided in for more than 30 years—since the age of 14. Once a place he shared with his parents and three younger sisters, today it’s been through multiple face-lifts, including the addition of nested walls that wheel out to create new spaces like a kitchen, television room, or media library packed with 2000 CDs.

Kennedy, the San Francisco developer, finds the display impressive, but has no plans to implement anything similar in his own designs. The reason: cost of upkeep. The more your apartment relies on mechanical systems, the more likely your walls—and therefore access to the kitchen—could break down. Kennedy is working on another solution to upgrade the way people live in small spaces by creating buildings with bigger, more inviting common areas. “We’re designing a space for fostering creative collisions—an extension of the micro apartment community.” Of course, it takes a little negotiation to build a life in such a small space. Perhaps he’s banking on that innovative energy spilling out onto the floor.